Belly dance (Arabic: رقص شرقي) is a Western term for a traditional Arabic dance form. Some American devotees refer to it simply as "Middle Eastern Dance." In the Arabic language it is known as raqs sharqi (رقص شرقي; literally "oriental dance") or sometimes raqs baladi (رقص بلدي; literally "national" or "folk" dance). The term "raqs sharqi" may have originated in Egypt. In Greece and the Balkans, belly dance is called tsiftetelli (τσιφτετέλι), çiftetelli in Turkish. The term "belly dance" is a creation of Orientalism, first used in English in 1899, and translating in French to "danse du ventre."
Native to North Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, belly dancing is based on one of the oldest social dances in world history. Support for this theory stems from similarities between poses from the modern dance form and those depicted in ancient Egyptian art.
There are two forms of belly dancing. The first is called raqs baladi, a social dance performed for fun and celebration by men and women of all ages, usually during festive occasions such as weddings and other social gatherings. The second form, the more theatrical version and the one most popular in America today, is called raqs sharqi. Like raqs baladi, raqs sharqi is performed by both male and female dancers.
In regions where belly dancing is native, boys and girls learn it informally from an early age by observing and imitating their elders during family/community celebrations and gatherings with friends. Today, these ancient dance forms are taught in classes throughout the world where skilled dancers/teachers share the knowledge that has been passed down to them.
The origins of this dance form are actively debated among dance enthusiasts, especially given the limited academic research on the topic. Much of the research in this area has been done by the dancers themselves. However, the often overlooked fact that most dancing in the Middle East occurs in a social context rather than the more visible and glamorous context of professional nightclub performance, has led to a misunderstanding of the dance's true nature and has given rise to many conflicting theories about its origins. Because this dance is a fusion of many different styles it undoubtedly has a variety of origins, many of which stem from ethnic folk dancing.
Many dancers subscribe to one or more of the following theories regarding the origins of belly dance:
- It descends from indigenous dances of ancient Upper Egypt
- It originated in Greece, spreading with Alexander the Great
- It descends from a religious dance once practiced by temple priestesses
- It had been a part of traditional birthing practices in the region(s) of origin
- It had spread from the migrations of the Romani people (also called "gypsies") and related groups descended from the Banjara of Rajasthan in northwestern India
- It originated in Uzbekistan, traveling to India through the slave trade
Of these theories, the first one is rarely invoked, even though it has such a highly respected proponent as the Egyptian dancer Dr. Mo Geddawi. The most well-known and publicized theory is that belly dancing descends from a religious dance, and is usually the theory referred to in mainstream articles on the topic. 1960s American-Iranian singer/dancer Jamila Salimpour was a proponent of this theory. It was also popularized in works such as "Earth Dancing" and "Grandmother's Secrets."
The traditional birthing practices theory relates to a sub-set of dance movements found in modern raqs sharqi. Strongly publicized through the research of the dancer/layperson-anthropologist Morocco (also known as Carolina Varga Dinicu), it asserts that belly dancing is a reworking of movements traditionally utilized to demonstrate or ease childbirth. Although lacking ideas about the exact origin of belly dance, this theory does have the advantage of being supported by numerous oral historical references, and is backed by commentary in The Dancer of Shamahka.
The Roma theory suggests that the Roma, and other related groups, either brought the form over as they traveled, or picked it up along the way and spread it around. Thanks to the fusion of Roma forms of dance into the raqs sharqi sphere in the West, these theories enjoy a popularity in the West that is not necessarily reflected in their original countries - although some of that may be due to strongly-held prejudices against the Roma.
Wherever it began, the dance has a long history in Africa and the Middle East. Despite the Islamic restriction of portraying humans in paintings, depictions of dancers have been found from the pre-Islamic and Islamic world. Books such as "The Art and Architecture of Islam 650-1250" show images of dancers on palace walls, as do Persian miniature paintings from the 12th and 13th centuries.
Outside the Middle East, raqs sharqi dancing was popularized during the Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, whereby Orientalist artists depicted their interpretations of harem life in the Ottoman Empire. Around this time, dancers from different Middle Eastern countries began to perform at various World Fairs. They often drew crowds that rivaled those of the technology exhibits. Some dancers were captured in early films. The short film, "Fatima's Dance," was widely distributed in the nickelodeon movie theaters. It drew criticism for its "immodest" dancing, and was eventually censored due to public pressure.
Some Western women began to learn from and imitate the dances of the Middle East (which by this time had been subjected to European colonization). Despite posing as a Javanese dancer, Mata Hari's mystique is linked not to Indonesian dance but to Middle Eastern dance forms. The French author Colette, and many other music hall performers, engaged in "oriental" dancing, sometimes passing off their own interpretations as authentic folkloric styles. The great dancer Ruth St. Denis also engaged in Middle Eastern-inspired dancing, but her approach was to put "oriental" dancing on the stage in the context of ballet, her goal being to lift all dance to a respectable art form. (In the early 1900s, it was a common social assumption in America and Europe that dancers were women of loose morals.)
Historically, most of the dances associated with belly dance were performed with the sexes separated; men with men and women with women. Few depictions of mixed dancing exist. This practice ensured that a "good" woman would not be seen dancing by anyone but her husband, her close family, or her female friends. Sometimes a professional dancer would go to a women's gathering with several musicians and get the women up and dancing. Today, sex segregation is not as strictly practiced in many urban areas, and sometimes both men and women will dance socially among close friends at a mixed function. However, while social dancing at family functions is accepted and even encouraged, there are many people in Middle Eastern and North African societies who regard the performances of professional dancers in revealing costumes for mixed audiences as morally objectionable. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that such performances be banned.