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Zar Ritual in Middle Eastern Dance

Sometimes spelled Zaar.

What is it?

Zar is not really a dance style. It is a trance ritual that predates Islam and is still performed in many Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and others.

I participated in a zar ritual presented by Amel Tafsout who is an Amazigh woman originally from Algeria. Amel is an expert on trance rituals. She tells us that in her native Algeria, the women might gather as often as once a week to share the release and trance experience of the zar. My own experience at the zar ritual can certainly be described as a release! I found it very similar to going to a rock concert, moving rhythmically and with abandon to hypnotic music until I lost myself into a fairly meditative state. I'm sure Amel would call what I experienced a trance; she grew up feeling very comfortable with that word and considers it a part of everyday experience.

The zar ritual varies according to place and people, but typically it is performed by women only. The primary rhythm that is used (although there can be others) is a slow Ayoub that sounds like DUN ka DUN TEK or DUN kateka DUN TEK. You will hear that rhythm in all the video clips that follow.

Why do we learn it?

It comes up in our music. Many drum solos and some melodic pieces of Middle Eastern music contain the same slow ayoub rhythm that is used for zar rituals. To a Middle Eastern audience (or an educated group of Middle Eastern dancers) this rhythm is so strongly associated with the zar trance ritual that it would seem very strange to watch a dancer who didn't seem to recognize the rhythm or its association.

But zar is NOT a dance! It's very important to understand that women who participate in a zar ritual are not performing for each other. When we perform zar on stage, we are using the movements in one of two ways:

  1. Referencing the ritual, but in a sylized way that creates a dance performance
  2. Creating a staged version of a zar ritual for educational purposes.
Please do not try to have a cathartic ritual experience onstage! As dancers, we create *dances* that include zar movements to interpret the slow ayoub rhythm. These dances are still created to be pleasing to our audiences, with interesting and well-executed movement. Your attempts to access a trance state are not a spectator sport.

You will see dancers doing these movements and you should know what they are about Once in a while I'll see a young dancer imitating the zar ritual to completely inappropriate music. A student might see these movements in a show, think they're just cool bellydance movements, and use them inappropriately. It's always best to be educated about the movements you're using, even if you choose to use them nontraditionally.

The movements

The iconic movement for a woman accessing the trance state at a zar ritual is tossing of the head and upper body. It's very important to note that this movement comes from the waist and ribcage and travels through a relaxed neck to the head. Trying to toss the head using the neck muscles can be dangerous. Sometimes there are arm movements as well, a sort of tossing out through the arms and fingertips (though these are more associated with another North African ritual dances, called Guedra). These movements may be performed standing or kneeling. (typically a zar participant might start out standing then drop to her knees at some point during the ritual).

Dancers will imitate these head tosses and arm movements, but in a planned, stylized way. They may also circle the head completely around, while standing, kneeling, or slowly spinning.

Similar head tosses and cirlces are seen in Khaleegy dance, so it's important to learn the differences between the two. See my Khaleegy page to learn more about that style. The two have a completely different feeling and intention, if you watch enough of both you will be able to sense the difference easily.

Here is an example of the most common movements to interpret the zar, or slow ayoub rhythm. Note that the rhythm is being played according the Rule of 4 (3X the same, 4th time different). DUN ka DUN TEK, DUN ka DUN TEK, DUN ka DUN TEK, DUN kateka DUN TEK. The dancer swings her head side to side, then cirles on the fourth measure.

Note that her movements are coming from her ribcage, not her neck. As the rhythm builds speed the dancer just spins her head continuously. This can be dangerous! Dancers learn this movement and build the strength, stamina and flexibility to execute it over time. Also note that after the rhythm speeds up the dancer lets go of the zar-style movements and simply bellydances to it.

Only the slow Ayoub is usually associated with zar. Played fast, it's just another 2-beat rhythm for bellydance.

Here's a wonderful mini-documentary on the zar ritual from Yasmin at Serpentine Productions. If you only watch one clip from this page, this is the one! (embedding is disabled, it will open in a new window):

Zar film

And here is an bit of zar exerpted from the film Hizz Ya Wiz from Amina Goodyear..

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What does it look like on stage?

The two clips above do a very good job showcasing the different ways a dancer might use zar movements onstage. In the first clip, you saw legendary Egyptian dancer Shoo Shoo Amin interpreting zar onstage. Note that this is apparently part of a longer set. She's wearing her regular bellydance costume rather than trying to look like a woman at a zar, and she doesn't cover her head.

Then, in the same clip, Zareen takes the stage in a white galabeya and acts out a zar scene (as opposed to bellydancing with some zar movements). In the second clip above, you saw Amina Goodyear's group creating a whole tableau, or scene, with characters and costumes and acting out a stylized version of the zar. This acting out of a zar ritual is another way to present the dance onstage.

Bellydancing with some Zar movement vocabulary

The slow ayoub rhythm often comes up in drum solos and occasionally in other peices of music (Warda from the first Bellydance Superstars DVD, for example). In those cases, the dancer simply uses movements to reference the zar ritual rather than acting it out.

Here is South American dancer Fatima. Her music goes into a zar rhythm around the 2:45 mark and you can see that she knows what she's referencing, although she never stops dancing for her audience.

Here is Argentinian dancer Saida. Her ayub rhythm begins around the 2:30 mark and she demonstrates an entire repertoire of zar movement. Saida continues to use head tosses and circles even when the music becomes very fast... please note that most dancers only keep to zar movements for a s-l-o-w, trancelike ayoub. Fast ayoub is usually just used for traveling or shimmies.

Acting out a zar trance ritual onstage

Here is an example of a dancer invoking the full meditative and ritual quality of the zar. This kind of performance would need to be explained to the audience. There's a lot of artistic license here, the drums and the dancer are so slow and evocative that, while the movements do seem ritualistic and trancelike, they don't resemble an actual zar much at all.



Here is Yasmin's CD of authentic zar music, which features an EXTENSIVE booklet of liner notes worth its weight in gold. Yasmin is the producer of the zar documentary video clip above. If you're interested in learning more about the zar ritual, this is the place to begin.

Uncle Mafufo's brilliant CD, with each rhythm spelled out in the liner notes, is my favorite rhythm resource. There's a nice long Ayoub track here, along with most every other rhythm you need to know as a dancer.

Looking for a nice long zar-style Ayoub track to practice or perform to? Here it is, along with several other common rhythms and good liner notes.

DVDs Aisha Ali's Dances of Egypt video features wonderful authentic zar footage, along with other Egyptian dances in their context.

The first DVD in the 2-part Romani Trail set offers loads of interesting footage, including a very strange zar. The Romani (Gypsy) musicians stage a ritual to heal a sick young woman. They play the Ayoub rhythm in a procession, then take her to a private room where they play different rhythms and dress her in different costumes. At one point the girl is dancing with a live chicken in each hand. I would not make this stuff up!


Amel Tafsout is a Bedouin (Amazigh) dancer from Algeria who now lives in the Western United States. She teaches a brilliant zar workshop that actually leads participants in the ritual.

copyright 2010 by Lauren Haas for If you want to share this article, please do so by providing a link to this page. You're more than welcome to print yourself a copy, but copying and distributing this article is prohibited.

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