Whether you call it "belly dance", "hot Arab dance", or the more appropriate "Middle Eastern dance," women and men have been shaking and swirling their hips for centuries. The origins of the dance are not sexual at all.
Hot Arab Dance Is Folk Dance
There is a perception, reinforced in movies and TV in the West, that Middle Eastern dance has a sexual and lewd purpose, designed to titillate and arouse the male viewer. In reality, the roots of this kind of movement and music come from a variety of sources, and the only thing that is certain is that they all pre-date the cabaret style of scantily-clad belly dancers popularized in colonial Egypt in the 19th century. Some dance historians think the roots are in Arabic and African dances, used both for fertility festivals and as exercises to aid in childbirth. Another theory, put forth by an early 20th century novelist, was that this dance was performed by women for women in the privacy of their homes or in the harems.
Belly Dance in the Modern World
While nothing can be proven for certain, the origins of contemporary Middle Eastern dance is far more concrete. There are two basic versions of types of Middle Eastern dance:
- Raqs sharqi, which is the solo-style dancing that is usually featured in cabaret-style performances, featuring shiny coin-speckled costumes. While it is usually danced by women, there are also some men who perform this style of dance.
- Raqs beladi, a dance of the people (folk dance) designed for festive occasions and performed by both women and men of all ages.
Of these two types, it is the raqs sharqi that is considered to be a hot Arab dance because the stereotype is that it will be danced by a woman wearing next to nothing, gyrating her hips in a way that is designed to drive men wild with desire. However, this perception is more to blame on the eye of the beholder than the dancer. The fact is that Middle Eastern dance has a very complex and meaningful movement vocabulary, and to dance it well requires years of intensely-focused training in muscle control and rhythm patterns.
As for the scanty costumes, authentic Egyptian dance did not show any skin at all on the torso, as that is illegal in Egypt. However, the costumes from any country are designed to emphasize the areas of the body featured in the dance, especially the upper torso and hips. One of the things that attracts many women to belly dancing is that the dance is not designed to appeal only to slender dancer-athletes.
Studying Middle Eastern Dance
Regardless of where the roots of the dance started, the style has spread throughout the world and changed into many other forms besides just sharqi and beladi. Tribal Fusion Bellydance, cabaret-style, gawazi, and ciftetelli are all terms used to describe versions of hot Arab dancing. Many DVDs and online courses have also been created, such as the ones listed at the Joy of Belly Dancing.
Many people also use belly dancing as a workout, and several DVDs and health club exercise programs have been designed with this in mind. Some have even merged with other forms, such as the Pop and Lock Belly Dance Tribal Fusion Workout. Performers like Arielle Juliette bring a Western flavor to the Arabic origins, even while artists like Shakira integrate a strong background in dance into pop music songs and dance routines.
Respecting the Art Form
While it is good to appreciate Middle Eastern dance, it is also important not to project cultural attitudes and stereotypes onto it. Just because a dance involves gyrating hips does not mean it is sexual, and the intent of most dancers is to enjoy the movement and create a thing of beauty. Calling it "hot Arab dance" without seeing the history and traditions behind it does a disservice to both the dance and the culture it came from. Middle Eastern dance is a vibrant, living artistic practice that deserves respect and appreciation from audiences all over the world.