Bellydance Unveiled: A Brief History
by Aleenah


An Evenings Entertainment

The origin of bellydance is an actively debated subject among dance enthusiasts. Some of the most popular theories include the following:

It descended from a religious dance that was performed during fertility rituals by temple priestesses. As early as 1000 B.C., temple engravings depicting dancers have been found in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece.

  1. It arose out of the dance that was associated with childbirth. It prepared girls for labor and was part of the delivery ritual
  2. It descended from ancient Egyptian social dances.
  3. It originated in India over 5000 years ago, and had spread through out the Middle East with the migrations of the Gypsy tribes also called Roma in Europe, Ghawazee in Egypt, and Nawar in India. The Gypsies eventually reached Europe where one of the most famous Gypsy dance styles was born – Flamenco. Many moves in modern Flamenco are still very similar to bellydance.

Perhaps the richness of Middle Eastern dance tradition and its universal appeal can be attributed to the blending of many various sources, cultures, and dance styles.

Cultural Context

Historically, dance has always been an important part of Arabic culture. One of the oldest social dances that Middle Eastern and North African people of all ages and both sexes have enjoyed at festive occasions is called Raks Beledi. In Arabic this means “folk dance” or “dance of the country”. In the ancient times, men and women did not dance together in pairs or mixed gender groups. Traditionally, in Islamic societies men and women led largely segregated lives. Women lived and socialized with female friends and family in a separate section of a house, called harem (which means “forbidden”). Men who were not members of the immediate family were not allowed to enter the harem quarters.

Through a series of invasions, Europeans gained greater exposure to the culture of the Middle East and North Africa. Napoleon’s military campaign in Egypt in 1798 sparked the Europeans’ interest in the Arab world. His Egyptian expedition included a group of 167 scientists: mathematicians, naturalists, chemists, and geodesists. Although the French were not successful in Egypt, they annexed Algeria in 1830, Tunisia in 1878, and eventually extended their influence into Lebanon and Syria. Soon after, in 1882 the British occupied Egypt and established effective control of the Persian Gulf.

Until the mid-1800s the Eastern territories, particularly Persia, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Egypt were collectively referred to as the Orient. The mystique of the East fueled the imaginations of a group of 19th century European painters and writers who came to be called Orientalists. Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Léon Gérôme, and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres were some of the most prominent figures of the Orientalist movement. Orientalist paintings often depicted highly eroticized fantasy scenes from the harem life: semi-naked concubines, reclining on pillows with swaying peacock fans, dancing for the pleasure of a sultan or a group of men. These works were completely untrue to the reality of Middle Eastern culture and to the role that dance played in it. The Orientalist movement had undoubtedly contributed to the popular misconception of bellydance as a dance of seduction, performed for the pleasure of men. In fact, because of the traditional gender segregation, Middle Eastern women usually only danced in female company among friends and family. Sometimes a professional dancer and musicians were invited to a women’s gathering. Today, gender segregation is not as strictly practiced in many urban areas, and occasionally both men and women do dance socially at the family or community events.

Middle Eastern dance was introduced to the American public in 1893 at the Chicago World Fair, which included an exhibit called “The Streets of Cairo.” The exhibit featured authentic dancers from several Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Syria, Turkey and Algeria, but it was the dancers of the Egyptian Theater who gained the most notoriety. The rapid hip movements and the fact that the dancers were uncorseted, was shocking to the Victorian sensibilities of the day. In fact, many public figures, most notably Anthony Comstock, head of Society for the Suppression of Vice, attempted to close the Egyptian Theater.

In an effort to publicize the Fair by creating a sensation, the promoter, Sol Bloom, allegedly invented the name “bellydance” to use in his advertising campaign. He might have actually “borrowed” the French term danse du ventre (dance of the stomach) previously coined by the Orientalists. In the late 19th century, exposing or referring to any part of human anatomy was socially unacceptable. The term “bellydance” was scandalous and, as planned, drew attention to the exhibit and to the dance.

During the next several decades, bellydancing could only be seen at vaudeville, burlesque, and carnival sideshows. It was often misrepresented by untrained imitators to be a risqué, erotic dance which gave bellydancing a questionable reputation in polite society.

The Modern Age

Trying to capitalize on the bellydance craze, Thomas Edison made several films featuring bellydancers in the 1890s, including Turkish dance, Ella Lola (1898), Crissie Sheridan (1897), and Princess Rajah Dance (1904). Many Hollywood productions followed which further popularized bellydance, while at the same time reinforcing either false or negative stereotypes about it. There were only three roles for a bellydancer: a slave to be saved, a background dancer while the main characters talk, or a deceitful woman who uses her charms to trick the main character.

However, Hollywood did make a significant contribution to the bellydance costume. Inspired by the European vaudeville and burlesque outfits, Hollywood designers created a fringed, beaded, sparkling bra and belt set, which was adopted first by the Egyptian dancers in 1930s, and later by the rest of the Middle Eastern dance community. Traditionally there was no special bellydance costume. In fact, native garb covered and concealed the contours of the body, with only a scarf or belt tied around the hips to highlight the movements.

A Lebanese singer, dancer, and actress, Badia Masabni, is credited with the adoption of a new costume, which in Arabic is called bedlah (meaning “uniform”). In 1930s Badia opened a night club in Cairo called Casino Opera. In collaboration with several western choreographers and a group of dancers, Badia began to transform a Middle Eastern folk dance, Raks Baladi, into performance art. The new, more theatrical version of Middle Eastern dance came to be called Raks Sharki (dance of the East). It is an Arabic name for the modern Middle Eastern dance that the Westerners refer to as bellydance.

The folk dance was usually done in small spaces, and mostly involved stationary, earthy moves focused around the hips. Badia and her company expanded the traditional dance vocabulary. Raks Sharki utilized more area to fill the stage space. More travel steps, as well as arm and chest movements were introduced, all of which made the dance more expressive and engaging for the audience.

In the 1930s and 1940s the booming Egyptian film industry produced many musicals that featured bellydance artists. During that time such legendary dancers as Samia Gamal, Tahiya Karioka, and Naima Akef, who started their carriers at the Casino Opera club, rose to fame and eventually gained international recognition.

There were some public and religious figures in Egypt and in other North African and Middle Eastern countries who considered Raks Sharki indecent and morally objectionable. After the last Ottoman ruler of Egypt, King Farouk, was overthrown in 1952, the new government representative Dr. Rageb banned Raks Sharki on religious grounds. It soon became clear that bellydance was one of the biggest forces attracting international tourism to Egypt. More importantly, bellydance was an integral part of Egyptian culture. Due to economic and social pressure the ban was lifted in 1954 but there were several restrictions which are still in effect: the stomach has to be covered; floor work is prohibited; a specific “quivering” shimmy is banned.

Raks Sharki was quickly adopted by many Middle and Near Eastern countries and developed into several distinct styles. 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. This fusion came to be identified as Classic Cabaret or American Cabaret bellydance. Bellydance continues to evolve and offers an inspiring variety of dance styles which often incorporate elements of ballet, modern, jazz, Latin, Flamenco, and Indian dance. Some of the other most prominent bellydance styles include Egyptian, Turkish, Lebanese, Gypsy, and American Tribal.

Bellydance has now become a part of international pop culture. Its rich and controversial history contributes to its allure. Today bellydance is as multi-faceted as the world community that helped shape it. It can provide a way to express oneself, serve as a workout regimen, be a part of spiritual or meditative practice, offer opportunities to make friends and connect with others, and of course, bring great joy. It is truly a dance for every woman.

Directly borrowed from Aleenah – History of Bellydance and used with permission.

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