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.
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.
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.