About Belly Dancing

About Belly Dancing

The term "belly dance" was coined by promoter Sol Bloom to attract people to the ethnic dancers[1] of the Egyptian pavilion at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. The marketing ploy worked, and "belly dance" became part of popular culture, combining elements of traditional dances of India, the Middle East, and North Africa, along with ballet and Orientalist imagery[2]. Today the dance has evolved into a popular performance art studied and practiced around the world.

The precise origins of the dance are not recorded in history[3], but have been linked to ancient Egypt, birth and marriage rituals, and travelling gypsy tribes. Probably the greatest misconception about the dance is that it is intended to entertain men[4]. Its closest roots are in social dancing done at parties in the Middle East by men, women, and children. This is dancing done primarily for fun, rather than for someone's entertainment.

Also known as Oriental Dance, Danse Orientale, Oryantal, Raqs Sharqi, or Beledi, belly dancing uses all parts of the body but focuses on movements of the torso and hips more so than legs and feet. The movements are all very natural for the human body. Belly dance has become a popular, healthful, low-impact exercise for all ages.

Notes and References

  1. Regardless of the terminology, the dancers at the Fair did not wear midriff-baring costumes (no more so than the picture on this page, which represents basically the same dancers from a slightly earlier era). The main thing "belly" in their dancing was that they didn't wear corsets, which was considered shocking in those Victorian times. See this picture book excerpt (at Sherezzah's site) for a picture of the dancers in costume.
  2. The midriff-baring costume commonly considered "traditional" for belly dancers is most likely derived from Western Orientalist imagery. At the time of the Fair, most Westerners considered everything east of Vienna as "the Orient," and didn't really recognize the differences among Turkey, Egypt, Arabia, India, China, etc. India seems the be the only area that has traditional dance costumes that expose the midriff, and this is apparently where early Western dancers who were attempting "Oriental" dances got their costume ideas. Later, Westerners travelling to the Middle East would be expecting to see "Oriental dancers" like the ones they knew of back home, and the locals were only too happy to go along to get their tourist dollars.
  3. Anyone who claims there is some specific origin for this dance is probably just choosing a story that corresponds to their world-view. See In Search of the Origins of Dance (at Andrea Deagon's site) for an excellent article on this topic.
  4. This myth is also most likely derived from Orientalist imagery, especially the many paintings that depict naked women lounging around the harem. Many of those Orientalist artists never even travelled to the Orient; even those that did were exceedingly unlikely to have been admitted into the harems. Thus, there is no reason to believe their paintings represented reality. I suspect the artists heard that the women were in the harem but they couldn't go in, and (rather than figuring they just weren't close enough to the family to be admitted into their private home) assumed the reason must be because they were all lying around naked and/or having orgies. In any case, it made a good story and would help sell pictures.

Copyright 2006 by Sherezzah Bint al-Waha.

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