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The Origins of Bellydance
Bellydance is fast becoming as popular past time amongst women in the Andover and surrounding areas, with new classes being held every Monday at The Lights Theatre.

Bellydance is a Western name for a style of dance developed in the Middle East and other Arabic-influenced areas. In the Arabic language it is known as raqs sharqi ("eastern dance") or sometimes raqs baladi ("national" or "folk" dance). The term "raqs sharqi" may have originated in Egypt, but what are the exact origins of this sensual dance form?

The exact origin of this dance form is an actively debated subject among dance enthusiasts, especially given the limited academic research on the topic. Dancers attempting to understand their dance's origins have done much of the research in this area. Many dancers subscribe to one or another of a number of theories regarding the origins of the form. Some of these theories are that it:

Descended from dances in early Egypt
Descended from a religious dance Temple Priestesses once practised
Had been a part of traditional birthing practices in the region(s) of origin,
Had spread from the migrations of the Roma people and related groups.

Of the theories, the first explanation is rarely invoked, even with such high-status proponents as the Egyptian Dancer Doctor Mo Geddawi promoting it. Much of the support for this theory stems from the similarities between poses in Egyptian artwork and the modern dance moves.

The most well known theory is that it descended from a religious dance. This idea is usually the one referred to in mainstream articles on the topic, and has enjoyed a large amount of publicity. 1960's American Singer / Dancer Jamila Salimpour was one proponent. It was also popularised in works such as Earth Dancing and Grandmother's Secrets.

The "birthing practices" theory covers a sub-set of dance movements in modern Raqs Sharqi. Strongly publicised by the research of the dancer/layperson anthropologist Morocco (also known as Carolina Varga Dinici), it involves the rework of movements traditionally utilised to demonstrate or ease childbirth. Although lacking an "origin point", this theory does have the advantage of numerous oral historical references, and is backed by a commentary in the work The Dancer of Shamahka.

Two points suggest Roma dance as its origin. The Roma, and other related groups, are seen as either having brought the form over as they travelled, or picked it up along the way and spread it around. Thanks to the conflation of Roma forms of dance into the Raqs Sharqi sphere in the West, these theories enjoy a vogue in the West that is not necessarily reflected in their origin countries, although some of that may be due to strongly held prejudices against the Roma.

Whatever the origin point, dance has a long history in the Middle East. Despite the restrictions in Islam regarding portraying humans in paintings, there are several depictions of dancers throughout the 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 of the Middle East, raqs sharqi dancing was popularised during the Romantic Movement in the 18th and 19th centuries as Orientalist artists depicted their interpretations of harem life in the Ottoman Empire. Around this time, dancers from different Middle Eastern countries began to exhibit such dances at various Worlds' Fairs; they often drew crowds that rivalled the technological exhibits. Some dancers were captured on early film; the short film "Fatima's Dance", was widely distributed in the nickelodeon movie theatres. 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 at this time was subject to colonisation by European countries.

Mata Hari exemplifies the issues surrounding these activities; despite posing as a Javanese dancer, her mystique is linked not to Indonesian dance but to the Middle Eastern dance forms. The French author Colette and many other music hall performers engaged in "oriental" dances, 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 forms of 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 bellydance 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. Sex segregation was not a strict practice, however, and sometimes both men and women would get up and dance among close friends in a mixed function.

Bellydancing often features the natural "roundness" of the female body, in contrast to the modern Western cultural preference for flat abdomens. Most of the basic steps and techniques used in belly dance are circular motions isolated in one part of the body; for example, a circle parallel to the floor isolated in the hips or shoulders. Accents using "pop and lock" where a dancer either shimmies or makes a striking motion in her shoulders or hips are common, as are feats of flexibility, rolling one's belly muscles, balancing various props like baskets, swords or canes, and dancing with chiffon or silk veils. Today we see a variety of classic and modern bellydance being integrated with styles such as 'American Tribal Dance' which itself grew from a combination of Bellydance, American Street Dance and Spanish Flamenco.

With more and more women in the UK enrolling for bellydance classes and workshops, my next article will focus on the reasons why women in the 'western world' are attracted to this genre of dance, and ask what the benefits of bellydance are.

Details of bellydance classes in Andover are available on my website at

Article contributed by:
Pamela Vashti Vickers - GYR8 Bellydance
Submitted on: 3rd November 2006