Belly dance

Belly dance
Raqs Sharqi dancer Chryssanthi Sahar Scharf in Heidelberg.
A belly dancer in Marrakech (Morocco)

Belly dance or Bellydance is a "Western"-coined name for a traditional "Middle Eastern" dance, especially raqs sharqi (Arabic: رقص شرقي‎). It is sometimes also called Middle Eastern dance or Arabic dance in the West, or by the Greco-Turkish term çiftetelli (Greek: τσιφτετέλι). The belly dance style is also quite popular in India, where it has deep cultural roots.

The term "Belly dance" is a translation of the French "danse du ventre" which was applied to the dance in the Victorian era. It is something of a misnomer as every part of the body is involved in the dance; the most featured body part usually is the hips. Belly dance takes many different forms depending on country and region, both in costume and dance style, and new styles have evolved in the West as its popularity has spread globally. Although contemporary forms of the dance have generally been performed by women, some of the dances, particularly the cane dance, have origins in male forms of performance.

  • Raqs sharqi (Arabic: رقص شرقي‎; literally "Dance of the Near East") is the style more familiar to Westerners, performed in restaurants and cabarets around the world. It is more commonly performed by female dancers but is also sometimes danced by men. It is a solo improvisational dance, although students often perform choreographed dances in a group.
  • Raqs baladi, (Arabic: رقص بلدي‎; literally "dance of country", or "folk" dance) is the folkloric style, danced socially by men and women of all ages in some Middle Eastern countries, usually at festive occasions such as weddings.


Origins and early history

Artistic depiction of belly dancing

Belly dancing arose from various dancing styles which were performed in the Middle East and North Africa. Belly dance has roots in the ancient Arab tribal religions as a dance to the goddess of fertility. In Middle Eastern society two specific belly dance movements have been used in childbirth for generations.[1] Another theory is that belly dance was originally danced by women for women in the Middle East, and North Africa. The book "The dancing girl of Shamakha and other Asiatic tales" is cited, written by author Comte de Gobineau's. A final theory is that belly dance was always danced in the Middle East and North Africa as entertainment.[2]

Belly dance was popularized in the West during the Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, when Orientalist artists depicted romanticized images of harem life in the Ottoman Empire. Around this time, dancers from Middle Eastern countries began to perform at various World's Fairs, often drawing crowds in numbers that rivaled those for the science and technology exhibits. It was during this period that the term "oriental" or "eastern" dancing is first used. Several dancers, including the French author Colette, engaged in "oriental" dancing, sometimes passing off their own interpretations as authentic.

Egyptian forms of belly dance, alongside the development of Egyptian music, were heavily influenced by the presence of European colonial forces, and increasing urbanisation in Egypt. This resulted in variations in the dance brought in by influences as diverse as marching bands, and visits of the Russian ballet. All these factors contributed to the development of a variety of belly dances.[3]


In the West, the costume most associated with belly dance is the bedlah (Arabic for "suit"). It owes its creation to the Victorian painters of "Orientalism" and the harem fantasy productions of vaudeville, burlesque, and Hollywood during the turn of the last century, rather than to authentic West Asian ("Middle Eastern") dress. Maude Allan, an American dancer/artist, was famous for her Salome dance, and her costume was considered by many to set the standard of what Westerners would perceive as a bellydance costume.

The bedlah style includes a fitted top or bra (usually with a fringe of beads or coins), a fitted hip belt (again with a fringe of beads or coins), and a skirt or harem pants. The bra and belt may be richly decorated with beads, sequins, braid and embroidery. The belt may be a separate piece, or sewn into a skirt.

Badia Masabni, a Cairo cabaret owner, is credited with bringing the costume to Egypt, because it was the image that Western tourists wanted.

The hip belt is a broad piece of fabric worn low on the hips. It may have straight edge, or may be curved or angled. The bra usually matches the belt and does not resemble lingerie. The classic harem pants are full and gathered at the ankle, but there are many variations. Sometimes pants and a sheer skirt are worn together. Skirts may be flowing creations made of multiple layers of one color sheer fabric chiffon.

Costume in Egypt

Since the 1950s, it has been illegal in Egypt for belly dancers to perform publicly with their midriff uncovered [4] or to display excessive skin. It is therefore becoming more common to wear a long, figure-hugging lycra one-piece gown with strategically placed cut-outs filled in with sheer, flesh-colored.

If a separate bra and skirt are worn, a belt is rarely used and any embellishment is embroidered directly on the tight, sleek lycra skirt. A sheer body stocking must be worn to cover the midsection. Egyptian dancers traditionally dance in bare feet, but these days often wear shoes and even high heels.

Costume in Lebanon

As there is no prohibition on showing the stomach in Lebanon, the bedleh style is more common. The skirts tend to be sheer and/or skimpier than Egyptian outfits, showing more of the dancer's body. The veil is more widely used and the veil matches the outfit. High heels are commonly worn.

Costume in Turkey

Turkish dancers also wear bedleh style costumes. In the 80s and 90s a 'stripperesque' costume style developed, with skirts designed to display both legs up to the hip, and plunging bras. Such styles still exist in some venues but there are also many Turkish belly dancers who wear more moderate costumes. Even so, many Turkish belly dance costumes reflect the playful, flirty style of Turkish belly dance.

Costume in America

"West Asian-style" American dancers often purchase their costumes from Egypt or Turkey, but hallmarks of the classical "American" style include a headband with fringe, sheer harem pants or skirt rather than tight lycra, and the use of coins and metalwork to decorate the bra.

For the folkloric and baladi dances, a full-length beledi dress or galabeyah is worn, with or without cutouts.

American Tribal style dancers often make their own costumes or arrange to have them custom-made, as personality and originality are an important part of the costuming. This style of costume tends to involve large pants covered with one or more skirts and belts. The top is usually a coin bra with pieces hanging from it, and dancers wear flowers, headbands, metal headdresses, and other folkoric-inspired pieces in their hair. They also often wear bindis and sport large tattoos that travel around the hip and belly area.

Belly dance props

Props are used, especially in American restaurant style, to spark or audience interest and add variety to the performance, although some traditionalists frown on their use. Some props in common usage are:

  • Finger cymbals (zills or sagats)
  • Cane (in the Saiidi)
  • Face Veil
  • Sword
  • Candelabra headdress (shamadan)
  • Veil poi (mostly in Tribal belly dance)
  • Fire sticks (mostly in Tribal)
  • Isis Wings
  • Tambourine
  • Fan (mostly in Tribal)
  • Snakes (usually either pythons or boa constrictors)
  • Fanveils

Steps and technique

Most of the movements in belly dancing involve isolating different parts of the body (hips, shoulders, chest, stomach etc.), which appear similar to the isolations used in jazz ballet, but are often driven differently. In much of bellydance there is a focus upon the core muscles of the body producing the movement rather than the external muscles of the body. Egyptian and Lebanese bellydance in particular emphasise the need for movemements to originate in the muscles of the back. Correct posture is as important in bellydance as it is in other fields of dance. In most belly dance styles, the focus is on the hip and pelvic area. Due to the diversity of styles and 'origins' of the dance, many of the moves are referred to by a wide variety of different terminologies. However, from an observer's point of view bellydance includes certain key elements.

Important moves are:

  • Shiver or Shimmy – a shimmering vibration of the hips. This vibration is usually layered onto other movements to create depth in performance. It may be created by moving the knees past each other at high speed, although some dancers use contractions of the glutes or thighs instead. It is also possible to perform this using the muscles of the lower back. The two terms may refer to performing this move in different directions, as it is possible to create this vibration moving the hips alternately up and down, side-to-side, or in a forward and back swinging motion. The same move can be performed using the shoulders and is sometimes called a shoulder shimmy.
  • Hip hits – A staccato movement of the hips out from the body. This can also be performed using other body parts such as the shoulders or chest. The move is usually achieved by isolating the hip area and contracting the glute muscles to move the hips up or down. The dancer's weight can either be distributed across both legs or on one leg with the toes of the other foot pointed.
  • Undulations – Fluid movements of the hips or of the chest in a circular or rotating fashion. There are a wide variety of movements of this kind, of which the most well known is probably the rotating movements of the chest forward, up, back and down to create the impression of riding a camel.

Different styles also incorporate kicks and arm movements as an integral part of the style.

Egyptian belly dance

In Egypt, three main forms of the traditional dance are associated with belly dance which are called by different terms. Broadly, these are folk dance, classical dance, and cabaret dance. The terms often used are: Sha'abi, Baladi/Beledi, and Sharqi.

Baladi is a folk style of dance from the Arab tribes who settled in Upper Egypt. However the term has come to have distinct usage in reference to the folk dance which continues to be performed by the working classes of urbanised Egypt. Dance which more rigorously tries to uphold folk traditions from the countryside or from specific tribes will often be referred to as Ghawahzee. The Ghawahzee dancers have also been known to be at the heart of the conflict in Egypt over the propriety of publicly performed dance. The well-reputed Mazin sisters are widely held to be the last authentic performers of Ghawahzee dance. Khayreyya Mazin is curerntly the last of these dancers still teaching and performing as of 2009.[5]

Sharqi is based on the baladi style but was further developed by Samia Gamal, Tahiya Karioka, Naima Akef, and other dancers who rose to fame during the golden years of the Egyptian film industry. This has come to be considered the classical style of dance in Egypt. These dancers were famous not only for their role in Egyptian films, but also for their performances at the "Opera Casino" opened in 1925 by Badia Masabni. This venue was a popular place for influential musicians and choreographers from both the US and Europe who became involved in the performances and careers of the dancers, so many of the developments of the Golden Age which were pioneered here can be considered new developments in the dance. Later dancers who based their styles partially on the dances of these artists are Sohair Zaki, Fifi Abdou, and Nagwa Fouad. All rose to fame between 1960 and 1980, and are still popular today. Some of these later dancers were the first to choreograph and perform dances using a full 'orchestra' and stage set-up, which had a huge influence upon what is considered the 'classical' style.

Though the basic movements of Raqs Sharqi are unchanged, the dance form continues to evolve.

Although Western dancers view Egypt as the Holy Grail of belly dance, belly dancers in Egypt are not well regarded.[6] Egyptians do not consider it a respectable profession, and most belly dancers performing for tourists in Egypt today are foreigners.

Dancers are not allowed to perform certain movements or do any floor work.

State television in Egypt no longer broadcasts belly dancing. A plan to establish a state institute to train belly dancers in Egypt came under heavy fire as it "seriously challenges the Egyptian society's traditions and glaringly violates the constitution," said Farid Esmail, a member of parliament.[7]

Greek and Turkish belly dance

Some mistakenly believe that Turkish oriental dancing is called Çiftetelli because this style of music has been incorporated into oriental dancing by Arabs and Greeks. In fact, Greek and Cypriot belly dance is called Tsifteteli. However, Turkish Çiftetelli is actually a form of lively wedding music and is not connected with oriental dancing.

Turkish, Greek, and Cypriot belly dance today may have been influenced by Arabs before the Ottoman Empire as much as by the Egyptian and Syrian/Lebanese forms.

Turkish law does not impose restrictions on dancers as they do in Egypt, where dancers must keep their midriffs covered and cannot perform floor work and certain pelvic movements. This has resulted in a marked difference in style - Egyptian bellydance is noted for its restraint and elegance, whereas Turkish bellydance is playful and uninhibited.

Many professional dancers and musicians in Turkey continue to be of Romani heritage, which is the great part of a varied fusion in this dance. (There is also a distinct Turkish Romani dance style which is different from Turkish Oriental.) Turkish dancers are known for their energetic, athletic (even gymnastic) style, and their adept use of finger cymbals, also known as zils. Connoisseurs of Turkish dance often say a dancer who cannot play the zills is not an accomplished dancer. Another distinguishing element of Turkish style is the use of the Karsilama rhythm in a 9/8 time signature, counted as 12-34-56-789. Famous Turkish belly dancers include Tulay Karaca, Nesrin Topkapi and Birgul Berai and Didem

Belly dance in the West

Belly dance in the USA

Tribal-style belly dancers.

The term "belly dancing" is generally credited to Sol Bloom, entertainment director of the 1893 World's Fair, the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, although he consistently referred to the dance as "danse du ventre," of which "belly dance" is a literal translation. In his memoirs, Bloom states only that "when the public learned...danse du ventre...I had a gold mine."

Although there were dancers of this type at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, it was not until the Chicago World's Fair that it gained national attention. There were authentic dancers from several Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Syria, Turkey and Algeria, but it was the dancers in the Egyptian Theater of The Street in the Cairo exhibit who gained the most notoriety. The fact that the dancers were uncorseted and gyrated their hips was shocking to Victorian sensibilities. There were no soloists, but it is claimed that a dancer nicknamed Little Egypt stole the show. Some claim the dancer was Farida Mazar Spyropoulos, but this fact is disputed.[8]

The popularity of these dancers subsequently spawned dozens of imitators, many of whom claimed to be from the original troupe. Victorian society continued to be affronted by this "shocking" dance, and dancers were sometimes arrested and fined.[9] The dance was nicknamed the "Hootchy-Kootchy" or "Hoochee-Coochie", or the shimmy and shake. A short film, "Fatima's Dance", was widely distributed in the nickelodeon (movie theater)s. It drew criticism for its "immodest" dancing, and was eventually censored. Belly dance drew men in droves to burlesque theaters, and to carnival and circus lots.

Thomas Edison made several films of dancers in the 1890s. These included a Turkish dance, and Crissie Sheridan in 1897, and Princess Rajah from 1904, which features a dancer playing zills, doing "floor work", and balancing a chair in her teeth.

Ruth St. Denis also used Middle Eastern-inspired dance in D.W. Griffith's silent film Intolerance, her goal being to lift dance to a respectable art form at a time when dancers were considered to be women of loose morals. Hollywood began producing films such as The Sheik, Cleopatra, and Salomé, to capitalize on Western fantasies of the orient.

When immigrants from Arab States began to arrive in New York in the 1930s, dancers started to perform in nightclubs and restaurants. Some of today's most accomplished performers are their descendants, e.g. Anahid Sofian, Aisha Ali, and Artemis Mourat.[10][11]

In the late 1960s and early '70s many dancers began teaching. Middle Eastern or Eastern bands took dancers with them on tour, which helped spark interest in the dance.

Although using traditional Turkish and Egyptian movements, American Cabaret or American Restaurant belly dancing has developed its own distinctive style, using props and encouraging audience interaction. Many modern practitioners make use of the music of Egyptian Sha'abi singers, including Ahmed Adaweya, Hakim, and Saad el Soghayar in their routines, which combines the percussion of modern Egyptian music with a traditional feeling for music and dance in the Raks Sha'abi (dance of the people) style.

In 1987, a uniquely American style, American Tribal Style Belly Dance, (ATS), was created. Although a wholly modern style, its steps are based on a fusion of ancient dance techniques from North India, the Middle East, and Africa.

Many forms of "Tribal Fusion" belly dance have also developed, incorporating elements from many other dance and music styles including flamenco, ballet, burlesque, hula hoop and even hip hop. "Gothic Belly Dance" is a style which incorporates elements from Goth subculture. Tribal style dance is characterized by muscle isolation to create smooth, undulating movements; it also tends to feature small, somewhat mincing movements, unlike the more sweeping movements of the traditional dance. Like other forms of belly dance, Tribal dance is more accessible than many other dance styles to people with a wider range of body types, ages, and health problems.

Belly dance in Australia

The first wave of interest for belly dancing in Australia was during the late 1970s to 1980s with the influx of migrants and refugees escaping troubles in the Middle East, including drummer Jamal Zraika. These immigrants created a lively social scene including numerous Lebanese and Turkish restaurants, providing employment for belly dancers.

Early dance pioneers included Amera Eid and Terezka Drnzik. Both of these teachers have pedigrees linked back to Rozeta Ahalyea. Belly dance has now spread across the country, with vibrant belly dance communities in every capital city and many regional centres.

see also Academy of middle eastern dance ( AMED)

Belly dance in Canada

A belly dancer in Calgary, Alberta, Canada in 2008

Canada has a belly dance community similar to United States of America.

Belly dance in the UK and Ireland

Belly dance culture has been in evidence in the UK and Ireland since the early 1960s. A number of practising dancers credit many of the developments since the 1980s to Suraya Hilal, who performed throughout the Middle East and Europe during this time. Her influence was one which particularly drove home the distinction between belly dance as a cabaret act and the dance form as a theatrical performance and art form. Suraya has continued in attempts to develop the dance as a distinct classical form of performance, although this has less influence among UK dancers than it once did. She continues to influence bellydance in Europe through her school, the Hilal School of Dance Suraya Hilal.

Today, many dancers in the have been greatly influenced by the US dance hybrids, and have gone on to create their own forms of urban and folk bellydance. There is also a thriving scene in cabaret bellydance/burlesque crossover performance.

There are a number of belly dance festivals popular in the UK. Two of the most well-known being the Annual Glastonbury Majma and Raqs Britannia.

Costumes for belly dance are freely available to purchase in the UK both online and in retail shops. The first retail shop dedicated only to belly dance costumes and accessories in the England was in Lutterworth, near Leicester, named Forbidden Fruits Bazaar, proprietor Karen Pilkington Puddephatt opened in 2005.

Belly dance in Asia

Asia now has belly dancing competitions, like the Asia Global Belly Dance Competition.

Health and belly dancing

Belly dance is a non-impact, weight-bearing exercise and is thus suitable for all ages, and is a good exercise for the prevention of osteoporosis in older people. Many of the moves involve isolations, which improves flexibility of the torso. Belly dance moves are beneficial to the spine, as the full-body undulation moves both lengthen (decompress) and strengthen the entire column of both spinal and abdominal muscles in a gentle way.

Dancing with the veil can help build strength in the upper-body, arm and shoulders. Playing the zills trains fingers to work independently and builds strength. The legs and long muscles of the back are strengthened by hip movements.[12]

Paffrath also researched the effect of belly dance on women with menstruation problems. The subjects reported a more positive approach toward their menstruation, sexuality, and bodies.

Beginning in the late 1990's, Belly Dance hit the mainstream marketplace and with Belly Dance Fitness Videos/DVDs, by such artists as Veena and Neena, Rania Bossonis, and Dolphina. These videos are still popular items throughout the world, and have been credited with opening a new market of Belly Dance Fitness classes throughout the US and abroad.

Belly dancing in pop culture

Belly dancing has recently been repopularized by Latin American superstar Shakira. Although she is Colombian, her part-Lebanese background has influenced her style.

The Brazilian novella O Clone also known as El Clon in Spanish-speaking countries and the United States, is set in Brazil and Morocco and featured belly dancing in many episodes. The lead character, Jade (Giovanna Antonelli), used it to entice her lover Lucas (Murilo Benício) and to soothe and seduce her husband Said (Dalton Vigh).

Several James Bond films have featured belly dancers. In The Man With the Golden Gun, the belly dancer Saida wears a spent bullet in her navel, which Bond accidentally swallows while trying to retrieve it.

In the Beatles movie Help! there is a restaurant scene in which Paul McCartney enters with the other Beatles and attempts conversation with a belly dancer.

R&B singer Aaliyah used the belly roll as her signature move. Other singers and actresses who have performed belly dance moves include Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Yvonne De Carlo, Jessica Simpson, Beyoncé, Ciara, and Hilary Duff.

Probably the most famous belly dance troupe is the group formed by Miles Copeland, Bellydance Superstars tours internationally, furthering the popularity of bellydance around the world by performing over 700 shows in over 22 countries. Gravitating from small theatres and clubs the troupe now performs in much the same venues as Riverdance and other mainstream dance shows. The shows have made stars of several of its dancers, including Rachel Brice, Jillina, Sonia, Petite Jamilla, and Kami Liddle.

Documentaries about belly dance include American Bellydancer, Belly, and Temptation of Bellydance.

Today bellydance itself has become an industry. It includes numerous weekly classes around the world. The most popular classes take place in Egypt at the Ahlan WaSahlan annual festival. There are also courses that can be taken via the Nile Group in Egypt. This group featured one of the World's Top Male Raqs Artists, Tito Seif.

The bellydance costume industry is also very large. There are many other suppliers and costumers found at the many festivals. Khan al Khalili is the world's most popular spot for bellydance wear/Raqswear and continues to attract millions of visitors every year.

See also


  1. ^ witnessed by the bellydancer Morocco in 1961, and described in her article "Bellydancing and Childbirth"
  2. ^"Naked Belly Dance in Ancient arabia"< "Dance and Friendship in Moorish Spain"]
  3. ^ "In Search of the Origins of Dance", Andrea Deagan Ph.D.
  4. ^ Hanna, Judith (1988). Dance, Sex and Gender. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226315517. 
  5. ^ , Gilded Serpent "The Ghawazee: Back from the Brink of Extinction"
  6. ^ [1], Documentary "Bellydancers of Cairo"
  7. ^
  8. ^ Donna Carlton (1995) Looking for Little Egypt. Bloomington, Indiana: International Dance Discovery Books. ISBN 0-9623998-1-7.
  9. ^ "New York Times, Dec 7 1893"
  10. ^ Salome. "Interview with Artemis Mourat". Retrieved 18 August 2009. [dead link]
  11. ^ "Ozel Turkbas, Melissa Michalak and Anahid Sofian / An Interview". Retrieved 18 August 2009. 
  12. ^ Coluccia, Pina, Anette Paffrath, and Jean Putz. Belly Dancing: The Sensual Art of Energy and Spirit. Rochester, Vt: Park Street Press, 2005

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • belly dance — n. a dance of eastern Mediterranean origin characterized by a twisting of the abdomen, sinuous hip movements, etc. belly dance vi. belly danced, belly dancing belly dancer n …   English World dictionary

  • belly dance — (n.) also bellydance, 1883, from BELLY (Cf. belly) (n.) + DANCE (Cf. dance) (n.), in later uses translating French danse du ventre. As a verb, 20c …   Etymology dictionary

  • belly dance — n a dance from the Middle East in which a woman moves her stomach and ↑hips around >belly dancer n >belly dancing n [U] …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • belly dance — belly ,dance noun count a dance from the Middle East performed by a woman using controlled movements of the HIPS and stomach ╾ belly ,dancer noun count ╾ belly ,dancing noun uncount …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • belly dance — I noun a Middle Eastern dance in which the dancer makes sensuous movements of the hips and abdomen • Syn: ↑belly dancing, ↑danse du ventre • Hypernyms: ↑stage dancing, ↑choreography II verb …   Useful english dictionary

  • belly dance — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms belly dance : singular belly dance plural belly dances a dance from the Middle East performed by a woman using controlled movements of the hips and stomach Derived words: belly dancer noun countable Word forms… …   English dictionary

  • belly dance — noun Date: 1899 a usually solo dance emphasizing movements of the belly • belly dance intransitive verb • belly dancer noun …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • belly-dance — See belly dance. * * * …   Universalium

  • belly dance — belly dancer. belly dancing. an Oriental solo dance, performed by a woman with midriff exposed, emphasizing movements of the pelvis and abdominal muscles. Also called danse du ventre. [1895 1900] * * * …   Universalium

  • belly dance — noun a style of dance originating in the Middle East, performed by women and involving undulating movements of the belly and gyration of the hips. Derivatives belly dancer noun belly dancing noun …   English new terms dictionary

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