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Short History of Belly Dance

Updated: Mar 3, 2023

About Bellydance (Middle Eastern Dance)

by Amira Hamzar

Copyrite 2019

Middle Eastern Dance, better known as Bellydance, is an ancient dance form that can trace it’s ancestry back before recorded times. It has evolved over thousands of years and many different cultures, and continues to evolve even today. Also called Raqs Sharki in Arabic, meaning “Oriental Dance”, it has origins in the Middle East and Northern Africa. As one of the oldest social dances in the world and contrary to conceptions, it was traditionally performed by women of all ages, shapes, and sizes.

In a world before structured language, movement was the first mode of communication. Many of the movements from today’s Bellydance can be traced back to childbirth and fertility rituals. The circle and the infinity loop or “figure 8” are both examples of the cycle of life. The wavy undulations were used to aid in childbirth. Over time, these “primitive” movements were refined and became the ancient temple dances celebrating the deities, encouraging fertility, giving thanks for the bountiful harvest and the changing seasons. These celebratory dances strengthened the community while expressing the joys of life.

Over time, the matriarchal religions began to fade away and new faiths and customs emerged. The religious meaning behind the dance was reduced to a more secular activity and was moved from the greater community to the confines of the home.

The dance became for women, by women. In traditional Islam, the prevailing religion found throughout the lands of its origin, a woman's contact with people outside her immediate household and family is restricted. Long before the entertaining distractions of radio, women would gather together in their houses to aid each other with the daily chores. Once the work was done, as a means of entertainment, they would talk, relax and dance with one another.

All of these movements were passed down from generation to generation. Young girls watched their mothers and grandmothers dance. Out of this evolved a flirtatious and playful dance largely composed of bouncing and shimmying the hips.

Out of the Middle East and over time, Bellydance went “viral” and grew into a global phenomenon. The nomadic Roma or Romani, otherwise known as Gypsies, spread the dance across various countries as they traversed India and Europe. They would learn, adapt, and teach the various songs and dance movements to the indigenous peoples of the area. This not only increased their prospects of earning a living, but also developed and spread the knowledge of these movements. The women who followed the armies and traders in the Eastern lands helped to develop these movements from folkloric to cultivated. And while Napoleon invaded Egypt, he was one of the first Europeans to personally witness the dance of the “women of the desert”. This helped spark the obsession of the image of the Oriental woman in the Western world.

The dances from the Middle East found their way to Paris and London and then made their way to America. The term “Bellydance” came from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In the ultra-conservative Victorian times, you were not allowed to utter the word “arm” or “leg” let alone expose something like a bare-skin midriff! The authentic dances of the Middle East performed by Algerian and Egyptian ladies shocked the patrons, who viewed it as “erotic” or “sensual”. The Victorian prejudices only fanned the flames for those that wanted to capitalize on the controversy. The dance became sensationalized and imitators came out of the woodwork. Carnival sideshows would promote the “hoochie coochie” dance that would later become known as Burlesque. Artists traveled seeking these dancers out and developed a fantasy image of them. Out of this was born the Orientalist Period with artist’s renditions of what these women might look like. Paintings of half-naked women lounging around waiting to please their sultan were now the rage. The idea of the “harem girl” was born.

In the 1920’s, Egypt became the “Hollywood” of the Eastern world. The dance we reinvented once again, this time with an influence of western fashion. They created their own representation of the dance and the “cabaret dancer” became legendary. Becoming more stylized and refined, the dancers worked now in night clubs and legendary films.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s, immigrants from Turkey, Iran and the Arab states arrived in New York City, bringing the dance with them. A new wave of dancers were seen performing in the restaurants and night clubs. Just like the “melting pot”, these various styles were blended together to create the Classical Cabaret or American Cabaret style of Bellydance.

And in 1959, Mahmoud Reda founded the Reda Troupe. Born in Cairo and originally a gymnast, his main interest was dance. Reda’s choreography was a blend of Egyptian folkloric with Western styles like Ballet. Comprised of 12 dancers and 12 musicians, the troupe was the first of its kind anywhere in the Middle East. His work helped legitimatize the dance as a theatrical art form.

From the temple, to the home and now the stage, the dance in this form is that of professional entertainment. These performers were not restricted by the rules of Islam and were able to dance for an audience.

In America, the dance evolved again in the 1980’s and 1990’s with “Tribal Bellydance”. This innovation combined the traditional and Cabaret styles with dances from India and Spain. And in the 2000’s, Tribal Fusion Bellydance was an offshoot of the Tribal style, but now with more electronic, rather than traditional, music.

Many women find that Bellydance is a more accepting dance style that embraces all ages, sizes and shapes. As a tool for healing, it provides a sense of empowerment and improved self-esteem. It also grants a deeper connection between the mind, body and spirit.

Because the movements of Bellydance started as organic, students find it very natural to the body and can be performed by anyone, regardless of age of body type. Bellydance stretches, strengthens and tones the muscles individually through movements called isolations. Besides fun, Bellydance increases coordination, grace, flexibility, and posture.

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