What is Bellydance?

Bellydance, known in the Middle East as "Raks Sharqi" (dance of the east) can be considered many things. Typically, when the western culture hears this word we begin to imagine shows like I am Genie or Aladdin. However, in the Eastern part of the world, this word can conjure both positive and negative feelings.

There are a lot of controversial theories about "what exactly is bellydance and when did it come about”. Truth is, how can we know the true origins of a majority of the worlds history? The earliest account of “movement” is said to be recorded on the pyramids and temples walls during pharaonic times. These carvings incorporated acrobatic-like movements that some believe could be the earliest illustrations of bellydance. There are also journal accounts from foreign travellers in Egypt that record witnessing strange pelvis dancing with loud annoying instruments attached to fingers being performed by the women in Egypt during the 18thcentury. What is certain could be the earliest recording of dance captured on video.

When I started discussing and asking fellow and respected artists within this profession "what is bellydance", we decided the one thing we can all agree on is the word bellydance is a homogenous umbrella term that describes a variety of eastern indigenous dances found not only in the middle east but also some eastern European countries. Hypothetically, if we began to brainstorm and list some typical movements found in bellydance that would vasty vary depending on each particular country. 

For example, if I said bellydance is a style of dance that incorporates pelvis, abdomen and hip movements there is a possibility you may be picturing Hawaiian or African style dancing. If I said it’s a pelvis, abdomen and hip movements performed to Arabic rhythms and music, we may be on to something. However, there is more to bellydance than the actual movements itself. Bellydance is a unique style of dance that incorporates every part of body, from the hair to the toes. The look, feeling and style can depend on the individual artist, costuming, rhythms and music being performed to.

Problem is, every country will view and dance bellydance differently from each other. I can’t claim I know the stylisation of bellydance from every country in the east but I have studied the Egyptian style heavily and this is the chosen style, technique, history, culture and feeling I like to focus on in my classes.  

There are a couple of things I can definitely point out about bellydancing. Middle Eastern people and western people share completely different views on this dance. Some obvious reasons for this would be not growing up in the culture, learning the history or speaking the language. In the Middle East Bellydance was never originally performed on stage; it was social style of dancing enjoyed by all people at parties, weddings and events, etc. Women can either dance inside away from men, at a distance away from the men (depending on social class) or with the men (for example, in the upper part of Egypt, Nubian men and women dance together in certain contexts).

Bellydancing in the Middle East is without doubt is the most frowned upon profession. In fact, they say, one of the worst insults in Egypt is "son of a bellydancer". Bellydance is considered the same as prostitution. Despite many amazing artists in the middle east and even around the world pushing through this negative view, it’s a sticky stigma to get past. Old habits die hard they say. 

Over here in the West however, most don’t really understand this. Bellydance here has become a fun way to get in touch with your sensual and feminine side. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with that! We can enjoy this style of dance as long as we are being respectful of its origins and ensuring we are not contributing negatively towards it. 

Part of my teaching methodology which has been heavily influenced by my mentor Margaret Cunningham at Soul Dance, is to ensure that each student is not only learning movement in a fun, supportive and encouraging environment but also has a thorough understanding of the history, music, style and culture of Middle Eastern dance. 

To sum up this article about “what is bellydance”, I think this is best explained with examples of amazing bellydance artists throughout the last century. I’ve also included three foreigners dancers currently working in Egypt. This gives you an idea of the current trends and styles of bellydance happening in Cairo at the moment.

"Golden Era" Bellydance (Golden Era is approximately the 20's to the 50's. The dancers Nagwa Foad and Sohier Zaki who are featured in this video are actually a part of the transition/classical era which is approximately the 60's to the 80's.)