When we explore the history of belly dance, the first idea to think about is how far back the roots of the dance actually go. Cultures in the middle east are among the oldest on the planet! So the beginnings of belly dance reach back…
…far before written history! In Arabic, the dance is called Raqs Sharqi – you may see alternate spellings like Raks Sharqi or simply Raqs. Another often-used name originated in Turkey: Oryantal dansi, or “Dance of the East.” Many forms of this name are also commonly used, such as Oriental Dance and Danse Orientale. Today, we take our history books for granted. (In America, after all, our country’s history only goes back a little over 200 years!)
But knowledge used to be passed directly from person to person. Usually spoken, or demonstrated. We can study pieces of the ancient middle eastern cultures that have survived… but we only have a partial picture of ancient life. We can’t know everything! So we can’t trace every detail in the development of what we call belly dance today.
Wouldn’t it be fun if we could go back in time?
There is evidence of belly dance history in ancient fertility and childbirth rituals. Many of the abdominal and hip movements we have refined and stylized into our dance have roots in these preparations and celebrations. Dance was certainly used as a form of education, often times performed by the elder women of the community to educate younger women. Dance also marked important occasions and was part of community celebrations, as well as religious or spiritual ceremonies.
Some also suggest that the history of belly dance began in pre-Islamic and pre-Christian times, in cultures that were matriarchal (female-led). Many religions then were goddess-oriented. Goddess worship praised femininity and the uniqueness of women. Along with many different ceremonies and rituals, dances were offerings to the goddess.
Many regions of the middle east, the mediterranean, and northern Africa have similarities in women’s dance movements in early history. Of course, different geographical areas added unique characteristics to the dances. Today, we benefit from all of these cultural and stylistic developments. Modern belly dance draws from a wealth of cultures and regions! You can see, then, that belly dance has a rich, long history. But not the history that common myths present. Middle eastern dance didn’t develop as a dance of seduction! Far from it…
Modern European and American culture freely allows women and men to interact in social situations. This isn’t always the case in other parts of the world. Many cultures of the middle east allow women to interact closely only with their husbands (and perhaps other male members of the immediate family).
In fact, during gatherings, women danced for and with other women. Men did the same. Separate from each other! So the ancient history of belly dance developed in communities. Weddings, celebrations, parties – dancing was plentiful, but even the musicians were seperated according to gender! Take another step in your belly dance journey… By the way, dance lessons toronto knows everything about the American history of belly dance !