Middle Eastern dance, popularly known as belly dance, is the world’s oldest dance, not oldest profession. All other forms of dance originated from this dance. The art can be traced back to prehistoric sculpture and rock painting, to art, literature and mythology. Statuettes of belly dancers from India to Spain have been dated thousands of years before Christ.
In ancient times, the dance was used in religious rituals. Members of primitive communities bonded through the spiritual expression released in dance. This was especially true in matriarchal societies where the Great Mother Earth was worshipped. In these societies, fertility was a matter of survival and power and where the moon represented the eternal cycle of conception and birth, growth and death. Women danced in the moonlight on hilltops, symbolizing the belly, the naval of the earth, the beginning and center of life. Thus, the belly was incorporated into the dance while the accompanying drumbeat symbolized the heartbeat of life. Undulating movements simulated procreation and the birth process.
Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love and sensuality is said to have created the Dance of the Seven Veils. The Greek goddess of carnal love, Aphrodite, performed a solo (cifti tell), imitating the sensual movements of serpents. In the Old Testament, Song of Songs, the Dance of Shalome is mentioned, where a man begs his veiled lover to dance for him.
Though female-centered religions disappeared around 3,000 BC, the dance continued, though in private. Judaism and Christianity, male-centered religions, frowned upon the dance and its ties to goddess worship, the human body and the evil of serpents. In Islam, where women were (and still are) forbidden to dance for men, women danced for one another in hareems and in homes, passing down the art form to their daughters and granddaughters, a form of female bonding. The dance was used to teach young women about reproduction and childbirth. Women also danced around women in labor to guide and assist during childbirth.
Women who danced in public were considered socially unacceptable. This is still true in Muslim culture, where women who dance in public are shunned by their families. However, dancers are often hired for weddings in the Middle East where a dancer is considered good luck for fertility. The Ghawazee, outcast Gypsy troupes of musicians and dancers, traveled and entertained, spreading the art form around the world.
Sonia Ochoa demonstrating a flamenco-Bellydance fusion in China. Flamenco is an artform native to the Spanish regions of Andalusia, Extremadura and Murcia. It includes cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), baile (dance), jaleo (vocalizations), palmas (handclapping) and pitos (finger snapping). | Photo: Aaron Stipkovich | Link | Sonia Ochoa, Samba, Flamenco, Tango, Fire, Bellydance, Belly, Dance, Middle Eastern, Arabia, Arabic,
In one form or another the shimmies, undulations, swaying hips, isolations, head glides, snake-like arms, ripples and tremors of the ancient dance can be found in the Maori in New Zealand, the Pacific, the hula in the Hawaiian islands, the Sega in Africa , India, Thailand, Flamenco in Spain and even Hip-Hop in America.
Vita Koval of Ukraine, demonstrating a flamenco-Bellydance fusion.. Flamenco is an artform native to the Spanish regions of Andalusia, Extremadura and Murcia. It includes cante (singing), toque (guitar playing), baile (dance), jaleo (vocalizations), palmas (handclapping) and pitos (finger snapping). |
It is widely believed that Middle Eastern dance was introduced in the United States at the 1893 Chicago World Columbian Exposition in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. An Algerian village was recreated complete with folk dancers. This is where Little Egypt, dancer Fahreda Mahzar, appeared and created a scandal.
Though she and her troupe were thoroughly covered from head-to-toe, the way they moved and used their bellies was considered risqué. They drew crowds and also imitators who saw money in the exotic. Soon, Vaudeville performers (not the most respected in proper society) created hoochy-koochy, using belly dance movements in a sleazy predecessor to stripping. Thus, belly dancing, unfortunately, gained an unsavory reputation.
In the 1900’s, though, the dance gained legitimacy as Oriental design and culture came into favor. Famed modern dancer Maud Allen’s SOLOME opened in London. The Ballet Russes presented THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, SHEHERAZADE and CLEOPATRA. In the 1920’s, the shimmy went mainstream with the Charleston dance craze and the flapper’s fringed dresses. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, Middle Eastern dance went Hollywood, depicted in every grandiose Biblical epic, including The Ten Commandments.
The 1970’s brought the dance to the forefront with classes for housewives and students, books and music albums, live performances and clubs. Many of the dance movements were even incorporated into natural childbirth preparation classes.
Now, in the 21st Century, Middle Eastern dance is undergoing a revival. Women and men are rediscovering the self-expression, body awareness, creativity and exercise benefits. Performers like Shakira and Beyonce have brought the dance to the mainstream.
Though the dance originated in the desert, incorporating veils to keep out the wind and sand, bare feet, sinuous snake movements, camel walks and the balancing of jugs, canes and swords, the dance is sensual and not sexual, ageless and timeless.