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A History of Bellydance

Belly dance, or to give it its proper name, "Raqs Sharqi" (literally: Dance of the East or Oriental Dance), is an ancient art form native to the Middle East. Its origins are believed to be in ancient fertility ceremonies, to prepare women for childbirth by strengthening their abdominal muscles.

The common term "belly dance" comes from the French term "danse du ventre", which was coined following a performance by a dancer called "Little Egypt" at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The term is somewhat of a misnomer, so called because of the usual exposure of the midriff, as in fact the most important part of the body is the hips.

Many countries throughout the Middle East have their own unique style of belly dance:


Egyptian tomb paintings dating from the 14th century BC appear to show dancers in similar positions to those which would be used in belly dance. While we are unable to trace its exact origins due to lack of historical data, we know that prior to the 19th century belly dance was limited to family occasions, such as weddings and other celebrations. Performances did not only involve women, and would often include improvisations with props such as candles and swords.

'Baladi' ("of my country") is the term given to the folk dance of Egypt and can in fact refer to a rhythm, style of dance and costume all relating to the Egyptian folk tradition. The Baladi costume consists of a full length tunic/dress, scarf and belt.

An increase in tourism in North Africa during the 19th century brought many Europeans to Egypt, and the foreigners became enchanted by the belly dance tradition. The first nightclubs offering belly dance as a form of entertainment opened in the 1920s, giving birth to the Egyptian cabaret style. Cabaret differs from Baladi in its costume (sequined bra and belt, skirt and veil) and the fact that it is designed to entertain paying customers.

By the 1940s the Egyptian film industry was in full flow and was making superstars of the belly dancers who appeared in the movies, such as Taheyya Karioka and Samya Gamal.


The history of belly dance in Lebanon can be traced back to the Phoenicians, an ancient civilization of Lebanon who lived between the period of 1200 to 900 BC. The Phoenicians worshipped the goddess Astarte, whose cult involved a fertility dance similar to belly dance. From group folk dances like the dabke to the modern forms of belly dance, Lebanese dance arts have always been and still are celebratory and aesthetic.

The modern style of Lebanese bellydance is often attributed to the legacy of Nadia Gamal, the revered dancer who was known as "The Queen of Belly Dance".

Like all dance that has stylistically evolved over time, it is interpretive, but it is generally more energetic and directed at entertainment than Egyptian dance. It has a touch of oriental style in the moves, but could perhaps be seen as more modern and feisty.

In Lebanon, live belly dance shows can be seen in restaurants and clubs throughout the cosmopolitan Beirut. In recent times, the spectrum and styles of costumes of performers has become more and more diverse, ranging from the more usual sequined outfits to mini shorts.


From the songs and melodies of the royal courts and harems of the Ottoman Empire, a type of dance music emerged that was different from the established folk music of the time. In the Ottoman Empire, the harem was that part of a house set apart for the women of the family. It was a place in which non-family males were not allowed. Belly dance was performed by women for women and the female dancer hardly ever appeared in public.

When the Ottoman Empire ended in 1922 and Turkey became a republic, religious limitations were lifted and female dancers were allowed to perform belly dance publicly. Today, as Turkish law does not impose restrictions on Turkish dancers' movements and costuming as in Egypt (where dancers are prevented from performing certain pelvic movements and their abdomen must be covered), Turkish dancers are often more outwardly expressive than their Egyptian sisters. Many professional dancers and musicians in Turkey continue to be of Romani heritage as well (it should be noted though that people of Turkish Romani heritage also have a distinct dance style which is uniquely different from the Turkish Oriental style.

Turkish dancers are known for their energetic, athletic, even sometimes gymnastic style, and particularly, until the past few years, their adept use of finger cymbals, also known as zils. Turkish belly dance costumes can be very revealing, with the belt sometimes worn high up on the waist and split skirts which expose the entire leg, although many dancers today are costuming themselves more like Egyptian dancers and wearing more longer mermaid-style skirts. Famous Turkish belly dancers include Tulay Karaca, Nesrin Topkapi and Birgul Berai.

When immigrants from The Middle East began to immigrate to New York in the 1930s and 1940s, dancers started to perform a mixture of these styles in the nightclubs and restaurants. Often called "Classic Cabaret" or "American Cabaret" belly dance, these dancers are the grandmothers and great-grandmothers of some of today's most accomplished performers.


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