Understanding the history of belly dance can be difficult. This is partly because the word “belly dance” isn’t particularly ancient. In fact, it was introduced into the English language back in Victorian times as a direct translation of a French term, danse du ventre… which was coined by French art critics after many painters began exploring Middle Eastern traditions and culture as the subject of their paintings. The painting in question is known as Dance of the Almeh, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, which shows a woman with a bare midriff, her hips tilted and zills on her fingers as she sways to the music of a drum and a string instrument.

Dance of the Almeh by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1863

However, belly dance is older than that, as one can guess from the Egyptian name for this dance style, namely Raqs Baladi, which means “folk dance”. This hints at ancient origins and a long tradition.

Belly Dance Has More Respectable Origins Than You Think

In movies and books, it’s common to think of belly dancers as decadent dancing girls, titillating a king or sultan and his (male) guests when they’re not hidden behind the walls of the harem. We can’t just blame Hollywood for this one, as the image of the seductive dancing girl doing the Dance of the Seven Veils was made popular by Oscar Wilde in his drama Salome way before Hollywood came along. Western entertainment moguls of the early 20th century were happy to play up the saucy, sexy, salacious side of this dance style, much to the annoyance of traditional dancers.

However, traditional belly dance was a lot more respectable than that. There are even hints of this in the Biblical account of Salome – not the Oscar Wilde play). Here, we see not a scheming seductress (unless you count Salome’s mother, who wasn’t the one dancing) but a little girl who hadn’t reached her teens performing at her wealthy uncle’s birthday party. The modern equivalent would be a pre-teen ballerina giving a recital. This nicely illustrates the context where belly dance was practised for centuries: gatherings, festivals and family parties. No wedding in the Middle East would have been complete without a belly dancer performing. This is still true today.

Did the women of the Middle East perform their dances in the harem (literally haram, the forbidden space or the women’s quarters)? Of course, they did – often for fun and entertaining each other. Traditionally, in many parts of the Middle East, women and men would be separated during a gathering or festival, and the women would dance together. This would be a good place for many mothers to meet and evaluate the local single women so they could start arranging marriages for their sons with women who were strong and supple and likely to be good mothers in the physical sense.

Quintessential Feminine

Weddings, evaluating prospective brides… there are strong elements and associations with fertility in the traditions of belly dance, and this gives a hint of where and how these dances originated. It’s not for nothing that the Hebrew root word meaning “to dance” can also mean “to writhe in labour and childbirth” and “to shake or tremble” (that’s obviously belly dancing!).

Many of the movements that are characteristic of belly dance involve quintessentially feminine parts of the body: the pelvis, the hips, the thighs, the abdomen and the buttocks. This has led many to believe that the dance style had its origins as exercises to strengthen and prepare women for labour and childbirth or motions to assist during childbirth itself, or possibly as rites to honour goddesses of fertility – or both! The truth is that nobody really knows for certain. However, it’s certainly true that belly dancing is very good exercise for pregnant women, and celebrates the feminine parts of the body. If belly dance has been interpreted as sensual, spiritual or scandalous, depending on the times, this probably reflects the way in which women were viewed, as it’s such a feminine dance.

There are also references in various ancient sources to various goddesses as dancers. The most famous of these is Ishtar, who had to remove a veil at each of the seven gates of the underworld as she sought to free her lover Tammuz from the clutches of her sister, the death goddess – that’s the origins of the Dance of the Seven Veils. And we can’t forget Aphrodite’s famous girdle or belt, which is very reminiscent of the coin belt worn by many dancers.

Dancing In The Coffee Houses

The two main centres of belly dancing, Turkey and Egypt, had traditions of professional performers who would belly dance for a paying audience – and these audiences were often exclusively female or mixed gender. In Turkey, there are records of the chengi dancers performing in Istanbul as early as the 1400s. Meanwhile, in Egypt, the ghawazi would also perform in coffee-houses and for hire at weddings and the like.

The Ghawazi dancers of Egypt weren’t exclusively women. In fact, men had their own dances, often involving work with sticks or canes and involving plenty of leaping and skipping, rather than the hip rolls of the women. Egyptian belly dancing style has been called earthy and grounded. The traditional costume was not, as you might think, the sparkly bra and the swirling veil. Instead, it was often a full-length dress of striped fabric that covered most of the body.

In Turkey, belly dance was heavily influenced by the Romany (gipsy) people, and their style was brought from India. The style is described as “lighter” and more “airy” than the Egyptian style, and the coin belt and the veil come from this tradition. Turkish belly dance also uses floor work, where the dancer drops to her (or occasionally his) knees; the authorities once banned this in Egypt.

Belly Dance’s Introduction To The West

The fascination with Middle Eastern culture, known as Orientalism, became widespread in the late 1800s and in the early 1900s. This is where belly dance as we know it today really came to be. Many of the glamorous costume elements that we consider to be typical of belly dance were introduced during this time, and were adopted in both the East and the West, and in both Turkey and Egypt. We could debate for ages about whether this was a contamination of the tradition by Western expectations, but there’s no denying that it’s a lot of fun to wear and make these costumes, and dancers around the world embraced them. This is where we see the two-piece outfit consisting of the sparkly bra and the swirly skirt being introduced – and the bare midriff became de rigueur. Veils became more popular, as well as the practice of dancing in high heeled shoes or on tiptoe (but not as high as a ballerina); traditionally, belly dancing was done barefoot or in flat-heeled sandals. Other elements were introduced to belly dance during this period were introduced for increasing the drama and spectacle, such as wings (which are a lot of fun to dance with) and balancing elements such as swords and trays of candles.

Of course, today, a belly dancer has options. A dancer can pick from traditional or modern Egyptian belly dance style, traditional or Turkish belly dance styles, or the style known as Tribal Fusion. Tribal Fusion belly dance mixes traditional and modern styles from numerous countries, and also throws in elements from elsewhere and other styles – this is where you find dancers mixing in pois from the Pacific, or elements of Indian and Indonesian dance. Dance is, above all, an artistic expression that reflects the individual dancer’s style, so there’s no shame if you prefer modern fusion styles over pure traditional forms. The important thing is to find the style that suits you best and to have fun!