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The World’s Oldest Dance
The Origins of Oriental Dance By Karol Henderson Harding
What is Belly Dance?
The dance that Americans know as “belly dance: has gone by many names. The French named it danse du ventre,1 or “dance of the stomach.” It is known in Turkey as rakkassa and in Egypt as raks sharki ² “dance of the East.” The term “Orient” is derived front the Latin word oriens meaning “east” (where the sun rises) it particularly included regions that used to be known as Persia, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Egypt. Because of this some Middle Easterners also call it danse orientale or Oriental dance. By the late 19th century, the term usually referred to China, Japan, Korea and surrounding nations while the British colonists frequently used it when speaking of India. The opposite term “Occident” is derived from the Latin word occidens meaning “west” (where the sun sets)
but is falling into disuse in English.
The dance developed through the influence of many different areas and continues its long process of development today. After its appearance at the Chicago Exposition at the turn of the century, Americans discovered it, and the French name, danse du ventre, was translated into the “belly dance.”
This improvisational form of dance is distinctly different from the many forms of “folk dance” that developed in the same areas. Across borders and culture, “belly dance” is recognized as a dance style of its own. There are several points that make it different from other dance forms and reveal its diverse heritage: It has traditional associations with both religious and erotic elements.
This ambiguity has caused belly dance to be disdained, scorned, and loved by many. Its apparent origins are the fertility cults of the ancient world.
It is traditionally danced barefoot.
There are other forms of dance, which are done barefoot, but most do not meet all of the criteria which will bementioned. One relevant form is Spanish dance in the Moorish style. Most flamenco dance is done with shoes on, but the long history of domination by the Moors, an Eastern conqueror, left a dance form that was performed barefoot. In modern times, some famous Egyptian dancer perform in high heels as a way of showing their audiences in a very poor culture that they can afford to wear shoes. This does not affect the traditional reason that dancers dance barefoot: namely, because it connects one directly to Mother Earth.
The earliest dancer’s finger cymbals made of metal are those found in the area of Thebes (c.200 BC) with a large central boss and upturned rim, measuring 2 7/16 ” in diameter. A slightly larger pair was also attributed to Thebes (c. 200 BC) with a diameter of 3 3/8″. Modem finger cymbals are played with a cymbal on each middle finger and thumb.
Belly dance has an emphasis on abdominal muscles, hip and chest movements and isolations. It is firm and earthy, with bare feet connected to the ground.
It is a dance characterized by smooth, flowing complex, and sensual movements of the torso, alternated with precision hip work that is produced from the knees. Although Westerners refer to the hip work as “shaking”, it definitely is not. The entire body is used as a vehicle to present the music in a three dimensional image. Adding to it is the use of the finger cymbals or “sagat”, as they are called in Arabic.
The largest contribution of Turkish culture to belly dance is a rhythmic one. Turkish finger snapping (a special two-handed finger snap) is common to both Rom/Gypsy and eastern dance in general. At some point small finger cymbals were played with a pair on each hand in the modern manner by dancers and entertainers. in fact, the most common word for modem cymbals is “zill”, which is the Turkish word for them.
Although belly dance developed from the dances of the people, or folk dance, it has evolved into a dance for professional dancers and trained soloists. In comparison with folk dances, which tend to be simpler moves for large groups of people. All Middle Eastern women do a “home style” of the dance. But the professional dancer must have sophisticate movements, which requires training. They also must know how to improvise to whatever music is being played.
Egypt is considered by many modern dancers to be the source of belly dance. To the Ancient Egyptians, dance was an essential part of their culture. People from every social class were exposed to music and dancing. The laborers worked in rhythmic motion to the sounds of songs and percussion, and street dancers entertained passers by.
Dance troupes were available for hire to perform at dinner parties, banquets, lodging houses, and even religious temples. Some women from wealthy harems were trained in music and dance. However, no well-bred Egyptian would consider dancing in public, because that was the privilege of the lower classes.
By far, the most important influence on the music and dance that was to eventually give birth the Oriental dance came from the Roma (Gypsies) people of Turkey, the Balkans, Greece and Egypt. The “cengis” (dancing girls) and the “koceks” (dancing boys) were the public entertainers. They were never Turks because Turkish people felt that it is undignified to be a dancer (with he exception of folk dancers). The koceks and congas were Roma,
Greeks, Albanians, Armenians, Caucasians and Jews. The most proficient and famous dancers were the Turkish Roma, who are primarily Rom and only secondarily Turkish in culture.
Oriental dance presented in an appropriate atmosphere is a positive statement about the beauty, strength and grace of all that is feminine. It was a dance originally intended to be for women, by women. For Eastern women, oriental dance has a distinctively different message because it is generally performed in gatherings of women only; in these situations, it affirms the ability of a woman to maintain her beauty (and therefore her power over her husband), and hearkens back to the power of the ancient fertility cults. In the middle east today, the fertility of a woman is still a
prime factor in calculating her value. A newly-wed bride has no status, but her husband’s mother rules the home, and probably picked her son’s bride.
Oriental dance as performed in nightclubs and stage situations in the United States, tends to be a solo performance; the costumes are very flashy, and sometimes very skimpy. Due to the fact that American culture is used to seeing women who are scantily-clad, this is not necessarily as titillating as it sounds. What is unfortunate is that it gives the
impression that only those who are young and beautiful should dance, and that they do it only for the pleasure of the men in the audience. It is even more unfortunate that these situations also tend to involve audiences who are inebriated or rude, and do their best to demean the dancer. This is a case of confusing the art of the dance with the dancer’s audience, for which he/she is not responsible.
Classically trained Western dancers have seldom taken belly dance seriously, and this has made it more difficult to gain respectability. In addition, its tradition of improvisational dance, as well as its sensual and erotic connections makes it more difficult for these western dancers to understand. I heartily encourage more people to explore this most ancient of dance forms, so that they, too, can understand the power and joy which it expresses.
1 La Meri, “Learning the Danes du Ventre.”
Dance Perspectives #10. Spring 1961
2 Wendy Buonaventura, Belly Dancing:
The Serpent and the Sphinx.
(London: Virago Press Ltd., 1983)
5 Morocco, “Roots: Reprinted by
Shimmy Chronicles 3:5, Sept, 1992
6 Armen Ohanian, The Dancer ofShamahka
Trans. From the French by Rose Wilder Lane
(E.PDurtton & Co., New Your, 1923)
Qamar el-Mulok. “Mystery of the Chalazae,
PtII. Habthi, Vol. VIII, No.6.
8 Magda Saleh, “Nizzawi and Tahtib:
The Egyptian Stick Dance”
Arabesque, Vol VII, No. 1. May-June 1981.
This FAQ researches the various times and places throughout history where eastern dance, especially any form of eastern dance which influenced what was to become “belly dance” occurred. The printed version is available from the society for Creative Anachronism (Order as Creative Anachronist #70) The illustrations mentioned are available in the printed version. The author of this publication also has a large number of black and white drawings scanned as tif files of various oriental dancers and motifs. These are available from firstname.lastname@example.org; contact for more info.