Belly dance is a dance style from the Middle East. Also known as Raks Araby (Arabic dance), Raks Orientale (Oriental dance), and Raks Sharki (Egyptian for Oriental dance), it is rooted in social dance, where the entire family would participate. It was not initially a performance event, but a dance done at festive occasions like weddings, birth celebrations, etc. Whether in family settings or just with other ladies, as circumstances permitted, common people would dance with, and for, each other-no costumes, just wearing their festive clothing.
Over the years branches of this dance became more formalized dance presentations, or performances/shows. Belly dancers were very commonly hired for weddings to add fun, music, and entertainment. The first nightclubs offering belly dance as the primary source of entertainment began opening in the 1920, including the preeminent Casino Opera, run by a woman named Badia Masabni in Cairo, Egypt. Badia was an extremely influential woman and dancer.
America was first exposed to Middle Eastern dance at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, where the term “Belly Dance” was coined. Since then we’ve added our own unique contributions to the dance form (sword balancing, snakes, decorated bras and belts (!), Tribal-style dance), often inspired by Orientalist fantasy paintings of the 19th century (not always recognized as fantasy). While not authentic to the Middle Eastern styles, these elements can be used to great effect!
Contrary to more fantasy, belly dance is not a “dance of seduction” (that would be the tango). It wasn’t used by languid harem ladies to attract the attentions of the sultan a la 1940’s Hollywood films. The harem (or “haram”, which means forbidden) was the ladies’ everyday living quarters, where a busy ruler probably didn’t spend much, if any, quality time. It’s much more likely that the ladies would dance for each other, to pleasantly pass the time.
In today’s world, belly dance has become popular. There are a variety of great shows to attend (at least, in the Los Angels area there is!), and many excellent teachers and resources available (see my links page). People recognize that it is an art form requiring years of disciplined training to perfect, and that it is not just a novelty act. It’s a dance from ages past that delights every child today.
It’s dance art for everyday life.