Traditional vs. Contemporary Styles of Belly Dance
There are many opinions on the origins of belly dance. Some research states it started as a religious dance used to worship fertility deities. Others say it was used as a practice for women readying themselves for the birth of a child. In some cases historians believe the dance was descended from indigenous tribes of Egypt. Though the origin point is not fully known it is safe to say it has a long standing timeline in the Middle East. With findings on palace walls depicting dancers as far back as the 11th century.
The traditional dances that came out of the East are different than what we are used to seeing today. First off women danced in the presence of other women during celebrations or haflas, a word used for female specific gatherings. Only during more contemporary times were men and women seen dancing in the same vicinity. Traditional dances consisted of folkloric styles such as Raqs Baladi, the dance of the people. Music was rich with drums and earthy beats while the dance incorporated heavy hip movements, flat feet and no real need for large traveling steps. The attire was and still is the baladi dress which hangs to the ankles, has wide long sleeves and a sash tied around the hips. Modern versions of this dress often times have beading, rhinestones and tassels attached to them to help give it a more theatrical look.
Raqs Assaya (also known as saidi or the cane dance), is another traditional style, one that incorporates a prop that looks like a long wooden stick or cane. Danced by both men and women it was used to display one of the first forms of martial arts in the world where warring tribes of the East would defend themselves from enemies using strong sticks as weapons. When the women use the prop for Saidi it is of course feminized and used in a more delicate fashion. The baladi dress is used for this old dance style as well.
Malaya Leff as well as Fellahi are both notably dances depicting days long past as opposed to an old dance style. While Malaya depicts an almost staged danced where the women of old Alexandria would compete for the attention of men gathering at the port, Fellahi acts out the work done by farmers of old. Both are very theatrical dances consisting of acting as much as choreography. For Melaya facial expression of a coy or flirty woman playing with a long black shawl, often times with flashy colored adornments attached to it, funky colored dresses and small heels is common as is the baladi music they dance to. Fellahi includes a long dress with a wide and ruffled skirt. Movements that mimic collecting water jugs and baskets are used quite a lot as well as vocals with a light rhythm in its music. These styles were brought to the public mostly after the 1950s when Mahamoud Reida studied the regional dances of the Middle East and brought it to the stage.
Sha’abi is a dance style traditionally performed by peasants in the country. This dance was used to bring the people of the community together. Used in celebrations, both men and women could enjoy it but were known to not dance together. In modern times Sha’abi refers to the kind of music that Egyptians can listen to in clubs that hold a more pop-oriented sound to it. At times political messages can be filtered through the lyrics as well.
The Snake Charmer
The Snake Charmer by Daniel Romanovsky: Form Language Studio. "I was going for the Orientalist look with this one." Snake charming is the practice of pretending to hypnotize a snake by playing an instrument called pungi or bansuri. A typical performance may also include handling the snakes or performing other seemingly dangerous acts, as well as other street performance staples, like juggling and sleight of hand.
| Photo: Form Language Studio | Link | The Snake Charmer, Bellydance, Orientalist, Daniel Romanovsky, Painting,
While there is many other variations of traditional dances from the Middle East we came to know about Raks Sharki at the turn of the century. In 1893, at the Chicago World Fair, a performer by the name of Little Egypt performed what Westerners considered a scandalous dance. She used movements of the belly, hips, pelvis and shook in a way people of the West had never seen before. Thus the image of the oriental dancer or dancer of the East began to become frayed. During the 1800’s Burlesque became popular as well and as night clubs began to open in Egypt dancers now turned to the stage. Choreographies were formed and costuming changed from the traditional full length baladi dresses, gallabiyas and caftans to what we are now accustomed to seeing on stage, the bedlah. The bedlah is a two piece costume made up of a bra and long skirt. The club owners in the Middle East claimed they wanted to please foreigners and tourists coming from the west. In turn the whole image of the belly dancer spread based off the fantasies of Western men.
Raqs Sharki or Oriental dancing, along with the bedlah costume, can be seen in old Hollywood films in the 1930’s-1950’s. Hollywood helped to spread this new image of the art form, modernizing it and exposing it to an international scale. Now we see fusions of all kinds across the world. In the United States and Europe Tribal Fusion Belly Dance is popular. This style is more punk than classical in the belly dance world. The music ranges from experimental to rock; the costuming incorporates heavy jewelry, head pieces, feathers, dark clothes and antique looking accessories. The movements used in this lean more towards contortion and constant fluidity than heavy hip movements found in the traditional styles. Other cultures like that of Spain and Tahiti have made their own fusions like Flamenco Belly Dance and Polynesian Fusion. The costuming changes with every new addition of culture, music genre and dance style being brought into the picture. It’s easy to say this ancient dance has gone through its changes over time. The best part about all of this is that there is room for everyone around the globe to find their perfect niche in the dance community.