Oriental dancing,
the belly dance

Article from Wikipedia


IThe performance dance form known in the West as the Belly Dance, is based on one of the social dances native to the Middle East. In Palestine, this social dance is called Raks Baladi, and is performed by people of all ages and both sexes during festive occasions such as weddings and other social gatherings for fun and celebration. It is the theatricalized version, performed by male (such as Jim Boz and Tito) and female (such as Morocco and Belly Dance Superstars) professional dancers and called Raks Sharki in Arabic, that is most popular in America today.

In its native lands boys and girls learn the dance from an early age. As with all social dances, it is learned informally through observation and imitation of their elders during family and community celebrations, as well as during informal gatherings with friends. Today, Middle Eastern dance classes are offered throughout the world, and skilled dancers are able to share their knowledge of the dance during studio classes and workshops.

The exact origin of this dance form is actively debated among dance enthusiasts, especially given the limited academic research on the topic. Much of the research in this area has been done by dancers attempting to understand their dance's origins. However, the often overlooked fact that most dancing in the Middle East occurs in the social context rather than the more visible and glamorous context of the professional nightclub dancers, has led to an overall misunderstanding of the dance's true nature and has given rise to many conflicting theories about its origins. Because this dance is a fusion of many dance styles, it undoubtedly has many different origins -- many of them in ethnic folk dances.

Many dancers subscribe to one or another of a number of theories regarding the origins of the form. Some of these theories are that the dance form:

descended from dances in early Egypt
descended from a religious dance Temple Priestesses once practiced
had been a part of traditional birthing practices in the region(s) of origin
had spread from the migrations of the Romani people (also called 'Gypsies') and related groups, with origins in India.
Of the theories, the first explanation is rarely invoked, even with such high-status proponents as the Egyptian Dancer Doctor Mo Geddawi promoting it. Much of the support for this theory stems from the similarities between poses in Egyptian artwork and the modern dance moves.

The most well-known theory is that it descended from a religious dance. This idea is usually the one referred to in mainstream articles on the topic, and has enjoyed a large amount of publicity. 1960s American Singer/Dancer Jamila Salimpour was one proponent. It was also popularized in works such as Earth Dancing and Grandmother's Secrets.

The "birthing practices" theory covers a sub-set of dance movements in modern Raqs Sharqi. Strongly publicized by the research of the dancer/layperson anthropologist Morocco (also known as Carolina Varga Dinicu), it involves the rework of movements traditionally utilized to demonstrate or ease childbirth. Although lacking an "origin point", this theory does have the advantage of numerous oral historical references, and is backed by a commentary in the work The Dancer of Shamahka.



1920 Oriental dancer, Paris

The Oriental dancer was a
common glamour sterotype impersonated
both by anonimous models and famous artists


Oriental dancer postcard

 

Two points suggest Roma dance as its origin. The Roma , and other related groups, are seen as either having brought the form over as they traveled, or picked it up along the way and spread it around. Thanks to the conflation of Roma forms of dance into the Raqs Sharqi sphere in the West, these theories enjoy a vogue in the West that is not necessarily reflected in their origin countries -- although some of that may be due to strongly-held prejudices against the Roma.

Whatever the origin point, dance has a long history in the Middle East. Despite the restrictions in Islam regarding portraying humans in paintings, there are several depictions of dancers throughout the Islamic world. Books such as The Art and Architecture of Islam 650-1250 show images of dancers on palace walls, as do Persian miniature paintings from the 12th and 13th centuries.

Outside of the Middle East, raqs sharqi dancing was popularized during the Romantic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries as Orientalist artists depicted their interpretations of harem life in the Ottoman Empire. Around this time, dancers from different Middle Eastern countries began to exhibit such dances at various World's Fairs; they often drew crowds that rivaled the technological exhibits. Some dancers were captured on early film; the short film "Fatima's Dance", was widely distributed in the nickelodeon movie theaters. It drew criticism for its "immodest" dancing, and was eventually censored due to public pressure.

Some Western women began to learn from and imitate the dances of the Middle East, which at this time was subject to colonization by European countries. Mata Hari exemplifies the issues surrounding these activities; despite posing as a Javanese dancer, her mystique is linked not to Indonesian dance but to the Middle Eastern dance forms. The French author Colette and many other music hall performers engaged in "oriental" dances, sometimes passing off their own interpretations as authentic folkloric styles. The great dancer Ruth St. Denis also engaged in Middle Eastern-inspired dancing, but her approach was to put "oriental" dancing on the stage in the context of ballet, her goal being to lift all dance to a respectable art form. (In the early 1900s, it was a common social assumption in America and Europe that dancers were women of loose morals.)

   

Bella Otero, Paris 1901


"La Bella Otero" (The beatiful Otero),
disguished as a belly dancer
Paris, 1901

Historically, most of the dances associated with belly dance were performed with the sexes separated; men with men and women with women. Few depictions of mixed dancing exist. This practice ensured that a "good" woman would not be seen dancing by anyone but her husband, her close family, or her female friends. Sometimes a professional dancer would go to a women's gathering with several musicians and get the women up and dancing. Today, sex segregation is not as strictly practiced in many urban areas, and sometimes both men and women would get up and dance socially among close friends in a mixed function. However, while social dancing during acceptable circumstances such as family functions is accepted and even encouraged, there are many people in Middle Eastern and North African societies who regard the performances of professional dancers in revealing costumes, for mixed audiences as morally objectionable. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that such performances should be banned.

Because the most popular venue for the dance remains night clubs, (as well as the proliferation of video and DVD recordings of popular Egyptian dance celebrities), it is this version, rather than the folk or social versions of the dance that is most popular. The costume now associated with this dance is called bedlah in Arabic (meaning "uniform") and was adopted by dancers in Egypt in the 1930s, from where it spread to other countries in the region. It owes its creation to the harem fantasy productions of Vaudville, Burlesque and Hollywood during the turn of the last century, rather than to actual authentic Middle Eastern dress. An enterprising night club owner in Cairo named Badia Masabni is credited with the adoption of this costume due to the fact that this was the image that Western tourists came to expect, rather than the native costumes which covered and concealed the contours of the body, with only a scarf or belt tied around the hips to highlight the movements.

The mainstays of costuming for these styles include a fitted top or bra (usually with fringe of beads or coins), a fitted hip belt (again with a fringe of beads or coins), and leg coverings that include harem pants and/or skirts (straight, layered, circular, or paneled). In the U.S. a "veil" may also be used; this is a three-and-a-half to four-yard piece of fabric that is used in part of the dance to move about and frame movements for the dancer. In the 1940s King Farouk of Egypt employed Russian ballet instructor Ivanova to teach his daughters, and it was she who first taught the great dancer Samia Gamal to use the veil to improve her arm carriage. Most Egyptian dancers use the veil as an opening prop which they discard within

 

the first few minutes of their routines, while many Western dancers wil l use the veil for an entire song. In Egypt, night club dancers will also wear full beaded dresses, called baladi dresses, to do the folkloric routines. These types of outfits are also used by American and European dancers when performing folk dances such as the Cane Dance, or the Candelabra dance.

Most of the basic steps and techniques used in belly dance are circular motions isolated in one part of the body; for example, a circle parallel to the floor isolated in the hips or shoulders. Accents using "pop and lock" where a dancer either shimmies or makes a striking motion in her shoulders or hips are common, as are feats of flexibility, rolling one's belly muscles, balancing various props like baskets, swords or canes, and dancing with chiffon or silk veils.


Raqs Sharqi
Despite its western name (“belly dancing”), Raqs Sharqi uses movements in every muscle group of the body. It is, fundamentally, a solo improvisational dance with its own unique dance vocabulary that is fluidly integrated with the music’s rhythm.

Raqs Sharqi dancers internalize and express the emotions evoked by the music. Appropriately, the music is integral to the dance. The most admired Raqs Sharqi dancers are those who can best project their emotions through dance, even if their dance is made up of simple movements. The dancer’s goal is to visually communicate to the audience the emotion and rhythm of the music. This is especially apparent during the drum solo portion of a performance.

Many see Raqs Sharqi as a woman's dance, celebrating the sensuality and power of being a mature woman. A common school of thought believes that young dancers have limited life experience to use as a catalyst for dance.[citation needed] Sohair Zaki, Fifi Abdou, Lucy, and Dina are all popular Egyptian dancers above the age of forty.

Despite the fame of female dancers, men often perform Raqs Sharqi as well.

 

Egyptian-style belly dance is based on the work of belly dance legends Samia Gamal, Tahiya Karioka, Naima Akef, and other dancers who rose to fame during the golden years of the Egyptian film industry. Later dancers who based their styles partially on the dances of these artists are Sohair Zaki, Fifi Abdou, and Nagwa Fouad. All rose to fame between 1960 and 1980, are still popular today, and have nearly risen to the same level of stardom and influence on the style.

Though the basic movements of Raqs Sharqi have remained the same, the dance form continues to evolve. Mahmoud Reda is noted for incorporating elements of ballet into Raqs Sharqi and his influence can be seen in modern Egyptian dancers who stand on relevé as they turn or travel through their dance space in a circle or figure eight.

In Egypt, three main forms of the traditional dance are associated with belly dance: Baladi/Beledi, Sha'abi and Sharqi.

Egyptian belly dance was among the first styles to be witnessed by Westerners. During Napoleon's invasion of Egypt (the campaign which yielded the Rosetta stone, leading to the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics), Napoleon's troops encountered the Ghawazee tribe. The Ghawazee made their living as professional entertainers and musicians. The women often engaged in prostitution on the side, and often had a street dedicated to their trade in the towns where they resided, though some were quasi-nomadic. At first the French were repelled by their heavy jewelry and hair, and found their dancing "barbaric", but were soon lured by the hypnotic nature of their movements[citation needed].

The most important non-Egyptian forms of belly dance are the Syrian/Lebanese and the Turkish.

Nina Barkis oriental dancer