Middle Eastern dance is a broad term that encompasses all dances of the Middle East and neighboring territories. According to many scholars, Middle Eastern dance comes from ancient dances that were popular among different people inhabiting Egypt, Persia, Mesopotamia, India, and other ancient civilizations. Many scholars are arguing about the roots of this dance. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know the origins of this dancing style.
The first mentions of this dance go back to Mesopotamia. Archeologists have found ancient engravings that depict this dance. Egyptian templates also have the description of this dance. This dancing style was popular among women and is considered to be the imitation of childbirth or fertility. Considering this fact, it is possible to conclude that this dance had the sexual connotation. Early manuscripts of Greece describe Nile dancers who vibrate their bodies rapidly while dancing. Even today, some of these movements are used in Middle Eastern dance. The similarity between ancient dances and modern Middle Eastern dance suggests that they have the common root. Travelers from Europe and the USA first become familiar with this dance within the period from the 1700s to 1800s. The reaction of European and American travelers was uncertain. Some hate this dance, while others found it very attractive. This dance was very popular in Middle Eastern countries and women were willing to dance privately for the male audience. That’s the reason why dancers had a bad reputation among foreigners (WorldBellyDance).
Belly dance, as we know it today, comes from Turkey and Egypt. In Turkey, this dance was popular since the fifteenth century. Those who traveled and performed in Turkey were called chengis. This dance included such elements as shimmies, torso articulations, hip movements, etc. Some of these movements are still used in modern Turkish dancing styles.
In Egypt, there were different classes of dances, including Ghawazee who were street dancers and Awalim who were represented by trained slaves. Ghawazee dancers were the group of female traveling dancers from Dom people. These performers were noted in journals and memories of different travelers during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. Awalim were high trained slaves who were tough to entertain their masters. Moreover, these slaves were taught the art of improvisation in dancing and share their experience with other slaves. Therefore, their contribution to development of Middle Eastern dance can’t be overestimated. Awalim dancers have contributed a lot to development of this dancing style and brought some innovations into it. During Orroman reign, Egypt was flooded with tourists and soldiers. Ghawazee dancers saw this as an opportunity for making money and follow soldier camps. Many Egyptian painters of that time painted various pictures that depict these dancers in real life situations.
Unlike Turkish artists, Egyptian performers were not only women but also men. The performers used to dance in front of coffee houses and on the streets. They sang and danced in public and used canes and swords. Travelers who came to Egypt not only tolerated this public dance but also perceived it as a part of the national tradition. In 1834, the political situation has changed and many performers had to leave Cairo. This period was marked by the decline in dancing. The 1920s have become a new era for Middle Eastern dance. This fact was conditioned by the large influx of tourists who were looking for entertainment. However, this dance was changed to meet demands of modern audience, most of whom were Europeans. In Cairo, nightclubs began to blossom and produce some of the most famous dancers such as Souhair Zaki, Noha, Aza Zharif, Nagua Fouad, Nadia Hamdi, Fifi Abdou, and Raq0ia Hassan (Middle Eastern Dance). Dances of the Middle East and North Africa are very similar. Some scholars assume that this dance styles spread over Islamic and Persian empires. These dances developed in different locations but probably they influenced each other.
In U.S., Samia Gamal was the first dancer who started to use vail. Actually, she started to use it as a dance prop to make her arms look more gracefully. Some Eastern paintings depict dancers with the veil in their hands. However, it is hard to say whether these paintings are work of fiction or real. The development of belly dance in America is characterized by the rise of various styles, including American restaurant style, U.S. tribal style, and Egyptian oriental style (Shira). Although all these styles look alike, they have certain differences.
American restaurant style was very popular during the period between 50’s and 60’s. This time accounts for the blossom of the restaurant business and Middle Eastern dance became a very popular among those who were looking for exotic entertainment. This style is a mix of different dancing styles of Turkey, Persia, North Africa, Egypt and other countries. It leaves a great space for creativity and includes such innovations as veil and sword balancing. The rise of this style can be explained by the fact that international travel was very expensive at that time and dancers had to improvise by adopting African and North American dancing techniques. Some dancers travel to Egypt and other countries where they studied the dance in its natural environment. These dancers share their experience by holding seminars and training.
U.S. Tribal style is another type of belly dance that was popular in the 1980s. Performers of this dance try to preserve folk from by using music, movements, and clothing that is peculiar for certain ethnic group. This style combines movements that come from various cultures and historical periods. Although U.S. Tribal style has a strong cultural aspect, performers try to implement innovations that reflect modern life. This style is popular not only in America but also in Canada and other countries.
Egyptian oriental style is one more popular style of belly dance. The term Oriental derives from Arabic term raqs shargi which means “dance of the East” or “dance of the Orients” (Shira). This style has much in common with American restaurant style. Egyptian dance has undergone significant changes under the influence of Hollywood’s musicals within the period between 1950 and 1980. Although there were dancers who traveled to Egypt regularly and followed classical rules of Egyptian dance, many performers tried to bring something new in their dance and continued to experiment with styles. As a result, Egyptian dance embraces several variations, including Oriental, genuine work traditions, and “folk troupe”.
At the same time, music industry of Egypt was in the process of transformation. Such transformation gave the life to classical Egyptian music. Famous dancers of that time began to use this music in their performance. It is natural that Egyptian dance has rapidly evolved from folkloric roots into the complex from. All these facts caused significant transformation of original Egyptian dance and gave rise to new variants of Egyptian style.
Middle Eastern dance, also known as “belly dance,” became famous in the early twentieth century. Even now, it attracts tourists and foreigners from different countries. It has become a stage art and underwent some changes. Belly dance is a symbol of Middle Eastern culture and was very popular in Europe within different periods of the history. It comprises different styles that come from various civilizations and historical periods. Middle Eastern Dance is a cultural property of many nations and cultures and reflects the development of their culture.
- “History and origins of belly dance.” WorldBellyDance. n.a.
- “The history of Middle Eastern (belly) dance.” Middle Eastern Dance. n.a.
- “Styles of belly dance.” Shira. n.a.