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Belly Dance The Greek Way

By Denis Kavemeier, solo guitarist and accomplished musician

Greek Belly Dance

JuliAna and Denis Kavemeier

If you are a belly dancer who considers the Egyptian or Arabic belly dance style as the only authentic music for belly dance, it's time to open your ears. Greek music can be very appropriate for this art as well.

All you need to do is attend a show at a Greek nightclub that features belly dancing, and you'll hear what I mean. A few years ago, my wife JuliAna and I saw a terrific belly dance show at Zorba's nightclub in the Greek sponge fishing community of Tarpon Springs, Florida. Beautiful and talented dancer Shahrzad, born in Iran, put on a fantastic show to the live music of a Greek band, led by a Gypsy-Greek bouzouki player.

Were they authentic in the traditional Arabic sense? No. But their music certainly fit the bill. The band varied its tempo in a 20-minute routine, mixing lightning-fast balladies with sensuous taxims, and Shahrzad matched their every mood.

Belly dance has found its way into the musical culture of the Greeks, due to their proximity to nearby Turkey and the Middle East. The Greeks call bellydance music tsiftételi. The melody is played in a sultry style by a clarinet, violin, or bouzouki, often preceded by a long taxim. The music can be accompanied by a percussionist on a metal dumbek, although most modern Greek bands use a trap drum set, like you would see in most pop bands. A keyboard player and guitarist usually completes the modern Greek nightclub band, which might also include a singer.

The Greek tsiftételi is not as slow and sensuous as the "chifti-telli" that most American belly dancers know. Instead, it's lively and bouncy (some belly dancers call it "too fast."). When a Greek band wants to slow the pace for a belly dancer in a show, they'll break for a taxim, or they play a slow rumba, followed by a drum solo. The Greek belly dance routine usually ends with a rousing 9/8 kashlima, such as "Rampi, Rampi."

Oftentimes, the Greek singer will feature an amané section or song, where he or she will improvise in a very Middle Eastern manner, repeating the word "Aman" which literally means "have mercy!" The amané is very similar to the Turkish gazel. It is the Turkish influence that gives its Middle Eastern influence to the Greeks' tsiftételi.

The Balkan countries were long under Turkish rule, and they brought along their music and culture, which was absorbed by the countries they occupied.

Because Greeks and Turks have not always gotten along throughout their long history, the Greek government actually censored music in the 1930's that featured Turkish and other Middle Eastern elements, such as the amané and rembetica, an underground music that was popular in the hashish dens of port cities. Even the bouzouki was looked down upon in those days. Early versions of the popular Greek bouzouki had moveable frets and were tuned with drone strings, which allowed the musicians to play exotic sounds similar to that of the Turkish saz and Lebanese buzuk.

If you'd like to see a video that features belly dancers performing with a Greek band, may I recommend "A Night in the Desert" released a few years back by Yasmina and her Seven Veils Productions in Arizona. The Kakias Family band released some excellent Greek bellydance recordings several few years ago. Classic albums "Mahal: an American Belly Dancer" by Jimmy Linardo and his Orchestra, and "How to Belly Dance for Your Sultan, with Özel" also feature the Greek musical style. The Oasis Band features my Greek bouzouki and clarinet players in our recordings as well.

Belly dancing isn't always accepted at Greek dances, especially those sponsored by the Orthodox churches, so it is rare to hear tsiftéleli and even more rare to see a bellydancer at these functions. I've played at several dances where the band will play tsiftéleli only after the congregation's priest goes home. Often times, couples will dance in a restrained, yet seductive way to the tsiftéleli.

The tsiftéleli and the zeibékiko are different than other Greek dances, in that they can be done by solo dancers, while the others are circle or line dances, so common in the Balkan countries.

The zeibékiko is an intense dance, often performed by older men, dancing alone with bowed head and outstretched arms. It's a chance to show off for their cronies, and dancers perform stunts like dancing a round a glass of wine, picking it up by their teeth and drinking it without using their hands. I've also seen women doing the dance solo at wedding functions. The zeibékiko is played to an odd, irregular rhythm that comes natural to the Greeks and is a real challenge to American musicians like me. Like tsiftéleli, it originally came to Greece from Asia Minor.

Many Americans are familiar with the music from the movie, "Zorba the Greek." The theme song is done as a sirtáki, which starts like a slow line dance and ends in a frenzy. The slow portion of the sirtáki is called the hasápiko, which was traditionally a Greek sailor dance, and before that, performed exclusively by butchers from Constatinople.

When it's danced fast, the hasápiko resembles a Jewish hora and is called a hasáposérviko. While dancers to a hora move clockwise, the hasáposérviko moves the other way. It's done in 2/4 time, similar in ways to a polka beat.

My Oasis band recorded one on our CD, "Evolution."

The kalamatianos is a lively open circle dance done in 12 basic steps in 7/8 time. It is related to another very old dance, the sirtos. Done in 12 steps in 2/4 time, the dancers dance with restraint, even when the beat is fast. Many variations of this dance are practiced in the Greek islands.

Another open circle dance, the tsámiko, was originally danced only by men. The dance showcases the lead dancer, who does leaping, twirling moves, while brandishing a handkerchief in one hand and leading a train of dancers with the other. Others in line show their appreciation by shouting "Opa" or hissing. Like the sirtos, there are many variations of this dance.

The old tradition of breaking dishes on the floor at Greek parties is no longer widely practiced, but it is common for appreciate audience members to throw money on the floor or to shower the bouzouki player with a wad of dollar bills. I like that!

If you liked this article, read other belly dance articles by Denis. His artice “How to Prepare Music For Your Dance Show” discusses preparing your belly dance music. Another article “Dancing on the Edge” is about belly dancing to live music.

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