What Is This Dance Called Belly Dance?

As a professional Middle Eastern dancer and instructor, I am often confronted with the realization that in general, Westerners whose family roots are not in the Middle East are totally baffled when it comes to what we call “belly dance”. The label itself is misleading, suggesting that the dance is done entirely with the stomach, when in fact it is the most complex form of dance that I have ever encountered, both in its movements and in its origin and evolution.

The French coined the term “Dance du la Ventre” or dance of the stomach in reference to the stomach undulations which often accompany other movements. This term was adopted in the West to label the dance performed in the Moroccan Pavilion at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. In this tent, Egyptian women performed the dance of their country, “Raqs Sharqi”, or Dance of the Orient. Though they were fully clothed, their movements were seen as some in this Victorian era of chin-high necklines and floor-length dresses as scandalous. The corseted women of the Wests’ movements were extremely constricted; the dancers’ slow abdominal undulations, hip and shoulder shimmies, and circular movements of the chest and hips were sensuous, and considered risque.

American ingenuity saw the value in the audience’s reactions, and soon belly dance found its way to the vaudevillian stage. Orientalism, or a fascination with all things of the Middle and Far East, was at its height in the American consciousness. Oscar Wilde’s 1891 portrayal of Salome as a scheming temptress whose fictional dance of the seven veils led to the murder of John the Baptist fed right into this theme, and soon there were more veil-shedding Salome’s in the burlesque houses than you could shake a stick at. America’s fascination with and repulsion of “belly dance” was in full swing.

In the 1940s, the film industry in Cairo began pumping out lavish Hollywood-style musicals complete with mega fantasy sets featuring staircases with dancing girls. These dancers were clothed in the Westernized idea of a belly dancer: filmy, floaty, flimsy costumes that bared the stomach and showed a lot of leg. The star of these films was always the most celebrated belly dancer of the moment, portrayed as a vixen who lured men away from their wives and lovers, using her body as an instrument of seduction.

At this time, tourism in Cairo was at an all-time high, primarily Western male tourists. In the evenings they packed Cairo’s nightclubs, hungry to see the legendary “harem girls”. An interesting note: the word “harem” means “forbidden” in Arabic, and refers to the living area of the women and children of a family, an area not to be entered by men from outside of the family. The notion of harem girls dancing for the pleasure of the Sultan is a figment of the Western imagination. The belly dancers of Cairo were both revered and cast out; everyone had their favorite belly dancer, no one wanted their daughter to be one.

As belly dance gained in its popularity, more and more Western influence found its way into the music, the dance, and the costuming. Composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab wrote long, highly orchestrated pieces of music for Egypt’s most celebrated singer, Om Kalthoum. In these works, traditional instruments such as the reedy ney gave way to saxophones; violins were introduced, replacing the ancient stringed oud. Mahmoud Reda choreographed belly dance numbers for the stage, adding ballet-like movements which gave the dance a more theatrical look, one that allowed the dancer to move gracefully across the stage. Costumes that were once modest now had to have the flash that Western audiences expected to see on stage; they were colorful, ornately sequined and beaded, and bared the stomach to allow unobstructed view of stomach undulations.

In the 1970s, the belly dance craze hit the States. All over the U.S., classes were formed, shows performed, and restaurants featured live Middle Eastern musicians and belly dancers. “Belly grams”, or brief, surprise performances by belly dancers at birthday celebrations and other occasions, became the rage. Costuming followed the style of the era; long, poufed hairdos, sparkly dangling earrings, heavy fringe that accentuated hip drops and shimmies.

The West’s love affair with belly dance tamed down somewhat in the next decade, but in the late 90s it was rekindled and has not died down. Nearly every fitness center in the U.S. offers some form of belly dance class, often called “Belly Dance Aerobics”. Cable stations offer a popular show on FitTV, “Shimmy”, which features beautiful, young, slender women dancing in every-changing costumes against ever-changing and highly-unlikely settings: a mountaintop, a steamy parking garage, a sandy beach. It is highly entertaining and thus suited to Americans’ short attention span.

There are a good many contradictions in the world of belly dance. One is the notion that all dancers are young and slender. In the years that I have taught, performed, and watched hundreds of shows, I have discovered that belly dancers are of all ages, from children to those in their 70s and 80s. They are also of all sizes; there is nothing more mesmerizing and sensuous than to watch a full-bodied dancer shimmy and undulate. And probably most surprising to audiences is to find that men also belly dance! Not in a two-piece dress, but in “harem” pants and Middle Eastern vests. Those same movements that look so feminine when performed by a woman actually accentuate a man’s muscularity, and look every bit as sensuous. This seems to disturb a great many in the West, a reaction which has always perplexed me as a teacher of Latin dance as well, in which both men and women use their hips and shoulders to interpret the sensuality of the music.

In modern-day Egypt, conservativism is at an all-time high. Religious fundamentalism discourages dance, particularly dance for money. Once the world capitol for belly dance, Cairo now produces few of its own belly dancers. Local dancers are under much scrutiny; laws forbid baring the stomach, and offenders face fines. The only places left to see a belly dance show are high-end hotels that cater to Westerners. Ironically, any decent wedding still features a belly dancer, and everyone has their favorite — but, as previously mentioned, no one wants their daughter to be one!

So, having explained to some degree what belly dance is not, let me talk about what it is. Generally, all Middle Eastern dance is lumped into the category of “belly dance”. But each region of the Middle East has its own distinct version of the dance. Egyptian belly dance is subtle, movements are very internalized and kept close to the body. In Turkish belly dance, “outgoing” movements characterize the robust nature of the dance. The movements in Lebanese belly dance are very similar to Egyptian, but more energetic and featuring hip lifts rather than drops, and its own take on the shoulder shimmy. In all three examples, I am referring to “cabaret” style belly dance. These dances require the ability to isolate individual muscles and overlay their movements. The dance is individually interpreted by the dancer in response to the music. The combination of dancing “internally” and responding personally to the music can create an emotional experience for both dancer and audience. In contrast to American dance stage presentations where one is expected to sit quietly and clap after the performance, an audience member at a belly dance performance is welcomed to show appreciation during the performance by clapping, calling out words of encouragement such as “Yalla!” (“let’s go” or “hurry” in Arabic) or “Opa!” (“Cheers” in Greek), or executing a zaghareet (a high-pitched ululation to honor the dancer).

Folkloric forms of the dance are earthy, with a bouncy feel. Some styles of Egyptian folkloric dance are Khaleegi (from the Gulf coast), which features hair tossing; Saidi (upper Egypt) and its energetic Tahtib, an ancient form of martial arts that has evolved into a stick dance; and Ghawazee (the original “gypsies” of Egypt).

Back in the Western world, belly dance is undergoing a swift and drastic evolution. Carolena Nericcio of FatChanceBellyDance introduced group improvisation to a modern, uniquely American style of belly dance, American Tribal Style. Its costuming and movements are a fusion of many influences: Near-East, Middle-East, North Africa and Spain among them. “Tribal” music is a blend of Middle Eastern and jazz. Tribal dance itself has evolved into other styles, among them “Tribal fusion”, in which a soloist interprets the music using movements based on ATS, hip hop, jazz, and other dance forms. The costuming is constantly evolving, and new style of Tribal fusion emerge, such as the currently popular “Steampunk” belly dance.

The term “belly dance” is often misunderstood because it is so complex — socially and artistically. This is one of the things that I love about the dance. It is alive, filled with personal interpretation and the opportunity for never-ending study. My hope is that this beautiful dance will eventually take its rightful place alongside other recognized and respected forms of dance in the West, such as ballet, jazz, and modern. If you have any doubts, go to a professional belly dance performance. I am certain that you will walk away spellbound.

— 2009, Shaia Fahrid www.milwaukeebellydance.com