Most of us, not living in the Middle East, probably picture in our minds the belly dance as we know it from its more commercial environments, as it is seen in our western world in cabarets, television, film, print-media or in the growing number of dancing classes that teach the Oriental (belly) dance
But the Arabic belly dance, the raqs shaqi, one of the names given it by the Egyptians, meaning Oriental dance, is a dance whose origins and evolution lies in the Middle East.
And in the Middle East it is different.
Not everything there is adapted to the modern world or the facilities that are common to our lives. The inhabitants of that vast region who are not yet overwhelmed by western culture follow their own customs and have a different lifestyle. But one of the many activities in their lives will almost certainly be dancing, following that universal human urge for self-expression – and usually a reaction to a joyous impulse.
The Oriental dance as we know it is mainly a female solo dance. There are enduring traditions of dancing that girls of the Arab world learn in their early years, encouraged to do so as a family activity and natural outlet for self-expression and they soon become aware, by observation, of the ways the dances are performed by their older family members. Learning to dance provides delights for children today as it has done throughout its ancient history.
The women dance for their women friends and women relatives
On those occasions when women friends get together, informally or otherwise, they will often dance to entertain and amuse each other, a common occurrence where all the women of a gathering will probably participate, as dancers, singers, handclappers for rhythmic accompaniment, and as approving spectators, everyone joins in, not just the talented few. It is an opportunity to share their joys.
The dance is for the women by the women as, according to custom, they gather away from and out of sight of the male members of the group.
In its more formal presentation, the Arabic belly dance follows a range of patterns and techniques that may differ widely from one locality to another. A series of movements may be learned as a basic routine while still allowing a dancer to translate whatever feelings and emotions they choose according to their natural personal abilities and natural talent.
Dance is a language of self-expression and as a solo activity, the belly dance is particularly suited to the interpretation and outward expression of feelings and emotions, uninhibited or otherwise, serious or light hearted. It can be a spontaneous response to the feelings of the moment or it can follow a more disciplined pre-established routine.
The dancer can react to the sound and rhythm of music or to their own silent inner feelings and thoughts, however they choose to, following the range of movements and gestures learned from their earlier times but in their own unique way.