"It is the darkness that is the light, and the stillness that is the dancing"

TS Elliot


Belly dancing history

There is much debate about the subject of belly dancing history as the true origins of this dance are unknown, or rather untraceable.

'Middle Eastern dance' (which is strictly what we are talking about in the context of belly dancing history) is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, dance form known to humans, along with the Indian classical and other trance dance forms that date back to ancient times.

It is also known as a contemporary dance, and has acquired the name, “Belly Dance” in the West for, although it holds its roots firmly, it adapts to the cultures and circumstances of the time, seamlessly weaving into the present, movements and gestures from ages past.

I believe the best way to describe belly dancing history and the origins of this dance, its particular movements, is by saying it originated with the birth of women. So as long as woman has existed and danced, we have carried some trait of these particular movements, because they are natural to a woman's body and describe a feminine energy.

We see images and hear stories of hip movements, shakes and undulations existing in many cultures and countries of the world, such as in Polynesia and Africa. If you speak to an Egyptian about belly dancing history they will claim that Belly Dance, or, Oriental Dance, as it is called in Egypt, originated in Egypt This claim to be the original spring of belly dancing history is based largely on murals found in tombs and temples.

To me it seems logical to look to the oldest civilisations that we know of to find the origins and in doing so we find evidence of the Roma gypsies from India travelling with and spreading dances from their own country, hence influencing and shaping the dances of the countries they visited.

So we could say that the Middle Eastern dance styles we see today are a combination of Egyptian, Persian, Mesopotamian and Indian/Roma gypsy folk and sacred dances.

To define our source for belly dancing history, we have to look at three aspects...

  • cosmological
  • geological
  • historical

But even before this, to see ourselves as a part of a whole, a consciousness, experiencing itself through different aspects.

You could say that as 'physical/material' beings, we all began as cosmological dust. Chemical elements, defined and ordered by the vast intelligence, a spiritual force. From this Great Spirit, vast intelligence, the infinite possibilities of existence are born, or so I believe.

If we think of ourselves as intelligent, where did that come from? How did we get to be this, to be here? If we can discover how to create things, in art and science, then what's outside our box? What decided to create planets, stars and humans?

Let's draw the focus into belly dancing history... where did dance, the rhythmic movement of a body through space, and its inseparable lover, music, come from? How did it come into existence? Being a human I can only suggest what is to follow.

As a foetus we grow inside our mothers, to the primal sound of her heartbeat. We are born, one of the greatest mysteries that is commemorated by dancing rituals and dancing to strengthen in preparation for child birth, and as we grow we recognise cycles, the movement of the planets, the seasons changing, the new born, growing up and growing old and dying to a new born, all these things, life, works to a cosmological rhythm... Heart beats, season changes, foot steps, animal gaits.

So belly dancing history can be seen in the light of a spiritual existence and the majesty of nature that inspires an expanded state of who we are. It is possible that rhythm and patterned movement and music were born through us as humans tapping into and observing our world, extracting understanding, and expressing it.

Having intelligence, or so we think, and the ability to compose and create, we would hear the rhythms echoing in nature, the music that suddenly and sporadically emerges when leaves fall near a stream, a twig breaks and pebbles roll, there is music. Different sounds happening together that fall into a rhythm, and maybe a melody emerges, harmony is witnessed between the elements and the sounds they make.

So as a human witnessing this, we play with the water gurgle, twig snap, rock beat, foot step, and then beyond, to the rhythms of the planets in orbit around our great Sun. This is how I see music being born to the world of the human.

Now movement, rhythmic movement occurs out of necessity or nature. It is natural to breathe. When a woman goes into labour, rhythmic motions of the stomach muscles coax the child to come into the world outside. Music inspires the body to move, music inspires a body to move rhythmically... for healing, ceremony, enjoyment.

Music wants to be seen as well as heard. And so the dance is born and belly dancing history begins.

It makes sense to me that dance, rhythm and music were born together, as one, as expressions of life's fundamental principles and as expressions of the true sacred state of pure bliss, harmony and love.

“In ancient times, dancing was a form of communication between the human corporeal realm and the ethereal spirt realm.” - Belly Dancing, The Sensual Art of Energy and Spirit

Considering that the earliest paintings of dance are found in sacred sites such as the temples and tombs of Egypt, Greece and India, it may make sense to say that dance was initially performed in light of spiritual occasions. Belly dancing history could thus even be said to have religious origins.

From record it appears that prior to civilisation and in the early stages of it, the realm of the sacred was the focus of daily life. The activities of day and night rotated around the sacred. In every mundane action, is the essence of Spirit.

Dance has existed for as long as we can remember and prior to the foundation stones being set for the major religions we observe today, we as humans lived communally, tribal groups, pagans, celebrating the Goddess and working closely with Nature and it's spirits, seasons and conditions.

From these times, when the Goddess was worshiped as the giver and sustainer of life, honoured as the Divine, women have danced to celebrate, worship and express through ritual and festivity, the aspects of life, the Divine, the seasons, the animals, the crops.

Dances were done to honour and usher in the seasons as they changed. Dances were and are still done to mark a rite of passage, such as a girl becoming a woman or a boy becoming a man. So to precisely describe belly dancing history and to try to tack down the actual origin of Middle Eastern dance as we know it today, I feel is unnecessary.

“Among the ancient rites connected with fertility are the initiation rituals of puberty, where sexual education for girls is relayed via erotic singing and dancing.” -Wendy Buonaventura, Serpent of the Nile

Now when we enquire into belly dancing history as to the origins of 'Belly Dance', the modernisation or westernisation of Middle Eastern Dance, the most common hypothesis is that this name 'belly dance' was given to it by an American translation of the French name for it 'dance du ventre'.

Another theory is that it comes from adopting the name for the folkloric forms of this dance, 'Raqs Balladi', meaning 'Dance of my country, or dance of my people', the 'Balladi' being phonetically translated into 'Belly'.

The first records of belly dancing history from the Middle East come from pioneers, adventurers, from travellers, writers and artists who visited this 'other' world and witnessed a culture steeped in an ancient warmth, where foods were rich with spice and colour, fabrics woven of exquisite design and dancing everywhere, raw, untamed bodies, dancing.

Through the newly opened windows into this world, an artistic movement was born, the 'Orientalist' age, which began in the eighteenth-century and flourishing into the nineteenth-century. The artists and writers from this period opened the western mind to an, 'exotic' experience of life, as depicted in their writings, paintings and sketches.

“The Western expansion in the Nineteenth century nourished the cult of otherness, particularly of the exotic and bizarre other. Eroticism was one of the main aspects of the exotic 'Orient'. Travellers were thus fascinated by the 'licentious' female dancers, who provided them with a means to express the differentness and sensuality of “the East”.

In the west where at the time dancing was very formal and restrained to match the mental conditions of this time, these visions, although externally received with reactions of shock and denial, subconsciously inspired the ancient spark that preceeds social conditioning and religious restraint, awakened the bodies memory of primal movement, of the joy and ecstacy that can be experienced through such dancing.

Modern belly dancing history reveals that this movement was brought to the West in the flesh, to Europe and America, towards the later part of the nineteenth century, when Arabic dancers where brought to the West to entertain and exhibit this 'other' way of life at World Trade Fairs.

Eventually, at the beginning of the twentieth century evidence of this spark was seen in the first Western attempts at recreating the shimmy's, undulations and isolations of the ancient dance of the East.

The Western fantasy of the Eastern dance came alive through pioneering women such as Isadora Duncan, Colette, Ruth St Denis, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Mata Hari and Theda Bara, to name a few.

Though the early Western interpretation was a far cry from the true Middle Eastern dance forms, explicable through the fact that the restraints surrounding a woman's body needed first to be loosened and broken and the new body language understood and remembered which can take a while, even centuries, nevertheless this was the beginning of a great change for dance in the West, a new breath to help loosen the bonds of a stifling body image. Belly dancing history had enetered a new era.

Another thing to point out here is that probably because the minds of women in the west did not have the reverence for the body as sacred, and movement as sacred and ritualistic in purpose, the movements were, in many cases interpreted as extremely sexual and certain dancers, namely Mata Hari took the dance into the realm of the erotic. Apparently not so skilled at dancing, she nevertheless danced and would remove her loose transparent dresses as she danced, leaving her naked form still at the end of the spectacle.

Belly dancing history in the West, not having a traditional or ancient cultural grounding, has its earliest roots in the realm of entertainment, as performance in café's, clubs and theatre, as opposed to sacred ritual and rite as it was born from in the East. Thus the resulting reception and recreation of it tended towards a more erotic image and possibly the creation of the idea of 'exotic' dancing.

Like all early dance, it was originally connected with religious worship, at a time when religion was an integral part of daily life and had relevance to every aspect of human existence. But as primitive cultures grew more sophisticated and civilization suppressed the faiths of a former age, so too were the rituals connected with these bygone religions suppressed.

"...the female pelvic dance died out in many parts of the world. In some areas, however, it turned from a religious rite into a secular entertainment." (Wendy Buonaventura, Serpent of the Nile)

The evolution of Belly Dance in the West, has also affected the Dance in the East, and so today we witness modern day Egyptians performing a style of dance that has many influences from Western dance forms, namely Ballet, where floating travelling motions and floating arms combined with costumes covered in fake jewels and sequins, hug the bodies that dance, quite often in heels, to music with orchestral elements to it.

A fusion of East and West influenced largely by Hollywood bringing this dance to the big screen and re-interpreting it in this light, and thus the name 'Raqs Sharqi', today, represents this glamorous 'cabaret' version of the originally earth bound dance.

Belly dancing history is populated by wonderfully exotic sounding names (at least to the Western ear) and modern day festivals continue to celebrate this beatiful art form.

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