Popular beliefs include that bellydance started either as religious worship or as a fertility ritual. Elements of these theories may be true but bellydancing, as we know it today, is based on a variety of folk dances from the Middle East. As with many cultures around the world, folk dances are developed by the people, for the people, and are representative of many elements of life. The folk dances have been stylised, adapted and continue to evolve around the world.
The little evidence we can use for the origins of bellydancing is based on some Ancient Egyptian carvings. These show women who appear to be dancing in processions as well as musicians playing instruments similar to those used in Middle Eastern music today. This may be one of the reasons Egypt is considered to be the ‘home’ of bellydance, though bellydance is found throughout the Middle East.
There’s a common belief that bellydance is a dance of seduction. Many Middle Eastern cultures keep their genders separated for various activities. Private quarters, sometimes known as harems, allow the women of the family to work, rest and play together. They usually do not completely exclude men, rather they are for close family only or by invitation.
The idea of the harem being a seductive lair seems to originate during the Crusades. At this time in England, women’s bodies were considered sinful and clothing distorted women’s figures with corsets and hoop skirts. Due to both the clothing restrictions and social respectability, the torso was generally kept quite still. Dancing became more about legs and arms, as seen in medieval court dances.
Dancing and clothing in the Middle East remained relaxed and natural, and women danced for exercise, entertainment and celebration. For those Crusaders who were invited by Middle Eastern men into their family harems, it is easy to see how they might consider this environment seductive compared to everything they were forbidden in the strict religious environment of England.
The Western world became enamoured of the ‘exotic Middle East’ in the 1800s, particularly with the British occupation of Egypt. The folk dances were still too suggestive to be proper by Western standards, but were now considered entertaining. Men and women both danced, but Westerners generally preferred women dancers. The way they used their bodies – especially their bellies – became known as ‘danse du ventre’ (dance of the stomach). There are also stories where women used dancing as an advertisement for prostitution, which still affects the image and respectability of bellydance to this day.
‘Bellydance’ became a tourist attraction and its popularity was enhanced in Hollywood, where the sensual nature of it was emphasised with suggestive costuming. Originally, dancing was done in everyday clothing; but as films spread the vision of exotic dancers in little more than skirts, bras and veils, the more standard this costuming became.
Badia Masabni is the first known dancer who adopted the Hollywood costume in Egypt. In the late 1920s, Badia opened a series of nightclubs in Cairo and created an organised performance setting with troupes and choreography. This is generally recognised as the start of bellydance as a dance style in its own right.
Bellydance enjoyed a Golden Age from the 1930s to the 1980s. The big names in dance graced the silver screen and enjoyed huge success and popularity.
In the 1950s, Mahmoud Reda and Farida Fahmy brought bellydance to the stage by studying the cultural dances of Egypt and stylising them for performance. Their work was renowned around the world and was so monumental the Egyptian Government incorporated the Reda Troupe into their Ministry of Culture.
This respectability of bellydance as a cultural dance art never reached the nightclub scene where being a professional dancer was, and still is, considered disreputable. Having said that, bellydance is still revered and many Middle Eastern weddings include professional bellydancers. It’s a paradox that bellydance is both loved and hated, especially in Egypt.
The folk dances which bellydance is based on have been danced throughout the Middle East for centuries (maybe even millenia). But bellydance spread in popularity as a dance style around the world through the 1970s and 80s. American dancer Jamila Salimpour started to standardise the vocabulary of moves which characterised bellydance. Her daughter, Suhaila Salimpour, continued expanding the movement vocabulary.
Despite this common language, bellydance has never been regulated. Its lack of restriction on age, shape and movement execution allows the dance to be more accessible to a wider demographic. Along with practices like yoga, Pilates and tai-chi, bellydance became popular in the 90s as women, especially, sought a balance against the rising corporate world.
Jamila Salimpour is also recognised for laying the foundations of what we now call tribal style. Carolina Nericcio went on to create American Tribal Style. Although it is relatively young by comparison, it is now one of the most recognised styles incorporated under the bellydance umbrella.
There are now many, many dance variations covered by the term ‘bellydance’. Folk dances continue to be a part of the heritage of Middle Eastern cultures and are still danced by both men and women.
Competitions are common in America, Asia and the Eastern Block. But in these and most countries, excellence in the art is generally recognised by a dancer’s popularity as a performer and/or teacher.
As a dance art, bellydance is very flexible and encourages personal interpretation, which allows new styles to evolve regularly. As it continues to evolve, there is also a growing movement to honour the cultural origins of the dance.
With such a long and widespread history, there are many variations of the roots and evolution of this dance. If you are interested in knowing more, I recommend the History and origins of bellydance and Bellydance unveiled: a brief history.