Belly Dancing Research Paper


The Movement of Belly Dance:

Looking Beyond the Misconceptions to the Goddess Within

By: Alisa Martodam
Culture and Personality 4616
Spring 2004

            “I’m a belly dancer.”

            “Isn’t that like stripping?”

            First and foremost, no, belly dancing is not like stripping.  Just how have people come to believe that the art of belly dance is similar to an exotic lap dance by a stripper?  For many years, the public has been both disdainful of, and yet oddly fascinated by, the sacred dance performed by women dressed in flowing cloth, glitter, sparkling jewels and jingling coin belts.  Something about it—they are not quite sure what it is—strikes their memory and tugs at their own feet.  How can a dance of such Oriental flavor make such an impact on the Western public?  What the audience sees and may know is very different from the true meaning behind the movements.  Perhaps some history and facts along with an open mind and heart will shine some light on the unfamiliar belly dance and explain the fascination while bringing some understanding to the misconceptions of the West when it truly meets the East.

            In order to understand the history of belly dance, one must first understand the history of dance itself.  The word history actually came from dance.  From ancient , the word Histor, a dancer, was also the root for many other derivatives including minister and later minstrel (Stewart 2000: 7).  As such, it is through dance that we unearth and rediscover history of people.  Dance was the oldest form of worship, the most religious form of expression, with movement being the medium between the physical world and that of the cosmos or spiritual dimension. 

Dance is the oldest art form as well as a primary worship ritual.  In Turkish, the word oyun stood for the shaman and his/her rites.  It is now used today for dance, drama and poetry (Stewart 2000: 3).  Through dance, worshippers expressed their inner-most feelings of grief or joy.  Although dance predates the written word, the oldest examples of religious dance were documented in the Old Testament and Hebrew Scriptures where there is hardly a chapter that does not have an indirect relationship to dance.  There are eleven Hebrew verb forms in the Bible that describe dancing.  In the Aramaic Jesus spoke, “dance” and “rejoice” were the same word as he, Jesus, recognized that dance was a normal means of expressing joy and could be used to praise the Lord (Gruber, 1990: 48; Taylor 1990: 16).  As the church became more authoritarian and noticed a difference in a “right” and “wrong” way to dance, it began to regulate all forms of religious expression in the Middle Ages, and dance took a turn from the sacred to the secular.  The goal was to live a pure life, denying the bodily desires and expressions (Jonas 1992: 37-39).  The church became more ambivalent towards dance as they focused on subduing the urges and movement of the flesh.  Despite this undertaking, in the long run, the church failed to stop the masses from dancing.

            The origin of what is known today as belly dance is difficult to determine.  Most Middle Eastern Arab and Mediterranean countries claim it originated with them, but unfortunately this cannot be proven, as there is almost no historical record of it before the 14th century.  It is known that its roots are ancient and that it’s perhaps the oldest form of dance connected with the Pagan rituals and Mother Goddess worship.  Mother Goddess statuettes dating back to 6000 B.C. at archaeological excavations in Mesopotamia and Anatolia (modern day and ) areas give evidence of the Earth Mother cult.  High priestesses of these Pagan cults would employ themselves and other followers in a form of sacred prostitution during festivals and ceremonies dedicated to enriching the city, placating the gods, and ensuring crop fertility.  Many Greek priestesses of Aphrodite and other women connected to civic temples held high positions in society.  The sacred dance, perhaps used not only to worship but also to seduce, was an important fertility ritual in many cultures in Greece, Persia, Palestine and North Africa (IAMED 2004; Ozdemir 2000: 62, 63).  It is possible this sexual act was a source of belly dance.

            With the change of Paganism to Catholicism, Islamic and Christian documentation and recording of this dance were destroyed and dancers executed, which gave rise to the idea that this dance form was much older (Lewis 2003).  Many believe the dance originated in , while others maintain it was brought there by nomadic gypsies.  A reason for this mystery is the unknown origin of the professional dancers in called the Ghawazi.  Many of their customs and traditions predate Islam, their antiquity proven by an image on the wall of an early 18th dynasty tomb of Neb Amon (Stewart 2000: 88).  The Ghawazi, like the gypsies, are not Egyptian and stay apart from society living on the outskirts of towns where they preserve their oral history and speak their own language.  Their dance, raqs sha’abi, is similar to classic belly dance movements (Stewart 2000: 88).

            Another mysterious group of people are the Ouled Nail of , who have also kept themselves apart and maintained their ancient customs.  Their unveiled public dancers were known for their jeweled crowns all the way back to the 6th century B.C.  Their rhythmic rolling of the abdominal muscles gives another clue to the origins of belly dance.  After an Ouled Nail dancer earns her dowry by dancing, she returns home and marries within her village with no effect on her reputation (Stewart 2000: 89).

            In all Middle Eastern countries, gypsies appear to be the center of belly dance history.  It is generally accepted that gypsies originated in .  They are a unique nomadic people called various names in different regions they occupy (Stewart 2000: 88).  Around the 5th century A.D. they immigrated to the Middle East, Mediterranean and and lived in small suburban bands outside cities where they sustained themselves with simple jobs.  They brought with them their talent, sharp wit and mastership in music and dance derived from Indian religious rituals (Ozdemir 2002: 61, 62). 

Some gypsies in were brought into around 950 A.D. when a Persian ruler, Shah Bahram Gur went to to choose some competent musicians and selected able men and women from a local tribe (Belly Dance Museum 2004).  Dancing girls were fixtures among Persian courts before and after Islam. When the Muslims from central Asia established the Mughal Empire in , they brought with them a taste for dancing girls.  In 527 A.D. a former dancing girl became Empress Theodora, co-ruler of the when she married Emperor Justinian (Jonas 1992: 116-118).  But as early as 1420 B.C., had their own dancing girls in court as depicted from a fragment of a banquet scene from the Tomb of Nakht, (Jonas 1992: 116).  Gypsies were first mentioned in European history in 1385 A.D. in the Roman Archives and by the 15th century they’d spread throughout Europe, living as blacksmiths, musicians and dancers (Belly Dance Museum 2004).

            The Turkish classical dances as performed by the chengis, female gypsy dancers of the Ottoman era, also hint at early belly dance.  Although these gypsies adopted the Islamic belief, they were reluctant to obey the rules and held on to many of their own traditions.  They worked as an organized group with a chief dancer who was generally a lesbian.  As most of them preferred members of the same sex, their performances were typically for women’s eyes only, in women’s baths, weddings, festivals, and to teach concubines, often becoming concubines themselves.  The chengis were the entertainment industry for the and were sexually open and ribald (Ozdemir 2002: 36, 44-45).

            Wherever belly dance originated, there are many styles of “belly dance” that differ, depending on what country it’s being performed in, and what sort of establishment it is. 

Among all traditions, however, costumes are most often colorful, flowing and accented with scarves or veils.  Finger cymbals, known as zills, date back to 200 B.C., with exotic jewelry

and coin belts completing the ensemble.  The dancer’s costume is a thing of fantasy, a young girl’s dream come true.  The fantasy is the dance itself, further accented by the dazzling array

of color and glimmer.  The nightclub and theatrical ensemble is much more glitterized, glamorized and cabaret style and in no way resembles the traditional Middle Eastern performers of

the 19th century in long-sleeved gown and pantaloons.  The nightclub costume of sheer chiffon, flowing skirt, sequins, sparkly jewels, coins, bells, beads, mirrors, crystals and velvets

owe much of the glamour to Hollywood and American nightclubs which influenced the Egyptian film industry and the styles themselves in the 1930s (Stewart 2000: 102-3).

            The general basic moves and characteristics of belly dance, despite all the variety, include:  hip shimmies, hip rotations, serpentine arms, snakelike head movements and abdominal undulations, the foundation of belly dance.  Some show biz dancers use high heels, but the general practice is to dance barefoot, to better “emphasize the intimate and physical connections between the dancer, her expression, and Mother Earth,” the focus being mostly on the abdomen.  A dancer is to represent a serpent which, ironically enough, is and has forever been, the mythological figure of rebirth and life in most cultures, in being “all torso and no legs,” (IAMED 2004; Stewart 2000: 90-97).

            The multitude of dance forms grouped under the English phase “belly dance,” from the French danse du ventre, dance of the abdomen (Jonas 1992: 118), have a variety of names as well:  Greek, cifti telli; Turkish, raklase; Egyptian, raqs Masri; but can also be grouped under raks al sharqi, “dance of the East,” or raks al baladi, “dance of the people” (Stewart 2000: 80).  The four most popular styles of belly dance are traditional and Egyptian, Arabic-Lebanese, Turkish and Greek (Lewis 2003).

            Traditional styles are very earthy, grounded and strong.  They accent hip movements, with strong arms and hands and simple, flat footwork.  The body is usually fully covered with hip scarves to bring focus to the hip, and sometimes props such as sticks, veils, zills, swords, snakes or candelabras are used.  This is a very folkloric style and only done for small family groups to celebrate circumcisions, weddings, harvest festivals or holidays.  It stresses musical interpretation, as the dancer uses muscle control to perform a dialogue with the musician (Lewis 2003; Stewart 2000: 81).

            The Arabic styles of the Lebanese and Golf country are very snakelike and rounded, with smoother, undulating movements, with legs close together.  Here, instead of a dialogue, the musician plays to the audience through the dancer.  Her costume is usually a colorful bra and belt with full skirt and open belly (Lewis 2003).

           Turkish style of belly dance is much different.  It is very open and revealing, with legs further apart and bent while the body twists and bends in a back bend with very angular and

 strong arms.  The dancer, unlike the performers in Islamic countries, uses any and all open space to interact with the audience.  She first dances to reveal her talents, then becomes one in

the group and encourages others to participate.  The musician plays for the dance while she plays for the audience.  Staying true to the historical chengis’ sexual openness, a Turkish belly

dancer is loyal to the sexual instinct otherwise suppressed among Egyptian dances that can, however, last up to two hours longer than a Turkish performance.  The Turkish dancer thrusts

 her pelvis and hips to show her strength, sexuality and ability to produce children.  It was once considered that the dancer would perform for a group of men in hopes of finding a

husband.  If he were to hand her money he would be, in a sense, staking his claim on her.  Nowadays, however, Turkish belly dancers are professionals and no longer look to ensnare a

match.  The dancer of this fast tempo chooses very revealing, skimpy costumes to best show her legs and busty breasts (Lewis 2003; Ozdemir 2002: 70-82).

            There is no specific Greek style of belly dance due to the Egyptian and Turkish influences, but a Greek dancer will use both cifti telli music and other Arabic and modern Greek music while wearing costumes very similar to the Egyptian costumes (Lewis 2003).

            It is also noteworthy that Oriental dance has also influenced Flamenco.  Coming from a variety of sources including Hindu Romany (Gypsies), the flamenco incorporates hip rotations and serpentine arm patterns, strong emotion and passion with Arabic flavor (Stewart 2000: 90).

          So how exactly did belly dance come to receive such a distorted view in modern times when it’s rich with mysterious and fantastical history and meaning?  As mentioned before,

the film industry has had an influence, but before that, talk and speculation of the vulgarity of belly dance was being whispered among society.  In 1893, an illustrious dancer

named Little Egypt performed for a shocked but fascinated crowd at the Chicago World’s Fair.  Although it’s said she was fully covered in the traditional costume, one must consider the

 times.  In the 1890s, no respectable woman would go out in public without corset and long flowing skirt to cover the ankles.  People would go so far as to cover table legs to avoid the

hint of indecent behavior in furniture during this time when the country was still so young with Queen reigning in . Up until the late 19th century, belly dance was

mostly performed privately among women and not intended for the male gaze in .  Unlike modern thought, the dance was

concerned less with the sexual act of conception, and more with the sensual act of labor and birth (IAMED 2004).  In this age of forced “decency,” only “common folk” and people of

shady nature would be involved in what was called Vaudeville entertainment, or show biz.  The Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition made its debut among this environment to

celebrate the 400th anniversary of ’ discovery of the and the public was introduced, for the first time, to the Ferris wheel and “moving pictures” (Shira 2001).  As

previously discussed, the Moroccan dancers were fully clothed in long-sleeved outfits, but the scandalized audience was outraged by the effortless movement of their midriffs, causing

even a senator to move to shut the act down. This furthered the scandal and delighted the Fair promoters who profited as the curious public demanded more.  Vaudeville performers

quickly added the so-called “Hoochy Koochy” (belly dance) to their acts, and the sensual dance evolved into burlesque and eventually into stripping (Belly Dance Museum 2004).  With

such historical, although deeply divergent ties, it is no wonder people associate stripping with belly dance.

            The environment in before the Chicago World’s Fair also contributed to the questionable perspective belly dance holds today.  In the 1700s and 1800s, European leaders made a power dash to claim parts of .  An Oriental art movement arose and artists, poets and tourists flocked to the Middle East and the to depict these intriguing new cultures.  Letters home, poetry and diaries were extremely racist of the locals and their traditions, especially when describing the scandalous dancing, thus encouraging more European travelers to visit the region and hire local entertainers for amusement.  Nightclubs sprung up in and to entertain these wealthy tourists in the early 20th century.  The dancers of such establishments were required to sit with the patrons and encourage the men to spend money on them.  As it is forbidden under Islam law for women to dance publicly for non-family men, and even more of a taboo to dance for foreigners, local populations came to resent and were offended by the owners and performers of the clubs that exploited their women and catered to the decadent European attitude and powerful cash.  Belly dance in clubs as a form of entertainment spread throughout the by the mid 20th century.  As a dance, it had strayed far from true Oriental dance, and many of the local clubs featured scantily dressed women, often foreigners themselves, who had little dance knowledge, let alone talent (Shira 2001).  What the tourists believed was Oriental dance was actually twisted and molded for them.  

Belly dance has changed, not only because of tourism and immigration, but also because of the film industry.  After Little Egypt’s performance, the cinema industry jumped at the opportunity to make films featuring the erotic belly dance.  Egyptian film industry had a long tradition of entertaining the public with Oriental dance and American cinema quickly followed suit (Belly Dance Museum 2004).  Although some portrayals of belly dance on television and movies have been fairly authentic— Blues, From With Love, That’s Incredible—many have completely lost the true meaning of belly dance.  Of course, the less than favorable portrayals are the most memorable (Shira 2001).

            Many dancers have also added to these misconceptions, performing in unseemly ways to appeal to the audience.  Some wear overly revealing costumes, accept tips with their teeth or in their bras, or act in a sexual and suggestive manner.  With these representations, it has been difficult for dancers to overcome the misconceptions and prejudices of the public, and they are often denied performances at community festivals or arts events (Shira 2001).

            Since the great feminism movement in the 1960s and 1970s, belly dance has risen again in popularity but more as a way to reconnect with the Goddess within us.  The benefits of belly dance are many, ranging from emotional and spiritual to physical.  Belly dance is not strictly based on patterns of steps, but on continuous movement that coincides with the continuous flow and complex patterns of the music.  Both the music and dance are left wide open for improvisation and individual expression or interpretation.  As many sources and personal experiences prove, this is a woman’s form of dance, made by women for women to focus on the natural movements of women’s bodies ( 2000: 167-169). 

Women, especially in the 1970s, used the dance as an expression of life, birth, and to celebrate all that is woman and reclaim what is theirs from “male profanation” ( 2000: 169).  Much of the dance is connected with breathing and, in that sense, Moroccan dancers see a connection with belly dance and Lamaze, the oldest form of childbirth instruction.  Many Arab women teach their daughters, from an early age, to help prepare and strengthen the female reproductive organs during the development cycles in puberty, conception, pregnancy, labor and menopause (Lewis 2003).  The dance puts the woman in touch with her individual power and beauty as a woman and creator of life.

            The best thing about belly dance is that women of all ages and sizes are capable of this dance.  One does not need to be Jennifer Lopez, Shakira or Brittany Spears, or even have prior dance experience to perform this dance proudly and to connect with the Goddess.  Unlike ballet, where the performance depends on the specific body type of the dancer, belly dance has no height, weight or age restrictions, and it will help women regain firm, curvaceous bodies.  In a poll taken in 1997 in the U.S., it was found that most belly dancers were in their thirties and forties, mostly white, and highly educated with primary careers outside their dancing interests (Crosby 2000: 171).  Many felt it increased their sense of power as well as their feelings towards themselves.  Belly dance increases self-confidence and self-esteem and helps to alleviate states of depression.  Women feel sexy, beautiful, strong, powerful, creative and more feminine.  Most dancers feel confident in drawing the line between being sexually expressive and sexually explicit.  Sherry Reardon speaks of performing as, “It’s saying ‘I am a human being, and sexuality is part of my being human’” ( 2000: 175).  The dance and sexuality incorporated in the dance are as natural and timeless as childbirth.

            Despite all the negative misconceptions, especially among the American public, belly dance has revitalized and flourished among women of all ethnic backgrounds in all ages and sizes.  After watching a contrived performance it may be tempting to think less of the art.  But knowing its rich and diverse history with the gypsies, and understanding the mysterious origins of the Mother Goddess symbolism inherent in the dance, one cannot help but honor this expression of ritual, worship and joy.  Even though a backlash may result from cinema portrayals or club scenes, women all over the world join together to celebrate what it truly means to be a ‘woman.’

‘I believe
That in every woman
A belly dancer is hidden,
Longing to escape.
To feel the music
And move with passion.
To mesmerize men
And enchant women.’

~Sarah, Jewel of the ,

 “The Belly Dancer in All of Us”  (1996)

Bibliography. Homepage. 24 April 2004

Crosby, Janice. “The Goddess Dances: Spirituality and American Women’s Interpretations of Middle Eastern Dance.” Daughters of the Goddess: Studies of Healing, Identity, and Empowerment. Ed. Wendy . , : Press, A Division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000.

Gruber, “Tend Dance-Derived Expressions in the Hebrew Bible.” Dance As Religious Studies. Ed. Doug Adams and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona. : Crossroad Publishing Co., 1990.

The of Middle Eastern Dance (IAMED). Homepage. 24 April 2004

 Jonas, Gerald. “Dancing: The Pleasure, Power, and Art of Movement.” : Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1992.

Lewis, Astrid. “History of Belly Dance.” 10 February 2003

Ozdemir, Kemal. “Oriental Belly Dance.” Trans. Dr. Dara Colakoglu. : Donence Basim ve Yayin Hizmetleri, 2002.

Shira. “Isn’t That Like Stripping? (Why They Ask).” The Art of Middle Eastern Dance. 14 December 2001

Stewart, Iris. “Sacred Women, Sacred Dance: Awakening Spirituality Through Movement and Ritual.” : Inner Traditions International, 2000.

Taylor, Margaret. “A History of Symbolic Movement in Worship.” Dance As Religious Studies. Ed. Doug Adams and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona. : Crossroad Publishing Co., 1990.

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