History of Belly Dancing

Middle Eastern Dance, known also as Oriental Dance and Belly Dancing, is the oldest dance form in recorded history. It dates back to 3000 BC, and traces of it have been excavated in Southwest Asia and North Africa. The oldest evidence of this art form has been found in Mesopotamia, or modern day Iraq. The dance appears to have been used in religious rituals and as entertainment.

The dance probably has its roots in the female-based religions of ancient peoples, where the great earth mother was worshiped. Fertility and growth were the focus of this time when women were dominant in society. The dance, therefore, focused on the reproductive areas of the feminine physique. Early evidence of this type of dance has been found in Crete (Minoan society), Lebanon and Syria (Phoenicia), Italy (Etrusia), Egypt, Greece, and Turkey.

When the Islamic religion became a strong force in the Middle East around 633 AD, the dance form left the temples and was found secreted away by the demure and devout at women-only gatherings or performed openly in the streets by those who were bold, and of dubious reputation. One would see the Ghawazees entertaining in Egypt and the Ouled Nail in Algeria, who performed unveiled in the streets for coins tossed by passers by.

In 1834 Mohammed Ali Pasha banned public dancing and banished all the dancing girls to the island of Esna. This correlated to a time when the west was fascinated with the dance and writers, poets, and painters flocked to the Middle East to experience the culture and capture it in their works (Orientalists / Flaubert). Since women were not allowed to dance publicly, young men called Kawals, would dress as women and entertain the foreigners.

The dance made its debut in the United States at the 1893 Chicago World’s fair, brought in by Sol Bloom as a midway attraction. The Victorians were shocked but also entranced by the dance and flocked to see it. It was a time of economic depression, and it’s said that the popularity of the belly dancers at the Egyptian Pavilion saved the fair and helped spur the economy towards recovery. It was at this time that the dance was coined “Belly Dance”. Be aware that the word “belly” was a naughty word during this buttoned-up Victorian era; a time when even piano legs were not to be exposed!

By the 1920’s imitators were copying “belly dancing” and performing it in the burlesque and vaudeville houses across the U.S. “Salome and the dance of the Seven Veils” was a popular number. This has been called the beginning of the “strip tease” act. This beautiful Middle Eastern dance was changed, bastardized and its original meaning lost.

The authentic form of Oriental Dance reappeared in U.S. nightclubs in the 1950’s and 1960’s when dancers were once again imported from the Middle East to entertain. In 1971, Habeeba, a nightclub entertainer in Columbus, Ohio opened one of the first belly dance studios to teach the dance. The insuing “belly boom” came in with the feminist movement and thousands of women flocked to learn this ancient art. The public was re-educated and the dance has regained its respect. Middle Eastern dance is now performed at international fairs, at Lincoln Center and respected stages nationwide, and in family-style supper clubs throughout the country.

“Historically, belly dance satisfied the needs of the people to celebrate and adore, now they celebrate the dance itself” (Anne Lippe, The Ancient Art of Belly Dancing/ film)

Source: Written by Nataj, Belly Dancing by Habeeba’s®Ltd.