A Brief History of Belly Dance
compiled by Melina of Daughters of Rhea
(with some additional thoughts on the subject)
- “The term "la danse du ventre" or "belly dance" was coined by the French author and traveler, Gustav Flaubert, in 1849 in a letter to his mother in which he describes the mysterious, graceful, joyous, soulful, and ever fascinating dances of Egypt. Today, belly dancing refers to a pan-Mediterranean cornucopia of dance styles, including the Egyptian Raks Beladi and Raks Sharki, the Greek Tsiftetelli and Dionysian veil dances, the Turkish Karsilama, the Moroccan Schikhatt, the Lebanese Debke, and many others.
- Belly Dancing displays the skill of individualized muscle control and often includes a rhythmic dialogue between dancer and drummer. Generally speaking, there are fast parts and slow parts, floor work and standing work, traveling steps and spins, shimmies and undulations. A belly dance performance can also involve the use of props and accoutrements like veils, finger cymbals or zills, and sword or tray balancing. Originally performed in the context of the home for celebratory family gatherings, belly dancing has become professionalized and can be seen witnessed to varying degrees of skill and taste at night clubs, restaurants, private parties, festivals & fairs. In the modern world, the dance has lost its original spiritual meaning and has become pure entertainment. My goal as a practitioner and professional of oriental dance is to promote this ancient art as artfully, skillfully and tastefully as possible. One of my goals as a teacher is to encourage a high degree of technical proficiency balanced with a fulfilling exploration of self-expression so that each student can find herself dancing in the way that brings her the most joy, skill and self-empowerment.
- There are many theories as to where belly dancing originated. My least favorite is the assumption that it emerged from the harem as a dance designed to titillate the sultan. Not so! Today many scholars believe belly dancing emerged as part of an ancient (4000 BC Mespotamia) matriarchal cult of the Mother Goddess. In that form belly dance was known as the Birth Magic Ritual, as the slower movements involving the abdominal muscles imitate the contractions of labor and childbirth. (see Sacred Women, Sacred Dance by Iris J. Stewart) The ritual was performed in empathy at the bedside of a woman in labor in the hopes she would experience a normal pregnancy and a quick and easy delivery.
- Belly Dancing has many roots. Elizabeth Artemis Mourat, master teacher, dancer and ethnographer, writes: “There is no one source for this dance. It is far too limiting to search out all dances that employ abdominal undulations and call them the origins of Oriental dance. There is much more to this dance than rippling the abdominal muscles. Oriental dance has crossed continents, changed profiles and spanned millennia. It has been affected by shifting boundaries, religions, wars, laws, history and changing values…”
- There are many styles of belly dance to explore – Egyptian, Tunisian, Turkish, tribal, cabaret, gypsy ‘fantasy’, gypsy ROM, and more. Some dancers, like me, fuse them together creatively and involve other dance forms as well – jazz, ballet, modern, circus arts, flamenco. It is important that you know where you are coming with various movements – i.e. -- be as informed as possible about the dance movements you are doing -- before fusing. When I teach I try to pinpoint and explain where the kind of movements I am demonstrating originated – either regionally (Tunisian twist – Turkish posture – Greek folk dance footwork – Arabic style) or where I learned the move (“I learned this from my sister Piper” “Suhaila Salimpour teaches shimmies with this image” “I got this movement from Rhea’s Fast Combos video” “I saw Salisa do this amazing kind of stomach flutter” “I saw a Russian dancer do a head slide while in a backbend – I have to find out her name!”). Karmically speaking, I believe it is important to give credit for ideas and explain where moves come from as much as possible. I hope my students do the same for me!
- I was born to a belly dancing mother and the business and art of belly dancing was the landscape of my childhood. I have foregone academia and chosen the belly dance path as an adult because there is no limit to what you can create with this dance. I love the music, the life, the joy it, the way you can get fully lost in it, the difficult intricacy of it, the artful sensuality of it. I love the shimmies and the challenge of the muscle control required, how flow and staccato mix and mesmerize. I love how it is a democratic dance that involves everyone.
- There are many reasons why people take up belly dancing. My students dance to release their bodies from the grind of their workday, they dance because it makes them happy to discover how their bodies can surprise them, because they love learning about new cultures and love the music, because they want to lose weight, because their aunt did it in the 70s, because of Shakira, because they just have always wanted to try. There are a thousand and one great reasons to belly dance.
I love what my mother said to Venus magazine in 1973:
- “When I dance, I don’t want to be seen as a sex object; I’m an artisan. I try to mesmerize, hypnotize the audience. I’m a sorceress, a magical trickster, the master of my body. I say to them: “Watch me do this over here, but did you see this move over here at the same time.” And I relate to the men and the women in the audience, and they relate to me. Belly dancing is not just a sensuous dance; it’s an extravaganza, a spectacular, showing the feats of human capabilities.” –Rhea of Greece