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The Phenomenon of the American Belly Dancer

By Atea

Since the late 1960's, the United States has witnessed a surge in the of popularity of a new phenomenon - the American belly dancer. Other parts of the world, particularly the Near and Middle East, have enjoyed the performance of "Oriental dance" for thousands of years. What has caused the American girl-next-door, our sisters, and our mothers, to don finger cymbals and hip scarves as they strive to master the intricacies of this ancient art form?

American Belly Dancer Belly dance received its first real national awareness in America during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, when authentic Oriental dancers were imported from the Near and Mid-East to perform their native dances. After the fair closed, a small number of American entertainers copied these dances in performances for vaudeville, carnivals, stage shows, and the like. American movies, and eventually TV, sometimes included the dance (one of the very first films in existence, produced by Thomas Edison, featured a belly dancer named Fatima!).

However, until recently, the actresses belly dancing in these films were usually Americans trained in Western styles of dance such as ballet or jazz. They did their best to imitate what they thought to be traditional belly dance moves. Despite their less-than-authentic presentations, American woman became increasingly intrigued by these mysterious and alluring images.

Yet, as recently as the late 1950's, few Americans could claim to have seen an authentic belly dancing performance. Ethnic restaurants and night clubs tucked away in the Middle Eastern neighborhoods of our larger cities sometimes showcased them. Many of these belly dancers were born and raised in the Near or Mid-East. They had learned to belly dance the traditional way - passed down from their mothers and female relatives. Upon coming to the U.S. to make a living practicing their art, they proceeded to inspire a generation of American women by their performances and ability to teach.

By the late '60's and early 70's, a growing demand for authentic belly dancing exploded, going hand-in-hand with the womens' awareness movement and the cultural revolution of the '60's. From Maine to California, belly dancing studios sprouted up like mushrooms. Teachers got serious about receiving as much training as possible, studying with experts and traveling to the East for inspiration. The real dance was in America to stay.

With the increasing opportunities for teachers and entertainers, many former belly dance students decided to go public with their newly found talents.

Belly dancers of all degrees of expertise could be seen throughout the spectrum of American society. In addition to the old stand-byes of night clubs and film, new performance and instruction vistas opened up. Belly dancers could be seen with increasing frequency performing at festivals, fund raisers, cultural centers, nursing homes, and parties. Belly dancing classes could be found in community centers, YMCA's, recreation departments, and colleges. In conservative areas where belly dancers found resistance to the presentation of their art, they went forward by financing and producing their own events, creating venues where they controlled the content and environment for their dance.

American belly dancers now represent a cross-section of all social, racial, and economic groups: housewives, career women, grandmothers, and students.

Each individual has her own reasons for her involvement in belly dancing. Many want to experience the health benefits and fun found in this beautiful form of belly dance movement. Others want to teach or perform professionally, making money doing something they truly love. In belly dance classes and other gatherings, some simply enjoy making new friends with like-minded individuals. And still others are fascinated to explore the ethnic cultures connected to the dance. Yet, for all their diverse reasons, dancers share a common bond - the joy of expressing the feminine experience through belly dancing.

No other art form is so imbued with the power and spirit of the feminine. The natural moves, the nurturing qualities, and the dancing from the heart, are a welcome antidote to the more masculine precepts of Western dance.

Many believe that belly dance originated thousands of years ago when the primal deity around the world was female. Belly dance was a celebration of life, health, and reverence to our connection to Mother Nature. Not all American belly dancers are fully aware of the ancient traditions they are carrying on. Yet, at least at some level, almost all of them are aware that what they are practicing is powerful, mysterious, and profound.

The future of the American belly dancer is assured. Still, there are many difficulties to be overcome. That which is so profoundly feminine is often misunderstood in the patriarchal societies of our times. Belly dancers in general, except those at the very top of their profession, are underpaid, overworked, and struggling for respectability. Yet, despite the lack of adequate conditions, the American belly dancers' love for the art continues to keep it alive.

Through the efforts of dedicated teachers and performers, the American public has become more aware of the dance as a sophisticated health system and a true art form. Whether they present the dance in a "modern" or "traditional ethnic" style, the well-trained belly dancer communicates the many facets of the art and of femininity (and there is a more masculine version performed by men that combines those feminine values with a masculine energy). The effects on American culture has been profound.

Most Western dance forms, such as contemporary ballets, jazz, modern, and popular dancing, exhibit more and more of the Eastern influence. Belly dance movements are becoming more natural with flowing and undulating motions of the arms, torso, and hips. A greater emphasis is being placed on response to rhythm, spontaneity, and self expression.

Ironically, the U.S. has become a beacon of hope for the survival of belly dancing that is now fast disappearing in the Near and Mid-East. As religious fundamentalism sweeps these regions, the native women are severely discouraged from publicly performing their traditional dance. There are now more belly dance studios, students, performance venues, and professional dancers in the U.S. than in any other country. The American belly dancers, through their seminars, videos, and books, have been instrumental in helping to create thriving dance communities in Europe, Australia, South American, and Asia. Through the internet, a global dance community has developed that is ever increasing the availability of belly dance to every corner of the world. This community will help keep belly dance alive, despite the efforts in some areas of the world to suppress it.

As we look forward to the new millennia, we see belly dancers who are preserving the wide variety of traditional ethnic forms of belly dance. We also see others who are fusing the ancient movements with new forms of music and costuming. In all its myriad manifestations, the American belly dancer and her fellow belly dancers around the world, will continue to inspire, entertain, and educate with this intriguing gift from the past.

If you liked this article, read other belly dancing articles by Atéa.

"What is Bellydance and What Should We Really Call It" is about belly dance history, names and definitions. "Creating Inner Peace With Oriental Dance" discusses spiritual and healing aspects of bellydance. Learn what music is appropriate for belly dancing in "Choosing Belly Dance Music for Practice or Performance". To learn how to get a belly dancing costume, read "Your First Belly Dancing Costume".

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