From their origins in the Middle East, ‘Raqs Baladi’ and ‘Raqs Sharqi’ are the two main forms of the dance that we in the English-speaking western world refer to as the ‘Belly dance’, an unfortunate but firmly accepted label even though the dance involves so much more body and limb movement than just that of the belly area.
Over time, the Oriental dance has developed through many different forms from many sources, significantly influenced by Gypsy dance styles with contributions from the dances of India, Persia and Spain, all of which, over the course of history, have been home for the wandering Gypsy tribes after their exodus from their original homeland in northern India.
The dance is a female solo dance, performed to the accompaniment of Eastern style music that has quite different rhythms and a lack of harmony compared to Western music. The dancer responds to the music, and perhaps to rhythmic hand clapping and finger snapping, with soft undulating movements of hands and arms and seemingly effortless but sensual movements of the torso for which the female body is so favorably designed.
The dance has been popular and performed widely throughout the countries of the Middle East, although there have been, on occasions, attempts by governments and religious authorities to restrict its performance in public
There are many mentions and similar descriptions of this special dance in ancient history, the Romans and Greeks were familiar with its many forms and interpretations, and of course, some of the less decent performances witnessed are remarked upon as being lewd and lascivious and objectionable – and this is at a time when, it is reported, Romans were throwing unarmed captives into the Colosseum arena to face untamed and hungry lions, watched by thousands of cheering spectators. Such are the priorities and preoccupations of human beings.
But certainly the dance is not always seen as exotic but innocent art. There are unsavory associations in some quarters.
Referring to the Oriental dance in her book “The Serpent of the Nile” published by Interlink Books in 1990, the author, Wendy Buonaventura, has written that “By its very nature, dance is an activity [that] heightens the senses and lowers inhibitions”.
In Europe in the 19th century, with the rise in interest in all things Oriental, popularly called Orientalism, many travelers, writers, and artists, journeyed to the Middle East, recording their impressions in books and letters and in masterful paintings and sketches that provided for the people of Victorian times, a glimpse of what was until then a somewhat mysterious and exotic landscape and people.
Their writings and paintings often included mentions and descriptions of the dancing girls and the belly dance, some of them in derogatory terms but nevertheless they were a great attraction. American Charles Leland, who authored the book ‘The Egyptian Sketchbook’, published in 1873, commented that “Most travelers, if given the choice, would rather have seen the dancing than the pyramids.”
And Gustav Flaubert, famous French author of Madam Bovary and many other works, was also enamored of Egypt and the belly dancers. In one instance he was captivated enough to pursue one beautiful and famous belly dancer, known as Kutchuk Hanem, journeying far up the Nile from the capital Cairo just to seek her company.
Raqs baladi, in Egyptian Arabic meaning ‘Dance of the people’ or ‘Dance of the country’, is the older and more traditional dance form, something akin to a folk dance, but in this case with a very ancient pedigree with roots possibly as far back as Phaeronic times, if we can relate it to the depictions found in Egyptian paintings of those times. But the dance does not resemble other folk dances of the countries of the Middle East, it has a distinct and immediately recognizable style of its own and, as such, plays a large part in Egyptian life. It has been remarked that “Egyptian girls show such ease in dancing, they are seemingly born with an innate sense of rhythm and ability.”
The raqs baladi is a dance that women perform at parties, weddings and other celebrations, and at home, especially to entertain women friends and women relatives at their gatherings when the women are segregated from menfolk in accordance with Arab and Muslim customs.
Raqs sharqi, in Arabic meaning ‘Oriental dance’, also has a long history and is one of the earliest forms of Oriental dance. It has been called a hybrid that melds the earlier traditional dance styles with a later-evolved dance repertoire that is less constrained than the baladi dance forms. The result being a highly expressive dance that allows a dramatic range of impromptu interpretive movements by the individual performer as she reacts to the music and rhythms of the moment.
This ancient form of expression, the raqs sharqi, now brought up to date in today’s professional world of Oriental dance, has been influenced greatly by European cabaret styles and is popular with audiences in the Middle East and around the world. The dance has adopted many aspects of Hollywood inspired clothing and Western music such that it would probably not be recognizable to the performers of the distant past.
But it retains, perhaps even emphasizes, its exotic and sensuous content and is growing in its acceptance and, apart from a recent downturn due to the negative affects of the world’s current economic problems, belly dancing is gaining in popularity, as night-club and café entertainment and as an exercise and joyful recreational and personal development activity.