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Berber Dance History

The Amizigah (Pronounced Am a zi) peoples are often called Berber or Maghreb.

The Berber were the first known people to settle in North Africa.

The Berbers live in scattered communities across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania.

They were traders crossing the "death road" connecting connecting Western Africa with the Mediterranean. Trading with the many kingdoms.

Using Camels "ships of the desert" they traded Salt and cloth from North Africa for Gold and Ivory from Western Africa.

The trade system led to a flourishing of many cities in Western Africa leading to great empires.

Berbers are not a homoginous ethnic group.

Berber identity is broader than language, location and ethnicity.

What unites the Berber people could be considered, language, coming from the homeland, and self preservation of heritage and history.

Also they are not all nomads in tents in the desert, many live in large metropolitan cities and most are farmers, or live in the mountains near the Mediterranean coast or the Siwa oasis. They also established their own cities.

It is the Tuareg and Zenaga of southern Sahara that were/are known to be wholly nomadic.

It was the first Arab Military expeditions into the Maghreb between 642-669 that brought the spread if Islam. Though many Berber maintain the Free People beliefs that were a part of society. Islam would still have effects on Berber society, the world for that matter.

The ruling Caliphate alienated the Berber by Heavy taxes, Treating converts as second class citizens and even by enslavement.

I am amazed at the power of the female lineage to pass on the importance of heritage with young women in ancient traditions including oral history, music and dance history and symbolism that predates Islam.

Many of the embroidery patterns are also protection symbols and language, I am sure each family has developed their own style/flourish to these symbols. The remarkably beautiful women are adorned with many protective facial tattoos carrying importance with them before they move to a new family when being wed. This was possibly the most major event in a Berber women's life. Sometimes close to home and other times quite far away.

The traditional young bride below wears the traditional mozunas, coins, and silver jewelry as well as large amber and copal beads and fine woven fabrics.

photo: Irving pen ait yazza bride Imilchil morocco 1950

Her Dowry was a large part of her life to observers we see the beautiful jewelry, hand woven fabrics, embroidery pieces, and or course Berber rugs. There was quite a bit more that could be involved such as livestock of land.

I chose to highlight this Wikipedia entry below. It is quite helpful to explain some of the details and nuances of a Dowry.

A dowry is a transfer of parental property at the marriage of a daughter. Dowry contrasts with the related concepts of bride price and dower. While bride price or bride service is a payment by the groom or his family to the bride's parents, dowry is the wealth transferred from the bride's family to the groom or his family, ostensibly for the bride. Similarly, dower is the property settled on the bride herself, by the groom at the time of marriage, and which remains under her ownership and control. Dowry is an ancient custom, and its existence may well predate records of it. Dowries continue to be expected, and demanded as a condition to accept a marriage proposal.


In Egypt, dowry is known as Gehaz. This is the property a bride is expected to bring with her at marriage, and it is different from the dower (Mahr) paid by the groom to the bride per requirements of Sharia. Gehaz is observed in rural and urban Egypt, and is typically negotiated between the groom's family and bride's. Gehaz includes furniture, appliances, jewelry, china, bedding and various household items. Families begin collecting dowry years before a girl is betrothed. Many Egyptian girls take up jobs so as to save money necessary to meet the expected dowry demands.

While the dowry is given during the marriage, in rural Egypt, it is ritually displayed to the village prior to the marriage. Every piece of the gehaz is placed on open cars that go around the village several times, with music, in order to show off the dowry being given by the bride's family to the groom. The gehaz show of ritual is also a means to enhance bride's status within her new marital family.


Dowry is a traditional and current practice in Morocco, and is called shura or shawar or ssdaq or amerwas depending on the region of Morocco and ethnicity (e.g. Arabic, Berber, Shloh, etc.). Dowry in Morocco is separate from the Mahr or Sadaq that is religiously required per Islamic Sharia requirements.Centuries ago, Mahr and Sadaq meant something different in Morocco. Mahr was the purchase price paid for the bride by the groom's family to the bride's father or guardian, while Sadaq was the betrothal gift offered by groom to the bride. Over time, the difference vanished, and they are now one and the same thing, but different from the practice of dowry.[In modern times, the Moroccan practice is to split the so-called Sadaq, that meets the Islamic requirement of Mahr, into two parts: naqd (cash) and kali (remainder Mahr). The Naqd Sadaq is paid by the groom's family to bride's family before the wedding. The bride's family supplements the Naqd amount with an equal or more cash, and gives dowry (called shura or shawar or amerwas). This dowry typically includes furnishing, clothing, appliances, bed, household items, divans, jewelry such as gold belt, and other property. The dowry amounts are negotiated before the wedding. Higher dowry and lower Mahr is expected in case of widows and women remarrying after a divorce, than from virgins. If elders of the two families do not agree on the dowry amount, the marriage is typically delayed or cancelled. The value and composition of the dowry varies according to the social class, family wealth and regional customs. The kali' al-sadaq (sometimes called mwahhar in Northern Morocco) is paid later, to technically meet the Mahr requirements under the Islamic Sharia requirements. The shura (dowry) far exceeds the 'kali' al-sadaq, and there is a large transfer of wealth from bride's family to the couple and groom's family.

Below, Muslim girls waiting in streets of Ouled Nail, Algeria to earn dowry as dancers - a centuries old tradition. Algerian patrons would invite them at cafés, festivals or to shrines of Muslim awliya. When their dowries were adequate they returned to their mountain villages and would marry within the tribe This tradition has continued through modern history of Algeria.

photo: late 19th century, courtesy of Tropen museum, The Netherlands.

We see the Moroccan Mozunas What are mozunas? they are small shiny metal discs, with a center hole. They are used extensively in Moroccan Berber costuming, headpieces, belts, shikkat scarves, etc. They are made in a silver color that reflects light like a mirror. I believe they are the precursor to plastic paillettes, and they are a lighter way to "wear the wealth" they are lighter than coins and make a nice tinkling noise when hung closely on fringe and they are highly reflective when sewn flat on costume pieces.

The amazing headdress that is worn below is heavily embroidered with coins and beads sewn to a fabric base. We can also see the beautiful silver fibulae:brooches used to create her tunic.

Of course we have no video of the dances performed in ancient times. We only have representations of how they have carried forward the dances of their people into current traditions. We also have some documentations in written description from travelers in the past or we can look to the modern styles in the surrounding areas to build a representation of Berber dances before modern times.

Berber men dance as well as you can see in this excerpt from: describing the Ahwash a traditional line dance.

Amazigh Ahwash dance is part of Moroccan Amazigh culture and folklore. Ahwash, known as the dance of the village, is a popular music and dance from the High Atlas and the Anti-Atlas Mountains performed by the Amazigh People ( The indigenous peoples of North Africa ). The lyrics are always in Tamazight language, in the Tashelhit dialect, which spoken in southwestern Morocco. Ahwash exists in its purest form in the region of Ibrkak located in Tata. The word “Ahwash” means group dances in Tamazight, dances related to one another, poetic improvisation, individual and group singing in Tashelhit through rhythms alternating from slow to fast.

The Ahwash dance and music bring together villagers, tribes ”Taqbilt” in Tamazight (usually a group of small villages), families at all important moments of life. Ahwash is part of a celebration and social life of Berbers, and is danced by men and women dancing and singing in harmony – sometimes only by women, sometimes exclusively by men, but always in groups. It begins with an improvisation sung solo, in a shrill voice. Then the men or women in chorus sing songs about love, celebrating nature or events with the rest of tribe drumming, clapping, stomping to the rythem of the movements . The musicians, placed at the center of the dance, standing or crouching, play the bendir “tallunt” which is a framed drum about 15 inches, whose skin was stretched first over a fire. As the pace of the music accelerates, dancers, initially motionless, begin to move slowly with a slight swaying shoulders and hips in a circle.

Ahwash specific dance details can change from village to village, and small features like color of clothing, hat styles, and jewelry worn by ladies are all incorporated to signal which region and town performers represent.

Ahwash can be seen live during Moroccan festivals like (The National Festival of Ahwach Arts that take place from 19 to 21 October in Ouarzazate) . If you are lucky enough to be invited to a traditional Amazigh wedding celebrations, you will get a chance to see the stunning Amazigh dance, discover old Berber Jewelry worn during big celebrations, and meet with performers as well.

The Amazigh women of Morocco and North Africa are known for their exotic natural beauty . And it’s no wonder — they’ve been killing it in the beauty game for a hundred years. The latest video from L’Oréal, world leader in beauty shows the transformation Moroccan women have made over the last century.

Current dance events and trends, these are semi religious performed at special events as weddings and festivals. This is a beautiful modern performance with a live band recorded in Morocco for a local television program..

Below Note their dowry amber bead necklaces and the thobes attached with the traditional Fibulae

Below is a Moroccan performance by a troupe of men using the Karkaba.

There was a large movement in the 60-70's of European artist that were influenced by the Berber. This would peak around 1966-68 when Pierre Berger traveled through the North African area collecting photos and artifacts of Berber women for Yves St Laurent Fashion. During the decades they spent holidaying in Morocco, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé became captivated by the culture of the native Berber, or Amazigh, tribe, which has inhabited North Africa for 9,000 years. The extensive collection of Berber art and artifacts the couple acquired from the ’60s until Saint Laurent’s death in 2008 is now housed at the Musée Berbère at the duo’s Jardin Majorelle studio villa in Marrakesh.

In the 70's we see Morocco creating postcards that welcome the world to share in the history and capture a snapshot of the Berber lifestyle. Photo 1973 from the Moroccan board of tourism.

Berber Women by: Oliver Martel he is a prolific photographer documenting the Berber.

Many Berbers are Maghreb dancers of Morocco.

Amel Tafsout is a true master in this field of dance.

below is a quote from her class offerings.



1. ANDALUSIAN COURT DANCE WITH SCARVES: Andalusian city dances in the Maghreb (North Africa) originate from Arab-Andalusian traditions of well respected families in ancient cities, Such as Fes, Rabat, Meknes, Tetouan, Tlemcen, Constantine, Algiers, Tunis, Sousse...also have a Turkish element especially in Tunisia and Algeria. Women only at various festivities perform them.

2. Dancing to ALGERIAN “RAI” AND “‘ALLAWI”: Raï music is a popular genre of world music from the Northern African country of Algeria. Rai (“rah-AY”) music began in the late 1980s as a combination of popular music and traditional Bedouin desert music. Raï in the 1980s: when country people moved to the city, the artists blended traditional Raï with modern pop sounds and it is associated with American blues. Many Raï singers such as Khaled, Cheb Mami, Rai music and dance are based on improvisation. Not only the Shioukh and traditional female performers performed the roots of traditional Rai music: the Meddahat and the Chikhat, singing and dancing at various festivities. With her own choreography, Amel TAFSOUT has innovated dancing to Raï music is bringing the fluidity and the sensuality of Arabic- Andalusian roots, the strength and energy of the mythical Berber priestess, the earthiness of the African soul, the inspiration of the Sahara-desert and the expression of the great Mediterranean seaport Wahran.


1. CHAOUI ‘ABDAOUI FERTILITY DANCE OF THE FAMOUS ‘AZRIYAT: Amel Tafsout presents this dance from her home region of the Northern East-Algerian Aures mountains. The ‘Azriyat (literally, “Women without men”) are professional dancers and singers, who performed at various festivities such as the harvest, circumcisions, weddings and specially during the Bendou festival in order to celebrate the fertility of Mother Earth. choreography based on the dance tradition but integrating the "partridge" steps in innovating the dance for the stage.

2. ‘RAQS EL MAHRA’/RAQS EL KEYL: THE HORSE DANCE: This dance originates from a real story: A married couple and a horse in a journey. The husband preferring the horse to his wife, because the horse could dance. In order to win the attention of her husband, the wife decided to imitate the dancing horse. She not only won her husband but also became famous and was invited to perform her dance at various festivities. This dance is full of energy, earthy and very balanced.

3. AMAZIGH-BERBER SHIMMIES: DANCE OF HE KABYL PEOPLE: This fertility dance comes from the North-Eastern Algerian Mountains of the ‘Kabylie’ and is performed with a long scarf while the dancer is doing very small and fast hip movements. The shimmy and the trembling movements are related to pregnancy and fertility, because they help the woman to give birth without too much pain. It is a very earthy and proud dance. Traditional Berber dances are mostly ritual in nature. The dance is both a public and personal expression, rich in symbolic dimensions that deal with subjects such as the fertility of Mother Earth, the rites of marriage and birth, and the communication between the earthly and the Divine. The Kabyle Berber dances are drawn from this rich colorful dance tradition that has been sustained by the unveiled, earthy, powerful and proud women of Kabylia.

4. MOROCCAN CHIKHAT DANCE: In Classical Arabic, the word Cheikha is the feminine of Cheikh: a person with knowledge, experience, and wisdom. The Chichi are female professional dancers and singers, who perform together in cities and villages for men and women, singing and dancing at various festivities Professional shisha dancers wear colorful costumes with tight, midriff-baring sequined tops and long loose skirts or pants. One woman may dance in the middle of a circle while other women stand around her clapping to the beat of the music. Sensual hip movements, pelvic undulations and flowing hand movements characterize the dance. Often a hip scarf is worn to bring attention to the movements of the lower body with quick, sharp body movements and fluid string sections that prompt more graceful, flowing movements. A troupe sometimes includes up to ten women. Once these women become famous and start recording, they start a solo career

5. AHWASH: Performed in the High Atlas Mountains and particularly in the Ouarzazate area, the ahwash dance takes place around a fire. The male participants sit in a circle playing wooden bendir frame drums, while the women stand motionless in a larger circle. As the rhythm of the drums increase the women start swaying with the beat.

6. TUNISIAN DANCE: Dancing in Tunisia is characterized by a multitude of forms at festive events. Tunisian dance is distinguished mainly by its dynamic, since it is faster with more staccato, and the multitude of forms, with each region having its own "style. The variety of dances performed by the Tunisians probably reflects the migration flows that have traversed the country throughout the centuries. This dance insists on the movements of the pelvis in rhythm, movement highlighted by the elevation of the arms to horizontal, and feet moving in rhythm and transferring weight onto the right leg or left. The dance reflects asocial phenomenon born in the working classes of Tunisian cities. The dance, has long been performed in cafes backed by music, typically the darbuka and mezoued. Since the 1970s, however, the dance has declined in cafes and is more often characterized in modern times as being displayed at festivals and circumcision ceremonies or marriage in the neighborhoods of big cities


1. NAYLI DANCE OF THE OULED NAYL: Algerian dancers of the Ouled Nayl tribe fascinated and inspired the West for more than a century. They became worldwide known through many Western accounts written by writers such as Andre Gide, Maupassant, etc., paintings, such as Clarins, Fromentin, Dinet and a huge number of Colonial postcards. Since 50 years their dance tradition disappeared. The West could not recognise that there was a difference between prostitution as a profession and an Algerian tradition, which gave to the young girls of the Ouled Nayl a temporary freedom. The Nayli tradition consisted of learning the dance as a child from the mother, the girl will leave her home village at the onset of puberty, making her way to other oases in order to start a new life while travelling and performing, getting paid with jewellery and living a life of a courtesan. When she earned enough, she would return to her home oasis, look for a husband, marry and end her professional career after which she hands down her dancing skills to her own daughter. Amel TAFSOUT has done a lot of research about these famous dancers and had published an article about their dance, which is grounded, religious and powerful. “The dancer does not walk she slides along.”

There are also a few great resources to be found in books.

The Tuareg people (/ˈtwɑːrɛɡ/; also spelled Twareg or Touareg; endonym Kel Tamasheq, Kel Tagelmust) are a large Berber ethnic confederation. They principally inhabit the Sahara desert, in a vast area stretching from far southwestern Libya to southern Algeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Traditionally nomadic pastoralists, small groups of Tuareg are also found in northern Nigeria.

The Tuareg speak the Tuareg languages also known as Tamasheq.

They have been called the "blue people" for the indigo-dye colored clothes they traditionally create & wear and which stains their skin. A semi-nomadic Muslim people, they are believed to be descendants of the Berber of North Africa.

We see many different beautiful shades on blue and indigo worn by the Tuareg.

by: Shahravar 2107


The Berbers of Morocco: Alan Keohan

Imazighen Vanishing Traditions of Berber Women: Margaret Courtney Clarke

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