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Website of Sunayna - About Bellydance



The origins of this dance form are actively debated among dance enthusiasts, especially given the limited academic research on the topic. Much of the research in this area has been done by the dancers themselves. However, the often overlooked fact that most dancing in the Middle East occurs in a social context rather than the more visible and glamorous context of professional nightclub performance, has led to a misunderstanding of the dance's true nature and has given rise to many conflicting theories about its origins. Because this dance is a fusion of many different styles it undoubtedly has a variety of origins, many of which stem from ethnic folk dancing.

Many dancers subscribe to one or more of the following theories regarding the origins of belly dance:

    * It descends from indigenous dances of ancient Upper Egypt
    * It originated in Greece, spreading with Alexander the Great
    * It descends from a religious dance once practiced by temple priestesses
    * It had been a part of traditional birthing practices in the region(s) of origin
    * It had spread from the migrations of the Romani people (also called "gypsies") and related groups descended from the Banjara of Rajasthan in northwestern India
    * It originated in Uzbekistan, traveling to India through the slave trade

Of these theories, the first one is rarely invoked, even though it has such a highly respected proponent as the Egyptian dancer Dr. Mo Geddawi. The most well-known and publicized theory is that belly dancing descends from a religious dance, and is usually the theory referred to in mainstream articles on the topic. 1960s American-Iranian singer/dancer Jamila Salimpour was a proponent of this theory. It was also popularized in works such as "Earth Dancing" and "Grandmother's Secrets."

The traditional birthing practices theory relates to a sub-set of dance movements found in modern raqs sharqi. Strongly publicized through the research of the dancer/layperson-anthropologist Morocco (also known as Carolina Varga Dinicu), it asserts that belly dancing is a reworking of movements traditionally utilized to demonstrate or ease childbirth. Although lacking ideas about the exact origin of belly dance, this theory does have the advantage of being supported by numerous oral historical references, and is backed by commentary in The Dancer of Shamahka.

The Roma theory suggests that the Roma, and other related groups, either brought the form over as they traveled, or picked it up along the way and spread it around. Thanks to the fusion of Roma forms of dance into the raqs sharqi sphere in the West, these theories enjoy a popularity in the West that is not necessarily reflected in their original countries - although some of that may be due to strongly-held prejudices against the Roma.

Wherever it began, the dance has a long history in Africa and the Middle East. Despite the Islamic restriction of portraying humans in paintings, depictions of dancers have been found from the pre-Islamic and Islamic world. Books such as "The Art and Architecture of Islam 650-1250" show images of dancers on palace walls, as do Persian miniature paintings from the 12th and 13th centuries.

Outside the Middle East, raqs sharqi dancing was popularized during the Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, whereby Orientalist artists depicted their interpretations of harem life in the Ottoman Empire. Around this time, dancers from different Middle Eastern countries began to perform at various World Fairs. They often drew crowds that rivaled those of the technology exhibits. Some dancers were captured in early films. The short film, "Fatima's Dance," was widely distributed in the nickelodeon movie theaters. It drew criticism for its "immodest" dancing, and was eventually censored due to public pressure.

Some Western women began to learn from and imitate the dances of the Middle East (which by this time had been subjected to European colonization). Despite posing as a Javanese dancer, Mata Hari's mystique is linked not to Indonesian dance but to Middle Eastern dance forms. The French author Colette, and many other music hall performers, engaged in "oriental" dancing, sometimes passing off their own interpretations as authentic folkloric styles. The great dancer Ruth St. Denis also engaged in Middle Eastern-inspired dancing, but her approach was to put "oriental" dancing on the stage in the context of ballet, her goal being to lift all dance to a respectable art form. (In the early 1900s, it was a common social assumption in America and Europe that dancers were women of loose morals.)

Historically, most of the dances associated with belly dance were performed with the sexes separated; men with men and women with women. Few depictions of mixed dancing exist. This practice ensured that a "good" woman would not be seen dancing by anyone but her husband, her close family, or her female friends. Sometimes a professional dancer would go to a women's gathering with several musicians and get the women up and dancing. Today, sex segregation is not as strictly practiced in many urban areas, and sometimes both men and women will dance socially among close friends at a mixed function. However, while social dancing at family functions is accepted and even encouraged, there are many people in Middle Eastern and North African societies who regard the performances of professional dancers in revealing costumes for mixed audiences as morally objectionable. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that such performances be banned.


Because the most visible venue for belly dance is nightclubs (as well as video and DVD recordings of popular Egyptian dance celebrities), it is this version, rather than the folk or social versions, that is most popular. The costume now associated with this dance is called bedlah in Arabic (meaning "suit"), and was adopted by dancers in Egypt in the 1930s, eventually spreading to other countries in the region. It owes its creation to the harem fantasy productions of vaudeville, burlesque, and Hollywood during the turn of the last century, rather than to actual authentic Middle Eastern dress. An enterprising dancer, singer, and night club owner in Cairo named Badia Masabni is credited with adopting this costume because it was the image that Western tourists came to expect, rather than the native caftan/kaftan - which mostly concealed the contours of the body, with a scarf or belt tied around the hips to highlight the movements. The caftan is still used by performers to cover their costumes when not on stage.

The mainstays of costuming for the bedlah style include a fitted top or bra (usually with a fringe of beads or coins), a fitted hip belt (again with a fringe of beads or coins), and a skirt(s) (straight, layered, circular, or paneled). In the western world a "veil" - a 3-1/2 to 4-yard piece of fabric - may also be used to accentuate swirling arm movements throughout an entire dance or part of a dance. In the 1940s, King Farouk of Egypt employed Russian ballet instructor Ivanova to teach his daughters, and it was she who first taught the great Egyptian dancer Samia Gamal to use the veil to improve her arm carriage. Most Egyptian dancers use the veil as an opening prop which they discard within the first few minutes of their routines.

In Egypt, dancers wear full-beaded dresses for the folkloric and baladi routines. These dresses are designed according to the type of dance and the tradition behind each dance. Similar outfits are also worn by American and European dancers when performing folk dances. Western dancers, however, have more freedom and may choose according to taste and fantasy. Costuming often varies with the particular style of dance.




Most of the basic steps and techniques used in belly dancing involve circular motions isolated to a certain part of the body. For example, a circular movement "drawn" parallel to the floor by the hips is known as a "hip circle", or by the rib-cage known as a "chest circle". Accents such as "hip lifts" or "drops" are use to draw the eye to hip movement such as "shimmies or hip circles", while shoulder or arm movements are to accent chest or belly undulations. Dancers often dance while balancing various props like baskets, swords or canes(canes in particular for folkloric dances.)as well as using silk or chiffon veils and wings for dramatic dance pieces.


Raqs Sharqi


Raqs Sharqi belly dancing consists of movements that are executed throughout the body. The focus of the dance is the pelvic and hip area. It is, fundamentally, a solo improvisational dance with its own unique dance vocabulary that is fluidly integrated with the music’s rhythm.

Raqs Sharqi dancers internalize and express the emotions evoked by the lyrics and the music. Appropriately, the music is integral to the dance. The most admired Raqs Sharqi dancers are those who can best project their emotions through dance, even if their dance is made up of simple movements. The dancer’s goal is to visually communicate to the audience the emotion and rhythm of the music. Raqs Sharqi translates from Arabic as "dance of the Orient" or "Oriental Dance". This is the oldest dance in the world. . Belly dance is a misnomer as the all parts of the body are involved in the dance, and the most important body part is the hips. The dancer’s goal is to visually communicate to the audience the emotion and rhythm of the music.

Many see Raqs Sharqi as a woman's dance, celebrating the sensuality and power of being a mature woman. A common school of thought believes that young dancers have limited life experience to use as a catalyst for dance. Sohair Zaki, Fifi Abdou, Lucy, Nagwa Fouad, and Dina are all popular Egyptian dancers above the age of forty.

Despite the fame of female dancers, men often perform Raqs Sharqi as well, however, not in public in Arab countries.

Egyptian-style raqs sharqi is based on Baladi an later the work of belly dance legends Samia Gamal, Tahiya Karioka, Naima Akef, and other dancers who rose to fame during the golden years of the Egyptian film industry. Later dancers who based their styles partially on the dances of these artists are Sohair Zaki, Fifi Abdou, and Nagwa Fouad. All rose to fame between 1960 and 1980, are still popular today, and have nearly risen to the same level of stardom and influence on the style.

Though the basic movements of Raqs Sharqi have remained the same, the dance form continues to evolve. Nelly Mazloum and Mahmoud Reda are noted for incorporating elements of ballet into Raqs Sharqi and their influence can be seen in modern Egyptian dancers who stand on relevé as they turn or travel through their dance space in a circle or figure eight.

In Egypt, three main forms of the traditional dance are associated with belly dance: Baladi/Beledi, Sha'abi and Sharqi.

Egyptian belly dance was among the first styles to be witnessed by Westerners. During Napoleon's invasion of Egypt (the campaign which yielded the Rosetta stone, leading to the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics), Napoleon's troops encountered the Ghawazee tribe. The Ghawazee made their living as professional entertainers and musicians. The women often engaged in prostitution on the side, and often had a street dedicated to their trade in the towns where they resided, though some were quasi-nomadic. At first the French were repelled by their heavy jewelry and hair, and found their dancing "barbaric", but were soon lured by the hypnotic nature of their movements.

The most important non-Egyptian forms of belly dance are the Syrian/ Lebanese,Persian and the Turkish.


Turkish forms


Some mistakenly believe that Turkish oriental dancing is known as Çiftetelli because this style of music has been incorporated into oriental dancing by Greeks and Roma, illustrated by the fact that the Greek belly dance is called Tsifteteli. However, Turkish Çiftetelli is more correctly a form of wedding folk music, the part that makes up the lively part of the dance at the wedding and is not connected with oriental dancing.

Turkish belly dance today may have been influenced by Roma people as much as by the Egyptian and Syrian/Lebanese forms, having developed from the Ottoman rakkas to the oriental dance known worldwide today. As Turkish law does not impose restrictions on Turkish dancers' movements and costuming as in Egypt, where dancers are prevented from performing floor work and certain pelvic movements, Turkish dancers are often more outwardly expressive than their Egyptian counterparts. Many professional dancers and musicians in Turkey continue to be of Romani heritage as well. (However, people of Turkish Romani heritage also have a distinct dance style which is uniquely different from the Turkish Oriental style.) Turkish dancers are known for their energetic, athletic (even gymnastic) style, and particularly, until the past few years, their adept use of finger cymbals, also known as zils. Connoisseurs of Turkish dance often say that a dancer who cannot play the zils is not an accomplished dancer. Another distinguishing element of the Turkish style is the use of the Karsilama rhythm in a 9/8 time signature, counted as 12-34-56-789. Turkish belly dance costumes can be very revealing, with the belt sometimes worn high up on the waist and split skirts which expose the entire leg, although dancers today are costuming themselves more like Egyptian dancers and wearing more modest "mermaid"-style skirts. The Turkish style is emphasized further by the dancer wearing high heels and often platform shoes. Famous Turkish belly dancers include Tulay Karaca, Nesrin Topkapi and Birgul Berai.

When immigrants from Turkey, Iran, and the Arab states began to immigrate to New York in the 1930s and 1940s, dancers started to perform a mixture of these styles in the nightclubs and restaurants. Often called "Classic Cabaret" or "American Cabaret" belly dance, these dancers are the grandmothers and great-grandmothers of some of today's most accomplished performers, such as Anahid Sofian and Artemis Mourat.


Belly dancing in the Western world


Fantasy-inspired non-historical Belly dancing costume, with coin bra, face veil, and beaded hip belt over skirt.

The term "belly dancing" (believed by some to be a mis-transliteration of the term for the dance style Beledi or Baladi) is generally credited to Sol Bloom, entertainment director of the 1893 World's Fair, the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Although there were dancers of this type present at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, it was not until the 1893 fair that it gained national attention. There were authentic dancers from several Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Syria, Turkey and Algeria, but it was the dancers in the Egyptian Theater of The Street in Cairo exhibit who gained the most notoriety. The rapid hip movements and the fact that the dancers were uncorseted, was considered shocking to the Victorian sensibilities of the day. In fact, there were attempts by many, most notably Anthony Comstock, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, to have the Egyptian theater closed.

Although it is popularly believed that a dancer named "Fatima", also known as Little Egypt, stole the show, and continued to popularize this form of dancing, there is in fact no evidence to support this claim. Neither photographs, nor reviews of the Egyptian Theater mention any such person. The truth is that photographs as well as accounts of the entertainments, show that there was not one solo dancer, but an entire troupe who performed in the Egyptian Theater. The popularity of these dancers spawned dozens of imitators after the Fair, many of whom claimed to have been dancers at the Chicago Fair. The most well known being Farida Mazar Spyropoulos, who it was said stayed in the States after the Fair and married a Greek man named Spyropoulos. Oddly enough she was neither Egyptian nor Algerian, but Syrian. Although she was Middle Eastern, there is no evidence that she was one of the dancers in the Egyptian theater.

The dance performed by the many dancers calling themselves "Little Egypt" was nicknamed the "Hootchy-Kootchy" or "Hoochee-Coochee", or the shimmy and shake. Due to cultural misunderstanding about the nature of the dance and misrepresentations by the many imitators in Burlesque halls and carnival sideshows, the western world considered it risqué, leading to the stereotype of an erotic suggestive dance. Another name for the dance is "danse du ventre", which in French literally means "dance of the stomach."

Because this dance style created such a craze, Thomas Edison made several films of dancers in the 1890s. Included in these are the Turkish dance, Ella Lola, 1898 and Crissie Sheridan in 1897 both available for on-line viewing through the Library of Congress. Another in this collection is Princess Rajah dance from 1904 which features a dancer playing Zils (finger cymbals), doing "floor work", and balancing a chair in her teeth.

In addition, the sensational stories about the pseudo-Javanese dancer Mata Hari, who was convicted in 1917 by the French for being a German spy during World War I, and the fact that belly dancing could be seen only at vaudeville and in burlesque shows gave belly dancing a questionable reputation in polite society. Hollywood did not help the reputation by only having three roles for a belly dancer (those of slave to be saved, a background dancer while the main characters talk, or a deceitful woman who uses her wiles to trick the main character), which created stereotypes of belly dancers that many dancers and instructors today are working hard to overcome. It is due to these stereotypes that many practitioners refer to the art as "Middle Eastern Dance".

While the beautiful classical Raqs Sharqi is still popular in the West, many dancers have created fusion forms such as American Tribal Style inspired by the folkloric dance styles of India, the Middle East and North Africa and even flamenco. Dancers in the United States, while respecting the origins of belly dance, are also exploring and creating within the dance form to address their own needs. Many women today in the U.S. and Europe approach belly dance as a tool for empowerment and strengthening of the body, mind, and spirit. Issues of body-image, self-esteem, healing from sexual violation, sisterhood, and self-authentication are regularly addressed in belly dance classes everywhere.


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Belly dance".


© 2008-2009 Anita Szegedi. All rights reserved.