History Of Belly Dancing

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The origin of belly dancing is steeped in controversial myths and theories, all trying to explain the people who first conceived the style of the belly dance. Several theories have been conjured, spanning from its origin as a religious dance whereby Egyptians used the dance when conducting religious rituals to their gods. Such rituals would be the fertility ritual, whereby the female members of the Temple would engage in the dance. It was also accepted by the temple priestesses and members of the Middle East society, that the dance was utilized in preparing female members of the community, for childbirth period where their athletic ability and fitness would be needed the most. Another theory tries to explain that the dance was transferred by the Gypsy people as they conducted their exodus from India to the interior parts of Europe. It is here that the belly dance was conformed by the locals and the style took different forms. For example, the Brazilian Flamenco dance is attributed to the adaptation of the “Gypsy dance”. The dance is believed to have been introduced in America in the early 1890’s. The dance was first performed to a live audience by an artist under the name, little Egypt. This dancing sensation was further revolutionized by Hollywood who sought to feed the craze of Movie audiences by including the belly dances in numerous of their early movies.

Progression of the Belly dance through the Years
Unlike in the past where the dance was only practiced by Temple priestesses, today, belly dance is widely practiced and enjoyed by people all around the Globe. There is no barrier in terms of age or sex by participants of the beautiful dance (Varga 56). Belly dance is trained all over the Globe and has been able to transcend the gender, racial and language barrier that are often associated with cross continent, cross border relations. Despite this, the reason of the dance has however changed over time. In the past, the dance was an integral part of Arabic culture but after the European invasion and their action of annexing some of these countries, Arabic culture was corroded and images and art drawn by European artists such as  Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and others depicted the dance as an erotic dance (Buonaventura 13). This negative perception was further progressed by Hollywood in their movies. In America, the insatiable public thirst for the belly dance was quenched by various theatre shows, carried out by a number of theatre companies but the most famous, being the “Egyptian theatre”. These days, belly dancing is promoted as a means of relieving stress among its participants while also acting as a means of advancing socialization (Carlton 23).

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Non Western Belly Dance versus Western Dances
There is a great variation between Non-western belly dance and Western belly dancing whereby the dance was conducted by ladies who were respected and acknowledged by the society. In Western dances, the dancer is easily depicted as an erotic dancer by the skimpy costumes that they wear during their shows; this is in stark contrast to belly dancing in the Middle East where Muslim culture forbids the exposure of flesh especially to men especially if they are strangers.

Movement: Belly dancing is associated with hip, stomach and leg movement all in a synchronous motion and to the beat of the music being played. Where Hips are only involved, the movement is categorized as percussive. Under this category, the hip is lifted, twisted, dropped and rocked. Belly dancing movement can also be categorized under fluid motion. This is whereby body movements are concentrated around the rib cage, whereby the stomach is looped to create various shapes. Fluid motion requires the participant to control their stomach muscle strengths (Al-Rawi 20).

Costumes: Costumes worn for purposes of belly dancing vary in style from one country to another, and from one region to the other. But the overall  ‘bedlah’ is worn during the dance. Variations may include differences in the level of decorations of the bra and suit or even if the suit is worn as a one piece suit. All these are different depending on the countries where the dance is practised and enjoyed. An example of this would be how the bedlah varies in some places, where the stomach is not exposed while in other countries the bedlah is constrained using belts which also hide the participants’ stomach.

Cultural Context
Under Muslim Society, there is segregation between interaction between men and women and this interaction further limited by the common relations that they share (Wise 90). Although these rules have lessened a bit, there are still cultures, norms and taboos that dictate men and women interactions. In the past the ladies were confined to stay together in their “harams”. It is in these harams that the ladies learnt to dance and gyrate as a form of entertainment. Apart from close family members, no one was allowed to enter these “harams” , unless one was a professional dancer or a performer. Unlike the picture forwarded by the Europeans, these harams were like a form of entertainment spots where ladies could entertain fellow ladies and close family members. This is opposes the European view that belly dancers were half naked females who performed to entertain Sultans.

  • Al-Rawi, Grandmother’s Secrets: The Ancient Rituals and Healing Power of Belly Dancing. Interlink Books, 1999.
  • Buonaventura, Wendy (1989). Serpet of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World. Saqi, 1989.
  • Carlton, Donna. Looking for Little Egypt. Bloomington, Indiana: International Dance Discovery Books, 1995.
  • Varga, Dinicu. You Asked Aunt Rocky: Answers & Advice About Raqs Sharqi & Raqs Shaabi.
    Virginia Beach, VA, USA: RDI Publications, 2011.
  • Wise, Josephine. The JWAAD Book of Bellydance. Croydon CR0 4YY: JWAAD Ltd. 2012. 

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