Khaliji Dance History

Khaliji Dance History
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Khaliji Dance History by Mellilah

Belly dancers use the term “khaliji” to refer to the style of dance and music from the Persian Gulf or Arabian Gulf region, the “Khalig,” including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The dance is largely improvisational, performed by pairs or groups of women for their own entertainment at special celebrations, such as weddings. The dance is most commonly performed to a hypnotic 2/4 rhythm with two heavy beats and a pause, called the saudi, khaliji, or adany rhythm (from Yemen). It should be noted that there is not one khaliji rhythm but hundreds, as this dance represents many countries of the Gulf area. The khaliji rhythm most commonly used by belly dancers is similar to the ayoub rhythm except it has a more lighthearted feel with accents on the upbeat. Additionally, it is different from the fellahi rhythm in that it is characterized by two heavy distinctive dums surrounded by lots of fast teks.

In Saudi Arabia and Qatar the dance is called Raqs Khaliji (Dance of the Gulf); in Kuwait it is called Samri (Saumri); and in the UAE it is called Raks Al Nasha’ar (pronounced “rocks all nuh SHAH ar”), which may be referencing the woman tossing their hair to the rhythm. As the word Khaliji is not an English word, you will find various spellings of the word, including khaliji. khaligi, khaleegi, khaleeji, and khaleegy, (pronounced “kuh LEE jee”).

The dancers wear bright, oversized overdresses called the thobe or thobe nasha’ar, worn without a hip belt. The dress is used as a prop, too, held up in front like an apron to catch the wind while the dancer dances to a R-L-R, L-R-L floor pattern. Also, the sleeves are often used flirtatiously as a veil or held up like a hood to frame head slides.

Traditional Khaliji thobe

Traditional Khaliji thobe

As noted above, the dance features a R-L-R, L-R-L stepping pattern with a gliding, limping feel, one foot on the ball, the other foot flat; but without the bouncing found in Nubian style dance, which has a similar stepping pattern. The flat foot falls on the heavy beat, with the other foot on the ball, slightly behind the leading flat foot, moving in the direction of the flat foot. Of course the style will probably change depending on the area in which it is from.

Although further research is probably needed, I have read from a couple of sources that the women are very proud of their long hair and so the khaliji dance often includes the tossing of loose, long hair from side-to-side, like the “shaking of water out of the ear.” In performance, when the music reaches a climax, the hair tosses are usually performed in a kneeling position and can build up to the point that the dancer’s hair creates figure eights.

Besides footwork and hair tosses, chest and shoulder movements are highlights of this dance, as well as lots of spinning, head slides, soft hand movements and shoulder and hand shimmies. The index finger is sometimes placed on the nose, with palm of hand towards the nose and again this may depend on the region where it is being performed.

One anthropologist who married into a Kuwaiti family, Melinda Smith, believes that the movements and gestures of the dance may have originally represented the Arab pearl divers in their everyday activities. The floating, rolling motions of the dress imitated the action of the waves. The dancers touched their finger to the side of their nose to mock the pearl divers decompressing, and their hair was tossed to mirror the seaweed floating on moving water. This may especially be true of the tribes that originally lived along the Eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. In contrast, the Central area (Saudi Arabia) would most likely have had different traditional movements.

My article is based on my research online, and I am not an expert on this subject. It’s very difficult to get a complete and clear picture of this dance form, as the dance will most likely vary from country to country and even within the different regions of the same country. Hopefully, this article will shed just a little light on the subject and encourage others to delve deeper.

Khaliji Video Example – Laila Abd al-Aziz i 1980’s

Another clip of Laila singing with dancers

Hair Tosses

These videos were found thanks to Kay Hardy Campbell! To read more about each clip, please visit Kay’s site.

For more info about the author, visit

About Mellilah Jamal

Mellilah teaches belly dance classes in Redmond and Bothell and performs for private parties and restaurants throughout Seattle.


  1. I have just attended a workshop on Khaleeji dancing and have fallen in love with this style. Now looking for an instructional dance dvd – what do you recommend. Thanks so much.

  2. Pearl diving, what an interesting concept. Art imitates life! My belly dance troupe recently performed a khaleeji dance, it was quite fun, though my hair was a tangled mess after an hour of practice.

  3. Thanks a lot for sharing this with all of us you really know what youre talking about! Bookmarked. Please also visit my website =). We could have a link exchange agreement between us!

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