Arts & Entertainment

The history of belly dance

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belly dancer
From ancient times to modern stages, belly dance continues to be a popular form of entertainment and expression
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With folklore and myth surrounding the history of belly dancing, determining the origins of this ancient art form is difficult. We do know that this type of dance, which has been in existence for over 6,000 years, began in the Middle East and is now enjoyed worldwide and taught in almost every country across the globe.

Belly dance is designed for the female body with emphasis placed on abdominal muscles, hip, and chest moves. Dancers usually perform in bare feet and move by isolating the hips, shaking and rotating the body from its core. Belly dance costumes are usually colorful and adorned with stones and other reflective trim. Dancers use finger cymbals or tambourines to complement their dance moves.

It is believed that village women taught the dance to young girls in order to strengthen abdominal muscles in preparation for childbirth. Before Islam and Christianity became the domination religions, the Mother Goddess was worshipped; sex and childbirth were sacred. When a girl danced for the first time, it was a rite of passage into womanhood. Men were not included in this ritual and in fact, it is believed that at this time, the dance was not meant for men's eyes at all.

Others believe that belly dancing began in the harems of the sultans, when hundreds of wives had to compete for the attention of one man. It is also said that the dance was routinely performed by prostitutes as a means of seduction.

One of the widely accepted theories pertaining to the history of belly dancing is that the dance holds a connection to fertility and eroticism. Today it is often performed at weddings in order to relax grooms and brides, who have often just met, as well as to bestow the gift of fertility upon the newly wed couple.

It is believed that the dance spread from the Middle East to North Africa where tribal women danced in the marketplace to earn money for their dowries. The dance then continued to grow into Rome, Spain and India with each region and village developing its own style. It is interesting to note that the term belly dance did not originate in the Middle East but was a name that originated from the French term "danse du ventre" or dance of the stomach. In Turkey the dance is called "oryantal dansi" (Dance of the East), and in Arabic, the dance is called "raqs sharqi" (Eastern Dance). Middle Easterners make the distinction between "city dance" (stage/cabaret style) and "country dance" (regional fold dances) while Westerners use the umbrella term of belly dance to refer to a broad range of styles.

The belly dancing was introduced to the Western World when it debuted in America at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. The performances rivaled the technological exhibits in popularity and western women began to learn from and imitate the dances of the Middle East. American belly dance is unique in that its style has been shaped by many different cultural influences and traditions, however it is the dramatized version, performed by both male and female professional dancers, the Egyptian Cabaret or "raks sharki" that is the most popular in America today. The dance is constantly evolving as new dances are introduced to the community.

The history of belly dancing includes the tradition of wearing jewels in the navel. While beautiful, this is not simply an aesthetic addition, but rather a method to discern the improvement of the dancer's techniques. The stones were said to be placed in the navels of young girls as they practiced the dance, the stone being held in place solely by muscle control. As the girl matured and improved, the size of the stone was increased.

Although belly dance was declared illegal in Egypt in 1950, (a decision that was later repealed) the dance is still an important form of art in the Middle East, as well as across the globe. While some countries now have decrees which state that the stomach can no longer be shown, the dance continues to grow in popularity. Styles include Tribal style which includes specific dances such as the "Basket Dance", the "Toronaga" a Turkish style dance, and the "Veil Dance", a relatively new style of belly dance where the prop of a flowing veil is incorporated. Perhaps the most commonly known style of belly dance is the "Beledi" style, a folkdance developed in rural Egypt.

In recent years, American dancers have added several new styles to the belly dance world. Tribal dance incorporates ensemble performances with complex and shifting patterns of leaders and following dancers in routines that are often improvised at the time of the performance. Fusion brings together traditional belly dance forms and movements with a variety of types of music, including Latin, techno, and Top 40. In the midst of all this innovation, very traditional forms of dance, known as folkloric, have been rising in popularity.

The history of belly dancing is complex, the many theories that thread together to form the blanket of origin add to the mystery and intrigue of this beautiful and global art form.

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