What is Bellydance. An extremely short, partial history of an ever-evolving, misunderstood dance form.
Content Written/Owned by Kimara Lee ~ October 12, 2013
Bellydance over many years has evolved into a stylized cultural artform. Like ballet or any other dance form it can take years to truly master MidEast dance with its footwork, armwork and isolations. So where did the term come from? Well some say 'belly'dance comes from the word Baladi (an Arabic term which means "of the people") a country dance that belonged to everyone. It is also said that the term "bellydance" became commonly used in America after the Chicago World's fair of 1893, when Sol Bloom, the fair's promoter brought in a troupe from the Middle East. The costuming the girls wore and their undulations and belly movements caused quite a scandalous stir at that time. Bloom would promote the act by encouraging onlookers to "come see the bellies dance!" The French named it "Dance du Ventre," or dance of the stomach, while Arabic people call it "Raks Sharqui" or dance of the east, The Turkish call it "Danse Oryantal" and Greeks refer to it as "Tsiftetelia". Some dancers prefer to call it "Middle Eastern Dance" or "Arabic Dance" and not bellydance. The term "bellydance" really is a misnomer, because all parts of the body are used to perform the dance form. Some historians believe a primal form of bellydance was intertwined with ancient birthing rituals. The dance is most definitely a social dance in Arab and other Mediterranean cultures and has been for centuries... a dance style simply performed among friends and family members at gatherings.
It was not until the early 20th century when Cairo's film industry boomed that the dance evolved into the stylized stage performance recognized today. During WW1 and WW2 at a time when western troupes were stationed in Egypt, later resulting in heightened tourism, club and venue owners creatively found ways to appeal to western audiences. Echoing the big Hollywood scene at the time, the Egyptian club owners hired choreographers who blended the region's tribal and more social form of dance with western styles of dance including jazz and ballet. Elements of Hollywood were even infused into the costuming resulting in glass beads and sequins blended with tribal and nomadic adornment, in fact this costuming tradition has continued on to this day. If one were to see a professional bellydance stage show at a club in Cairo even now, after which they observed folks dancing in the outlying suburbs and country, and then finally observed desert nomadic women dancing.... they would likely notice distinct differences in dance styles, esthetic and music. Over time, major cities in the east were inspired by Cairo's hot film and club scene and so they also began to feature modern bellydance shows in their venues and films. Each region seemed to infuse bits of its own dance traditions into the stage performance, which is why such a variety of bellydance styles developed.
The following is an article written by family friend and fellow dancer and author Yohara (Janet Privett). It was because of her that I developed a love and appreciation for this beautiful art form at a very young age, and for that I'm truly grateful. It has enriched my life beyond measure in many ways. I have seen first hand the positive and profound effects this dance form has had on women's lives. The cameraderie it brings between women, the artistic outlet, and the health benefits are just a few of the positives.
Belly Dance, the Original Women's Movement!
What visions come to mind when you hear the term "Belly Dance?" A Hoochie-Coochie dance? A sleazy strip show that degrades women? A serious setback to feminism? At the very least, "Belly Dance" conjures visions of voluptuous women in gossamer costumes, seductive undulations, and exotic music. Would it surprise you to learn that in ancient times this dance was considered sacred and not intended to be seen by men at all? Belly Dance is the purest expression of a woman's natural power, a celebration of womanhood. It was a dance of life, a dance performed for women by women.
Hieroglyphs on the walls of ancient Egyptian temples and tombs portray women with arms raised in dance. Sometimes it's called the ancient dance of the Pharaohs, but belly dancing dates back to an era long before the pyramids were built. Its images were reverently painted on cave walls at the beginning of time. Prehistoric women had a high mortality rate in the childbearing years. The original dance was a form of Lamaze, a primitive ritual that prepared a woman for childbirth. Girls from an early age were taught to practice abdominal undulations, breathing exercises, and concentrate on the isolation and strengthening of muscles that might make the difference in life or death.
When a woman went into labor, her female friends and relatives would gather to act as coaches. They danced to keep her focused on breathing. In the struggle to create new life, this ritual was a way to both celebrate the creation of new life and increase the chances of survival for both mother and child. Early cultures worshiped fertility, and women danced with bare feet because it connected them directly to the fertility of Mother Earth. This was a mystical way of uniting forces within the physical and spirit worlds. When you learn about the history, it's not any wonder that this revered dance was passed down through centuries as the dance of the people and the ultimate in female expression.
Dance was a way for a poor woman to elevate her position in society by
performing in the marketplace. People would throw coins in
appreciation of her skills, and she would sew these coins on the sash
worn around her hips. This was a way to build and display her dowry
so that she could marry into a higher class. To this day, costumes
reflect the tradition with sequins or coins sewn onto sashes or belts.
Even the word "sequin" is an ancient Turkish term for a gold coin.
With the arrival of patriarchal religions and the Dark Ages, the celebration of womanhood that is belly dance was demoted to a performance for male entertainment. Women's freedoms were taken, and veils were required by law. The original spark of belly dancing went underground and became the first feminist rebellion. Women still performed the dance when they gathered without men present. Imagine how liberating it must have felt to remove those hot and heavy veils and whirl in the cool air of the harem. Belly dance became a dance of protest, an expression of freedom, the first "burning of the bra!"
Influences come from all around the Middle East, Turkey, India, Persia, Afghanistan and North Africa and many other sources. Elements blended from each region or tribe that had developed its own style. Rhythmic instruments called finger symbols or "zills" were worn on the thumb and middle finger of each hand. Gypsies brought the Middle Eastern dance to Spain where zills became the Spanish Flamenco dancer's castanets.
Health benefits include increased strength and flexibility, weight loss, improved posture, vitality, sensuality and enthusiasm for life. Because the dance is nonimpact, doctors have recommended it for recovery after injuries or childbirth, for the elderly, management of arthritis, and back injury. Most women gain confidence, and improve balance and grace. Practice reconnects the body, mind and spirit in an experience that can be magical for the dancer and for anyone watching.
I can speak from personal experience because belly dancing helped me lose 40 lbs. and gain confidence. Anything that influential has to affect all aspects of your life. I used my dance background in my newly released action-adventure novel, Power of Love. The main character is a Belly Dance instructor who escapes a dangerous situation using her dance skills in a most unusual way.
Isadora Duncan, one of the world's most famous dancers, was a champion of women's rights. She transformed modern dance with influence from Middle Eastern Dance, and gave the most beautiful and profound description of the dance I've ever read: "Imagine then a dancer who, after long study, prayer and inspiration, has attained such a degree of understanding that her body is simply the luminous manifestation of her soul; whose body dances in accordance, with a music heard inwardly, in an expression of something out of another, profounder world." Isadora Duncan, The Philosopher's Stone of Dancing, 1920.
ahead, you can do it. Learn to belly dance! Find hinges in your body
that you never knew you had, and loosen up those rusty joints. Put the
magic of romance back in your relationship. Join the oldest Women's
Movement. Celebrate your femininity and let your soul fly!