The Origin of Belly Dancing

I remember years ago watching a belly dance performance in a restaurant abroad which was mesmerising and made an impact on me. The beautiful Lebanese dancers putting in such a lot of energy into the dance movements, with perfect coordination of hands ,legs and of course shaking their bellies in what looked like circular motion. It lasted for all of 3 minutes with the drum beats and the Arabian music matching the dance and the mood , and  it was exciting to watch and the entire crowd went rapturous at the end of it. Later, I saw how the dancers were literally mobbed by the largely European crowds and they were treated like film stars , with everyone wanting to click a picture with them.

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The moment you talk about belly dancing , people in India tend to have visions of sleazy smoke filled restaurants, typical of our Hindi film sets where half clad Arabic/western/Spanish women are shown gyrating to loud music (It could also be one of our own popular vamps of the sixties and seventies like Helen, Bindu, Faryal and gang dressed like an Arabian maiden). People tend to dismiss belly dancing as another kind of cabaret or club dance performance which involves shaking your body and particularly belly vigorously in all directions. But, when you ask one of those dancers they would tell you the hard work, dedication and effort that goes into making it seem so effortless and flowing!

If one were to go into the true history of belly dancing, no one seems to have any definite information except come up with many conflicting theories. Because belly dance consists of a mixture of many different dance styles that have been combined together to form what is now the popular version as we see mostly in films since it has been banned in most of the countries in the region ( Middle East ) from where it is supposed to have originated and to see an authentic belly dance one may have to go to a western country. According to many experts belly dance is one of the oldest forms of dance form . This kind of dance was very much part of the Gypsies tradition of entertainment. Some of those wandering tribes are supposed to have originated from the greater Indian continent as it was known before the division of nations. It could have been from certain parts like the villages situated in Swat valley which is now in Pakistan or from Afghanistan tribal folks most of them being gypsies .

There is an interesting theory as to why this dance is called Belly dancing. It is believed to have come from a French term Danse du Ventre which in turn means Dance of the stomach or belly, but what is surprising is the French connection that is being given to an Arabian or a middle eastern style of dancing. So, there is really no correct word or name for this art form, simply because so many different yet similar styles and forms of the dance exist in several cultures all over the world. As of now everyone is happy referring to this ancient art form simply calling it "Belly dance."  When you go through ancient Arab literature there are references to suggest that Belly dancing was called Raks Sharqi, meaning "Oriental Dance" during those times. Unlike other forms of dancing like ballet or some other dance forms that go against nature and sometimes deform the skeleton of the dancers feet and other body parts , belly dancing is a dance form that comes naturally to a woman.

Apparently, during the good old times young men too danced in long, un-revealing robes with a scarf tied around their hips and this kind of dance was very popular with the affluent Arabs who paid huge amounts of money and gold to the young male dancers who were graceful and danced well. To this day Middle Eastern men exhibit a fascination for this dance and since there is no restriction for men doing belly dancing or for that matter any kind of dancing , it continues to be a very popular form of dancing in many Arabian countries when men get together. There are some other theories which suggest that a form of dancing that was very similar to belly dancing began as a ritual for childbirth preparation in the ancient Middle East. This was during a time when neither of the two major middle eastern religions namely Islam and Christianity existed. During those periods many societies were matriarchal, and belly dancing was performed by women for entertaining other women during social events and certain occasions and celebrations like child birth and pregnancy.

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Although belly dance has deep roots in the Middle East, Mediterranean and Africa. Different cultures have their own style of belly dancing, but all are uniquely designed for the female form. However the idea that the movements are meant to entice men is a total misconception. It’s a sensual dance, not sexual. And as for showing the midriff it is seen in many older cultures as well, where the women dress in such a way that their belly gets exposed.

 The way it evolved

Today, although belly dancing took its birth here, many Middle Eastern countries have banned women to perform the dance as it was being done before. During the fifties belly dancing was declared illegal in Egypt and a few other Arab countries as well . But many people were against the ban since it had become very popular with the masses, and some of the dancers had gained cult following and there was a popular uprising and finally the government had to bow down and repeal the ban with the condition, that dancers no longer show their stomachs. And such a law exists now not only in Egypt but even in other countries where belly dance is allowed to be performed.

What we see in movies is the film makers’ version or imagination, where the dancer is shaking her bare midriff in a crude manner to the beating of the drums and the crowds watching the whole exercise with fascination. This not always the case since there are different versions of belly dancing and it takes anywhere between 5 -10 years for a good dancer to get all her movements perfectly under control and gracefully coordinated.

In the past two decades belly dancing has spread to Europe especially countries like Greece, Spain , Portugal and other Mediterranean countries where many top hotels and Restaurants have performances by renowned belly dancers from the middle east performing .Many women in America and other European countries are becoming involved in this very ancient dance form. Belly dancing is being taught in many places in the west and it is gaining popularity. Apparently Belly dance exercises are also used in natural childbirth classes.

 Why is belly dancing being stopped in most Middle Eastern countries?

According to a professional Middle eastern dancer the ban has to do with the spread of reactionary religious extremism in Cairo, Egypt and other parts of the Arab world. The belly dance shows were not considered decadent in any way by the general public, but the dancers did have sex appeal, charisma and great attraction and the audience was completely enthralled and identified with the dance, the drum beats and the whole effect it created. The religious leaders were probably afraid that women performers would have some power which may prove dangerous to their own standing in the society.

In fact , radical Islamic Fundamentalists have now even succeeded in removing belly dancing from televised programs as well and they go around terrorizing the restaurants and nightspots that feature the art. With such threat posing on their livelihood the famous dancers have either retired or moved to other countries where they find great demand for their dance performances, and many of them have started teaching belly dancing to westerners who seem to love it mainly because of its health benefits.

But some Middle eastern countries are now reconsidering the ban and one gets to see many restaurants in many of the more moderate middle eastern countries like Dubai and Jordan having these dance shows in almost all the popular hotels and restaurants.

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 Some relevant facts

As I mentioned earlier belly dancing is gaining a lot of popularity in the USA, UK and in other European countries because there are quite a few health advantages of learning it. There are belly dancing classes mushrooming all over the place with the old dancers who had to flee from Egypt, Lebanon, Damascus and Baghdad, now earning and doing well for themselves.

A recent survey done by a Mid Eastern Dancer Magazine reports that women who belly danced delivered their first child with shorter periods of labor. They also had the advantage of gaining back their previous neat figure a lot quicker than other women.

Belly dancing is supposed to act as an aid to exercise as the sweat and gentle nature of the hip movements help one to stay fit and healthy . According some women Belly dance is supposed to creates self-confidence although I don’t see how.

Most people who learn belly dancing have good postures and graceful movements of hand and body. They also have excellent muscle toning and look healthy and fit. Arms and shoulders get a lot of exercise and toning and they remain supple.

The risk of injury is minimal in belly dancing so it can be practiced by even older women. Nowadays even western men are learning the dance just to keep themselves fit and toned. Since the belly dancers need to be on their feet all the time, it is also considered as a weight bearing exercise which helps in preventing osteoporosis and helps in strengthening bones and giving them more balance. The overall toned body gives a lot of self confidence to women.

 Many enthusiasts perform for a modest income, but the majority of belly dancers find the dance form to be a great source of exercise and a means of socialization. In recent years belly dancing is also gaining popularity as a performance that gets hosted by large private organisations when they have company dinners meant for overseas clients. Such performers are paid a huge sum of money like any other top music,dance or celebrity performer. I am told that the top belly dancers get paid anywhere between $ 5000 - 7000 per hour in the USA.

To conclude, belly dancing as a performing art has seen many changes and evolution in the past centuries and is gaining popularity all over the world now. Whereas earlier it was dismissed as a means to lure and tantalize men, it is now being viewed as a performance that is graceful, artistic and needs to be given its due place alongside with other dance forms such as Ballet, Bharatanatyam, Ballroom dancing, Kalinka, Flamenco and other forms of classical dances from all over the world!


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