What is Belly Dance?
Many experts say belly dancing is the oldest form of dance, having roots in all ancient cultures from the orient to India to the mid-East. Probably the greatest misconception about belly dancing is that it is intended to entertain men.
Throughout history, this ritualized expression has usually been performed for other women, generally during fertility rites or parties preparing a young woman for marriage. In most cases, the presence of men is not permitted.
Belly dancing is natural to a woman’s bone and muscle structure with movements emanating from the torso rather than in the legs and feet. The dance often focuses upon isolating different parts of the body, moving them independently in sensuous patterns, weaving together the entire feminine form. Belly dancing is generally performed barefoot, thought by many to emphasize the intimate physical connection between the dancer, her expression, and Mother Earth.
Belly dancing costumes are often colorful, flowing garments, accented with flowing scarves and veils. Finger cymbals (made of brass and known as zills) are common, dating back to 200 B. C. as well as exotic jewelry, including intricate belts made of coins that, in earlier days, comprised the family’s wealth so that it might be portable in the event the woman needed to move quickly or flee. Other interesting accessories used during the dance are swords, snakes, large vessels, and even huge candelabras, complete with flaming candles.
In America, belly dancing enjoyed its first significant renown when the famous dancer Little Egypt performed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Americans found themselves fascinated by the exotic body rhythms and music, eventually including them in many silent films made just a few years later. Costumes and dancing styles were given a distinctive Hollywood flare and, in turn influenced dancers in the Middle East, thus evolving the art form to a new level. For example, belly dancing with flowing veils hadn’t been documented before the 1900s but is now quite popular throughout the world.
Since the turn of the century, belly dancing has grown enormously in popularity across the U. S. and worldwide. Belly dance festivals, workshops, and seminars take place constantly, attracting large audiences of interested, involved men and women. Many dancers now study the art form intensively, traveling to the mid-East and elsewhere to experience it where it originated.
Belly dance is a “Western”-coined name for a traditional “West Asian” dance, especially raqs sharqi. It is sometimes also called Middle Eastern dance or Arabic dance in the West.
The term “belly dance” is a translation of the French “danse du ventre” which was applied to the dance in the Victorian era. It is something of a misnomer as every part of the body is involved in the dance; the most featured body part usually is the hips. Belly dance takes many different forms depending on the country and region, both in costume and dance style, and new styles have evolved in the West as its popularity has spread globally. Although contemporary forms of the dance have generally been performed by women, some of the dances, particularly the cane dance, have origins in male forms of performance.
- Raqs sharqi (literally “eastern/oriental dancing”) is the style more familiar to Westerners, performed in restaurants and cabarets around the world. It is more commonly performed by female dancers but is also sometimes danced by men. It is a solo improvisational dance, although students often perform choreographed dances in a group.
- Raqs baladi, (literally “local dancing”, or “folk” dance) is the folkloric style, danced socially by men and women of all ages in some Middle Eastern countries, usually at festive occasions such as weddings. However, this naming is used synonymously in Egypt with Raqs sharqi as a generic term for “belly dancing.”
Belly dance was popularized in the West during the Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, when Orientalist artists depicted romanticized images of harem life in the Ottoman Empire. Around this time, dancers from Middle Eastern countries began to perform at various World’s Fairs, often drawing crowds in numbers that rivaled those for the science and technology exhibits. It was during this period that the term “oriental” or “eastern” dancing was first used. Several dancers, including the French author Colette, engaged in “oriental” dance, sometimes passing off their own interpretations as authentic.