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!


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