A Short History of Belly Dancing

So, how did this athletic dance go from a simple pastime to a “naughty” talent to a female empowerment symbol, and then, finally, a fitness class at your local health club? Read on for a short history of belly dancing. 

Before the 1800s

Dances vary from culture to culture, but one thing doesn’t change — dancing is a way people express themselves. At weddings, festivals, and other social gatherings, Middle Eastern people do as people all over the world do— they play music, laugh and have fun. Because of the segregation of genders in Middle Eastern countries due to religion, men’s and women’s dances in countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt evolved differently over the centuries. Some styles of women’s dancing became focused on hip and torso movements. Most historians interested in the evolution of dance describe the origins of belly dancing to be a social, improvisational dance that women engaged in during parties and other festivals. Because men and women seldom — if ever —socialised together, historians doubt the purpose of the dance was seduction. 

The 1800s 

So how did westerners associate a concubine-like image with a dance probably meant to have had no more sexual undertones than the polka?

Belly dance as we know it in the West came about through the sales pitch of the entertainment director of the 1893 World’s Fair, held in Chicago. There were some performers from the Middle East, in particular Egypt, who would be performing for the crowd. Not sure what to call these forms of dance, Sol Bloom came up with a clever moniker: belly dance.  At the time, European and American fashions were conservative, with most society women wearing corsets. Bloom’s play on the French term danse du ventre, which referred to a different kind of dance, conjured titillating images for the World’s Fair attendees. A record number of patrons came to watch the folk-dancing.

Western influences in the Middle East and cabaret theatre’s popularity led to the relaxation of the separation between genders in Egypt. At this point, folk dancing was becoming a popular performance art in the Middle East as well and not just a social activity.  

After the 1800s

The mystique and elegance of the dancers from the World’s Fair captivated European audiences, and soon there was a new way to see them in. Films from the Middle East and Hollywood featuring belly dancers, or Oriental dancers as some preferred to be called, built up the dance’s sex appeal and started a host of myths about it. The costumes were made elaborate and skimpy for film. Paintings of Middle Eastern scenes by European artists in the Orientalism school propagated the image of lusty concubines dancing for Sultans’ favours.

The association of dancers with femme fatales like Mata Hari created both positive and negative connotations. While it was enjoyed in France and a few other locations early in the 1900s, it didn’t become popular in Europe again until the 1970s, when some feminist activists declared it to be freeing and empowering for women. The trend has continued through the 1990s and 2000s, with belly dance now seen as a way to keep fit, look sexy and express emotions.

Whereas centuries ago, belly dancing was shocking in the West, now women of all ages take belly-dancing classes or search for the best Turkey holidays where they can practice the art in workshops. And, not least, they are having fun with their friends — which was the dance’s original purpose.

 

About the Author: Patti Williams, who has studied classical dance from various cultures, is a sociology grad student working on a book about popular dances.