A Brief History of Belly Dance

Belly Dance History This is an article I had several years ago … I don’t have the name of this author but it does seem fitting.  It also holds true what may have taken place with my dance teacher – who was dancing in the early 1960’s to 1990’s.  It gives a brief look at ancient to modern times and where we may be going with this beautiful art form.

History of Belly Dance

Belly Dance has been around since before the Common Era (BCE) for at least 5000 years or more.   By some accounts, it has been said that the dance was performed by the village female friends and family for a woman in labor to aid in the birth of her child by encouraging the mother to move in a similar fashion; and also so that the ever watchful Evil Eye, in its quest to search out, inhabit, and destroy that which was about to be born, would instead in its confusion as to who was undulating with a full womb, would inhabit an empty one of these mimicking undulating women, thus saving the child from certain death.  Although these accounts may seem plausible, they have not been proven; and, for the most part, the Ancient Egyptians, as do Modern Egyptians, celebrated life every day to its fullest through the magic of music and dance.

As early as Pre-Dynastic periods, we find that Egyptian life, both religious as well as secular, was celebrated by the performance of music and dance.   Large numbers of musical instruments have been found in museum collections around the world, dating back to this time period.   Additionally, murals painted within the walls of Pre-Dynastic tombs depict scenes of parties and banquets with musicians and dancers; however, in these particular scenes, they appear to be more secular and idealized rather than actual.   Then, around the 18th Dynasty, there appears to be a noticeable change with regards to the feel of these scenes as actual events.  It is about this time that Queen Nefertiti may have made her mark.

Before the time of Queen Nefertiti’s husband, the Heretic King, King Akhenaton, hundreds of temples abounded throughout Egypt, each built to serve a different deity.  However, beginning with the archaeological evidence along with religious and mortuary art and the architecture from the late 18th Dynasty, we find that rich and powerful pharaohs from King Akhenaton’s grandfather, Thutmosis IV and forward, broke traditions by engaging in grand building programs and introducing novel fashions which included the pleated kilt, full makeup, and heavy wigs.

King Akhenaton took the Pharaoh’s throne and ruled from 1352 to 1336 BCE and, following suit of breaking tradition, was the first Pharaoh – in fact, the first individual ever in the history of mankind – to establish a monotheistic religion, the worship of the Sun God, or rather a henotheism religion as he did acknowledge that there were other gods as well.  His wife, Queen Nefertiti, was a devout follower and in fact has been attributed to initiating the new religion.  As such, she held the position of a high priest.

Nefertiti, meaning, “a beautiful one”, may have indeed lived up to her name as not only being beautiful, but also as having bestowed her beauty as a legacy to this world.  It is believed that as high priest, she was active in the religious and cultural changes brought about by her husband.  We have little evidence of the actual dances before her time, but we do know that prior to this new religion, each temple was worshiped and kept by its own staff of temple dancers, priests, and priestesses, and therefore, each temple may have had its own style of dance worship for its particular deity.   With Queen Nefertiti’s reign as “Chief Queen” and “God’s wife of Amun” as well as the high priest of all temples, and with the noticeable change we now see regarding the feel of 18th Dynasty scenes in which she is depicted, we can speculate that she may have been instrumental if not solely responsible in bringing dance together by unifying all temple dances into one dance – the dance of the Temple of the Sun God, Aten, located in Armana.  Here, under the one god, Queen Nefertiti may have actively brought together all temple dancers.  These dancers, having now been unified, would have shared their specific temple dance knowledge, resulting in on universal temple dance; a precursor to specifice dance we see in Egypt today.

Additionally, under the auspices of this high queen in her resolve to combine all temple dances, it appears that she may have commissioned her dancers to dance strictly barefoot portraying them as bridged spiritual liaisons between the earth and all of its former or lesser Egyptian deities and the sky of the present Sun God, Aten.  To further bring attention to and enhance the exposed barefoot and to beautify its appearance in the dance, she may have instructed her dancers to apply color to their toenails with the juices of berries.  Clearly, Queen Nefertiti may have been the first to apply red nail color, the original nail polish of today, to the dancer’s fingers and toenails in Ancient Egypt, a tradition that is still practiced to this day by the majority of traditional barefoot belly dancers.   As we study these ancient Egyptian banquet and celebratory scenes as they were painted before, during, and after the 18th Dynasty, we can truly see that Queen Nefertiti had indeed lived up to her name and had come into her own as a beautiful woman.  Only as high priest, Chief Queen, and God’s wife of Amun could one have been able to accomplish such monumental tasks.  And in this period of change, Queen Nefertiti, no doubt could have implemented such a unified cultural dance tradition and expression.

Belly Dance or Raqs Sharqi? 

When I began my first lesson in this dance back in 1974, which quite frankly sprung from the streets of Egypt and wasn’t even known to the rest of the world, much less the West, as a bonafide dance form until the sometime in the 19th Century, I remember reading in the Yellow Pages of the local phone book about “belly dance” lessons that were being offered by Jodette in her studio on El Camino Real in Sacramento.

And when I arrived to register myself, it was an Arab woman — not a Western or American woman — who took my money.   Jodette, who proudly taught what she, herself, called “belly dance” would later open the doors to the mysteries of this most beautiful yet severely mis-understood dance form, and would take me down a path of study and dedication to the eventual opening of my own Egyptian restaurant and subsequently my belly dance academy.   For decades, we all knew and referred to this dance form as “bellydance”.  We loved this name; cherished it as a symbol of our  sisterhood.   And, although many of us agreed that it sounded somewhat “cheesy”, we rolled with the punches and belly danced, doing our best while educating the uninformed public.   But, as my dance generation began to age, a new generation exploded onto the scene, and with it a new name for my beloved dance, calling it “Raqs Sharqi”.

Raqs Sharqi, meaning “Dance of the East”, has become the new name for belly dance.   And not a moment too soon.   In the generation — my generation — that learned “belly dance” from self taught teachers, numerous attempts to replicate this dance in its original classic Egyptian movement through the Western experience failed, spawning new and unique forms of dance styles and their derivatives, taking the umbrella name American Tribal Style® (ATS®).

This new name of “Raqs Sharqi” lends a sense of respectability and ownership to the dance, and strips away somewhat the images of scantily clad harem women born from the Western Orientalist mindset.  however, now we’re faced with the conundrum of how to spell the new name since our vocabulary doesn’t provide for glottal stops.   Hence, spellings have now emerged to include “Raks Sharki”, “Rox Sharky”,  “Raqs Sharqui”, “Rocks Sharkee”, and so on, and given rise to engaging and creative titles like “Raq Star” and “Raq the House”.   So, while “belly dance” went on to invent and perform new and unique styles of dance, “Raqs Sharqi” now suffers the problem of establishing a proper way to spell its new label.

This has been a beautiful road of travel for me, from my first day  at Jodette’s Belly Dance studio to now.  The amount of knowledge I have accumulated transcends any label given to this dance form and culture.   It is simply a form of expression of another people, both unique and special — alluring and filled with intrigue, complexity, and fascination.

Perhaps in the emergence of another new generation that believes in keeping and maintaining the Classic authenticity of this dance form as I have done since 1974, the problem of establishing a proper way to spell “Raqs Sharqi” may finally be solved.   It is ever a learning process confounded with the world’s terms of agreement; which, because no real culturally sanctioned authority both in movement vocabulary and breakdown has ever been established either in Egypt or anywhere else in the world, will always be divisive.

It is my quest, through the teachings of my dance academy, to establish such an authority, both in vocabulary and execution, as to maintain the authenticity of this dance in its Classic, Golden Age of Egypt, form; for without such an authority, this dance will surely be lost.

Belly Dance:  An Egyptian Visual Cultural Expression

Belly dance is a specific and fundamental cultural expression; it has nothing to do with goddess worship; it did not spring from any religion, least of all any earth-centered or pagan one; and above all, it is not American, although many of its pseudo offshoots would lay claim to the contrary.  It is primarily and originally an Egyptian visual form of celebratory communication innate to its culture and made known throughout the world via the Egyptian movie enclave, which featured the first belly dancers ever to appear on the silver screen; belly dancers that were at that time making a living and performing in Egypt, specifically its capitol, Cairo.

As this cultural expression was recorded on film, these movies, in their popularity along with the dance and dancer, began to appear on the silver screen first in Egypt and then across the Arab countries and later in the living rooms of respective people’s homes who were wealthy or affluent enough to own a television set.   These movies, that along with featuring popular love story themes, depicted the dance in popular cabaret or party scenes.  It was only a matter of time before these movies made their way out of the Middle East, into Europe, and across the Atlantic Ocean and into the East Coast.   And in doing so, the dance, which was initially performed in Egypt, eventually became known to the rest of the world as “belly dance”, a term translated from the French term, “danse du ventre” or dance of the abdomen; or perhaps it was a bastardization of the Arabic word “beledi” meaning “my country”.

As these movies made their way from the Egyptian movie theaters through the rest of the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and eventually in the mid 1950s to the United States, they provoked the attention of some women whose intrigue of the dance would spark a new and profound yet covetous interest in this unprecedented dance form leaving some to question today what authentic belly dance truly is.

Prior to the Egyptian movie era that began in the turn of the 20th Century, the public belly dance performance was seen only live in the cabarets or restaurants of Egypt’s big cities.  Those who wrote about the dance and described its movement as seen first hand were usually male European artists who ventured to this exotic land for insightful artistic inspiration offered by a mysterious but compelling world, yet who looked upon the dance through their limited native cultural experience, which was more Western than Middle Eastern.  In one of these first documented adventures in 1849 by male artist, Gustave Flaubert, he describes his encounter with one of Egypt’s dancers, Kuchuk Hanem, as “looking like the figures on ancient Greek vases”, an apparent interpretational observation by a 19th Century Western male perspective.

Egypt’s Modern Belly Dancer

Unfortunately, the inevitable melding and cross pollination of Middle Eastern and Western cultures now pose a very true and legitimate threat to the authenticity of the dance as it once graced the stages and dance floors of Egypt.  As Egypt becomes more popular to the Western world as a vacation or academic destination, and as the travel opportunities for Egyptians become more available in the Western world, cultures and expressions are now being exchanged and learned leaving a more modern Egyptian culture in its wake which is finding evidence in the latest dances of modern Egyptian belly dancers.  Although fundamentally Egyptian in expression and communication, today’s modern Egyptian belly dancer has picked up certain Western colloquial expressions and nuances that have entered into the dance scene.  These are becoming more and more visible to the trained eye.

Additionally, as the fundamentalist religious groups continue to take a strong hold on the Egyptian populous, more and more Egyptian women are pressured into donning the veil and shun the limelight of their dance heritage as well as the public dance scene.  This dance is fast becoming a thing of the past both in Egypt because of these fundamentalist religious groups and by the Western interpretation and indoctrination of the dance through these self-proclaimed fusionists.  Belly dance, in its fundamental presentation, as it was initially filmed in Egypt and distributed by the Egyptians, is headed for the endangered species list.

Rediscovering, Recapturing, and Reapplying the Authenticity of Egypt’s Visual Cultural Expression

Of importance in keeping belly dance alive, authentic, and true to its origins, the world has at its fingertips an entire Egyptian movie empire waiting to be meticulously studied and emulated.  It is, however, interesting yet ironic to note that the impetuous that helped to explode this dance craze onto the Western dance scene and which ultimately led to less than dubious fusion dance styles, which have left Egyptian belly dance with a lot to be desired, may be the only visual medium which will make these nonsensical fusion dance styles obsolete or at the very least classified as an altogether separate dance form apart from traditional belly dance with a name and vernacular all to its own, keeping separate that which is the authentic Egyptian expression.

Belly dance is fundamentally Egyptian.  It was initially performed in Egypt; it was made popular by the Egyptians, was initially recorded by the Egyptians, and it was made available to the rest of the world by the Egyptians – first and foremost.  Anything other than Egyptian style belly dance, which should be given all rights to the coined present day term of “belly dance”, is only an adaptation of movement or mixture of expression – a bastardization or fusion – that has come about through the interpretation of the dance by the untrained, unskilled or inexperienced dancer of her respective culture or country.  While these off-shoot derivatives have become acknowledged and accepted in their own rights throughout the West and the rest of the world, they are not belly dance as it was introduced to us in the early Nineteenth Century.  To understand and perform authentic Egyptian style belly dance as a non-native of Egypt is to step outside of one’s original cultural experience and dedicate one’s life, soul, and self to the study of the culture, the people, the cuisine, and the language as well as the study of the dance and its fundamental core expression from which these derivatives all originated – Egypt; the very same place that gave us a glimpse of the first Egyptian belly dancers ever to perform on the silver screen, which we were and are today able to watch because of the Egyptian movie industry – the industry that distributed of these Egyptian movies.