A Brief History of Belly Dance

There is no actual documented “history” on Dance originating out of the Middle East and surrounding areas, however “Belly Dance” which has only come about quite recently is able to be traced due to the fact is is highly westernised. While it is generally agreed that Middle Eastern Dance has been around for thousands of years, because it is a culturally “lived” experience, there is no written evidence to document its progress, growth and development over the ages. Furthermore, besides a few paintings (from the last couple of centuries on canvass and earlier on walls) there is little to pinpoint dates.This leaves it open to speculation and guesswork. One of the theories is that the travellers such as “Gypsies” or Romani people saw dance being performed and incorporated the moves from another region into their “act”, which was witnessed and influenced the dance style in the area. This theory goes to explain how it is that many unconnected counties share similar dance styles and moves. The only drawback to this theory is that historically (and still today) segregation of the sexes is common in Middle-Eastern countries, with women dancing only with each other and for themselves in their own area and the men in theirs. And while both would have been able to watch performances by the travelling dancers, it would have been harder for them to witness the local dance. However, there are always exceptions, especially a group that followed the same route would be greeted with more friendliness each time.

The emergence of modern westernised “Belly Dance” is generally credited to have started in 1893 at the World Fair in Chicago. It is documented that a group of fully covered dancers from North Africa performed to the delight and shock of the prudish Victorian audience.

The Middle-East then became the craze in America, spawning movies, postcards and, of course, the theatre. Belly Dance moves (referred to at the time as the “Hootchie Cootchie) were incorporated by the Burlesque and Vaudeville dancers (to the delight of THEIR audience). This has led to the attitude that Belly Dance is titillating by nature, rather than an art form (and good exercise to boot!).

The revealing costumes were actually a creation by American movie-makers, which influenced popular culture’s opinion of how the dancers “should” look. This was, unfortunately, reinforced by men travelling to the countries where the dance originated. Respectable women did not reveal themselves to men so the only women they had contact with were the prostitutes.

Although the popularity (and scandalism) of it died down, “Belly Dance” as it became known, has kept a loyal following over the years, gaining in credibility and respectability in the Western cultures, and spreading throughout the world to the accessible and accepted form it is in today.

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