The Search For Authentic Belly Dance

In both Turkey and parts of the U.A.E. we sought out authentic oriental dance (a.k.a. belly dance) performances and enjoyed them in four very different settings.

Dance in the Desert

Imagine a huge oriental carpet in the middle of the desert. Out in the open, with the sun set for the day, the air is cool and the stars light up the night sky. Patrons sip mint tea and cocktails at low tables with pillows for seats. It's the perfect setting for a traditional belly dance performance.

During our time in Abu Dhabi we went on an excursion to the desert that included dune bashing (yikes!), camel rides, henna, dinner and sheesha. Of course the highlight for me though was the belly dancer.

It was a classic set with all the usual props – wings, cane, sword, and a drum solo. She was as talented in classic Egyptian style as I had ever seen, and danced with a ton of heart. At the end she invited everyone to gather in a big circle to try out some moves. I only wish it could have lasted longer!

Smoky Den in Dubai

I was hoping we could avoid the typical tourist-trap dinner and dance show nights and experience dance in a more genuine setting. One night in Dubai I found exactly what I was looking for. It was a local Lebanese restaurant with a large stage area. A group of live musicians got things started around 11.

It’s a late-night affair and the patrons are mostly men. Big jolly Arabs with appetites to match. We were the only tourists in the place.

Oh and let me tell you about the hookahs. Everyone (and I mean everyone) was smoking sheesha, adding to the den-like atmosphere. There was even a specific guy in charge of churning these aromatic coals of varying fruits and flavor. His job was to prepare each one and walk around the tables, frequently refreshing the burning coals, like a waiter that never stops refilling your water glass.

Finally the female belly dancer made her entrance to the delight of everyone in the room. This woman was incredibly talented and equally charismatic. She put absolutely every ounce of energy and heart into every second of her performance. There were endless shimmys and spins, hair tosses and hip drops…I almost got tired just witnessing it! Fortunately, her enthusiasm and effort did not go unappreciated. The men smiled and clapped and cheered and sang. It was quite a scene.

Turkish Dance Theater

One night in Istanbul we did actually purchase tickets to a show called Rhythm of the Dance, at Hodjapasha Theater. The theater space itself was intimate and historic, having been converted from a 550-year-old Turkish bath. The show included a variety of folkloric dances from the Anatolia, Balkan and Caucassian regions of Turkey as well as oriental dance.

While I enjoyed the whole show, my favorite dancer of the night was the male belly dancer. (Yes, men can be belly dancers too.) His technique was flawless. He was strong yet graceful. He was dynamic and dazzling and a joy to watch.

Dance Party in Istanbul

In Istanbul we found another restaurant where the locals hang out called Arabesque. The dinner is a package deal and if you go, go hungry because its course after course of delicious Lebanese food. The atmosphere is festive and fun. It’s like going to a club set inside an eclectic restaurant with lively music punctuated by dance performances on a small stage. People clap and sing and stand up in their chairs to dance. I even recognized a few songs from my belly dance days, but this time the locals around me were singing every word. (This was so cool to witness!) The dancers here were entertaining if not technically strong. And there were male belly dancers too...with a more feminine style than the dancer we saw at Hodjapasha. All in all, a really fun night.