Belly Dance Origin History & Tradition
Belly dance or Bellydance is a Western-coined name for a traditional Middle Eastern dance, especially raqs sharqi (Arabic: رقص شرقي). It is sometimes also called Middle Eastern dance or Arabic dance in the West, or by the Greco–Turkish term çiftetelli (Greek: τσιφτετέλι).
The term “Belly dance” is a misnomer as every part of the body is involved in the dance; the most featured body part in raqs sharqi being the hips. Belly dance takes many different forms depending on country and region, both in costume and dance style;; and new styles have been invented in the West as its popularity has spread globally.
- Raqs sharqi (Arabic: رقص شرقي; literally “oriental dance”) is the style more familiar to Westerners, performed in restaurants and cabarets around the world. It is more commonly performed by female dancers but is also sometimes danced by men. It is a solo improvisational dance, although students often perform choreographed dances in a group.
- Raqs baladi, (Arabic: رقص بلدي; literally “dance of country”, or “folk” dance) is the folkloric style, danced socially by men and women of all ages in some Middle Eastern countries, usually at festive occasions such as weddings.
Origins and Early History
Belly dancing arose from various dancing styles which were performed in the middle east and north african regions. One theory is that belly dance may have roots in the ancient Arab tribal religions as a dance to the goddess of fertility. A third theory is that belly dance was always danced as entertainment. Some belly dance historians believe that the movements of dancing girls depicted in carvings in Pharaonic times are typical of belly dancing.
Belly dance was later popularized during the Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, when Orientalist artists depicted romanticized images of harem life in the Ottoman Empire. Around this time, dancers from Middle Eastern countries began to perform at various World Fairs, often drawing crowds in numbers that rivaled those for the science and technology exhibits. Several dancers, including the French author Colette, engaged in “oriental” dancing, sometimes passing off their own interpretations as authentic. There was also the pseudo-Javanese dancer Mata Hari, convicted in 1917 by the French for being a German spy.
Another theory is that belly dance was originally danced by women for women in the Levant, and North Africa. The book “Dancer of Shamahka” is widely cited, it is a romanticized memoir written by a modern author, Armen Ohanian, published in 1918. In Middle Eastern society two specific belly dance movements have been used in childbirth for generations,.
Any or all of these factors may have contributed to the development of belly dance as we know it today..
In the West, the costume most associated with belly dance is the bedlah (Arabic for “suit”). It owes its creation to the Victorian painters of “Orientalism” and the harem fantasy productions of vaudeville, burlesque, and Hollywood during the turn of the last century, rather than to authentic Middle Eastern dress.
The bedlah style includes a fitted top or bra (usually with a fringe of beads or coins), a fitted hip belt (again with a fringe of beads or coins), and a skirt or harem pants. The bra and belt may be richly decorated with beads, sequins, braid and embroidery. The belt may be a separate piece, or sewn into a skirt.
Badia Masabni, a Cairo cabaret owner, is credited with bringing the costume to Egypt, because it was the image that Western tourists wanted.
The hip belt is a broad piece of fabric worn low on the hips. It may have straight edge, or may be curved or angled. The bra usually matches the belt and does not resemble lingerie. The classic harem pants are full and gathered at the ankle, but there are many variations. Sometimes pants and a sheer skirt are worn together. Skirts may be flowing creations made of multiple layers of one color sheer fabric chiffon.
Costume in Egypt
Since the 1950s, it has been illegal in Egypt for belly dancers to perform publicly with their midriff uncovered  or to display excessive skin. It is therefore becoming more common to wear a long, figure-hugging lycra one-piece gown with strategically placed cut-outs filled in with sheer, flesh-coloured fabric.
If a separate bra and skirt are worn, a belt is rarely used and any embellishment is embroidered directly on the tight, sleek lycra skirt. A sheer body stocking must be worn to cover the midsection. Egyptian dancers traditionally dance in bare feet, but these days often wear shoes and even high heels.
Costume in Lebanon
As there is no prohibition on showing the stomach in Lebanon, the bedleh style is more common. The skirts tend to be sheer and/or skimpier than Egyptian outfits, showing more of the dancer’s body. The veil is more widely used and the veil matches the outfit. High heels are commonly worn.
Costume in Turkey
Turkish dancers also wear bedleh style costumes. In the 80s and 90s a ‘stripperesque’ costume style developed, with skirts designed to display both legs up to the hip, and plunging bras. Such styles still exist in some venues but there are also many Turkish belly dancers who wear more moderate costumes. Even so, many Turkish belly dance costumes reflect the playful, flirty style of Turkish belly dance.
Costume in America
American dancers often purchase their costumes from Egypt or Turkey, but hallmarks of the classical “American” style include a headband with fringe, sheer harem pants or skirt rather than tight lycra, and the use of coins and metalwork to decorate the bra.
For the folkloric and baladi dances, a full-length beledi dress or galabeyah is worn, with or without cutouts.
Belly dance props
Props are used, especially in American restaurant style, to spark audience interest and add variety to the performance, although some traditionalists frown on their use. Some props in common usage are:
- Finger cymbals (zills or sagats)
- Cane (in the Saiidi)
- Candelabra headdress (shamadan)
- Veil poi (mostly in Tribal belly dance)
- Fire sticks (mostly in Tribal)
- Fan (mostly in Tribal)
- Snakes (usually either pythons or boa constrictors)
Information taken from Wikipedia