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Belly dance is a Western name coined 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 and in Turkish as Oryantal dansı, which is translated as "Dance of the East".
The dance has been known through the oral tradition in Egypt since the pre-Islamic times. Many theories exist about the origin of belly dancing, but most evidence links it to the Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa.
Egyptian tomb paintings dating from as far back as the fourteenth century BC depict partially clad dancers whose callisthenic positions mirror those used in belly dancing. It has a long history of depictions in Persian miniature paintings from the 12th and 13th centuries, and was popularized during the Romantic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries as Orientalist artists depicted their interpretation of harem life of the Ottoman Empire.
Around this time dancers from different Middle Eastern countries danced at various World's Fairs, often being the largest crowd drawers after the technological wonders also exhibited at the fairs. Dancers were filmed, and one short film, Fatima's Dance, was subject to wide distrubution in the nickelodian theaters, drawing criticism for "immodest" movement and then 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 colonization by European countries. Mata Hari is the most famous example, but the French author Collette and many other show hall performers engaged in "oriental" dances, passing off their own intrepretations as authentic folkloric styles.
The great dancer Ruth St. Denis also engaged in middle Eastern inspired dancing; however her approach was to put the orientalist dancing on the stage in the context of ballet, her goal being to lift all dance to a respectable art form. (In the early 1900's it was a common American and European assumption that any dancer was a woman of loose virtue.)
Historically, most of the dances associated with belly dance were performed separately gender-wise; men for men, women for women. Few depictions of co-ed dances exist. This ensured that a "good" woman would not be seen dancing by any but her husband, her close family or the women she was with at a get-together. This extended to separating the musicians so that only female musicians could perform for female dancers. This custom continues in much of the Middle East, depending on which country you are in. In some areas the professional dancer will go to a womans gathering with the musicians, get the women up and dancing then go to the men's portion of the house and perform for the male guests at a function.
Belly dancing gives the female body legitimization to be "round", in contrast to modern Western cultural preferences for flat stomachs. Most of the basic steps and techniques used in bellydance are circular motions isolated in one part of the body ie; 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 stomach muscles, balancing various props like baskets, swords, or canes, and dancing with chiffon or silk veils.
Raqs sharqi is performed both by women and men, usually solo, to entertain spectators in public or private settings. Despite its alias, "belly dance", Raqs Sharqi dancing involves movements from the entire body. It is fundamentally an improvisational dance with its own dance movement vocabulary, fluidly integrating with the rhythm of the music.
In Raqs Sharqi, the dancer internalizes and expresses the emotions evoked by the music. Therefore the music is integral to the vocabulary of the dance movements. The most revered of dancers are those that can best project their emotions through the dance, even if their movement vocabulary is very simple. The dancer communicates to the audience visually the emotion and sounds of the music.
Many see it as a women's dance, celebrating sensuality and power of being a woman. Sohair Zaki, Fifi Abdou, Lucy, Dina, who are all popular dancers in Egypt, are above the age of 40. Many feel that you have limited life experiences to use as a catalyst for dance until you reach "a certain age".
Egyptian style bellydance is based on the dancing of bellydance legends Samia Gamal, Tahiya Karioka, Naima Akef, and other dancers who rose to fame during the Golden years of the Egyptian film industry. Later dancers who based their styles partially in the dances of these masters, have risen to nearly the same level of stardom and have become as influential to the style are Sohair Zaki, Fifi Abdou, and Nagwa Fouad who all rose to fame between 1960 and 1980 and are still popular today.
In Egypt, these three main forms of the traditional dance: Baladi, Sha'abi, and Sharqi are associated with belly dance.
The most important non-Egyptian forms of belly dance are: the Lebanese belly dance and the Turkish belly dance.
Egyptian bellydance was one of the first to be witnessed by westerners. During Napoleon's invasion of Egypt (the campaign that yielded the Rosetta stone that led to the translation of hieroglyphics), his men encountered the Ghwazee (there are many other spellings) tribe. The Ghwazee were a tribe who survived as professional entertainers and musicians, with the women engaging in a little prostitution on the side. They often had a street dedicated to their trade in the towns in which they resided, but some were also quasi-nomadic. The French at first were repelled by their appearance, heavy jewelry and hair, and found their dancing "barbaric" but became lured by the hypnotic nature of their movements.
Belly dancing in the Western world
The term "belly dancing" (believed by some to be a mis-transliteration of the term for the dance style Beledi or Baladi) is generally credited to Sol Bloom, entertainment director of the 1893 World's Fair, the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was in the Egyptian Theater, where the USA first got a look at raqs dancers, that Bloom presented "The Algerian dancers of Morocco". The dancer who stole the show, and who continued to popularize this form of dancing, was "Fatima", also known as Little Egypt. Her real name was Farida Mazar Spyropoulos and oddly enough she was neither Egyptian nor Algerian, but Syrian.
The dance performed by Little Egypt became nicknamed the "Hootchy-Kootchy" or "Hoochee-Coochee", or the shimmy and shake. The origin of the name is unknown. Another name for the dance is "danse du ventre", which is French for "belly dance". Today the word "hootchy-kootchy" means an erotic suggestive dance.
Fortunately for us this dance style created such a craze that Thomas Edison made several movies of dancers in the 1890's. Included in these are the and both located for on-line viewing through the Library of Congress. Another in this collection is which features a dancer playing finger cymbals, doing "floor work" and balancing a chair in her teeth.
In addition, the sensational stories of Mata Hari, who was convicted in 1917 by the French for being a German spy during World War I and also the fact that belly dance was only viewable at vaudeville and in burlesque shows gave belly dance a very questionable reputation amongst polite society. Hollywood didn't help any by only having three roles for a belly dancer (that of slave to be saved, background dancer for the main characters to talk, or deceitful woman who uses her wiles to trick the main character), which created stigmas involving belly dance that many dancers and instructors today are working hard to overcome.
While the beautiful classical Raqs Sharqi is still popular in the West, dancers in that area have also embraced other forms such as Tribal Style and American Tribal Style inspired by the folkloric dance styles of India, the Middle East and North Africa as well as Flamenco. Dancers in the United States, while respecting the roots of Belly Dance, are also exploring and creating within the dance form to address their own needs. Many women today in the US and Europe approach Belly Dance as a tool for empowerment, visioning and strengthening in the body, mind and spirit. Issues of body-image, self-esteem, voice, healing from sexual violation, sisterhood, and self-authentication are regularly addressed in Belly Dance classes everywhere.
Health and belly dancing
The benefits of belly dance are both mental and physical. Dancing is a good cardio-vascular workout and helps increase both flexibility and strength, focusing on the torso or "core muscles", although it also builds leg strength. Many belly dance styles emphasize muscular "isolations", which teach the ability to move various muscles independently. In addition, veil work can build arm, shoulder, and general upper-body strength, and playing zills can build strength and independence of the fingers. It is suitable for all ages and body types and can be as physical as the participant chooses to make it. Individuals would be wise to consult a doctor before starting belly dance, just as with starting any new exercise routine. It is also advisable that one talk with the instructor to see to what level his or her classes are geared. Mental health benefits, for many bellydancers, include an improved sense of wellbeing, elevated body image and self-esteem as well as a generally positive outlook that comes with regular, enjoyable exercise.
There may also be some benefit from belly dancing for women when the time comes for childbirth, as the movements strengthen and tone the pelvic floor muscles and the woman becomes more familiar with the way her muscles work. The hip circling movements used in the dance may relieve some of the discomforts of labor.
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