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What is Belly Dance and What Should We Really Call It

By Atéa

As the dance form, commonly called belly dance, becomes ever more popular, there is some confusion as to what its proper name is. So before we can discuss what to call it, we need to establish what "it" is.

"Belly dancing" consists of a movement vocabulary that sets it apart from any other dance form. The most distinguishing feature is its isolated movements of the abdomen. These abdominal movements may be circular, rolling, angular, or vibrating, and are unique to this dance.

Belly Dance Moves

Belly Dance Moves But belly dance is a form that involves every other part of the body too, isolating major muscle groups and working them in isolation or in opposition to other parts of the body. Other distinguishing features are circular or wavelike moves of arms, hands, head, upper torso, and hips.

Sharp, angular and vibrating moves of these areas of the body are also a major component of belly dancing. Typically, the moves are more inner directed and cover less floor space than Western forms of dance. It is usually done as a solo improvisation, but choreography and group dancing can also be performed. This site features a number of belly dancing video clips including choreographed and group dancing.

Origins of Belly Dance

Despite much research, the exact origins of belly dancing are unknown. What is not disputed is that 'belly dance' is very ancient - at least 2,000 years old, but most likely much older than that.

There is a growing body of evidence that the distinguishing moves of belly dance date back to Neolithic times and the Goddess-based cultures that existed then. The belly and the reverence for it as the "cup (or chalice) of life," is evident in cultures in Neolithic Europe, Africa, India, the Near and Middle East, and other areas of the globe. Dance was an important and often sacred part of these cultures, and since their most revered painted and sculptured art works featured symbols of spirals, waves, circles, and other patterns found in belly dance, there seems to be a logical connection to the belly dance that exists today.

In its thousands of years of existence, different variations of "bellydance" have evolved to express the various cultures that have practiced it. Matriarchal and partnership models of society gave way to our present world of patriarchy and dominator paradigms. The development of new religions, migrations of people, and wars, were some of the major factors that carried the dance to new areas of the world, making it disappear in others. Over the centuries, belly dance has been practiced for numerous reasons, including for entertainment, childbirth preparation, ritual, physical education, communal bonding, and celebration. We do not know what belly dance was called in its earliest times. Yet, as different variations and styles of the dance, music, and costuming developed, the basic belly dance movements appear to have remained virtually unchanged up to our present time.

Often Called Middle Eastern or Oriental Dance

In recent historical times, it has been the cultures of the Mediterranean area, and the Near and Middle East that have done the most to preserve the basic movement vocabulary that in Western countries is currently referred to as "bellydance." But until recently, native populations of the East have not called the dance by this name. For example, in Arabic speaking countries, it is usually referred to as "Raks Al Sharki" (dance of the East); in Turkish cultures, "Oryantal" dance, and in France, "Danse du Ventre" (abdominal dance) or "Danse Orientale." In English speaking areas, it is also called "Arabic dance", "Middle Eastern dance," and "Oriental dance."

All of these names refer to the same basic belly dancing moves. Although there are regional differences in styles of music, movement variations, and costuming, the belly dance is easily recognized by its unique signature movements, regardless of the geographical location of where it is performed.

Dancers and aficionados of belly dance have various preferences as to what they chose to call it. In the U.S., some prefer to call it "Middle Eastern dance" or "Arabic dance." These are accurate terms if the dancer is doing a specific interpretation of the dance to authentic Middle Eastern/Arabic music and is wearing the traditional costuming from those areas. The terms "Oriental dance" or "Raks Al Sharki" are also accurate under those conditions (although they usually cause confusion among the American public that is still very unfamiliar with those terms). By far and away, the most widely recognized term is "bellydance" and that term is the most accurate when applied to modern, Westernized versions of the dance. Yet, a very small but vocal minority of dancers has waged a campaign to expunge the term "belly dance" as a valid name for this movement vocabulary, even in its more contemporary forms. Their fear is that the term "belly dance" cheapens or degrades the image of the authentic dance and doesn't give credit to some of its ethnic influences. Let's take a look at some of their concerns.

Unfortunate Belly Dancing Image Problems

Much of the image problem for this dance can be traced to the fact that "the victors write the history books." Thousands of years ago, when patriarchal hordes destroyed the ancient Goddess-based cultures around the world, great effort went into demonizing these earlier belief systems and religions. The Goddess and those who danced in her honor were now portrayed by the new religions as whores (from the word "horae," ancient priestesses). The female body and the dances that once celebrated its creative functions, became evil temptations to lure men away from the religious demands of the new male sky Gods. Gradually, throughout the centuries, the concept of women publicly performing solo dances became associated with shame and lewd sexuality. But sexually repressed cultures only serve to make sex and sensuality all the more desirable, due in part to its very forbiddeness. In the 20th century, entrepreneurs of all persuasions have realized that "sex sells." In Hollywood movies, night clubs, and other performance venues around the West, exotic "dancing girls" became a common feature and their focus was often on sexual titillation rather than the dance as an art.

The English introduction of the term "bellydance" is credited to Mr. Sol Bloom. He was an entertainment impressionario considered to be the first to popularize belly dance in the United States by bringing authentic Middle Eastern dancers and musicians to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (he was actually not the first to bring the dance to these shores, but earlier stage shows in the U.S. did not capture the attention of American public as his did). Some will say that Mr. Bloom's coining of the phrase "belly dance" to publicize his shows at the Fair was done with sexist, racist, and malicious intent explicitly to cause salacious outrage in the Victorian public of the day and to generate headlines (in Victorian times, polite society did not use the word "belly", or many other words that are acceptable today). In actuality, Mr. Bloom was not making up the term, but simply translating the French "Danse du Ventre" into English. It appears that the French had been using that name to describe the belly dance since the time of Napoleon's conquest of Egypt in the 1700's (and there is no documentation on exactly what date the French started using it, or exactly what regional ethnic dances they were originally referring to - Ghawazee, Ouled Nail, etc.). Unfortunately, Mr. Bloom is not alive today to tell us what his real motivations were for popularizing the now infamous name. But judging from his writings, he respected his Middle Eastern performers and their beautiful traditional art, and while not being above provoking a response from the straight-laced society of his time, it is doubtful he was being malicious in his intent. In any event, he was certainly successful in drawing attention to his belly dancers and the name quickly caught on.

After the great success of the Chicago World's Fair and the intense interest shown by the American public to the Middle Eastern dancers, belly dance became popular entertainment. Unfortunately, many of the newly minted belly dancers in the West knew little about the authentic dance and faked it as best they could in movies, vaudeville, and stages big and small. Different belly dancers used different terms to describe their dance, but the moniker "belly dancing" became the most widely recognized in the U.S.

Despite the wide range of dance ability and authenticity apparent in the belly dancers, a standardized image started to emerge: a dancer in a belly-revealing costume, executing snaky moves and shimmies became the alluring and mysterious 'belly dancer." It is this IMAGE, not the terminology, that has been the real source of discomfort concerning this art form. No matter what a dancer calls herself, if she wears the belly-revealing costume and does the serpentine and ecstatic moves of the ancient art, she is invoking all the centuries of propaganda against a woman moving freely and publicly to music. The word "belly dance" itself is not the source of the public's misunderstandings of the art.

Still another argument against the use of the term "belly dancing" is that the word is a 'misnomer' because the dance involves the whole body, not just the abdomen. But the most unique and distinguishing moves of the dance ARE the abdominal moves. In addition, one of the other distinguishing techniques of the dance, the technique of isolating lower body moves from upper body moves, causes a noticeable and continuous movement in the mid-section. Shimmies and body vibrations also cause a reaction in the belly. To the observer, the belly does indeed dance during a performance of the traditional moves!

Belly Dancing For Health

Today people around the world are embracing belly dancing for many different reasons: effective exercise, holistic health, a fun hobby, relaxation, etc. Many women find it an excellent way to reconnect with their femininity and the ideals of ancestors who respected their bodies and Mother Earth. Their bodies are no longer a source of shame, but recognized instead as a source of life and a connection to the divine. They embrace the term "belly dancing" for the affirmation that the abdomen is a sacred and honored part of their body. They don't care who coined the term "belly dancing" or why, what Hollywood's fantasies are, or what people in Victorian times thought of the word "belly." They are living in the here and now, and are proclaiming their respect for belly dance and for its source at the center of their being.

Those who prefer the more traditional and various ethnic expression of this dance will continue to use the best terminology to describe their chosen style, whether it is Egyptian style, Turkish, Lebanese, etc. But for the contemporary dancer "belly dancing" is a valid, accurate, and respectable name for what they do. In the end, to gain greater respect and understanding for this ageless and enduring dance form, it is not what we call it, but how we conduct ourselves that matters. Good belly dancing training videos in the classic movements and techniques, professionalism in public performances, and respect for ourselves and others will take belly dance to new heights in the new millennium. We will then have come full circle, back to that wonderful era when the feminine was also divine, and expressed so beautifully through the immortal art of BELLY DANCING!

Definition of the word 'Ab'

Definition of the word 'Ab' (root word of abdomen) from Barbara G. Walker's book "The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets" (published in 1996 by Castle Books)

Ab - Egyptian word for the heart-soul, most important of the seven souls: the one that would be "weighed in the balances" by the Goddess Maat in the underworld Hall of Judgment after death. As in India, the heart-soul was pictured as a tiny dancer treading a constant rhythm in the midst of the body, as Dancing Shiva or Dancing Kali kept the rhythm of life in the midst of the cosmos. The hieroglyphic sign of the ab was a dancing figure.

If you liked this article, read other belly dancing articles by Atéa. "Creating Inner Peace With Oriental Dance" is about healing aspects of belly dancing. "The Phenomenon of the American Belly Dancer" discusses the development and impact of belly dancing in America and it's influence worldwide. 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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