The origin of the name ‘belly dance’ comes from the French Danse du ventre, which translates as “dance of the stomach”. Sol Bloom is said to have been the first one to use the English term belly dance, for the dancers of the Chicago’s World Fair in 1893. 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 racist implications of the term belly dance are concerning, but I often find that, if I call it oriental dance, people think I am referring to dance of the Far East, from countries such as China, Korea or Japan. The Arabic for oriental dance, raqs sharqi, seems lately to refer to one particular style, which does not include dances such as raqs shaabi, baladi or American tribal.
Andrea Deagon prefers to call this dance SITA (solo-improvised dance based on torso articulation). While I like this term, I do not think that it is right for every type of what we call ‘belly dance’ as, for example, tribal is done in groups and also raqs sharqi, when it is performed outside of its countries of origin, is sometimes performed in groups and to a choreography rather than being improvised. Also, SITA could refer to many other dance forms that we would not consider ‘belly dance’, such as Moroccan shikhat.
So, it is still hard, in my opinion, to define exactly what this dance genre includes. Maybe we should not talk about ‘belly dance’ as one dance genre at all, but we should isolate different types of dance that so far have been bundled together, such as raqs sharqi, American tribal, raqs baladi and saabi and so on and treat them as different genres which have some common roots.
According to some, the dance form that today many call belly dance is extremely old and traces of it can be found up to 6,000 years ago, in some pagan societies who used to worship a feminine deity, to celebrate women’s fertility as something magic. However, there is little evidence that early pagan rituals are in any way connected to belly dance. This type of dance is supposed to be indeed good for preparing women’s body to give birth, but there does not seem to be proof of any link to ancient fertility rituals. In spite of this, there has been a tendency, in the last 40 years, to associate belly dance with spirituality and the power of the feminine. This may be due to the fact that the feminist movement, in the 1970s and 1980s in the USA, rediscovered belly dance as a form of dance that empowers women.
What we called today belly dance, seems to be the specific type of dance that comes from Turkey and Egypt. By looking at the specific movements of belly dance, some say that there could have been an influence coming from India. Indeed some movements, such as the head slides, are found both in Indian dance and in belly dance. Hence, it could be that populations migrating over the centuries from India to the Middle East and northern Africa brought their dance traditions with them, influencing the way local dances developed. Also, I think that belly dance owns a lot, in terms of dance vocabulary, to African dances. If we think about hip and chest shimmies and circles and body undulations, these are also present in African dances and in South American dances that derive from African traditions. However, each dance tradition has changed and adapted these movements so that, for example, shimmies in belly dance have a different feeling from African shimmies.
A proper choreological and historical study of dance and movement should be done in order to confirm how and when these influences developed, but it is difficult for such an ephemeral product like dance. Nevertheless, it could be attempted in the same way that linguists have studied the history of languages and traced migrations from ancient India to Europe with regards to the Indo-European languages, although movement did not leave a trace equivalent to written texts for languages.
This dance form, in the Middle East, has been a type of social dance since unmemorable times. It was and is danced when women gather together to socialise. For example, my first belly dance teacher, whose family is from Iraq and Jordan, told me how, even today, women sometimes dance to it when they meet and also chose potential brides for their sons according to the way the girls dance. In Egypt, dance has always been part of wedding celebrations, danced socially by people attending parties and professionally by performers who are paid to dance for special occasions. This is the typical baladi dance. Nowadays, the music played most commonly at weddings and social gatherings in Egypt is shaabi. The type of dance associated with shaabi music is very similar to baladi dance with hip articulations and quite grounded, but it does not have the same structure, as the music is different (shaabi music is composed by individual pop songs, while baladi is mainly instrumental music which is improvised but follows a set pattern, hence a baladi dance performance follows the same pattern translated into movement).
What we call today belly dance has always been also a form of public entertainment. Travellers tribes, both in Egypt and Turkey, used to perform out in the streets. Travellers are said to have come from India originally and then have migrated through modern Afghanistan and Iran to head some north, towards Turkey and Europe, and some south, towards northern Africa, including Egypt. One way for travellers to earn a living was to perform to entertain people and they danced. They probably brought with them their own dance traditions, but they must also have picked up the traditions and movement vocabulary of the places in which they travelled.
The artists who travelled and performed in Turkey were called chengis. We have record of them being active in Istanbul since the 1400s and they used to entertain particularly female audiences with dancing and singing. They danced using intricate hip movements and torso articulations, shimmies, and they also used props, some of which we still use today, such as finger cymbals and veils. Today chengis in Turkey still dance for tourists. Turkish dancing style has been heavily influenced by them.
Performers in Egypt were not only women but also men (it was the European influence that later promoted female dancers at the expenses of men, as European travellers preferred to see women dance). The ethnic group that performed in public on the streets was called ghâwazî. They used to dance in front of coffee houses and outdoors during public processions especially during saint’s day celebrations. They would sing and dance and use various props, such as canes and swords. Public dance at first was not only tolerated by the authorities, but it was accepted as part of the tradition and also because performers were taxed and, therefore, brought in revenue. However, in 1834, the political situation changed and the authorities gave into pressure from the most conservative fringes of society and outlawed public dancing in Cairo. Hence, many performers continued dancing outside of Cairo, but the potential for making a good living outside the capital was slimmer. Between 1849 and 1856, however, the ban was lifted so performers returned to Cairo. The beginning of the XX century, around the 1920’s, saw the opening and flourishing of various nightclubs where dance was performed and were the audience was made up mainly by Europeans. Hence, the dancing style changed because of the need to please a foreign audience and modern raqs sharqi was born.
One of the most famous nightclubs of this type was the one that belonged to Badiia Masabni in Cairo in the 1920s. In this setting, dance was adapted to the stage, set choreographies and group performances were introduced and also there was a big influence from western types of dance, such as ball room dancing and ballet. The costumes changed as well. Up until that point dancers wore a wide long skirt, a shirt and a waistcoat. From the 1920s dancers started wearing what is known today as the typical belly dancer’s costume (bedlah): a bra, a skirt, bare midriff, veils, a lot of glitter and beads.
Middle Eastern dance spread into Europe and the USA at first because of European travellers who went to the Middle East and northern Africa from the late 1700s and through the 1800s. Reactions from the part of these travellers were mixed. Some hated this dance, some loved it. However, as the majority of these travellers were male, they did not have access to all types of performers, as some would only perform for women only audiences. They were only able to see performers on the street, or those women dancers who were willing to perform privately in front of a male only audience. Hence the reason why dancers had a bad reputation among foreign visitors.
With the universal exhibitions, curiosities from all over the world were brought into Europe and the USA. In particular, the 1893 Chicago World Fair was especially significant for the spread of belly dance in the west. A dancer called Little Egypt performed there and she started a wave of controversy. Some loved her movements but others were scandalised by them (think of what effect must have had a dance in which the torso moved freely, in a society where women wore corsets). Many imitated her movements, but exaggerating the hips and torso movements in a way that many considered vulgar. Also, western people had an imaginary picture of the orient in their minds, as a land of passion and moral ambiguity. Hence, oriental women and dance were seen in the same light.
This distorted image of the orient became a subject of many popular books and was promoted even further by Hollywood movies. Belly dance also influenced burlesque in the 1800s and this contributed to a confusion in the mind of many between these two genres. In recent years, thanks especially to the feminist movement in the 1970s and 1980s, more and more women (in the USA first, then all over the world, including Europe, Oceania and the far East) have discovered the empowering nature of this dance form for women. As for men, they still dance folkloric styles in the countries of origin of belly dance, but not raqs sharqi. In the west, there are some male belly dancers but still very few and far in between at the moment. You can also learn more about belly dance from sites such as IAMED (International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance).
Books and articles that I have found very useful to write this brief history of belly dance are:
(Click picture above for Amazon.co.uk and here for a link to Amazon.com) A very interesting investigation into the role of female performers in Egypt, which includes interviews with performers, but also important background information on this art form in Egypt.
(Click picture above for Amazon.co.uk and here for a link to Amazon.com) A book fruit of 50 years of research by Morocco, in the field of Middle Eastern and Northern African dances.
Nieuwkerk,K. (1995), A Trade like Any Other: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt. University of Texas Press.
Dinicu, C (2013), You Asked Aunt Rocky: Answers & Advice about Raqs Sharqi and Raqs Shaabi. Rdi Publications.