The origin of the name ‘belly dance’ comes from the French Danse du ventre, which translates as “dance of the stomach”. Belly dance is also often referred to as “oriental dance” and also sometimes raks sharqi. This is Arabic for “Dance of the east”. The term Dance du ventre, from which belly dance originates, had originally racist connotations so there is currently a debate going on about whether the term belly dance should still be used. According to some it should be avoided and replaced possibly with oriental dance, in order to dissociate this dance form from the misconceptions associated to it. According to others, the term belly dance is here to stay, it is the most known way of naming this dance form and it has now lost its racist connotations anyway.
The type and style of dancing which we now call belly dance, can be traced back over 6000 plus years. The
early pagan communities often worshipped a matriarchal deity and extolled the magic and fascination of the
ability of women to create life. There is a lot of historical evidence which links the ritual of fertility
dances at that time, with symbolic re-creations of giving birth, to modern belly dancing. The sharp hip
movements, deliberate muscular contractions and spasms, as well as sinewy undulations, demonstrate strong
connections to the body’s responses during labour and delivery. The dances spread from Mesopotamia to
North Africa, Rome, Spain and India. It is thought gypsies travelled and spread belly dance. This blending
can be seen in the use of the neck slides introduced from India and the transformation of hip shimmy to
foot stamping in flamenco dance.
Belly dance became a form of mainstream public entertainment care of the gipsy tribes who first danced out on the streets and who performed in the theatres. Originally coming from India, the gypsies first travelled west
into Afghanistan and Persia. Then some of them migrated North to Turkey and then onto Europe. Others went
South until they reached Egypt and other parts of Northern Africa. One of the ways that gypsies supported
themselves during their journeys was by providing entertainment for the people of the communities in
which they stopped: Belly dancing is especially popular in Turkey and Egypt.
In Turkey, after 1453, the gypsies settled in Istanbul and here entertainment was requested for the women,
they were amused by female-only dancers and musicians called chengis . The chengis built an artistic style that is the root of many movements in belly dancing today. The complex hip work, shimmies and varied facial expressions, as well as veil dancing and finger cymbal playing, can be linked back to the gypsy chengis. These days in Turkey, chengis dance primarily as a tourist attraction.
Performances in Egypt did not only involve women. Gypsies also danced for the public at celebrations, wedding processions and in front of coffee houses and market places. Referred to as the ghawazee , their repertoire was
a mix of music and dancing, including improvised performances with veil, sticks, swords and candles. Generally,
public dancing was tolerated by the authorities, because they earned a substantial revenue by taxing performers’
profits. However, religious complaints finally outweighed the financial benefits and public ghawanzee dancing was outlawed in the city of Cairo in 1834. Between 1849 and 1856 the ban was lifted and dancing was allowed in Cairo again, although the sanction against dancing in public remained. The dance moved inside to a music-hall type environment and Egyptian raqs sharqi style dancing was born.
The expansion of Belly dancing in Europe and America occured as a result of the flow of tourists into the
Middle East. Dance troupes were contracted by foreigners and taken to exhibition forums in London, Paris and
Chicago to perform. Their art was appreciated for its uniqueness. Belly dancing’s popularity grew tenfold
at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with the publicity surrounding a belly dancer named Little Egypt. Little
Egypt sparked a wave of controversy. Her pelvic and torso focused dancing was imitated by so many to such
an exaggerated extent that she began to protest against the impostors for distorting her performance into
sheer vulgarity. The fantasized and often distorted version of belly dancing grew at a rapid pace, becoming
a popular subject in books, art and Hollywood movies. But in recent years more and more women have discovered the true elements of this incredibly feminine and self-affirming art form. You can also learn more about belly dance from sites such as IAMED (International Academiy of Middle Eastern Dance).