Belly Dance History: The Oldest, The Most Beautiful, The Most Misunderstood
By Tracy Rhaj
Last Revision: October 22nd, 2021
My passion for belly dance began as a little girl when I knew about Middle Eastern wonders, such as music, art, and dance. Since then, I have been fascinated with belly dance history, its beautiful movements, energy, and uniqueness. In 2004, I became fascinated with Tribal Belly Dancing and decided I wanted to study and perform, to live music. My dream came true later, when, after studying for four months, I joined The Roses of Shalimar. Because of my talents, I became a member of The Blue Stars of Tanit. Therefore, as belly dancer, I am curious to know about its history and other interesting facts.
First of all, most aspects about belly dance are very complex. Belly dance is the oldest dance, dating back to ancient civilizations. It was first used as a method to help induce labor, for worship, and for amusement; however, throughout the years, belly dance has continued to evolve.
Rosina-Fawsia B. Al-Rawi, creator of Grandmother’s Secrets: The Ancient Rituals and Healing Power of Belly Dancing, defines belly dance:
Belly Dancing is a dance of isolation, is which the various parts of the body are moved individually, independently from each other, yet, end up forming unity. Strength for the movements is picked up by the dancer form her belly. Little space is needed for belly dancing, for true space is body itself. The movements of belly dancing come form the joints; the trunk finds itself softly, unlike European dances. Belly dance gives a woman the possibility to discover, learn about, and understand herself. (Al-Rawi 58-59)
Perhaps one of the main things that belly dance is known for is its isolation of body parts, that is, the dancer either moves the rib cage, pelvis, or gracefully belly rolls. Pina Coluccia, Anette Paffrath, and Jean Putz, authors of Belly Dancing: The Sensual Art of Energy And Spirit, offer another definition:
Belly Dance allows women to express their sensuality, and strength, adds grace and balance to the body. Belly dance can help you connect to your inner spiritual health and express that spirituality through movements. Belly dance’s movements spread in rhythmic waves across the body-meaning, the body is the space for dance, through muscle control. (Authors 7)
People in modern society worry about being “sensual” and “sexy” more than ever before. Because of this, many people are attracted to belly dance for its known “sensuality.” Also, many people find belly dance appealing, because of the healing power, or relaxing power belly dance has.
One of the most interesting things about belly dance is its history, because it is surprisingly old, and controversial. Keti Sharif, author of Belly Dance, gives us some history of the dance:
Centuries ago, throughout the Middle East, the tribal dancer celebrated the simple world of harvest and religion through ritualistic song and dance. Anthropologists have suggested that dance was a form of ritual celebration of fertility from around 30,000 BC.
Since the finding of the “Venus of Wilendorf” sculpture, which dates back at 25,000 BC, some of the oldest found artifacts depicted female figure-often in postures used in belly dance today. Therefore, one can assume that ancient female iconography portraying dance suggested a religious, if not spiritual, connection between feminity, dance, and fertility. Also, from around 4000 BC, early civilizations that originated in the Middle East, like Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian cultures, worshipped female deities, like the serpent Goddess. (Sharif 6)
Therefore, Belly Dance, in its original context was a form of emotional expression, with little thought on the “sensual” part of it. It was a worship and fertility dance, perhaps because after nomads settled around 8000 BC, they were thankful with mother earth for giving them good soil in the Fertile Crescent, in the Middle East. Where the three main monotheistic religions started after polytheism. Before becoming monotheistic, the Middle East was polytheistic, meaning, they believed and worshipped many gods. Of these gods, the main icons were goddesses. Al-Rawi Rosina-Fawsia B., author of Grandmother’s Secrets: The Ancient Rituals and Healing Power of Belly Dancing, explains about goddesses, priestesses, and belly dance:
Rituals and their particular dances strengthened the bonds between members of the community, expressed joy, and pleasure, or praised life; but also, it was through these dances that men and women tried to understand the mystery of life, nature. Rituals were therefore used as incarnations to further growth on earth to help the clouds brake into rain, ort to celebrate acts of fertility. The first temples built to honor the divine were dedicated to goddesses and served by priestesses. Priestesses danced for the goddess and united with her through their dancing. (Al-Rawi 33)
We do not only see in the Middle East a dance that was dedicated to nature, but every tribal dance form all over the world. For example, West African dances were used to celebrate a wedding, circumcision, for rain, worship. Tahitian and Hawaiian dances too give thanks to the ocean, etc. Furthermore, since goddesses represented the feminine power, women were of course the ones appropriate for becoming the priest. As women, these priestesses belly danced. Originally, rituals were danced; body and mind were set in motion. Through their dancing, primitive peoples expressed their natural excitement and deep emotions (Al-Rawi 29). Even though I found many books saying “primitive people danced to express themselves,” I realize that people today go our to night clubs to dance to celebrate. When one is sad, one does not even think about dancing. Therefore, even though we are not conscious of that, we are linked to out very ancient roots of dancing to celebrate, only without thinking of it.
Belly dance had many purposes. It was used as a menstruation dance, wedding/celebration dance, birth dance, and amusement dance. With belly dance, a woman develops her abdominal and pelvic muscles, which aid in a more comfortable and safer delivery. The movements loosen the body so that the woman can relax and open herself during childbirth. Therefore, Middle Eastern tribes’ women actually belly dance during childbirth. (Coluccia, Paffrath, Putz 33-37). Amazingly, belly dance is used for aiding birth, for it calms, relaxes, and keeps the mind preoccupied in the dance, not in problems.
Also, since the influence of the moon on the feminine cycle, women gathered for rituals once a month. These blood and fertility rituals happened mostly during night, to the exclusion of men, at the top of the hill, on the navel of the earth (Al-Rawi 32-33). Therefore, Belly Dance was originally used for aiding birth, menstruation dance, worship dance, celebration dance, and amusement dance, for women enjoyed and laughed while belly dancing. One of the main reasons belly dance changed, was the transition from matriarchal to patriarchal society.
In matriarchal, agricultural societies, women secured most of the basics for survival and held social positions. In a culture in which fertility was a matter of survival, the connection between sexuality, menstruation, and birth was part of everyday knowledge (Al-Rawi 29-30). Therefore, women, at one point, had equal rights, were respected, until, remembering from my history class, women were put to do hard jobs, and unable to do the job, women were coined as “inferior” from men. Furthermore, the old feminine lunar religion declined about 3,000 BC. In many countries matriarchy was replaced by patriarchy. The era of mythology started and with it came the domination of male consciousness. The feminine was no longer respected (Al-Rawi 33-34). Judaism, Christianity, and Islam changed or made societies patriarchal (Sharif 7). These three religions changed societies most likely because they were monotheistic, and this only one God was a male; the hate against women because of the most famous story- Adam and Eve and their fall from the eternal paradise. Moreover, the belly dancer became a courtesan or concubine, the female was often outcast and the therefore, the harems, started (Sharif 7).
Also, women learned the dance not only for their amusement, but to please their husbands and masters. The Harem was the subject form which Orientalism, fantasies of the Orient, took root and grew. Within the harem and societies supporting the idea of sex-segregation, belly dancing may have become sexualized (Coluccia, Paffrath, Putz 39-43). And therefore, stereotypes began. Since then, a belly dancer has been a synonym for prostitute.
Another important fact in the ancient belly dance history is that other ethnic groups have influenced belly dance, such as the Gypsies, Ouled Nail, Bedouins, and Berbers. Since the Silk Road, or spice route, the Middle East has been a center of cultural exchange. Persians, Ottoman Turks, Phoenicians, Indians, and Spaniards have created a fusion of cultures and of art. For example, the Gypsies, or “Ghawazee” to Egyptians are responsible for suggestive styles of belly dance (Sharif 6). In fact, one of the moves in Tribal belly style is called “Ghawazee”. The Ouled Nail have also influenced belly dance. The women of the Ouled Nail tribe danced in coffee houses and became dancers and some even became prostitutes as well. Once they had gathered enough money, they would return to their tribe, marry, and teach their daughters to dance. Like all professional dancers, they wore all of their worldly possessions, such as coins, in the form of jewelry. They attached the coins to their clothes (Al-Rawi 45). Also, the Ouled Nail might have contributed to the making of the classic coin hip scarf. Another influence are the Berbers. The Berbers are the descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa, where they are scattered. They dance most often at weddings and similar festivities. Usually two male dancers, or two rows of male dancers, advance toward each other or the audience and retire (Alkahira). Perhaps this has contributed the most in American Tribal Belly Dance, for we follow the format of a troupe waiting for trios, duets, and solos.
Another major influence in belly dance is the European influence. When the French found the dance of North Africa in 1798 during Napoleon’s invasion, the gypsy dancers soon discovered that the French soldiers were a new and bountiful source of revenue (Rall). In Egypt, female intellectual dancers that became “Almeh” or “learned” performed, and after retiring, they taught other dancers. They became the western artists’ muse as the West’s fascination with the Middle East developed into the orientalism of the 18th and 19th century. Orientalism is a quality, mannerism, or custom specific to or characteristic of the Orient, Artists and travelers brought back tales of harems and the “odalisque” became the most influential icon is European art during that time (Sharif 8). Therefore, stereotypes began in the West. The worst part is that Orientalism took place during the Victorian Era, when even the legs of the piano were covered so men would not think of anything related to a leg.
Furthermore, Afra Alkahira, author of History and other facts about Belly Dance says: The early 20th C Egyptian film industry at its peak far exceeded Hollywood in its scope. Belly dance was used by many film makers of the time. Effectively, the film industry set a norm for belly dance. In its wake, emerged the Egyptian belly dance cabaret scene. It was an eclectic mix of Middle Eastern artistic values and Western influences (Alkahira). As one studies the influence of Europeans on belly dance, one can see that Cabaret belly dance is a product of European imperialism in the Middle East. Keti Sharif, author of Belly Dance states:
Many western notions of the orientalized belly dancer-for instance, that she is always dressed in a sparkling two-piece costume-were in fact Hollywood inventions. More fascinating still, is that the East favored the glamorous new look and adapted it to suit the flourishing cinema industry. The concept of belly dancing has often been misunderstood, westernized, and de-authenticated. (Sharif 8-9)
Consequently, the new costume is European, for Muslims would not want women to be in plain bra because according to Kisa Akbar, a Muslim girl, “a female should not be showing her stomach, her breasts, cannot be seen in public, first of all, and should not be listening to music, because that is not allowed by the Muslim law.” Al-Rawi says, “Arab dancers also started wearing either ballet shoes or high-heel. In the 19th century, the costumes had changed under Western ballet fashion; dancers began to wear knee length skirts with transparent blouses (43).” This is one of the main features of modern cabaret belly dance.
Unfortunately, there are many prejudices against belly dance. As mentioned before, the sensuality and earth-connected sexuality expressed by women through their dance, their seduction into life, no longer served women and the mystery of being, but instead served to entertain and stimulate the onlookers (Al-Rawi 35). This was the beginning of a sad prejudice against a beautiful dance. Moreover, Orientalists used the dance to protect fantasies of the Middle East and therefore, cerate a political and social hierarchy and proclaim the superiority of the West (Colluccia, Paffrath, Putz 52). Belly dancing has developed a questionable reputation throughout the centuries. Centuries ago, Jews and Gypsies danced in the streets for money as they traveled through the towns. The Gypsies in particular became marked over time with prostitution and “selling their dance” for a living (Sharif 102). And therefore, as Gypsies influenced belly dance, belly dance also became stereotyped. Furthermore, Orientalist paintings were a major factor for creating stereotypes because they misunderstood the dance and took it as a sexual stimulation for men (Colluccia, Paffrath, Putz 51). In addition, in 1893, at the World’s Fair Chicago, the U.S. experienced belly dance for the first time. Belly dance was coined as “terrible” but later on, Hollywood took belly dance and created the modern cabaret costume. Besides Europeans’ stereotypes, Muslims had also stereotypes for Islam disapproves of mixed dancing; a dance that radiated such strong erotic energy and further the feminine sexual force should simply not be performed in public. Islam has put regulations, hence the use of veil, and segregation of sexes. In the meantime, women danced for their own pleasure (Al-Rawi 43). Sadly also, the Palestinian National Authority Culture Minister has indicated that he plans to ban belly dancing, not to mention that Muslims would not want to see their relatives dancing in public (Wikipedia). It is a pity that Muslims feel like this towards belly dance, for it is one of the main things that has mad their culture loved, unique, and beautiful. Which is why we love it in modern day.
Besides Tribal and Cabaret styles of belly dance, there are a lot more, such as Egyptian baladi, Alexandrian Malaya Dance, Lebanese belly dance, Greek Chiftetelli, Turkish Belly Dance; however, I will only focus on Tribal and Cabaret, since they are drastically different form one another, and the most common ones in the West. Raqs Sharqui, or Cabaret, is the most common one in the West. Keti Sharif, author of Belly Dance states:
This form of Middle Eastern dance is known to Arab and Western worlds as oriental dance or in Arabic “Raqs Sharqui.” It emerged in the turn of the century, referring to ballet, flamenco, and classical Indian Dance. It is closely resembled to the oriental dance Westerners first saw. It is peculiar for the high heeled shoes, brief costumes and glittering appeal of dance. This belly dance is performed at night clubs, cabarets, and night shows at restaurants. (Sharif 84-85)
Perhaps it is not similar to the first dance Europeans saw, but it is influenced by Europeans.
The other main type of belly dance, in the West, is American Tribal belly dance. Tribal belly dance’s main focus is to improvise. Participants learn a common vocabulary movement and through subtle cueing and a lot of practice to develop non verbal communication, dancers can create a performance that, to the audience, appears choreographed (Moore). As a tribal belly dancer, I know that this takes a lot of memorization of names and cues, and a lot of practice. Costuming is often colorful, with large full skirts, Indian-style cholis, full pantaloons, hip scarves, tassel belts, and/or fringe belts; sometimes turban is worn with a lot of jewelry (Moore). This is one of the main differences between cabaret belly dance and tribal belly dance. In fact, when people see my tribal costume, it is hard for them to think that it is belly dance, until they see me belly dance. For further explanation, Rina Orellana Rall, author of A History of American Tribal Style Belly dance, and dancer of the Fat Chance Belly Dance troupe explains:
American Tribal Belly dance is a fairly new dance with its origins in traditional Middle Eastern dance. American Tribal Style founders are Jamila Salimpour, Masha Archer, and today’s Carolena Nericcio. It does not represent a particular tribe, but it combines movement vocabularies and regional costuming to form one cohesive presentation. The American part of the label acknowledges that the founders were Americans and that it was created in America. The costume of this type of belly dance seems authentic because of its resemblance to various gypsy tribes throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and India. (Rall).
The U.S. is a melting pot, and perhaps it is expected that American Tribal Belly Dance is a melting pot, too. However, like the U.S., it is a beautiful clash of cultures to make something wonderful. In addition, the main influences are the gypsy dances of North Africa, particularly the Ghawazee and the Ouled Nail (Rall). This is another reason to call this style “tribal” because it really tries to resemble their cultural dances.
American tribal style was created by Jamila Salimpour, an American. She started dancing cabaret style in her own cabaret, until she created Bal–Anat to organize dancers for performing at the Renaissance Fair. Her dance Troupe, Bal-Anat, created a fusion of various regional dances of the Middle East and North Africa as inspiration for their own version of belly dance. She had many dancers from different parts of the world. Her American Students represented musicians for Egypt and Morocco, and Ouled Nail, and Turkish dancers. She also developed a method of verbal breakdown and terminologies for the movements she learned form visiting performers of the Middle East (Rall). Many Tribal belly dancers have started like her; they started dancing cabaret, and for various reasons, they adopt American Tribal Dance, like many people I know, starting with some of my troupe mates. One of the main reasons for adopting tribal style is that it is less sexualized. The costume does not usually include the plain bra; it is less revealing.
Masha Archer, is the second person to contribute to American Tribal Style. A former student of Jamila, added more uniformity to the new style by not distinguishing between regions and simply identifying it as belly dance. She studied with Jamila Salimpour, founding the San Francisco Classic Dance Troupe which lasted 14 years (1970’s-1985). According to Masha, Jamila felt that the dance deserved a better place than restaurants, and bars and there was nothing that could be done, “If you were a teacher, you must teach your students to tolerate the situation and cooperate” (Rall). Jamila was probably the first belly dancer to try change people’s views towards belly dance; however, she conformed perhaps because she was scared Tribal belly dance would not be well paid. Additionally, Masha adopted the dance but had a different and controversial version. She felt that Middle Easterners are unfit for the job of caretakers of the dance, “The culture is ashamed of the dance and abusive towards women. Also, the dance has been controlled by their government and disrespected by male club owners.” She feels that American women have honored it more and deserve to adopt it (Rall). Besides, Masha and Jamila, Carolena Nericcio has contributed, and still contributes, to American Tribal Belly Dance.
After studying with Masha for seven years, Carolena Nericcio created Fat Chance Belly Dance in 1987. She began studying at the age of 14. The tribal style she created followed the format of Jamila, and Masha’s graceful look and good posture. Carolena has modified the dance to keep the audience entertained bout always maintains the spirit of the culture of Middle Eastern Gypsies (Rall). Carolena Nericcio gives workshops, has DVD’s, still performs, and she is a positive role of American Tribal Belly Dance followers. American Tribal Belly Dance (ATS) has been made most famous by Carolena and her troupe Fat Chance. Basically, the style is a fusion of Egyptian hip work with Flamenco arm positions and Turkish torso undulations and stomach movements. Her dances are usually done as group dances in a highly structured improvisation (Sa’id). This is another main difference between Tribal and Cabaret styles. Cabaret style is usually done by a solo performer.
Modern day belly dance is huge. In the Middle East is performed everywhere, with famous belly dancers as national icons. (Colluccia, Paffrath, Putz 2). Belly dance is the West in predominately cabaret style. It is performed at restaurants, bars, cabarets, festivals, and now even in a tour around the world. Miles Copeland, an entrepreneur and creator of the Police rock band, created the production, Belly Dance Superstars. He has recruited some of the best and famous belly dancers in the U.S. for his show to travel and perform around the world. “Belly Dance Superstars are making the world of belly dance bigger and more popular. People are afraid belly dance will become more about young and beautiful talent, and the older, larger, wise women will somehow loose out. However, I am trying to break the stereotype that only young and slim is beautiful,” said Miles Copeland. Belly dance Superstars are very talented and beautiful. They travel all over the world and have obtained fame in only a few years.
Belly dance is the oldest dance. Originally a worship, amusement, ritual, menstruation and birth dance, and now a lively performance. Belly dance has evolved throughout the years due to laws, foreign influences, and profit. Belly dance is beautiful and it represents something beautiful. It represents women’s power, sexuality, and tenderness. Belly dance is not just belly dance!
Akbar, Kisa. “Belly dance is not appropriate…”
Alkahira, Afra. History and other facts about Belly Dance 2004. May, 2006. http://www.zehara.co.uk/bellydancefacts.htm/.
Alkahira, Afra. History and other facts about Belly Dance 2004. May, 2006. http://www.zehara.co.uk/bellydancestyles.htm.
Al-Rawi, Rosina-Fawsia B. Grandmother’s Secrets: The Ancient Rituals and Healing Power of Belly Dancing. Massachusetts, USA. Interlink Books: 2003
Bellydance Superstars. DVD. Firstars, 2004. 1 minute.
Coluccia, Pina; Paffrath, Anette; Putz, Jean. Belly Dancing: The Sensual Art of Energy And Spirit. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Pres, 2003
Copeland, Miles; Eggar, Robinn. BellyDance Supertars. 2005. Bellydance Superstars. May 25, 2006. http://milescopeland.net/bellydance/.
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