Shake, Rattle and Roll: The Ancient Middle Eastern Art of Belly Dancing

by Anisa Benmoktar on September 14, 2009

Skirting Around a Delicate Issue:

I’d like to begin this blog with a disclaimer: I acknowledge and respect that the very essence of belly dancing may not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you find the whole concept to be little more than carnivorous cavorting, now might be a good time to step away from the screen and go put the kettle on. If, however, like me, you’re spellbound by the origins and evolution of this exotic and captivating Middle Eastern art form and the women that dance it, grab your dancing shoes and let’s shimmy.


A Whirling Introduction

Ok, so the two most well known forms of Middle Eastern belly dancing are as follows:

Raqs Baladi: This social dance lets loose in the name of fun and celebration and is performed by men and women of all ages, usually during weddings and other social gatherings.

Raqs Sharqi: This form has a more theatrical spin, which has made it popular around the world. Like raqs baladi, it’s sister dance is performed by both men and women in the Middle East.

Both forms run in the family: in regions where belly dancing is native, boys and girls start jiving young and pick it up by imitating their elders during family/community celebrations and gatherings with friends. For this brief synthesis the art of oriental dance, I’ll be mostly focusing on Raqs Sharqi.

Steppin Up to da Ancient Babylonian Beat

Belly dancing is said to come from Ancient Babylon in southern Iraq. Pre-Islam, Adnanite Arabs introduced belly dancing and drumming, which was passed on from generation to generation. The hypnotic drumbeats associated with belly dancing today are the very same that Arab tribal men used. Middle Eastern women got together on special occasions and danced, while men from the tribe drummed, feasted and watched them.

Islam arrived and banned belly dancing for obvious reasons. During the Ummayd and the Abbasid dynasties in Iraq, rich people promoted belly dancing as a trade. Local Arab women were hired to teach the dance to poor women and, later on, slaves from other parts of the world.

Arabs, who settled in Egypt during the time of the Abbasid and the Fatimid dynasties, passed on the belly dance. From then till now Egyptians adopted the dance and passed it down through generations. (Hence the fact Egypt has a reputation for having awesome belly dancers…)

Here’s some odd but interesting trivia: belly dancing is also historically referenced as a reworking of traditional movements utilized by Middle Eastern women to demonstrate or ease childbirth.

Wrap it Up: Belly Dancing Costumes Past and Present

The modern belly-dancing two-piece as we know it, is called a bedleh (suit) in Arabic. It was basically created by Hollywood at the turn of the 20th century, rather than having its roots in authentic Middle Eastern attire. Egyptian dancers adopted the bedleh in the 1930s and its popularity spread to surrounding countries.

The Lebanese Godmother of Oriental Dance, Badia Masabni is credited with making the bedleh famous and popular among Western tourists, who began to associate it with the art. This led to a phasing out of the native kaftans, which covered the whole body but used a belt around the middle to emphasize the movements. Many performers today still wear a kaftan to cover their costumes when not on stage.

Dancers often dance while balancing various props like baskets, swords or canes as well as using silk or Masabni-inspired adornments such as chiffon veils and wings for adding dramatic flare to dancewear.

A Women Only Sport?

Whilst belly-dancing is largely thought of as empowering women, it would appear that men have long given them a run for their money.

Turkish miniatures made during the Ottoman Empire show public performances by young men and boys called köçeks. These dancers were so popular that the Sultan employed an all-male dance troupe in addition to his female team. These men often wore long skirts for dramatic effect and for another more practical reason: Some of these male dancers had to impersonate women: As was the case in Shakespearean times, all dramatic roles were played by males as women were not allowed to entertain in public.

Köçeks are alive and well today, along with various other forms of belly dancing por homme. Modern day male belly dancing stars include Tariq Sultan, Jasmin Jahal, and Laurel Victoria Gray.

Let’s Shake on it: Techniques

Most of the basic steps and techniques used in Middle Eastern women’s belly dancing involve circular motions with a certain part of the body. A circular movement “drawn” parallel to the floor by the hips is known as a “hip circle”; One by the rib cage is known as a “chest circle”. Hip lifts or drops are use to draw the eye to hip shimmies or circles, and shoulder or arm movements are to accent chest or belly undulations.

One of the major contributions Badia made to oriental dance was transporting it from chaabi (traditional dancing) to a worldwide phenomenon. Originally, a belly dancer had a limited repertoire of arm movements, but Badia invented “snake arms”  – now a hallmark belly dancing move, which involves holding the arms out to the sides and moving them above the head. She also influenced dancers to use more space on the stage rather than staying in one spot, as the tribes had done.

For modern belly dancing tuition, you’ll find Youtube has a wide range of “do try it at home” instruction videos, which range from the sublime to the downright impossible. Rania Bossonis is a Middle Eastern siren who has won plenty of awards and I’d suggest her vids or website are a good place to start, if like me, you’ve two left feet and are more than likely to give this malarky a whirl on a Sunday morning in your PJs on your yoga mat.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

alisha July 22, 2010 at 7:48 pm

cool, that’s like everything i could ever want to know about belly dancing :)

dinesh May 14, 2011 at 8:17 am

yes, i went to know about belly dancing

jessica detore December 20, 2012 at 9:42 pm

wow that was realy interesting!! i practice a form called tribal style bellydance and we learn alot of the roots but i never got to hear about all that.

Bellydance By Bessy August 29, 2013 at 4:09 am

It’s a boomer… A lot of belly dance instructors do not teach what’s behind all the belly dancing moves and techniques. They don’t provide their students with vital information about the dance form. Most of them just teach the moves and done. That’s why there are so many un-passionate bellydancers out there.
Thanks for the article!

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