HISTORY OF MIDDLE EASTERN DANCE

Middle Eastern Dance, popularly referred to as bellydance, is one of the world’s oldest dances, having been used as a means of worshipping the sacred, preparing women for childbirth, celebrating life’s joys and mourning its tragedies. It was also used as a means of storytelling and passing traditions. It is believed to have it roots in the Romany people (known less affectionately as Gypsies) as they migrated out of India and spread all across Northern Africa, the Middle East, to Turkey (where they still heavily influence the dance style), then east to Hungary and Romania, and even as far as the western provinces of what became the Soviet Union. As these people spread, bringing with them their music and dance traditions, they blended into these new societies, forever changing the dance and musical expressions of all the people they encountered.

True Middle Eastern Dance is NOT the seductive, sexual dance that many have been led to believe. This misconception is the invention of Hollywood. There is no mixed couple dancing and the women do not dance for the men. In the Middle East, the sexes are strictly segregated and promiscuity was, and still is, punishable by death; therefore mothers, especially of this region, would NEVER instruct their daughters to dance in a sexual, thus life threatening, manner. True, the “favored wife” or slave girl may have occasionally danced for her Sultan in his chambers, though more often than not, she danced for him once and was relegated to the harem for the rest of her life, frequently left pregnant. It became the job of the older women of the harem to teach the young girl what to do next. The sensuality of the dance comes from a woman discovering and celebrating her femininity and, traditionally, was performed by women for women as it mimics the natural movements of the female form.

This is not to exclude the men. Contrary to popular belief, bellydancing is not a strictly feminine dance. Middle Eastern males have a strong history of bellydancing. In fact, male performers were once considered more reputable than females and were often seen dancing in public, whereas females rarely danced publicly. Though the movements are similar, male bellydancers do not imitate women, and their dance is naturally more masculine as their body mechanics differ. In fact, many moves are easier for males.

In the United States, this beautiful art has exploded into many different styles:

Raks Sharqi – The cabaret (term not to be confused with European definition meaning risqué) form seen in modern Middle Eastern nightclubs. In America, Raks Sharqi has been nicknamed “American Glitter” and is a more controlled, internal form of the dance, always performed with an upright, raised, elegant posture. The American style often incorporates props such as veils or swords and includes floorwork. Google Sadie Marquardt for style sample.

Turkish Cabaret – Movements are often bigger and more exuberant than those of the Egyptian style, which is more restrained. Turkish has been likened to Jazz dancing while Egyptian has been compared to Ballet. The Turkish Cabaret costumes are just as glamorous as the Egyptian costumes, just a little less modest. Google Turkish bellydancer Didem.

American Tribal – The American Tribal Style (ATS) was born in San Francisco in the 70’s and is characterized by distinctive costuming, posture, and synchronized movements, usually with improvisational dancing by a group of dancers. A remote presence is maintained with virtually no interaction with the audience. Look up FatChanceBellyDance.

Fusion – This is probably one of the fastest growing styles, an outgrowth of the Tribal Style Movement. This style of dance borrows some techniques and movements from American Tribal Style, but also adds movements from Yoga, Bhangara, Flamenco, African, Latin, Burlesque, and sometimes Asian. Tribal Fusion and Gothic Tribal would fall under this category.

Other forms include Greek, Persian, Lebanese, Gypsy, Goddess, and Folkloric forms among many others. There are as many forms of the dance as tribes and families in the Middle East. Many of the folkloric styles are dying out as the populations become victims of genocide and/or fundamentalist governments, while other styles evolve to become a modern continuation of this beautiful art.

Hugs and Shimmies,
DC