NORTH AFRICAN/MAGHREB DANCE: The cornerstone of Amazigh, Andalusian, and Arabized Movement

North African/Maghreb Dance: The cornerstone of Amazigh, Andalusian, and Arabized Movement - An article written especially for ZeoT Zürich by Esraa Warda, who will be giving an exclusive North African dance weekend with us October 27th & 28th 2018.

“Oriental Dance”,“Raqs Sharqi”, or “Belly Dance” has very little to do with the Maghreb or North Africa (sans Egypt). Often North Africa is lumped into the acronym “MENA” - meaning “Middle East and North Africa” because of the commonly believed notion that there is a so-called “Arab world” accompanied with a unanimous understanding of an unified Arab identity and corresponding dance culture. This is a misconception! Dancers interested in learning about Northern African/Maghrebin dance should understand a few basic concepts in order to enjoy the diversity and nuance.

north african dance zürich

What is North Africa and the Maghreb? What's the difference between these 2 terms, which countries do these terms include, and which term should I use?

Some scholars, dance educators, and I myself prefer to use the term “North Africa” when referring to countries in Northern Africa that have a 1) a relationship to the Amazigh (Berber) identity 2) may speak a unique “Africanized-Euro-Amazigh” dialect of Arabic AND/OR 3) are in the Northern region of Africa with a relation to the Sahara desert. It is difficult to create exact rules, definitions, and borders of what is considered “North Africa” because it can be exclusionary and limiting. However, there is a sort of working definition that North Africa includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, Western Sahara, Egypt, Northern parts of Mali and Niger (because of their Touareg population), and arguably Sudan.

The Maghreb refers to more specific countries within North Africa that are directly Arabized countries with similar cultures/history/language which are Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Western Sahara, and Mauritania. In Arabic, Maghreb refers to “Where the sun sets” or “the West” . This name was given from the Arabs native to the Middle East and is from the Eastern perspective to refer to the Western extension of “Arab” people on the African continent. Egypt is not considered a part of the “Maghrebin” consciousness and is rather considered a cornerstone of modern and mainstream Arabic culture (this is a discussion for another article!). In the Middle East, Maghreb is used in “Maghreb Al-Araby” (the Arab Maghreb), but North Africans within the region often use the word Maghreb to refer to Morocco (given it is the Westernmost part of North Africa).

In my own personal, professional, and academic opinion - I prefer to use the word North Africa. I feel the word Maghreb functions within the the lens of an imposed Arab identity and label, given it is a descriptor from the perspective of “the East”. North Africa highlights our African identity and is more inclusive to those who don’t want to identity under an Arabic title.

It is important to know that North Africa has suffered occupation from several occupiers, including but not limited to the Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and especially the Arabs in the 7th and 8th centuries, and later on the Europeans in the 18th and 19th century. It is important to know that Arabs are NOT native to North Africa and have “Arabized” our culture, language, and institutions. The Imazighen (Amazigh: singular, also known as Berber) are indigenous to North Africa and is a strong influence in our culture, traditions, and history.

What is North African/Maghrebin dance? What are examples of North African dances? How is it different to “Belly dance” or “Raqs Sharqi”?

There are dozens upon dozens of styles of dance across the North African region (too many to mention!) but there are common similarities between most dances across the “Maghreb” specifically Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Generally speaking, most of our music is polyrhythmic, meaning there are multiple percussion rhythms that are played simultaneously. Commonly North African rhythms are known to sound more “circular” (imagine a rhythm that feels like it has no end and no beginning!) instead of binary or “square” (imagine a rhythm that is easy to split in half and one could easily clap on the 2 and 4!)  

North African and/or Maghrebin dance is different to belly dance or raqs sharqi, because :

  1. It has a more “African” feel, at times more Andalusian

  2. Rhythms used in our music are different - popular Egyptian/Middle Eastern rhythms such as baladi, maksoum, saidi, ayoub, malfouf, etc are not often used in music across the Maghreb.

  3. We are a strong intersection of Andalusian, African, Amazigh, and Arab influences which makes our movements incredibly unique and diverse, therefore our music is less “oriental” than Middle Eastern music.

  4. In most dances, one must always stay in motion, (think of walking in place) while holding the correct muscle isolation.  The magic equation is: Muscle Isolations + Rhythmic Motion (Consistent Timely Footwork). As opposed to belly dance, we are often isolating the same body area throughout the song.

  5. It is common to have upward reverberation from the feet/knees that remains consistent throughout the music.

  6. It is less theatrical and more subtle.

north african dance zürich

Here are the names of SOME common music/dance styles:

“Popular” dances - dances that are categorized as “dances of the people”, more common in big cities.

  • Chaabi Maghribi/Chikhat (Morocco)

  • Rai/Medahatte (Algeria)

  • Chaabi Algerien (Algeria)

  • Chaabi Tunisien (Tunisia)

  • Danse andalouse (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia)

Folklore/Amazigh dances : dances done in ritual and are rooted in Amazigh tradition.

  • Ahwach (Morocco)

  • Ahidous (Morocco)

  • Houara (Morocco)

  • Gnawa (Morocco,  Diwane in Algeria, and Stambeli in Tunisia)

  • Reggada/Allaoui (Morocco and Algeria)

  • Guedra (Algeria,Morocco, Mauritania)

  • Nayli or Ouled Nail (Algeria)

  • Chaoui (Algeria)

  • Kabyle (Algeria)

And many, many, many more!

esraa warda Zürich

Interested in learning some North African dance? I will be teaching three styles of North African dance at ZeoT Zurich during the weekend of October 27-28!


3 back to back classes of Moroccan Chaabi!


2 Classes of Algerian Berber dance, Kabyle and Chaoui!


Chaoui Dance: Dance Class with Esraa Warda at Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago

Kabyle Dance: Dance Performance by Groupe Tilleli

Moroccan Chaabi: Dance Class with Esraa Warda at YWCA Brooklyn, New York