Arabic Belly Dancing, Egyptian Belly Dancing or Turkish Belly Dancing?
Regardless of what you call it, the exact origin of Belly Dancing is highly speculative and actively debated. Even the purpose of Raqs Baladi or Raqs Shaabi, as it called in Arabic, is not agreed upon. Whether you call it Arabic Belly Dancing, Egyptian Belly Dancing or Turkish Belly Dancing, one thing is roughly agreed upon, it originated somewhere in the Middle East or Asia Minor.
The Purpose of Belly Dancing
Raqs Baladi is generally believed to have originated from one of four possible original uses.
- Fertility Ritual: Early priestesses in the Middle East would perform the dance in an attempt to ensure the fertility of their population. The potentially suggestive and rhythmic movements were thought to inspire and please the gods into promoting fertility in the population.
- Social Ritual: Performed publicly as a means of entertainment, Belly Dancing was a way to celebrate during festivals or provide a general source of distraction during early life in North Africa and Mesopotamia.
- Childbirth Preparation: Similar to the fertility ritual, some believe that these specialized dance techniques were given to expecting mothers to aid in the birthing process.
- Occupation: Some speculate that Belly Dancing was used since its origin as a way for women to raise money for their dowry or provide for their family.
The Origin of Belly Dancing
Many experts believe that the Belly Dance is the oldest known and remaining dance method in the world. Although there is little evidence of the exact origin of the Belly Dance, it is widely agreed to have long been an important part of the cultures of the Middle East and Northern Africa. Although primarily identified with women, the dance can be performed by both genders and was publicly enjoyed for the entertainment of both men and women. Privately the dance was generally performed for men by women, as was the case with the Awalim dancers of Egypt.
The Spread of “Oriental Dancing”
Originally referred to in the West as Eastern or Oriental Dancing, the spread of the Belly Dance to Europe occurred in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Through a series of military conflicts and the spread of trade between Europe and the Middle East, Belly Dancing was brought to Europe and renamed “danse du ventre”, literally translated to “Belly Dance”. As part of the Orientalist Movement of the time, many misconceptions about Belly Dancing were created. As an example, the idea that the dance was used a tool of seduction and solely performed for the pleasure of men finds its origin here. As mentioned earlier, the Belly Dance was far more utilized for the entertainment of both genders. Belly Dancers performing only for men was a rarity and may have occurred only in specific regions.
The Belly Dance in the US
Belly Dancing was largely considered to first gain national attention in the US as part of the 1893 World’s Fair. Although there was some introduction of the dance as Turkish Belly Dancing and Lebanese Belly Dancing, it was Egyptian Belly Dancing that first gained notoriety. This is accredited to the fact that the Cairo exhibit was more popular than the others featuring Belly Dancing. Specifically, a dancer with the stage name Little Egypt made Egyptian Belly Dancing a nationally known dance.
Thomas Edison played a large part in the spreading the awareness of Belly Dancing with a series of films that showed different dancers. During this time Edison produced Turkish Dance, Ella Lola, Crissie Sheridan and Princess Rajah Dance. These films were widely popular and grew criticism for their immodesty. The result was the spread of exposure to the dance technique and household use of Arabic Belly Dancing, Turkish Belly Dancing, Egyptian Belly Dancing and Lebanese Belly Dancing all to describe the similar dance techniques.
While Hollywood did popularize Belly Dancing, it often stereotyped the Belly Dancer. The Belly Dance was used as a means of seduction or by a helpless slave in need of saving. In either case, the views on the dancing and dancers were not overly positive. Some argue that Hollywood did make one major contribution to Belly Dancing – influencing the costume. For more information read our upcoming article on the Belly Dancing Costume – coming soon.