Origins and Progression of Belly Dancing

Belly dancing, among many things, is often looked upon in the West with a somewhat Orientalist fantasy of exoticism in the Middle East, without knowledge of its actual origin and purpose it is quite easy to look upon in such a way. Despite the Orientalist view that many may take on this there is definitely a recent growth in interest in belly dancing in the United States, due in part to mainstreaming on behalf of celebrities such as Shakira.

In general the origin of this dance is debated and there are several theories. Some believe it to descend from an ancient fertility ritual to help women prepare for childbirth by strengthening their abdomen muscles while others believe it originates from the migration of Romani (“Gypsies”) throughout the area. In Arabic belly dancing is referred to as “raqs sharqi” which literally means dance of the East it was however deemed “belly dancing” after a performance at the Chicago World Fair in 1893. During this time depictions of belly dancers also began to pop up in the U.S. as a result of researchers take on harem life which fed the exotic fantasies Americans had about the Middle East.

French depiction of belly dancers, showing Western fascination in the practice

There are many types of this dance and do not necessarily only include women. In some societies raqs sharqi refers simply to celebratory dances that are done at weddings and other special events. Specifically in Lebanon belly dancing is believed to come from the Phoenicians worship of the goddess Astarte. Followers participated in fertility dances and other folk dances that resemble modern day belly dancing. Each country has a particular style and its own characteristics that make it uniquely Egyptian or Lebanese. Lebanese belly dancing is characterized by being more energetic than other styles and incorporates many modern styles as well.

The costume or “bedlah” (literally uniform) worn by dancers today is more accurately drawn from Western ideas during the 18-19th century rather than traditional Middle Eastern dress. This type of dress became widely used due to the expectations of Western and European tourists to the area during this time. Originally the bedlah covered more of the body with only a belt or scarf highlighting the waist and hips.

modern belly dancing attire

Today, many conservative religious leaders have pronounced belly dancing hiraam or forbidden, due mainly to the provocative attire and belief that women dancing for men is prohibited. This however seems to only be practiced by conservative Muslims. Belly dancing has also developed into somewhat an empowering force for many women who feel it is a way to take control over their bodies and build discipline. It is an interesting progression, one that will continue as its popularity grows around the world.


7 thoughts on “Origins and Progression of Belly Dancing

  1. Conservative religious leaders pronounce belly dancing forbidden not only because they believe dancing for men is forbidden but they believe it is shameful and a way to seduce. And even though many girls like belly dancing, they probably never thought of becoming one. Expressing ourselves in the Arab world is always considered shameful, i wish our societies considered belly dancing a talent and a way for some women to express themselves.

  2. Ironically enough, when I learned how to belly dance in the Egyptian style, I was taught that the origins were related to a style of religious worship predating the Abrahamic traditions.

  3. As Ghada said, at a lot of times dancing is considered a form of seduction in which a woman uses to be attractive, yet I think it is a beautiful way of expression, and I encourage everyone to take part in such a dancing style, because it is simply fun and the music is ‘beautiful’!

  4. This article has many parallels to what I have recently studied in Art History. Western societies are the only group of people that have a “fixation” on oriental cultures (Eastern cultures) known as orientalism. Orientalism is displayed in many artworks starting from the early 19th century. Usually it is associated with a fantastical misrepresentation of a people, like Islam.
    Belly dancing is another aspect that can be looked upon by the oriental as something that is mysterious and foreign, which increases the interest of the art form. In America we tend to sexual, belly dancing but it is interesting to read your blog and see that it is often done at weddings as a form of celebration.

  5. I do not think it is fair to label belly dancing as another sexual dance. Belly dancing is a difficult skill that some people practice for years and take pride in, it’s sad that it has been stigmatized with bad qualities. I feel that this could just be another way in which they are trying to control the choices women make. There are so many other reasons in which cultures perform belly dancing which has been stated above. It has been a long tradition that will continue even if some radical conservatives feel differently.

  6. I agree with Shelby in I do not think it is fair bely dancing is labeled as a sexual dance. I really think it is apart of a culture and should be accepted as a way for a woman to share her culture. It seems ridiculous that women are always scrutinized for their sexuality even in today’s society. I think this post was really insightful into not just the Arabic culture, but what women face as well form their own culture.

  7. Mysterious. Exotic. Oriental. Katie is right. We are obsessed with these things. And, you know what, it’d be pretty easy to take advantage of us:

    “Beginning in 1905, rumors started to spread throughout Paris of a young Oriental girl who danced in a private home, wrapped in veils that she gradually discarded. A local journalist who had seen her dancing reported that ‘a woman from the Far East had come to Europe laden with perfume and jewels, to introduce some of the richness of the Oriental colour and life into the satiated society of European cities.’ Soon everyone knew the dancer’s name: Mata Hari.”

    Mata Hari arrived in Paris dirt poor but played upon the mystic preconceptions the Parisians had of the Orient. She was not from the Orient and she wasn’t even a dancer. She was purportedly not even a great dancer. The mystery she was able to play on and play up was the key to her mastery of courting attention. How many sex symbols can we say were as adept at playing on the fantasies, ignorance, and desires of her audience?

    Mata Hari – the original woman who played on the mystery and eroticism of belly dancing.

    PS – That French depiction bears a striking resemblance to Ms. Mata Hari, which made me think of her ( & (

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