Idella alla kefek Spoiled as you like

Dal'a, Dalaa, Dellae, Dall3a, this word can be spelled so many ways. 

What does it mean, why it is important and how is it applied in dance? In all my years involved in this dance, I have discovered how important dall3a is relative to being a believable, lovable Egyptian dancer and performer.  If I ask an Arabic speaker the meaning of dall3a, I am told that there is no English equivalent to the word. Well, I've discovered that there are a number of Arabic words used in songs that are difficult to translate into English. In fact, in my very first Arabic class many years ago, my teacher spent the entire class explaining how the Arabic language is vague. When I joined Aswat, an Arabic choir and music ensemble, in the hour before each week's rehearsal we non-Arabic speakers were given special coaching on Arabic pronunciation and translation. I found that there were many words that various Arabs in the room could not agree on regarding translation, meaning or even pronunciation.  The word dall3a is one of these curious but very important words that seems to defy a simple definition.

So what is dall3a and how does one acquire dall3a? It means so many things - Being coquettish, spoiled, pampered, flirtatious, attractive, feminine, maybe a bit like Betty Boop, or Marilyn Monroe, or Sohair Zaki, or Taheyya…sweet, innocent, teasing with a sense of humor.

Does it belong to an old tradition or dance style? Maybe, but it is also very current. It has been and still is enshrined in many songs and videos from the days of Badia Masabni to today's popular singing stars Mahmoud el Leithy and Saad el Soghayar. Although the cultural mannerisms of Dall3a in dance seem to be in danger of becoming obsolete as many of today's dancers in Egypt and abroad are following the lead of slick Eastern European gymnastic choreographies and globalization, it will never go away because it is inherent in Egyptian dance and culture.  

Dall3a is a feeling that comes from within.  It is rooted in Middle Eastern culture and the relationship and interaction between the sexes  It is not a memorized movement but rather a natural reaction, look or gesture.  How does one acquire Dall3a? It is not a superficial movement, but rather it’s a matter of understanding the culture. In dance that means understanding the music and lyrics and translating through the body and gaze.

I hope that this has made you aware of this very important aspect of Egyptian dance and way of being. After our March 23, 2019 workshop on Dal’a, Sherifa Zuhur wrote a short recap which is posted below. Please honor her request to credit any material you borrow from her below article. She is a world renowned researcher, author and educator and is currently working on a book including this topic.



Sherifa Zuhur  May 2019

(Dancers:  Please credit any material you borrow.  Plagiarism is rife in our industry)

We decided to offer this workshop to discuss and demonstrate the quality of dal’a, which is sadly absent in many of today’s brief performances of complex choreography.  Yet it has a special relationship with Arabic dance genres. We offered the entertainment portion of the workshop as a Sham al-Nassim celebration and included in it, a play about ancient Egypt conceived by Amina Goodyear, and many examples of dal’a from geographically distinct parts of Egypt.

 We suspect this quality is misunderstood by Western dancers and or confused with criticisms of dancers being  “too sexy,” “too sleazy,” or “too suggestive.”  Some American dancers actually describe themselves as being “non-sexy.”   

 Dal’a is a very complex quality imparted by a dancer, singer, or actress.  It involves flirting in a feminine rather than a sexual manner; playing with the music itself, the musicians and the audience.   Rather than a set of movements, it is an attitude, a style of oral or danced communication and a presence.   It is easier for a dancer to communicate to a real audience than in video.

Flirting is a way of acknowledging the importance of male-female relations, which in Egypt are only licit within marriage. Also it is a part of dance’s invocation of sex in a ritual manner which has been one of its functions since ancient times.  

Many Egyptians themselves attribute their dance to the ancient Egyptians. The sacred and sexual use of dance before Islam existed in other ancient cultures, Mesopotamian, Carthaginian etc.  In my book-in-progress, and in this workshop I described some aspects of what we know about ancient Egyptian dance and some of its points of comparison with dance in Egypt in contemporary times. 

Some ancient holidays survived to the present from ancient Egypt such as Sham al-Nassim, the spring festival and Laylat al-Nuqta, the night before the annual flooding of the Nile.  Both invoked fertility.  While picnicking, Egyptians eat fasikh (smelly pickled fish), dyed eggs and green onions, and celebrate with music and dance.   I also discussed the hiring of dancers for ritual celebrations marking stages of life in Egypt and which relate to fertility. 

Gender is seen in Egypt and Arab society as being the performance and fulfillment of complementary traits. In my earlier research with hundreds of Egyptian women, I found they emphasized biological, physical, emotional and social differences between the sexes even though women’s public roles have been changing rapidly for the last 120 years.

Femininity is believed to be a quintessential quality for a women or a girl. Dal’a expresses that femininity and also adorableness.  It may be applied to any woman, covered or not, not only to the uncovered dancer, or to a toddler, or a cute child.  

Women are expected to be virgins at marriage and chaste wives. Their behavior reflects their honor, sharaf.  A man nevertheless wants his ideal woman to be both honorable and dal’a.  I discussed the limits to flirting and how a woman who flirts with everyone is negatively perceived.  

The prevailing social expectation is that a woman must marry.  An unmarried woman has no power, limited mobility – she cannot live alone – an unmarried aunt, a widow or a divorced woman go back to live with their family members.  Most believe all men as well as women should marry.  A common saying is al-zawaj nisf al-din,” marriage is half of religion, meaning Islam.  

I described the process of engagement in Egypt, and its various stages, which can take years, and are intended to assure the couple of some of the material needs of an individual household.   Music and dance can play a role in these stages. 

With marriage as the most important and carefully negotiated rite of passage in one’s life, flirting is a way of responding to possibly eligible men.  Women may or may not otherwise have much influence over the identity of her groom.  Yet, her reputation can be ruined if anyone flirts over and above a certain red line with her.  So the bint al-balad, the lower-class urban woman or girl, may ignore the flirting, or even attack him verbally and physically if his advances could diminish her reputation 

Because those depicting da’la are sometimes representing banat al-balad, I described the thinking about different social classes in Egypt – the fallahat, banat al-balad and banat al-zawwat, in quite some detail.   As Egypt has urbanized and modernized, these class categories became more layered or confused.  For example, when people migrated from rural villages to Cairo, and as their children acquired education, they became urbanized; and more like awlad al-balad, nevertheless Cairenes know and distinguish between those who are or are not Cairene born.   

Sha’bi music emanates from awlad al-balad and it enumerates and celebrates sha’bi traits in its lyrics.   In years prior to the ‘70s, many songs also acknowledged rural origins or genres. 

I also discussed how social class differences have been stereotyped in film and in dance tableaux, becoming more brittle than they actually are.  Some dance stars or singers/actresses are actually banat al-balad in origin, and either draw on that background or not.   Furthermore, they use dal’a. 

Amina and I prepared examples in video and recordings of this, for example the Egyptian singer Leila Nazmi (b. 1945); and the Lebanese singer Marwa (b. 1974) who ‘covered’ Nazmi’s songs. 

Nazmi’s song and others were part of a long-running Lebanese theatrical production on Egyptian music from earlier in the twentieth century entitled “Hishik Bishik” which opened in 2015. (Hishik bishik means carnivalesque, or something related to low-class dancing, with a connotation of being trashy.)    

Other examples were the dancer, Hayatim (1950-2018) born Suhair Hassan; Nahed Sabry; Souhair Zaki (b. 1945), Nelly Fouad; Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca, Shoo Shoo Amin, Fifi Abdou, Azza Sharif, Huwaida al-Hashim, Lucy Sa’d, Mona Sa’id, Nadia Hamdi and Dandash; and outside Egypt, the Iraqi dancer, Samia Nasser active from the 1960s and 1970s in California; Huwaida Hachem in Lebanon and others. 

We also discussed more extreme styles of dal’a as in ‘dal’at mulid’ of singer Mahmud al-Leithy and his calmer counterpoint, Ayten Amer; and the provocative dal’a of Dina Talaat and Safinaz, and naughtier renditions of dal’a as by Nahed Sharif, and Dominique (Dima) Hourani, Sahar Hamdi, and Sama al-Masry. 

I taught two original choreographies as did Amina, presenting and explaining the songs’ lyrics.