Belly Dancing History

Tamara Warta
Belly dancer

Belly dancing history crosses many cultural boundaries, getting its start in the Middle East and Africa, and moving on to evolve in western cultures as both a form of cultural dance and exotic entertainment. In the 21st century, the genre has gained considerable popularity all around the world.

Early Belly Dancing History

The term "belly dance" is a westernized name that originally referred to traditional Middle Eastern dancing. The earliest forms of belly dance were the Egyptian ghawazi dance during the 19th century, and Raqs Sharqi, an Arabic dance of the 20th century. Despite Egypt's location in Africa and contributions from other nations such as France, Turkey and the United States, the term belly dance is usually used today to include all traditional dances of the Middle Eastern region, including those not geographically situated there.

Origins in Egypt

The first belly dancers were a group of traveling dancers known as the ghawazee. These women were considered gypsies in Egypt in the 18th century, and were banished from Cairo during the 1830s, but went on to perform in Upper Egypt and later in the Middle East and Europe. Belly dancing was, during this time period, often known as "Oriental" dancing, and the women were made famous in Europe by authors and painters intrigued by the exotic nature of the art.

From the ghawazee troupe, the raqs sharqi genre of belly dancing began to develop. More urban than the purest dance forms in earlier belly dancing history, it quickly became popular and took cues from not only the ghawazee but also various folk dance styles, ballet, Latin dance, and even American marching bands.

Belly dancing gained popularity in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s during a time when more women were becoming free spirits. By this time, the dance had quite a sensual reputation, and western women worked hard to reinvent it as a woman-focused dance that was performed in conjunction with female celebrations such as childbirth and new-age Goddess worship.

Choreography Through the Ages

While belly dancing is very showy in style and costuming, the basic dance requires the disciplined skill of isolations. For this reason, those with experience dancing jazz or ballet will do well with basic belly dance technique. The core muscles of the dancer's body execute each movement, as opposed to the use of external muscles alone. The majority of movements come from the hip and pelvic region; however, isolations of the shoulders and chest are also vital to a fluid-looking performance.

There are many steps found in the various styles of belly dancing performed all over the world, but the classic steps that come back throughout several periods in the history of belly dancing are:

Shimmy - vibrating hips using the muscles of the lower back. You may shimmy front to back or side to side to create this vibration, and occasionally it is also performed in the shoulders.

Undulations - flowing, fluid movements throughout the body, including a pulsating rhythm of the chest and a circular twist of the hips and stomach regions

Hip hits - a sharp and quick pulsation of the hips moving out from the body. When performed up to speed, it looks as if the pelvis is swinging, but it is actually the weight of the legs pulsing quickly in alternation that creates the hip illusion.

Costuming and Props History

Early belly dancing costuming consisted of a fitted bra top, a belt that rides low on the hips, and then a long skirt or flowing pants. These are usually covered in embellishments of fringe, coins, jewels, or sequins. This historical look, first portrayed on the earliest of belly dancers, is often still used today.

Belly dancing history also showcases a wide array of props that are used all over the world. American belly dancers very often use these, as it increases the entertainment value of their performances. More traditional belly dance studios may discourage the use of props, instead hoping to focus more on the physical discipline and artistry of the dance itself. Some props you may see being used at entertainment-based establishments such as American restaurants include fans, finger cymbals, tambourines, swords, snakes, canes and veils or light scarves. These are all optional and are left to the discretion of the choreographer and dancer.

Learning the Art and History

You can learn belly dancing at many studios throughout the United States, and many include a brief history behind the craft so you can appreciate and get in touch with its long lineage of tradition that is now found in so many different cultures.

Belly Dancing History