Before this semester began in August I was somewhat clueless when it came to foreign culture and I like many naive Americans when someone said the Middle East the first couple things that pop into my head were hummus, war, and belly dancing. Belly dancing is a common type of dance in the Middle East, but after doing some research I found out the term belly dancing was actually coined in 1893 by Sol Bloom who was an American politician in New York. He used the term “belly dancing” in his previous career of entertainment when he publicized a performance by the Egyptian Theater at the Chicago World Fair. Although this was one of first times “belly dancing” was introduced to the American public, this form of dance had been around for as long as 1000 B.C.
There are a few theories concerning how belly dancing came about, but most of them say that belly dancing started out as a religious fertility dance. This original fertility dance was used in many ancient territories such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and Greece, eventually making its way into Europe by way of migrating Gypsies. In Europe this style of dance was adopted and evolved into Flamenco, which is very similar to belly dancing.
When I think of belly dancing I think of minimal clothing and provocative movements of the body. But this not exactly true. Historically, dance has always been an important part of Arabic culture. Belly dancing also has roots in Raks Beledi, or “folk dance”. One of the oldest social traditions in the Middle East, Raks Beledi is a festive occasion in which people of all ages and both sexes enjoy and take part in ceremonial and less ritualistic dances. In the ancient times, men and women did not dance together in pairs or mixed gender groups. Traditionally, in Islamic societies men and women led largely segregated lives. Women lived and socialized with female friends and family in a separate section of a house, called harem (which means “forbidden”).
During the early 19th century the Orientalist movement was huge. Orientalism is a term used by art historians, literary and cultural studies scholars for the imitation or depiction of aspects of Middle Eastern and East Asian cultures by writers, designers and artists from the West. Orientalist paintings that specifically portrayed “the Middle East”, was a primary focus of 19th-century Academic art. Orientalist paintings often depicted highly eroticized fantasy scenes from the harem life: semi-naked concubines, reclining on pillows with swaying peacock fans, dancing for the pleasure of a sultan or a group of men. These works were completely untrue to the reality of Middle Eastern culture and to the role that dance played in it. The Orientalist movement had undoubtedly contributed to the popular misconception of belly dance as a dance of seduction, performed for the pleasure of men. In fact, because of the traditional gender segregation, Middle Eastern women usually danced in female-only company among friends and family. Today, while gender segregation is not as strictly practiced in many urban areas, allowing both men and women to dance socially at family or community events, the image of belly dancing as an overtly sexual act remains egregiously inaccurate, stemming only from the original romanticizing of the orientalist art movement.
Belly dance has now become a part of international pop culture. Its rich and controversial history contributes to its allure. Today belly dance is as multi-faceted as the world community that helped to shape it. Although belly dancing still receives a questionable reputation in polite society, it can provide a way to express oneself, serve as a workout regimen, be a part of spiritual or meditative practice, offer opportunities to make friends and connect with others, and of course, bring great joy. It is truly a dance for every woman.
History is like playing telephone; the more people it comes in contact with the more it changes and evolves, creating a completely different story that is no longer the truth. It is funny to me how I once associated “belly dancing” with something that was so far from its actual practice in Middle Eastern culture, it makes me wonder about how many other cultural practices from around the world are misinterpreted.