Belly Dance Arabesque

arabesque ballet

The raised leg must be straight in a ballet arabesque

Do you know what a belly dance arabesque is?   Are you sure?  After discussing this with other belly dancers, I've discovered I'm not the only person who has misunderstood it for years.

Why?  Because so many women do a year or two of ballet classes as a child, so when they hear the word "arabesque" they think they know it already.  Especially if the teacher mentions that belly dance borrowed it from ballet.  After that introduction, no matter what she demonstrates, the student is seeing the ballet position in her mind's eye.  I certainly did!   Which is a problem, because a belly dance arabesque is entirely different.

A ballet arabesque is a position where you stand on one leg with the other leg extended behind.  The toe can be touching the ground or raised high in the air, but the knee must be completely straight - if it's even slightly bent, it's a different pose (attitude).

I always thought the belly dance version was a low (45 degrees) ballet arabesque.    It's not.  The name applies to a  combination of steps you probably know:  take three steps in one direction then step on your front foot and pivot, lifting your other leg behind as you turn.    It's demonstrated here by Raqia Hassan (starting at about 1 minute 50):


Notice how tucked in her lifted foot is.    In fact, she demonstrates the straight-leg position as incorrect, saying, "we are not ballerinas"!

Like all belly dance moves, the arabesque varies from instructor to instructor - so Raqia Hassan's isn't the only version.  You'll see plenty of dancers who raise the foot behind them - but apparently it's rare for anyone to lift the free leg completely straight.    For years I've thought my teachers were just being lazy when they arabesque'd with a bent knee - now I understand that's the way it's supposed to be!

I'm finding it tough, though.  I've been learning a beautiful choreography which is full of flowing arabesques, and I  feel the music cries out for long, sweeping body lines and limbs extending to the walls.  It's hard to rein myself in and bend those knees!



Ballet photo by Meredith

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2 Responses

  1. Rachel Bond says:

    You are right, there are so many variations of this beautiful step. I was actually taught the arabesque (in belly dance – I have never studied ballet) as being with a pointed toe and straight raised leg, by at least 2 reputable Sydney teachers. Both of them consider a bent knee to be an optional (and intentional, not lazy or accidental) variation.
    It’s worth noting that straight doesn’t mean locked, though – this may be different from ballet’s “straight”. My knees don’t hyperextend, so even when they’re as straight as they can go, they look a little bent.
    Also, while it’s true that arabesques in bellydance are commonly done with the lead-up steps and a rotation of 90-360 degrees, this is not necessarily the case. Mahmoud Reda uses consecutive arabesques, with no walking steps in between; and also “double” arabesques. I have also done arabesques and contra-arabesques without rotation (I’m recalling for instance an Andalusian choreography with Aida Nour). So if you want to keep that leg straight, go right ahead – it looks beautiful and elegant!

    • Thea says:

      Yes Rachel, I think it’s the degree of straightness that’s the difference. When a ballet dancer “points her toe”, she’s thinking of pointing her whole leg, all the way from the upper thigh. That does create a straighter line than I see on most belly dancers. The other thing to consider is that most belly dance teachers are the product of more than one dance style, and many different influences, and it can be hard to work out what’s “authentic” and what’s introduced.

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