Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A Belly Dance History

by Pleasant "Princess Farhana" Gehman

Belly dance, which is formally referred to as Oriental dance, is probably the oldest dance form on earth. Though its origins are shrouded inmystery, for thousands of years the sensuous and elegant movements have been practiced throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, handed down from generation to generation. Today, people all over the globe enjoy belly dance in many ways: as a cultural art form, as a part of Women's Studies in University curriculum, as pure entertainment, and as a way to keep fit.

The term "Oriental Dance" may sound like an odd term if left unexplained. In Arabic, the women's solo dance is known as raqs al sharqi, or "dance of the east", which implies that nobody really knows exactly where the dance comes from.

Some scholars believe that Oriental dance stems from pre-Islamic fertility rites and is connected to goddess worship, though one of the most popular theories is that it originated in the temples of Northern India, and was spread by the Roma people through their travels. It is easy to follow the "Gypsy Trail" as it is sometimes called, south from India through Afghanistan and Persia along the silk routes, and into Turkey. There, the trail splits, one branch snaking through Eastern Europe, the other meandering through the Middle East and North Africa.

All along this path, indigenous folk dances carry the unique hallmarks of Oriental dance: supple movements of the torso, quick hip articulations, head-slides, wrist circles and similar footwork. Supporting this theory is that in rural Egypt, the term for dancers is ghaziya, which is singular for ghawazee, meaning "invader" or "outsider". Still not convinced? Have a close look at Uzbek dance, or even Spanish Flamenco (remembering that the Moors invaded Spain in the Middle Ages) and the similarities are obvious. Along with the nomadic Roma, many traveling professional dancers doubled as prostitutes or thieves and others learned their craft after having been enslaved in harems as courtesans. This added a rather unsavory but nevertheless titillating aspect to the reputation of the dancers and the dance itself.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, European travelers got a first hand look at the famous dancing women of the Near East, and glorified both the women and the dance in countless essays and paintings, leading to a huge curiosity in this beautiful and exotic dance form. The Orientalists were astounded by the complexity of the dancer's abdominal movements, and began referring to the style in French as "danse du ventre", which loosely translates as "belly dance".

In 1893, on the Midway Plaisance of the Chicago World's Fair, Oriental Dance made its American debut. Though the Midway featured exhibits from Holland, Japan, Italy, Ireland, and many other countries, the attractions which routinely drew the largest crowds were those featuring the famous eastern dancing girls: the Turkish, Algerian, Tunisian, and Egyptian exhibits. To the uneducated eyes of the crowd, the dancer's movements, considered highly skilled in their native countries, were considered obscene. Hawked by promoter Sol Bloom as "scandalous", perhaps the most famous dancer of all, Fatima Mazar, aka "Little Egypt" thrilled and excited the Victorian rubes to no end, and for years spawned hundreds of imitators on the vaudeville and burlesque circuit, but also begat over a hundred years of misconceptions and bad press.

This was only heightened by the late 1970s belly dance boom, where enthusiastic but misinformed housewives and career women took short-term beginner¹s courses at rec centers across America, before donning veils in hopes of turning their husbands and boyfriends into "Sultans". At that time, Oriental dance was considered racy and slightly tacky, relegated to the occasional mention in Istanbul and Cairo tourism pamphlets, bachelor party entertainment, Halloween costumes and cheesecake status in James Bond movies.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, famous Oriental dancers were revered, enjoying the status of true artists. Its stars, Middle Eastern dancers like Sohair Zaki, Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca, Naima Akef, Nagwa Fouad, and Fifi Abdou performed for Royalty and dignitaries, starred in films and on television, and became household words, on par with world class entertainers of all genres.

Recently, there has been renewed fascination in this ancient art, for many reasons. Due to communications advances like world wide web, there is a wealth of information on the subject. American Oriental dancers, from the legendary Ruth St. Denis in the beginning of the Twentieth Century to living legends like Jamilla Salimpour and Aisha Ali, further legitimized this often-marginalized art form. Scholarly work by New York native Morocco, and the UK's Wendy Buonaventura have expounded extensively on the subject and rought it into theaters.

Previously misunderstood, belly dance is now researched, studied, practiced and performed by women of all walks of life from all over the world. There has been increasing interest in traditional ethnic and modernized World Beat music, and many musicians and singers, like Hakim, Alabina, Amr Diab and Shakira have been blending classical Middle Eastern music with pop, hip-hop, Spanish and East Indian music. Similar experimentation taking place within the realm of dance have resulted in two new, popular sub-genres, Fusion and Tribal style belly dance, both of which retain a base in traditional Oriental movement vocabulary, while taking it into the future.

As the dance itself endures changes, modifications and new presentation, there is still one undeniable fact: it is still the ultimate form of feminine self-expression. It is a malleable art form that can take on the performer¹s personality while at the same time retaining its own inherent style. It always looks gorgeous performed by women of all ages, shapes and sizes, and is as mesmerizing, enchanting and astounding as it ever was. After all, there has to be a reason it has stuck around for thousands of years!

Civilian's Guide to Bellydance Styles

by Princess Farhana


Until recently, this style was probably the most common style of belly dance in the US, hence the name. Commonly seen in restaurants, nightclubs, festivals and the like, it is basically a pastiche of movements from Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria (as well other Middle Eastern or North African countries) that has been made palatable to the Western eye. There is also a good degree of fantasy involved, as many dancers invented the dance as they went along, taking cues from everything from Ruth St. Denis to motion pictures to Orientalist paintings, honing it all into a five part routine, with an entrance song, a slow taqsim, another song, a beledy progression and a drum solo.This is the type of belly dancing you might see in a cheesey sixties or seventies movie movie or portayed in a James Bond flick. Dancers wear coin or beaded costume, use veils, finger cymbals, and may include floor work in their routines.


Within Egyptian-style raks sharqi there are many sub-genres-but whether the dance
is performed to classic orchestrated music, or more modern, Westernized Egyptian pop, this style has many distinct hallmarks, and the dancer is always elevated onto the balls of her feet. Some other trademarks of the style: stepping on the down beat, intricate hip articulations, both traveling and stationary shimmies, abdominal work, and full-body poses. Internal as well as external muscle movements are incorporated, and some of the resulting technique is so subtle that the casual observer or layperson may not even realize it is going on. Technique also includes isolations, distinct hand gestures and surprising speed changes. A dance performed to classical Egyptian music, like an Om Kalthoum or Mohammed Abdel Wahab song may be a bit more “serious” than Modern Egyptian pop (most of the older songs seemed to be about lost love) but may also include a flirtatious, ultra-feminine attitude. A dancer performing to more Westernized Egyptian pop music may incoporate bits and pieces of ballet, jazz and even hip-hop, while still maintaining the dance’s Oriental style. Egyptian folk dance is another sub-genre, with too many variations to even mention here. The Egyptian-style Oriental dancer wears lavishly beaded costumes, rarely plays finger cymbals, never performs floor work (it is actually against the law in Egypt!) and uses a veil only during her entrance.


More lively and athletic than Egyptian style, much of Turkish
“Oryantal” dance is based upon Rom (or colloquially and incorrectly Called Gypsy) moves, still practiced in the Sulukele Quarter of Istanbul. Turkish cabaret-style dancers wear full-skirted costumes that show a lot of leg and fly during the whirls, spins and hops that are the hallmarks of this style, as are deep backbends and floor work. Finger cymbals are usually played in a quick 3/4 or 9/8 time signature, veils are used extensively.


A simple and traditional folk dance, performed by and for the people in its country of origin. Folkloric dance is usually performed (or reproduced) as authentically as possible, but when it is altered for modern stage presentation, whether by adding set choreography or staging, or the use of “modernized” or flashy costumes, it becomes known as “theatrical” folk dance.


Also called ATS (American Tribal Style) this genre originates from Northern California, and for the past fifteen or so years has been getting hugely popular. Like Americanized Cabaret, it is a hybrid of movements from a variety of countries. But what sets it apart is that even though this dance is never done solo (it is always performed by groups of two or more dancers at a time) ATS is (almost)
never choreographed. Dancers usually improvise, relying on subtle cues as well as intuition. Costuming eschews glitz, combining elements of traditional folkloric costumes from all over the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa.


A mix & match genre that has grown due to the “globalization”
of ethnic music- for example: Flamenco-Arabic fusion combines Spanish style dance with oriental dance, and is performed to music that is similarly blended. But fusion can embody mixing Middle Eastern dance elements with anything from Ballet to Bollywood, from hip-hop to contemporary jazz technique. Tribal Fusion has grown as a genre unto itself, with much mixing and melding of ATS style dance with other dance forms. Costuming for this style can range from wild rock and roll and Gothic influences to reflecting the ethnicities it is co-mingling with; or even simple jazz-type pants and tops that call to mind Seventies style modern or interpretive dance.


Often high-concept, fantasy belly dance is similar to Fusion, in that it utilizes the
movements of Arabic dance - but that¹s where the similarity ends. Fantasy is pure imagination and, well, fantasy. And it doesn¹t necessarily have a distinct look or costuming, because it is a dance performance that has been dreamed up by the performer, a performance not based in any sort of discipline or genre. Some good examples of fantasy dance: Isis wings; Pharonic-style performances; dancers as “snakes” popping out of a basket, and probably the most “out there” one of all, Dondi’s comedy/dance act as a belly dancing Marilyn Monroe.