A thought or two about belly dance
There is no way to really tell how belly dance originated. As a term that Westerners use, belly dance includes many different forms of dance from many different geographic regions. There is some evidence of solo improvised dances in rites of passage and religious rituals. There is also some evidence of women dancing to help ease childbirth.
In the Middle East, the term for dance is “raqs sharqi” in Arabic and “Oriental tansi” in Turkish. The correct translation into English for both of these terms is “dance of the East” or “Oriental dance.”
The name “belly dancing” arose in the US, when the Columbia Exposition in Chicago first brought Middle Eastern dance artists to the attention of the American public(1890s). A man named Sol Bloom advertised the scandalous “belly dancing” as a way of attracting more visitors to the entertainments of the world’s fair.
Dance has been a form of ritual celebration of fertility from the time the beginning of history. From around 4000 BC, early civilizations that originated in the Middle East, like Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian cultures, worshipped female deities. Mythology from this era focused on the ‘birth dance’—a celebration dance that formed a direct relationship between the fertility of women and the fertility of the earth. There were many pre-Christian and pre-Islamic religions that involved dance as a part of religious worship.
There is often a disconnect between what the general public understands about belly dance and what the dancer/artists are trying to achieve in presentation. This occurs, in part, because belly dance is presented in a patriarchal society where women are often stereotyped as sexual objects for use by men. However, most dancers, myself included, are dancing for their own empowerment and the empowerment of the women in the audience.
In Judeo- Christian tradition and Islam, the body is often dichotomized from the soul. The soul is seen as spiritual and the body as worldly. This dance is a blending of spiritual and sensual to many dancers. Put in another way, most dancers see themselves as a subject, creating art and expressing themselves or a deeper connection to divine, other women, archetypes. However, often audiences see them as an object to be exploited and wonder how a woman can be a belly dancer and a feminist.
I see belly dance as a powerful means of expression for women and girls. Women learn to connect with their bodies and be comfortable in who they are. I have a personal philosophy that belly dance is for all women regardless of age, shape, size, fitness level… Although there are some belly dance groups who only feature young, Barbie doll looking performers, our dance collective features women of all ages and sizes. Our dancers come from all walks of life and professions. We have created a culture that values personal and group expression and the beauty of all women, not just stereotypically attractive Western women.
For girls, this dance offers them an opportunity to develop a healthy body image, connect with their bodies and learn to move them, dance in a community with other girls, see women of all shapes and sizes valued in their dance and develop autonomy in their dance. Unlike many western dance classes, belly dance students are taught the basics and then encouraged to find their own voice, dancing improvisationally in their own manner. They don’t just learn to imitate the teacher, but rather to dance for themselves.