History of Belly Dance

The origin of belly dance is sketchy in that no one agrees on its origins. There are a few things that are known:

  1. The dance is actually called Raks Sharki and means Dance of the East. It received its 'belly dance' name from the western explorers that termed it for its use and display of the belly. Belly Dance is really a misnomer as the majority of the work is done with the whole body with focus on isolation.

  2. This dance's origins are largely based in a woman dance for women. Every Middle Eastern woman seems to know at least a few steps and is completely comfortable dancing. It was and is done to celebrate big occasions (i.e. wedding/menarche/birth etc.) and at family gatherings.

  3. Largely, the current concept and costuming ideas were created in Hollywood and have been accepted throughout the world.

  4. Those individuals that believe that belly dance originated in the harems and that it was designed for the pleasure of men, have bought into the 'scandalous nature' of belly dance portrayed during the Victorian era. In a world where long skirts and corsets were the norm, someone dancing and moving their body was considered riske.

  5. The purpose of a dancer in the Middle East is to be the visual representation of the music. To be the music….. listen to it and let it move her.

Arabic Music

The Arabs take their music very seriously. There was a time in their history when you would dress a specific way and eat specific foods when listening to a particular style of music. There is a word in Arabic, 'tarab', that means ecstasy/to melt/to cry/ to ache and is applied to those artists and musicians that can evoke that response. The closest Western equivalent to the Arabic artists such as Abdel Halim Hafez or Oum Kalthoum would perhaps be Elvis. The vocalist Oum Kalthoum had so much power in her day that she literally had control over what governments would do/decide through her singing…the whole of the middle east flew at half mast the day she died.

The music sounds so foreign to western ears because they have quarter tones. As far as my understanding goes…they have maqam (which are similar to out major scales) and iqa (which are similar to out minor keys). A good musician can start with a melody in one maqam and change from iqa to iqa to a different maqam and find his way back to the original. In a way it is similar to jazz, in that the music melody is only the root of the music, the true talent comes in the flourishes of the musician.

It takes years of study for a Westerner to understand the depth and complexity of this music. For more info, you can check out http://www.maqamworld.com.

Styles of Belly Dance

1) Oriental

This is the most well known and typical presentation of Belly Dance. Depending on the origin of the art form, there are subtle changes/differences in the way that the dance is performed. The most classical difference is between Egyptian and Turkish dancers

Regardless, the roots of a belly dance performance largely lay in the Middle Eastern nightclubs. Here, a belly dancer would perform a 30 minute show with a live band. Typically, a dancer will show up, discuss a few minutes with the band (music type etc.) and then perform. There is no rehearsal. This is where the dance/live musician interaction becomes interesting, because the dancer can request a song, and they will play it, but every time it will be different….different flourishes, different accents etc. Part of being a good dancer means knowing the original pieces enough that you can still portray the right feeling/knowledge of the music. That being said, the really big stars/good dancers have their own band and often know exactly how the piece will be played because you get a feel for the musicians style.

The typical show follows this format:
  1. Opening - often with veil. High energy. Gets audience involved
  2. 2-3 songs - often popular tunes. Songs the audience request or have personal attachment to.
  3. Taqsim - one of the melodious instruments….either a violin, oude/guitar, ney(wood flute), qanoon (similar to German zitar), mismarr etc, is played. The musician lets his creative juices flow and portrays a certain mood to the audience through his choice of maqam and flourished. This can also be done by a voice, called a mawal. This is where the true artistic talent of musician and dancer are shown.
  4. Drum solo - allows both the drummer and the dancer to showcase their technical skills. A drummer will improvise rhythmic lines (repeated 2 or 4 times) and the dancer does her best to catch as many accents as possible.
  5. Close - phrases of music are repeated from the opening. Gives time for thanking the crowd and exit.

2) Folk Lore

Has become the theatre representation of the styles danced in different parts of Egypt (and the Middle East). There are actually some dance troupes that perform this type exclusively. There are many but the most common performed are:
  1. Assaya/Cane
    This dance originated in southern Egypt/Said/Upper Egypt. Traditionally, men carried long sticks with them which they used as weapons, and eventually they evolved a dance (Tahtiyb) in which they feigned fighting with these sticks. Women then began dancing with canes as a way of playfully imitating the men's dance.

  2. Kaleegy
    From the Saudi area, it is a party dance. It is performed with a long dress (thobe). This dance is about showing off the thobe, hair and eyes. Traditionally the thobe would be covered in jewels and gold thread and is made purposefully long (over a foot of fabric will pile on the floor). The dress length is a statement of wealth as it suggests that the women wearing them do not need their hands for anything other than holding and moving the thobe.

  3. Saidii
    Again from southern Egypt, the movements are very grounded with big hip and chest movements. The costume is often a full length dress with a hip scarf tied at the hip and a head scarf

  4. Malaya
    This dance portrays the fun and flirtatious girls of Alexandria. It was these lovely ladies that caused the outlaw of veils due to their use (they would use tight stretch black fabric and wrap is as tight and provocatively as possible).

  5. Mohammed ali street
    This dance portrays the prostitutes on Mohammed Ali St. The characters have done and seen everything and there is no shame or modesty.

3) Spiritual - although there are more, the most common ones are

  1. Zar
    Women in the Middle East are not allowed much freedom. When they become depressed/sick, they are considered to be taken over by a genie. The only way to release the genie is to have a big gathering (women from the whole neighborhood), they dance for days. Different music/rhythm/maqam are associated with different genies and right one must be played to get it out. The men, who don't like or agree with these Zars, cover the cost of the musicians and food anyway.

  2. Whirling
    Originally a dance done in temples by men. Dancers continually turn for minutes to hours at a time. A form of meditation. Now represented often on stage by men or women in amazingly huge and heavy skirts.

4) Tribal
Developed on the West Coast of the United States, American Tribal Style is a primarily improvisational dance. Although the movements have their roots in Middle Eastern and North African dances, this style does not try to replicate any particular tribe. Movements and costuming from other cultures have been incorporated into this dance as well. It is a unique and earthy belly dance variation.
It's main distinction from traditional oriental style dance is that it uses “synchronized group improvisation” which means that dancers can perform cohesively in a group without the use of a choreography. This is achieved by all dancers in the 'tribe' using a common dance language known as a movement vocabulary. Using lead and follow techniques, changes in movement are initiated by the leader using cues and transitions.
The costuming for tribal style also differs from oriental style dance. The basic tribal costume is usually composed of a full skirt which may be tiered, pantaloons, choli, coin bra, and tassel belt. Some groups also wear turbans. Jewelry is often from places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. Other common embellishment items include cowry shells, mirrors, embroidery, etc.

As an aside www.shira.net is a great site for info as well.