Origins of the Arabic Belly Dance

Along with the music of the human voice and the tapping of sticks to provide accompaniment, the dance was probably the earliest form of outward expression of the feelings and emotions felt by the earliest human beings, our forebears from the distant past.

In Greek myth, the earth was born of dance. A dance in which Eurynome, the Goddess of All Things, danced, danced, and danced, ever more wildly, until the watching serpent-snake Ophion, whom she had herself created, was so aroused and inflamed with passion that  — well you can imagine what happened – and in due time Eurynome gave birth – but what a birth, she gave birth to the sun, the moon, the planets, the universe.

Dancing is the result of the human urge to respond and give expression to feelings of the moment or to convey to others an interpretation of their inner emotions through movement of the body.

In her excellent book “Belly Dance”, published in 2003 by Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, the author, Tina Hobin, tells us that:

“The belly dance, which has survived for thousands of years and is believed to be the oldest form of dance, evolved from the worship of the great mother earth goddess and is associated with childbirth rituals. Belly dance grew out of a combination of fertility cults, religious rituals, magic and secular dances in ancient civilizations inextricably linked to the mother goddess cult.”

It is impossible to discover the true origins of the dance that we know today as the Arabic belly dance, somewhat of a misnomer because so much more of the body than just the belly is involved. There must have been a natural evolution as the centuries passed and as civilization slowly developed in the Middle East where, in Mesopotamia, ancient temple engravings depicting dancers have been found that attest to the ancient heritage of the dance. Arabs had introduced the belly dance to ancient Babylon but when Islam became the religion of the region belly dancing was banned.

Similar to the temple engravings discovered in Mesopotamia, scenes of music and dance have also been found in ancient Greece and in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings. Many centuries later, under the influence of the Arabs who settled in Egypt in the eight century, the belly dance was adopted by the Egyptians and Egypt became a source of innovation in the developing styles and techniques of the belly dance, more properly called the Oriental dance, or raqs sharqi in Arabic.

And influences arrived from other parts of Asia. Historians believe that gypsy tribes, leaving their home regions of northern India, carried their flamboyant and energetic musical and dancing abilities westward into the Middle East, especially to Turkey, adding a gypsy element to the already strong traditions of belly dancing that, in Turkey, has the name Oriyantal Dansi.

And so this ancient tradition lives on, influenced by the styles of different regions but always retaining the basic elements in which the female body is able to express something sensuous and provocative.

In the western world until the 19th century, little was known by the general public about the belly dance, or other customs of the Arab world, although Orientalists, those who held a scholarly knowledge and curiosity about the cultures and peoples of Asia and the Arabic Middle East, were certainly intrigued by what was being discovered. Artists of the time, called the “Orientalist painters”, found inspiration in the locales and events of what they saw as the exotic and mysterious East.

But the general public’s lack of awareness was countered in 1893 when the Chicago World’s Fair opened in the United States to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the New World. The fair constructed a marvelous exhibit to represent a typical environment of the Middle East that showed the visitors to the fair, elements of the history, life, culture, activities, and surroundings of the then relatively unknown and somewhat mysterious peoples from that region, from the mosque to the market place, from snake charmer to performances of authentic folk dances accompanied by the Beledi Arabic belly dance music and the Arabic belly dance songs of the Middle Eastern and North African countries.

And while the term belly dance had been used before to describe Oriental dance, its popularization is usually credited to Sol Bloom, the promoter and entertainment director of the 1893 World’s Fair, possibly to titillate and attract the crowds to the Street in Cairo Exhibit where, it is said, the Arabic belly dancer Fatima,  also known as Little Egypt, stole the show and in doing so popularized the dance.

If it wasn’t Fatima then it was someone else because it did gain in popularity and versions of the dance were soon being performed in burleque theatres and at carnivals. Thomas Edison made several films featuring the dance, some of which can be seen through facilities of the Library of Congress, and various interpretations became a marketable commodity although some notoriety became attached and censorship applied to some of the more blatantly suggestive depictions.

Now, the belly dance has moved into the popular mainstream of personal development, with a wide range if Arabic belly dance videos available for demonstration and instruction, the dance has become something to enjoy while providing benefits to health and relaxation and an outlet for the human expression – but that, of course, is how it all started out in the first place wasn’t it?

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