Dabke, Debke, is THE dance genre of the Levant – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and parts of Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. I say dance genre because, although there is one basic step that is typical of the most popular type of dabke, there are many types of dabke, some of which have other basic steps. Furthermore, many Levantine people label any long-line, mixed gender, simple group dance a dabke, including dances by Assyrians, Kurds, Turks and others who do not have dabke in their tradition. Beware of YouTubes labeled Dabke!
Generally speaking, when Levantines speak of dabke, they mean a dance where everyone can participate, but where the line has 3 distinct parts.
- 1. The raas (“head”) or lawweeh (also spelled “lawih”) who leads the line; an accomplished dancer who inspires and directs the line, and may improvise sometimes spectacular steps, leaps, twists, and other acrobatic moves.
- 2. The next 2 or 3 people in line – trusted partners who can support the leader by anticipating and copying the leader’s moves, or physically support the leader when the leader leaps, drops, leans, etc.
- 3. Everybody else, who are there to witness and enjoy participating in a group event, and to dance a simple step, which may change occasionally at the leader’s direction.
Note the basic dabke step has 6 counts or steps and moves to the right. Some folk dance scholars note a similarity between dabke and a more universal 6-count line dance – what I term the Taproot Dance. For more on this dance click https://folkdancefootnotes.org/begin/the-taproot-dance/. I don’t consider dabke a Taproot Dance because it lacks the “2 to the right, 1 to the left ” direction pattern and also lacks the “step, step, step,___ step___,” pattern of weight shifts – both are essential elements of Taproot. The essential element of dabke is a STAMP, and also, usually, many more steps with the left foot than the right. The ‘basic’ above, for instance is cross step left, right, cross step left, right, lift left, stamp left.
According to Lebanese historian Youssef Ibrahim Yazbec, the dabke descends from Phoenician dances thousands of years old. The dabke jumps may have originated in ancient Canaanite fertility rituals related to agriculture, chasing off evil spirits and protecting young plants.
Here’s a Lebanese documentary, explaining what Dabke means to the people of the Levant.
Found here: https://dabka2.blogspot.com/: The leader, called raas (“head”) or lawweeh (also spelled “lawih”) which means to wave, is allowed to improvise on the type of dabke. The leader twirls a handkerchief or string of beads known as a masbha (similar to a rosary), while the rest of the dancers keep the rhythm. Hands are joined together in a palm to palm clasp or by linking pinkies. Arms are held straight down at the sides or can be slightly bent (if the hands are clasped correctly). Shoulders are very close to one another. The physical closeness creates an experience of cultural unity. The movements are synchronized. Uniform movements are what make a debke successful. The dancers also use vocalizations to show energy and keep up the beat. The dabke leader is supposed to be like a tree, with one arm in the air, a proud and upright trunk, and feet that stomp the ground in rhythm. At weddings, the singer begins with a mawwal. The raas or lawweeh takes the lead. Everyone does a basic 1-2-3 step before the song kicks in. At weddings, the dance is sometimes performed by a professional troupe dressed in costume.
Song Genres There are numerous kinds of songs that are sung during and specifically for dabke, by both men and women respectively, depending on the occasion, song, and audience. Some of the most popular of these songs, such as Dal Ouna (دلعونا), Al Jafra (الجفرا), Al Dahiyya (الدحية), and Zareef il-Tool (ظريف الطول), are actually entire genres in themselves, in the sense that lyrics can vary significantly in each performance but the basic rhythm of the music is consistent and recognizable. This variation can be seen in the hundreds of lyrical variations heard and recorded of these songs which regardless of specific lyrics, are recognized by their rhythm and at times, a single phrase, as in Ala Dal Ouna, Jafra, and others. For example, even though one might have heard Ala Dal Ouna sung previously telling a different story in this famous love song, people will still call another song ascribing to the same rhythm and theme as Dal Ouna.
Wikipedia says there are about 20 different types of Dabke, of which six are main types. I tried Googling each type, and found only a couple of YouTubes with these labels.
- Al-Shamaliyya (الشمالية): is probably the most famous type of dabke. It consists of a lawweeh (لويح) at the head of a group of men holding hands and formed in a semicircle. The lawweeh is expected to be particularly skilled in accuracy, ability to improvise, and quickness (generally light on his feet). Typically, the dabke begins with a musician playing a solo on the mijwiz or yarghoul of a Dal Ouna piece, often with two singers accompanying his music. The dancers develop a synchronized movement and step and when the singers finish their song, the lawweeh breaks from the semicircle to dance on his own. When the leader of the dabke sees that the men’s steps are one, in sync, he instructs the dancers to slow down and begin a movement crossing their right foot in front of the opposite one (their left foot). The lawweeh continues to inform the dancers of their basic rhythms, and at this point other guests at the wedding or event occurring will join in the dabke line. This is the most popular and familiar form of dabke danced for happy family celebrations, such as weddings, circumcisions, the return of travelers, release of prisoners, and also for national holidays, in which dabke becomes a demonstration of national personality.
- Al-Sha’rawiyya (الشعراوية): is limited to men and is characterized by strong steps or stomps. The lawweeh is the most important element in this type of dabke.
- Al-Karaadiyya (الكرادية): is characterized by a lack of a lawweeh and slow movement with an azif (عازف) (flute player) in the middle of the circle.
- Al-Farah (الفره): is one of the most active types of dabke and therefore requires a high degree of physical fitness.
- Al-Ghazal (الغزل): is characterized by three strong stomps of the right foot, and is usually tiring for those dancing.
- Al-Sahja (السحجة): is a popular Palestinian and Jordanian dance which became significantly more popular during the British Mandate for Palestine. Al-Sahja belongs mostly to northern and central Palestine, and in the south has two kinds: As-Samir (السامر) and Al-Dahiyya (الدحية). As-Samir’s form involves 2 rows of men on opposite walls, competing with folk poetry, sometimes improvised and even exchanging insults, competing in cleverness of retorts. Al-Dahiyya is a Bedouin version of the same kind in which there is a professional dancer that dances between the two opposing walls of men who are competing for her attention, and at times give her money. Al-Sahja usually occurs the night before the wedding party of the groom (zafat al-‘arees), with most of the men in the village participating, especially those who will be attending or are directly involved in the other wedding festivities.”
Lately the dabke has become more of a performance dance where a group of friends practice constantly until they can do complex steps in unison, then perform at weddings and celebrations. Most of the dabke YouTubes seen today are of this type – people want to see the most spectacular moves.
How to Dabke – Al-Shamaliyya type?
The Wikipedia description (above) of Al-Shamaliyya (الشمالية) fits what is by far the most prevalent type of dabke found on YouTube, so I’m assuming that when Levanitne YouTubes teach dabke, they’re teaching Al-Shamaliyya. It’s also possible that only scholars refer to types of dabke.
Leader (lawweeh) moves
Here’s an entertaining series, each YouTube teaches a different step.
Be sure to turn on the subtitles by clicking on the red line under the CC ikon.