Dancers: Don’t Do These Things with Arabic

In my previous posts about the Arabic language, I’ve some of the basics of its history, grammar, and letters, as well as why there are so many spellings of popular words and songs, like “Enta Omri.”

All of that was really leading up to this post… My Arabic pet peeves.

Now, I don’t expect newer dancers to understand these rules and distinctions right away.

But if you’ve been dancing a while, it’s good practice to make sure that we don’t make these mistakes. And it’s up to those of us who have been around longer to educate our students, and ensure that we at least understand the basic tenants of Arabic when we’re practicing a dance for that is primarily from the Arab world.

So here they are. My biggest Arabic pet peeves.

Top Arabic Pet Peeves

1. Raqs is not plural. So, to say “Raq On” or “You raq” (or worse, “Rak on!”)  is just… it’s like saying that you enjoy going to “belly danc class.” It doesn’t make any sense. The root for raqs is R-Q-Ṣ (ر-ق-ص), which actually includes two letters that don’t exist in Roman script, a “qaff” and a “saad” (ق and ص respectively) We should also make more effort to spell it as raqs rather than “raks,” which would imply a root of R-K-Ṣ (ر-ك-ص ), which doesn’t exist, or R-K-S (ر-ك-س) which is related to suffering a setback.

2. Sharqi is not “sharki.” While this hardly bothers me as much as my raqs peeve, the letter qaff is different from kaff, so we should try to keep them distinct. However, I do find it a bit annoying, because raqs sharqi is literally one of the major terms that we use to name our dance form. We could at least try to get it a little closer to the original Arabic.

3. “Q” is not always followed by a “U.” Unlike in English, when a “Q” is almost always followed by a “U” (except in the Australian airline name Qantas, which is still pronounced “Kwantas”—I’m sure one of you out there can explain why?), Arabic does not abide by this rule, and nor should it. I found this spelling mistake particularly rampant after September 11, 2001, when every American news outlet was struggling with not only how to pronounce “al-Qa’ida” but also how to spell it. Seriously. Al-Quaeda? What?

4. Taqsim is not “taksim” (unless it’s Turkish), and it’s certainly not “Taxeem.” See my peeves about “raks.” Taqsim comes from the room Q-S-M (ق-س-م) meaning a partition or break. So, in a musical context, it’s an improvisational break in a song or between songs. The rhythm maqsoum comes from the same root, because of its syncopated quality.

5. Arabian refers to places, nights, and horses… not people. This is tangentially related, but if you’re talking about people, they are Arab, not Arabian. The language is Arabic, and a group of people are Arabs. Save “Arabian” for the Arabian Peninsula, the Arabian Nights, and Arabian horses.

6. Extra phlegm. Not all letters need extra phlegm. In fact, I’d error on the side of no phlegm if you’re just learning. Only the “kha” or خ is pronounced way down in the throat and might get a little phlegmy.

7. Partial singer names. When you’re referring to a singer or composer use their whole name. Umm Kulthum is never just “Umm” or just “Kulthum.” The name means “Mother of Kulthum” so you shouldn’t separate them.

8. Not trying. I get it. Arabic is a difficult language, but that’s a clue that maybe we shouldn’t impose our phonetic interpretations to Arabic transcriptions. So let’s make an effort to get it right. There are so many dancers who would love to help you pronounce or understand a word, song title, singer name, or phrase.

At the end of the day, if you’re making an effort to understand, pronounce, and write Arabic in Roman/Latin script as accurately as you can, then you’re doing the right thing.

But if you’ve been doing some of these things (and I think many of us have), then you can make sure that you don’t do them in the future. It will show that you care not only about the language, but also about the people and culture from which it, and all of its dialects and accents, comes.


Hi! I'm Abby!

Welcome to my blog!

Here you’ll find my thoughts on everything from history and culture, to fusion and hybridity, to performance and training tips. I’m passionate about excellence, curiosity, and education in dance… in the studio and beyond.

In addition to holding Level 5 (Teaching Certification) in the Salimpour Formats, I also have an MA in Dance Studies at Mills College.

While belly dance and its related forms are my first love, I also teach American Modern Dance History at Mills College.

As director of the Salimpour School Berkeley, I hold weekly community belly dance classes in Berkeley, California.


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2 Responses

  1. Since you asked, the Australian airline QANTAS is actually an acronym, which is why it is missing the ‘u’ so frequently seen in English are the ‘q’.
    It stands for “Queensland and Northern Territory Airline Service” which is where the airline started. It wasn’t always Australia’s main carrier, that was Ansett Airways which services pretty much the whole southern and western portion of Australia. As QANTAS was based closer to Asia, it was more naturally the international carrier for when long haul was an 8hr flight not the 18hr trips we manage to do today. With Amsett’s collapse in the late 90s, the term Qantas became a noun rather than an acronym with its popularity being the only major airline as Virgin Australia was still a fledgling carrier until the early 2000s.

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