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Traditional belly dancer on a Cairo Nile River cruise
Belly dancer on a Cairo dinner cruise

Belly dance (Arabic: رقص شرقي, romanizedRaqs sharqi, lit.'oriental dance') is a Middle Eastern dance[1][2][3][4][5] that originated in Egypt,[6] which features movements of the hips and torso.[2] It has evolved to take many different forms depending on the country and region, both in costume and dance style; with the Egyptian styles and costumes being the most recognized worldwide due to Egyptian cinema.[7][8] Belly dancing in its various styles and forms is popular worldwide with many schools around the globe practicing it.[9]

Names and terminology

"Belly dance" is a translation of the French term danse du ventre. The name first appeared in 1864 in a review of the Orientalist painting The Dance of the Almeh by Jean-Léon Gérôme.[10][11]

The first known use of the term "belly dance" in English is found in Charles James Wills, In the land of the lion and sun: or, Modern Persia (1883).[12]

Raqs sharqi ('Eastern Dance' or 'Dance of the Orient') is a broad category of professional forms of the dance, including forms of belly dance popularly known today, such as Raqs Baladi, Sa'idi, Ghawazee, and Awalim. The informal, social form of the dance is known as Raqs Baladi ('Dance of the Country' or 'Folk Dance') in Egyptian Arabic and is considered an indigenous dance.[citation needed]

Randa Kamel, Egyptian belly dancer
Belly dancer Randa Kamel performing in Cairo, 2007

Belly dance is primarily a torso-driven dance, with an emphasis on articulations of the hips.[13] Unlike many Western dance forms, the focus of the dance is on isolations of the torso muscles, rather than on movements of the limbs through space. Although some of these isolations appear similar to the isolations used in jazz ballet, they are sometimes driven differently and have a different feeling or emphasis.

Movements found in belly dance

In common with most folk dances, there is no universal naming scheme for belly dance movements. Many dancers and dance schools have developed their own naming schemes, but none of these is universally recognized. The following attempt at categorization reflects the most common naming conventions:[14]

In addition to these torso movements, dancers in many styles will use level changes, traveling steps, turns, and spins. The arms are used to frame and accentuate movements of the hips, for dramatic gestures, and to create beautiful lines and shapes with the body. Other movements may be used as occasional accents, such as low kicks and arabesques, backbends, and head tosses.

In the Middle East

Origins and history

La danse de l'almée (The Dance of the Almeh) by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1863
La danse de l'almée (The Dance of the Almeh) by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1863

Belly dancing is believed to have had a long history in the Middle East.[2] Several Greek and Roman sources including Juvenal and Martial describe dancers from Asia Minor and Spain using undulating movements, playing castanets, and sinking to the floor with "quivering thighs", descriptions that are certainly suggestive of the movements that are today associated with belly dance.[15] Later, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, European travellers in the Middle East such as Edward Lane and Flaubert wrote extensively of the dancers they saw there, including the Awalim and Ghawazi of Egypt.[citation needed]

In his book, Andrew Hammond notes that practitioners of the art form agree that belly dance is lodged especially in Egyptian culture, he states: "the Greek historian Herodotus related the remarkable ability of Egyptians to create for themselves spontaneous fun, singing, clapping, and dancing in boats on the Nile during numerous religious festivals. It's from somewhere in this great, ancient tradition of gaiety that the belly dance emerged."[16]

The courtly pleasures of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs included belly dancing, soirée and singing. Belly dancers and singers were sent from all parts of the vast empire to entertain.[17]

In the Ottoman Empire, belly dance was performed by women and later, by boys, in the sultan's palace.[18]

Social context

Belly dance in Egypt has two distinct social contexts: as a folk or social dance.

As a social dance, belly dance (also called Raqs Baladi or Raqs Shaabi in this context) is performed at celebrations and social gatherings by ordinary people (male and female, young and old), in their ordinary clothes.[19] In more conservative or traditional societies, these events may be gender segregated, with separate parties where men and women dance separately.[20]

Historically, professional dance performers were the Awalim (primarily musicians and poets), Ghawazi. The Maazin sisters may have been the last authentic performers of Ghawazi dance in Egypt, with Khayreyya Maazin still teaching and performing as of 2020.[21][22] Belly dancing is part of Egyptian culture, and is part of Arabic culture as a whole.[23][24] Throughout the Middle East and the Arab diaspora, belly dancing is closely associated with Arabic music that is modern classical (known as "al-jadid").[25]

In Egypt

Main article: Raqs sharqi

Layla Taj, Egyptian belly dancer, performing in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt
Layla Taj, Egyptian belly dancer, performing in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt

In the 1870s, Shafiqa al-Qibtiyya was the most famous bellydancer in all of Egypt's theatres and casinos, she was admired by the nation and widely celebrated.[26] The modern Egyptian belly dance style and the modern belly dance costumes of the 19th century were featured by the Awalim.[27] For example, many of the dancers in Badia's Casinos went on to appear in Egyptian films and had a great influence on the development of the Egyptian style and became famous, like Samia Gamal and Taheyya Kariokka, both of whom helped attract eyes to the Egyptian style worldwide.[28]

Professional belly dance in Cairo has not been exclusive to native Egyptians, although the country prohibited foreign-born dancers from obtaining licenses for solo work for much of 2004 out of concern that potentially inauthentic performances would dilute its culture. (Other genres of performing arts were not affected.) The ban was lifted in September 2004, but a culture of exclusivity and selectivity remained. The few non-native Egyptians permitted to perform in an authentic way invigorated the dance circuit and helped spread global awareness of the art form.[29] American-born Layla Taj is one example of a non-native Egyptian belly dancer who has performed extensively in Cairo and the Sinai resorts.[30]

Egyptian belly dance is noted for its controlled, precise movements.[31]

Although belly dance is traditionally seen as a feminine art, the number of male belly dancers has increased in recent years.[32]

Belly dance in the musical industry

Influence in pop music

Belly dance today is a dance used by various artists among which are Rihanna, Beyoncé, Fergie, however the greatest representative of this dance is the Colombian singer Shakira,[33] who led this dance to position it as her trademark, with her songs Whenever Wherever and Ojos Así, however thanks to the song Hips Don't Lie, her hip dance skills became known worldwide. Also, thanks to Whenever Wherever in 2001, the belly dance fever began popularizing it in a large part of Latin America and later taking it to the United States.[citation needed]

Over time in her presentations Shakira added this dance mixing it with Latin dances, like Salsa[34] and Afro-Colombian, and she also she expressed that she began to dance these movements since she was little thanks to her Lebanese grandmother. Nowadays the belly dance is a characteristic dance of this singer which presented a variant with a rope entangling it in her body and dancing to the rhythm of Whenever Wherever. Shakira is the only artist in the music industry who has used belly dance on several occasions in her artistic career.[35] She inspired Beyoncé to explore this type of dance in her Beautiful Liar collaboration where she also acted as choreographer. At the Super Bowl LIV Halftime Show event she returned to the belly dance with rope during the transition from Ojos así thus to Whenever Wherever.[36] Today this dance is considered a symbol in Shakira's career and undoubtedly a distinctive dance of her as she's also mixing it with Latin style. She is the second artist to have a distinctive dance in the music industry alongside Michael Jackson and the moonwalk.[citation needed]

Outside the Middle East

A belly dancer on stage in Japan, 2016
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Belly dance was popularized in the West during the Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, when Orientalist artists depicted romanticized images of harem life in the Ottoman Empire.

Belly dancing has become popular outside the Arab world, and American, European, and Japanese women who have become professional belly dancers dance all over Europe and the Middle East.[37]

In North America

Although there were dancers of this type at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, it was not until the 1893 Chicago World's Fair that it gained national attention. The term "belly dancing" is often credited to Sol Bloom, the Fair's entertainment director, but he referred to the dance as danse du ventre, the name used by the French in Algeria. In his memoirs, Bloom states, "when the public learned that the literal translation was "belly dance", they delightedly concluded that it must be salacious and immoral ... I had a gold mine." Authentic dancers from several Middle Eastern and North African countries performed at the Fair, including Syria, Turkey and Algeria—but it was the dancers in the Egyptian Theater of The Street in the Cairo exhibit who gained the most notoriety. The fact that the dancers were uncorseted and gyrated their hips was shocking to Victorian sensibilities. There were no soloists, but it is claimed that a dancer nicknamed Little Egypt stole the show. Some claim the dancer was Farida Mazar Spyropoulos, but this fact is disputed.[38]

The popularity of these dancers subsequently spawned dozens of imitators, many of whom claimed to be from the original troupe. Victorian society continued to be affronted by the dance, and dancers were sometimes arrested and fined.[39] The dance was nicknamed the "hoochie coochie", or the shimmy and shake. A short film, "Fatima's Dance", was widely distributed in the Nickelodeon theaters. It drew criticism for its "immodest" dancing, and was eventually censored. Belly dance drew men in droves to burlesque theaters, and to carnival and circus lots.[citation needed]

Thomas Edison made several films of dancers in the 1890s. These included a Turkish dance, and Crissie Sheridan in 1897,[40] and Princess Rajah from 1904,[41] which features a dancer playing zills, doing "floor work", and balancing a chair in her teeth.

American tribal fusion dancer Rachel Brice
American tribal fusion dancer Rachel Brice

Ruth St. Denis also used Middle Eastern-inspired dance in D. W. Griffith's silent film Intolerance, her goal being to lift dance to a respectable art form at a time when dancers were considered to be women of loose morals. Hollywood began producing films such as The Sheik, Cleopatra, and Salomé, to capitalize on Western fantasies of the orient.[citation needed]

When immigrants from Arab states began to arrive in New York in the 1930s, dancers started to perform in nightclubs and restaurants. In the late 1960s and early 1970s many dancers began teaching. Middle Eastern or Eastern bands took dancers with them on tour, which helped spark interest in the dance.[citation needed]

Although using Turkish and Egyptian movements and music, American Cabaret ("AmCab") belly dancing has developed its own distinctive style, using props and encouraging audience interaction.[citation needed]

In 1987, a distinctively American style of group improvisational dance, American Tribal Style Belly Dance, (ATS), was created, representing a major departure from the dance's cultural origins. A unique and wholly modern style, it makes use of steps from existing cultural dance styles, including those from India, the Middle East, and Africa.[42] Many forms of "Tribal Fusion" belly dance have also developed, appropriating elements from many other dance and music styles including flamenco, ballet, burlesque, hula hoop and even hip hop. "Gothic Belly Dance" is a style which incorporates elements from Goth subculture. Continuing from this tradition is the emergence of touring theatrical belly dance productions such as Belly Dance Evolution produced by Jillina Carlano, Invaders of the Heart produced by Myra Krien amongst others.[43]

In Spain

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Spaniard Dalilah, 1957
Spaniard Dalilah (Adelaida Angulo) in front of the Great Sphinx of Giza, 1957

In Spain and the Iberian Peninsula, the idea of exotic dancing existed throughout the Islamic era and sometimes included slavery. When the Arab Umayyads conquered Spain, they sent Basque singers and dancers to Damascus and Egypt for training in the Middle Eastern style. These dancers came to be known as Al-Andalusian dancers. It is theorised that the fusion of the Al-Andalus style with the dances of the Romani people in Spain led to the creation of flamenco.

In Australia

The first wave of interest in belly dancing in Australia was during the late 1970s to 1980s with the influx of migrants and refugees escaping troubles in the Middle East, including Lebanese Jamal Zraika. These immigrants created a social scene including numerous Lebanese and Turkish restaurants, providing employment for belly dancers. Rozeta Ahalyea is widely regarded as the "mother" of Australian belly dance,[44] training early dance pioneers such as Amera Eid and Terezka Drnzik. Belly dance has now spread across the country, with belly dance communities in every capital city and many regional centres.

Estelle Asmodelle was probably the first transgender belly dancer in Australia. She travelled extensively throughout Asia and Japan working as a Belly Dancer during the 1980s through to the late 1990s. She also starred in the Australian-produced and distributed film [45] The Enchanted Dance[46] which sold internationally as well.

In the United Kingdom

Belly dance has been in evidence in the UK since the early 1960s. During the 1970s and 1980s, there was a thriving Arabic club scene in London, with live Arabic music and belly dancing a regular feature,[47] but the last of these closed in the early 1990s.[48] Several prominent members of the British belly dance community began their dance careers working in these clubs.

Today, there are fewer traditional venues for Arabic dance in the UK; however, there is a large amateur belly dance community. Several international belly dance festivals are now held in Britain such as The International Bellydance Congress, The London Belly Dance Festival and Majma Dance Festival.[49][50][51] In addition, there are a growing number of competitions, which have increased in popularity in recent years.

The UK belly dance scene leans strongly towards the Egyptian/Arabic style, with little Turkish influence. American Tribal Style and Tribal Fusion belly dance are also popular.[citation needed]

Costume

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Egyptian belly dancer Shafiqa El qibtia (1851–1926) wearing the dancing suit

The costume most commonly associated with belly dance is the 'bedlah' (Arabic: بدلة; literally "suit") style, which typically includes a fitted top or bra, a fitted hip belt, and a full-length skirt or harem pants. The bra and belt may be richly decorated with beads, sequins, crystals, coins, beaded fringe and embroidery. The belt may be a separate piece, or sewn into a skirt.[citation needed]

The costume or bedlah (referring to the bra, belt and skirt), of Egyptian Oriental dancers has also had the distinction as being the most popular style. However, fashions have changed over the years with the help of some outside influences.[52]

Earlier costumes were made up of a full skirt, light chemise and tight cropped vest with heavy embellishments and jewelry.[citation needed]

As well as the two-piece bedlah costume, full-length dresses are sometimes worn, especially when dancing more earthy baladi styles. Dresses range from closely fitting, highly decorated gowns, which often feature heavy embellishments and mesh-covered cutouts, to simpler designs which are often based on traditional clothing.[citation needed]

Costume in Egypt

In Egypt dancers wear the bedlah. Alternatively; some also wear a traditional striped dress, usually black with vertical gold stripes or red with vertical white stripes, with mesh-filled cutouts and many glittering ornaments, along with a sparkling waist-scarf. Egypt has laws in place, that require respecting religious and worship places, and disallowing any nudity near sacred places.[53][circular reference] Even though regarding what dancers can and cannot wear, and according to Act No. 430 of the law on the censorship of literary works, dancers must cover their upper bodies (mainly the breasts area),[54] and typically a sheer skin-colored mesh fabric covering the stomach is recommended; many dancers ignore these rules, as they are rarely enforced and performing with much revealing outfits are common mainly in the capital and north coast cities.

Health

Belly dance is a low-impact, weight-bearing exercise and is thus suitable for all ages and levels of fitness.[55][56] Many of the moves involve isolations, which improves flexibility of the torso. Belly dance moves are beneficial to the spine, as the full-body undulation moves lengthen (decompress) and strengthen the entire column of spinal and abdominal muscles in a gentle way.

Dancing with a veil can help build strength in the upper body, arm and shoulders. Playing the finger cymbals (sagat/zills) trains fingers to work independently and builds strength. The legs and long muscles of the back are strengthened by hip movements.[57]

Notable practitioners

Professional belly dancers include:

In popular culture

Egyptian belly dancer and film actress Samia Gamal is credited with bringing belly dancing from Egypt to Hollywood and from there to the schools of Europe.[58] In 1954, she famously starred as a belly dancer in the American Eastmancolor adventure film, Valley of the Kings, and the French film Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

In British cinema, belly dancing features prominently in several James Bond movies, such as the 1963 movie From Russia With Love, the 1974 movie The Man with the Golden Gun, and the 1977 movie The Spy Who Loved Me.[59]

Belly dancing is quite popular in various parts of the world including India. Belly dancing has been shown in many Bollywood films, and is often accompanied with Bollywood songs and dance sequences instead of the traditional Arabic style.[60]

Hollywood films regularly include sexualized belly dancers as part of Orientalized and exotic depictions of the Middle East.[61]

See also

References

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  2. ^ a b c Deagon, Andrea. "Andrea Deagon's Raqs Sharqi".
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  5. ^ Hammond, Andrew (2007). Popular culture in the Arab world : arts, politics, and the media (1. publ. ed.). Cairo, Egypt: American University in Cairo Press. ISBN 978-9774160547.
  6. ^ Fraser, Kathleen W. (31 October 2014). Before They Were Belly Dancers: European Accounts of Female Entertainers in Egypt, 1760-1870. McFarland. ISBN 9780786494330.
  7. ^ S.Samir, Twelve Egyptian dancers who created belly dancing, Shafika El Qibtya is the pioneer legendary dancer.
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  52. ^ "Gilded Serpent".
  53. ^ Raqs sharqi#Costume
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