Belly Dancing: A Look into the History of the Ancient Form



“A good belly dancer must express life, death, happiness, sorrow, love, and anger…but above all…she must have dignity” – Roman Balladine & Sula

“Lack of freedom of movement places an enormous amount of stress and strain on body, mind and spirit.” – Tina Hobin, Belly Dance: the dance of mother earth

            The art of belly dancing arose from the ancient rituals and folk dances of the Middle Eastern cultures.  The origin from which belly dance was thought to have originate from   was Ancient Egypt.  However, artifacts found in Sumer, Greece, Persia, Hungary, Spain all portray the characteristics of the belly dancer. In each of these regions the dancers are known as something different. For example, the Greeks refer to the dancers as Anatolitiko Horo, and in Arabic they are called Raks Sharki. Each of these terms describes a form in which is distinct in its own region and although it is unclear as to exactly how the term belly dancer came about, it is an umbrella term which encompasses the meshing of the separate styles. It is believed to have been named so when the dance spread to the United States. Belly Dance is the term used to describe the dancers in not only the United States, but in Britain, Australia, and other English speaking areas as well. However, for the sake of being uniform this post will refer to the dance as belly dance.

     There are numerous different stories and purposes as for why people began to belly dance. Some examples of what the dances stood for range from blessing and healing people, to mimicking the harvesting and sowing of crops, preparation for childbirth, preparation of the wedding ceremony, to secular entertainment. Another idea that is thought to be represented behind the various belly dances is that it evolved from the worship of the great mother goddess and ripened from the combination of fertility cults, religious rituals, as well as magic and secular dances in ancient civilizations specifically linked to the great mother goddess cult.

The movement vocabulary in traditional belly dancing is similar to the movement characteristics of a serpent; slippery, continuous and executed with certain specificity. The movement itself is based on a firm connection with the ground, placing an emphasis on being comfortable with a weighted affinity. On top of the weighted connection to the ground the dancers begin to then layer on the movement of the hips, pelvis, spinning, upper torso, rib cage, and arms. All of these layers can incorporate a series of numerous pathways. For example the rib cage can remain still, the abdomen can ungulate, the pelvis can tilt, and the hips can take a shimmy type shape. Of course these are not the only means in which these areas of the body can move they can all partake in any style of moving whether the ribs tilt, and the hips move circularly, the possibilities are endless. “The dancer moves only to show her audience what she looks like from many different perspectives; she may make the same movement many times in these different positions.” (Balladine 6).  It is important to know that the movement in belly dancing is not meant to be sexual. In the work of Roman Balladine entitled Secrets of Belly Dancing it is stated that the dancer is “…never coy or flirtatious; she is not trying to arouse, but to fascinate. Promising nothing but pleasure for its own sake, she does not bring the dance to a climax, but having captivated her audience will move into a new stage.

Instrumentation in belly dance is an essential role in belly dance no matter the occasion. In some cases music was regarded as the sacred art in the temples where hymns were sung along with dancers, but in other cases it was played simply for pleasure. Some of the instruments used for belly dance are the oboe, shovel-shaped harp, vocal harmony, hand clapping, rectangular tambourines, drums, and rattles. Other instruments that were also seen were the lute, flute, harp, Moroccan trumpet, round tambourine, finger cymbals and many more. As time has passed the instruments have evolved, disappeared and remained the same. Belly dancers work moving on and off the beat following the various instruments in time with the movement being accented and displayed in the body.

To accompany this serpent like movement the attire of a belly dancer is extremely important and holds a great deal of meaning to the dance form. The most important aspect of the clothing worn is to flatter the body, while having a small amount of skin showing, but making sure that enough of the body is covered. The goal is to not dress so that one is compared to an exotic dancer. A belly dancer must use their judgment when deciding how much skin to display, but also love and accept their body for what it is.  Many dancers wear the traditional 1 ½ circle skirt, so that there is a long slit which allows for a great deal of movement or traditional Turkish pants. However, some decide to wear mermaid skirts, pointed skirts, and especially in more of a modern day dancers wear classic harem pants. On top many belly dancers wear a garment similar to a bra, but it is adorned with fabric, coins, and/or jewels. These bras can have panels of sheer fabric which a majority of the pants or skirts can be made with to give the outfit a look of flow. In some areas the dancers also wear a belt that is over the skirt or pant to add an accent and create a more embellished look. However, today costumes can become very flashy, and flirtatious due to the more competitive aspect that belly dancing has begun to create.

Although today there may not be a traditional approach to belly dancing in areas such as the United States, Australia, or Britain many Middle Eastern cultures still practice their traditional forms of belly dance. Belly dancing is the umbrella term which houses one of the oldest forms of documented dance. Discovering and understanding the traditions of it can truly spark an interest as to what else belly dancing may have inspired.

Information was compiled from the following list:

The Belly Dance Book: Rediscovering the Oldest Dance By Tazz Richards

Secrets of Belly Dancing By Roman Balladine & Sula

Belly Dance: the dance of mother earth By Tina Hobin

By Alyssa Darrow

One thought on “Belly Dancing: A Look into the History of the Ancient Form

  1. Alyssa,
    This is an informative submission and wonderful pictures. I am enjoying this blog because of submissions like this. It is important to be clear about the values attributed to forms such as belly dancing. Thank you for clarifying the significance of the art of the dance versus the sensual nature of it.

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