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Belly dance is a Western-coined name for a type of Middle Eastern dance. Originally a "solo, improvised dance involving torso articulation," belly dance takes many different forms depending on the country and region, both in costume and dance style, and new styles have evolved in the West as its popularity has spread globally.
- 1 Names and terminology
- 2 Technique and movements
- 3 Belly dance in the Middle East
- 4 Belly dance outside of the Middle East
- 5 Costume
- 6 Health and belly dancing
- 7 Notable practitioners
- 8 Belly dancing in popular culture
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 External links
Names and terminology
The term "belly dance" is a translation of the French term "danse du ventre", which was applied to the dance in the Victorian era, and probably originally referred to the Arabic tribe Ouled Nail dancers of Algeria, whose dance used more abdominal movements than the dances described today as "belly dance". It is something of a misnomer, as every part of the body is involved in the dance; the most featured body part is usually the hips.
In Arabic, the dance is known as "Raqs Sharqi" ("Eastern Dance") or "Raqs Beledi" ("Country Dance" or "Folk Dance").
Technique and movements
Belly dance is primarily a torso-driven dance, with an emphasis on articulations of the hips. Unlike many Western dance forms, the focus of the dance is on relaxed, natural isolations of the torso muscles, rather than on movements of the limbs through space. Although some of these isolations appear superficially similar to the isolations used in jazz ballet, they are sometimes driven differently and have a different feeling or emphasis.
In common with most folk dances, there is no universally codified naming scheme for belly dance movements. Some dancers and dance schools have developed their own naming schemes, but none of these are universally recognised.
Movements found in belly dance
Many of the movements characteristic of belly dance can be grouped into the following categories:
- Percussive movements - Staccato movements, most commonly of the hips, which can be used to punctuate the music or accent a beat. Typical movements in this group include hip drops, vertical hip rocks, outwards hip hits, hip lifts and hip twists. Percussive movements using other parts of the body can include lifts or drops of the ribcage and shoulder accents.
- Fluid movements - Flowing, sinuous movements in which the body is in continuous motion, which may be used to interpret melodic lines and lyrical sections in the music, or modulated to express complex instrumental improvisations, as well as being performed in a rhythmic manner. These movements require a great deal of abdominal muscle control. Typical movements include horizontal and vertical figures of 8 or infinity loops with the hips, horizontal or tilting hip circles, and undulations of the hips and abdomen. These basic shapes may be varied, combined and embellished to create an infinite variety of complex, textured movements.
- Shimmies, shivers and vibrations – Small, fast, continuous movements of the hips or ribcage, which create an impression of texture and depth of movement. Shimmies are commonly layered over other movements, and are often used to interpret rolls on the tablah or riq or fast strumming of the oud or qanun (instrument). There are many types of shimmy, varying in size and method of generation. Some common shimmies include relaxed, up and down hip shimmies, straight-legged knee-driven shimmies, fast, tiny hip vibrations, twisting hip shimmies, bouncing 'earthquake' shimmies, and relaxed shoulder or ribcage shimmies.
In addition to these torso movements, dancers in many styles will use level changes, travelling steps, turns and spins. The arms are used to frame and accentuate movements of the hips, for dramatic gestures, and to create beautiful lines and shapes with the body, particularly in the more balletic, Westernised styles. Other movements may be used as occasional accents, such as low kicks and arabesques, backbends, and head tosses.
Belly dance in the Middle East
Origins and history of belly dance in the Middle East
Belly dancing is believed to have had a long history in the Middle East, but reliable evidence about its origins is scarce, and accounts of its history are often highly speculative. Several Greek and Roman sources including Juvenal and Martial describe dancers from Asia Minor and Spain using undulating movements, playing castanets, and sinking to the floor with 'quivering thighs', descriptions that are certainly suggestive of the movements that we today associate with belly dance. Later, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, European travellers in the Middle East such as Edward Lane and Flaubert wrote extensively of the dancers they saw there, including the Awalim and Ghawazee of Egypt. In the Ottoman Empire belly dancers used to perform for the harem in the Topkapı Palace.
Social context of belly dance in the Middle East
Belly dance in the Middle East has two distinct social contexts: as a folk or social dance, and as a performance art.
As a social dance, belly dance (also called Raqs Baladi or Raqs Shaabi in this context) is performed at celebrations and social gatherings by ordinary people who are not professional performers. Dancers wear their ordinary clothes rather than a special dance costume. Dances that could be described as belly dance are performed in this context by men and women of all ages in Egypt, often including young children. In more conservative or traditional societies, social occasions are often gender segregated, with separate parties for men and women - both women and men may take part in dancing at single-sex gatherings. Belly dance is not the only social dance in this region. Other notable social dances include the Levantine dabke and the hair-tossing women's dance of the Gulf states, Raqs al Nasha'al.
The version of belly dance that is performed on stage has its roots in the social dance, with more emphasis on stagecraft and use of space, and special costumes designed to show off the movements to best effect. Elements from Western dance styles are often introduced.
Professional performers (including dancers, singers and actors) are not considered to be respectable in the Middle East, and there is a strong social stigma attached to female performers in particular, since they display their bodies in public, which is considered haram. Historical groups of professional dance performers include the Awalim (primarily musicians and poets), Ghawazi and Köçekler.
Belly dance in Egypt
Historically, public dance performers in Egypt were known as Ghawazi, whilst entertainers who performed in private settings were known as Awalim. The Maazin sisters may be the last authentic performers of Ghawazi dance in Egypt. Khayreyya Maazin was the last of these dancers still teaching and performing as of 2009. Belly dance started really early in Egypt as the belly dancers used to dance to the kings as sort of entertainment and it was counted as art of seduction and flexibility, it was used to keep the kings and their guests entertained and in good moods to discuss their business, and when no kings were left the belly dancers started to dance to earn a living in shows and festivals and private sessions for the high class society. Many belly dancers (ghawazi) performed in small pups and music sessions as way for earning money and fans.
Belly dance in Turkey
Turkish oriental dance is referred to in Turkey as Oryantal Dans, or simply 'Oryantal'. The Turkish style of bellydance is lively and playful, with a greater outward projection of energy than the more contained Egyptian style. Turkish dancers are known for their energetic, athletic (even gymnastic) style, and their adept use of finger cymbals, also known as zils. Connoisseurs of Turkish dance often say a dancer who cannot play the zils is not an accomplished dancer. Floorwork, which has been banned in Egypt since the mid-20th century, is still an important part of Turkish bellydance.
Another distinguishing element of Turkish style is the use of the Karsilama rhythm in a 9/8 time signature, counted as 12-34-56-789.
Many professional dancers and musicians in Turkey continue to be of Romani heritage, and the Roma people of Turkey have had a strong influence on the Turkish style (There is also a distinct Turkish Romani dance style which is different from Turkish Oriental).
Belly dance outside of the Middle East
Belly dance was popularized in the West during the Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, when Orientalist artists depicted romanticized images of harem life in the Ottoman Empire. Around this time, dancers from Middle Eastern countries began to perform at various World's Fairs, often drawing crowds in numbers that rivaled those for the science and technology exhibits. It was during this period that the term "oriental" or "eastern" dancing was first used. Several dancers, including the French author Colette, engaged in "oriental" dance, sometimes passing off their own interpretations as authentic.
Belly dance in North America
The term "belly dancing" is generally credited to Sol Bloom, entertainment director of the 1893 World's Fair, the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, although he consistently referred to the dance as "danse du ventre," of which "belly dance" is a literal translation. In his memoirs, Bloom states only that "when the public learned...danse du ventre...I had a gold mine."
Although there were dancers of this type at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, it was not until the Chicago World's Fair that it gained national attention. There were authentic dancers from several Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Syria, Turkey and Algeria, but it was the dancers in the Egyptian Theater of The Street in the Cairo exhibit who gained the most notoriety. The fact that the dancers were uncorseted and gyrated their hips was shocking to Victorian sensibilities. There were no soloists, but it is claimed that a dancer nicknamed Little Egypt stole the show. Some claim the dancer was Farida Mazar Spyropoulos, but this fact is disputed.
The popularity of these dancers subsequently spawned dozens of imitators, many of whom claimed to be from the original troupe. Victorian society continued to be affronted by this "shocking" dance, and dancers were sometimes arrested and fined. The dance was nicknamed the "Hoochie coochie", or the shimmy and shake. A short film, "Fatima's Dance", was widely distributed in the Nickelodeon theaters. It drew criticism for its "immodest" dancing, and was eventually censored. Belly dance drew men in droves to burlesque theaters, and to carnival and circus lots.
Thomas Edison made several films of dancers in the 1890s. These included a Turkish dance, and Crissie Sheridan in 1897, and Princess Rajah from 1904, which features a dancer playing zills, doing "floor work", and balancing a chair in her teeth.
Ruth St. Denis also used Middle Eastern-inspired dance in D. W. Griffith's silent film Intolerance, her goal being to lift dance to a respectable art form at a time when dancers were considered to be women of loose morals. Hollywood began producing films such as The Sheik, Cleopatra, and Salomé, to capitalize on Western fantasies of the orient.
When immigrants from Arab States began to arrive in New York in the 1930s, dancers started to perform in nightclubs and restaurants.
In the late 1960s and early '70s many dancers began teaching. Middle Eastern or Eastern bands took dancers with them on tour, which helped spark interest in the dance.
Although using traditional Turkish and Egyptian movements, American Cabaret or American Restaurant belly dancing has developed its own distinctive style, using props and encouraging audience interaction. Many modern American dancers also make use of the music of Egyptian Sha'abi singers in their routines.
In 1987, a distinctively American style of group improvisational dance, American Tribal Style Belly Dance, (ATS), was created. Although a unique and wholly modern style, its steps are based on existing dance techniques, including those from North India, the Middle East, and Africa. Many forms of "Tribal Fusion" belly dance have also developed, incorporating elements from many other dance and music styles including flamenco, ballet, burlesque, hula hoop and even hip hop. "Gothic Belly Dance" is a style which incorporates elements from Goth subculture.
Belly dance in Australia
The first wave of interest for belly dancing in Australia was during the late 1970s to 1980s with the influx of migrants and refugees escaping troubles in the Middle East, including drummer Jamal Zraika. These immigrants created a lively social scene including numerous Lebanese and Turkish restaurants, providing employment for belly dancers. Rozeta Ahalyea is widely regarded as the "mother" of Australian belly dance, training early dance pioneers such as Amera Eid and Terezka Drnzik. Belly dance has now spread across the country, with vibrant belly dance communities in every capital city and many regional centres.
Belly dance in the United Kingdom
Belly dance has been in evidence in the UK since the early 1960s. During the 1970s and 1980s, there was a thriving Arabic club scene in London, with live Arabic music and bellydancing a regular feature, but the last of these closed in the early 1990s. Several prominent members of the British bellydance community began their dance careers working in these clubs.
Today, there are fewer traditional venues for Arabic dance in the UK, however there is a large amateur bellydance community. Several international bellydance festivals are now held in Britain. In addition, there are a growing number of competitions, which have increased in popularity in recent years.
JWAAD, The Raqs Sharqi Society and other groups and individuals have developed "teacher training" for belly dancers. Networks for the British belly dance community include the Mosaic Arabic Dance Network (MADN) and the Northern Arabic Dance Association (NADA), both of which publish their own community magazines.
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The costume most commonly associated with belly dance is the 'bedlah' (Arabic: بدلة; literally "suit") style, which typically includes a fitted top or bra, a fitted hip belt, and a full-length skirt or harem pants. The bra and belt may be richly decorated with beads, sequins, crystals, coins, beaded fringe and embroidery. The belt may be a separate piece, or sewn into a skirt.
Badia Masabni, a Cairo cabaret owner during the early 20th century, is credited with creating the modern bedlah style. It has been suggested that the bedlah was inspired by glamorous Hollywood costuming, or created to appeal to Western visitors. Earlier costumes were made up of a full skirt, light chemise and tight cropped vest with heavy embellishments and jewelry.
As well as the two-piece bedlah costume, full length dresses are sometimes worn, especially when dancing more earthy baladi styles. Dresses range from closely fitting, highly decorated gowns, which often feature heavy embellishments and mesh-covered cutouts, to simpler designs which are often based on traditional clothing.
A Belly Dance Hip Scarf with 2 or 3 layers coins is sometimes worn as an added accessory around the hips to make sounds as the belly dancer moves, also called Belly Scarf.
Costume in Egypt
A separate decorated bra and skirt, or dress with mesh cut-outs, is the most common costume. A belt is rarely used, and any embellishment is embroidered directly on to the skirt, which is often tightly fitted around the hips and made of lycra fabric.
Costume in Lebanon
As there is no prohibition on showing the stomach in Lebanon, the bedlah style is more common. The skirts tend to be sheer and/or skimpier than Egyptian outfits, showing more of the dancer's body. The veil is more widely used than in Egypt. High heels are commonly worn.
Costume in Turkey
Turkish costumes are usually in the bedlah style. Distinctive features of many Turkish costumes include a V-shaped or triangular belt which may be shaped or contoured around the top edge, and a great deal of embellishment and beaded fringing on both the bra and the belt. Skirts are often fuller than their Egyptian counterparts, and are likely to be made of chiffon or velvet rather than lycra.
In the 1980s and '90s a very revealing costume style developed with skirts designed to display both legs up to the hip, and plunging bras. Such styles still exist in some venues but there are also many Turkish belly dancers who wear more moderate costumes. Even so, many Turkish belly dance costumes reflect the playful, flirty style of Turkish belly dance.
Health and belly dancing
Belly dance is a non-impact, weight-bearing exercise and is thus suitable for all ages. It is a good exercise for the prevention of osteoporosis in older people. Many of the moves involve isolations, which improves flexibility of the torso. Belly dance moves are beneficial to the spine, as the full-body undulation moves lengthens (decompress) and strengthens the entire column of spinal and abdominal muscles in a gentle way.
Dancing with a veil can help build strength in the upper body, arm and shoulders. Playing the zills trains fingers to work independently and builds strength. The legs and long muscles of the back are strengthened by hip movements. Paffrath researched the effect of belly dance on women with menstruation problems. The subjects reported a more positive approach toward their menstruation, sexuality, and bodies.
Beginning in the late 1990s, belly dance hit the mainstream marketplace with fitness videos/DVDs by such artists as Veena and Neena, Rania Bossonis, and Dolphina. These videos are still popular throughout the world and have been credited with opening a new market of belly dance fitness classes throughout the US and abroad.
People known primarily for belly dancing include:
Belly dancing in popular culture
Belly dancing was repopularized in the early 2000s by Latin American superstar Shakira. Her Colombian and Lebanese heritage has influenced her dance style, and her dance routines often combine some belly dance movements with other dance styles.
The Brazilian telenovela O Clone (also known as El Clon in Spanish-speaking countries and the United States) is set in Brazil and Morocco and featured belly dancing in many episodes. The lead character, Jade (Giovanna Antonelli), used it to entice her lover Lucas (Murilo Benício) and to soothe and seduce her husband Said (Dalton Vigh).
Several James Bond films (including From Russia with Love) and music videos have featured belly dancers. In The Man with the Golden Gun, the belly dancer Saida wears a spent bullet in her navel, which Bond accidentally swallows while trying to retrieve it.
Documentaries about belly dance include American Bellydancer, Journey of Desire: A Foreign Dancer in Cairo, Belly, Sensual... Scarred... Sacred, and Bellydancers of Cairo.
- Raqs Sharqi
- Persian dance
- American Tribal Style Belly Dance
- Improv Tribal Style Belly Dance
- Tribal Fusion
- Glossary of belly dance terms
- Kurdish dance
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