Lecture on Belly Dancing
I. Belly dancing is sometimes called Middle Eastern dance or Arabic dance. The
name is something of a misnomer in that all parts of the body are involved, but the
most featured parts are the hips.
A. Categories of Belly dancing
1. Raqs sharqi literally means oriental dance is most often performed by female
dancers but sometimes male dancers and is the style which is most familiar to
Westerners. Raqs sharqi is a solo improvisational dance which is staged in a
2. Raqs baladi means dance of country or folk dance and is danced socially by men
and women of all ages in some Middle Eastern countries usually at festive
occasions such as weddings.
B. The origins of the roots of belly dancing are not well defined because it is a
dance of folkloric origin and this tends to be the case with folk dances because
they are passed down from generation to generation and performed by all people in
1. One theory is that belly dancing was originated by women for women to
demonstrate or to ease childbirth. Although there is no documented evidence to
support this, this is promoted in Western dance schools because it buffers the
negative sexual stereotyping of the practice and the performance of belly dancing.
There is supporting evidence that two specific belly dance movements have been
used in childbirth for generations but this is not enough to account for the history of
a complex dance used primarily for public performance.
2. Belly dancing was popularized during the Romantic movement of the 18th and
19th centuries when Orientalist artists depicted romanticized images of harem life in
the Ottoman Empire. During this time, dancers from the Middle Eastern countries
performed at World Fairs drawing crowds that rivaled those for science and
3. Several dancers have engaged in Oriental dancing, sometimes more
interpretative than authentic. There was also the dancer Mata Hari who was
convicted in 1917 by the French for being a German spy who is attributed with
being a pseudo-Javanese dancer.
B. Costume for belly dancing is mostly the bedlah which is Arabic for suit and
the origins of this can be traced to the Victorian painters of Orientalism and the
interpretive productions of harems in vaudeville, burlesque and Hollywood during
the turn of the last century rather than anything that would be authentic Middle
1. The bedlah style includes a fitted top or bra usually adorned with fringe or beads
or coins, a fitted hip belt with a fringe of beads or coins and a skirt or harem pants.
The belt can be a separate piece or sewn into a skirt. The hip belt is worn low on
the hips and the bra matches the belt and does not resemble lingerie. The classic
harem pants are full and gathered at the ankle. Sometimes pants and a sheer skirt
are worn together. Skirts can be constructed of multiple layers of chiffon to create a
flowing effect or can be made of figure hugging lycra.
a. Badia Masabni, a Cairo cabaret owner is credited with bringing the costume to
Egypt to please the Western tourists.
1. Since the 1950s it has been illegal in Egypt for belly dancers to perform publicly
with their midriff uncovered or to display excessive skin. It has become common
for performers to wear a long, figure-hugging lycra one-piece gown with cut-outs
filled with sheer flesh-colored fabric.
a. If a separate bran and skirt are worn, a belt is rarely used and a sheer body
stocking must be worn to cover the midsection.
b. Egyptian dancers traditionally dance in bare feet but more currently wear shoes
and even high heels.
2. In Lebanon, there is no prohibition on showing the stomach and the bedlah style
is more common and the skirts tend to be more sheer and skimpier than in Egypt,
allowing more of the body to be shown. The veil is more widely used and matches
the outfit along with high heels.
3. Turkish dancers also wear bedleh style costumes. In the 80s and 90s, the art
became debase in Turkey and a stripperesque costume developed with plunging
bras and skirts designed to show off the both legs up the hip. There are still many
serious Turkish belly dancers who wear more moderate costumes but all Turkish
belly dance costumes reflect the flirtly playful style of Turkish belly dance.
4. American dancers often purchase their costumes from Egypt or Turkey but
distinguish the classic American style by adding a headband with fringe and using
sheer harem pants instead of lycra and decorating the bra with coins and metalwork.
5. Baladi and folkloric dancers were a full-length beledi dress or a galabeyah
6. Props used to enhance the choreography include finger cymbals, cane, veil,
sword, candelabra headdress, fire sticks, tambourine, fan and snakes, usually
pythons or a boa constrictor.
C. Steps and Technique of belly dancing.
1. Most of the movements in belly dancing involve isolating different parts of
the body which appear to be similar to the isolations used in ballet and modern
dance, but the impetus of the movement is different. In most styles of belly
dancing, the focus is on the hip and pelvic area.
a. The shimmy is a shimmering vibration of the hips and is created by moving the
knees past each other at a high speed. This is sometimes achieved by contracting
the gluteal muscles instead. Sometimes the shimmy results from one leg which is
bearing weight with the other leg to the side. Shoulder shimmies are also employed.
b. The arms swing and the hands are used to frame the moving part of the body.
c. Hip thrusts are a basic move which help alternate the weight on the legs and
create an impression of a swinging pelvis.
d. Undulations are rotating movements of the chest forward, up, back and down to
create the impression of riding a camel.
2. Egyptian belly dance includes three main forms of the traditional dance
associated with belly dance.
a. Baladi is a folk style of dance from the Arabe Tribes who settled in Upper
b. Sharqi is based on the baladi style but was further developed by dancers who
rose to fame during the golden years of the Egyptian film industry.
c. The influence of ballet can be seen in belly dances today as dancers stand on
relêvé as they turn or travel in a circle.
d. Belly dancers in Egypt are not well regarded and Egyptians do not consider it to
be a respectable profession. Most dancers who perform in Egypt for tourists are
e. Dancers are not allowed to perform certain movements or do any floor work.
D. Greco-Turkish Belly Dance of today might have been influenced by Arabs
before the Ottoman Empire as much as by the Egyptian and Syrean/Lebanese
forms. Because of the restraints put on the Egyptians, Egyptian belly dancing is
noted for its restraint and elegance while Turkish belly dance is playful and
uninhibited. Many professional dancers and musicians in Turkey continue to be of
Romani heritage. Something unique to the Turkish style is the use of the rhythm of
a 9/8 time signature.
E. Western Belly Dance. The term belly dancing is credited to Sol Bloom, the
entertainment director of the 1893 Worlds Fair, calling belling dancing a gold
mine. There were authentic dancers from several Middle Eastern and North
African countries but it was the Egyptian Theatre of The Street in the Cairo exhibit
who gained most of the notoriety. The dancers were uncorseted and gyrated their
hips which was shocking to Victorian sensibilities. There were no soloists, but a
dancer nicknamed Little Egypt stole the show, however it is disputed as to who this
1. The popularity of these dances created many imitators with many claiming to be
from the original group. Victorian society remained shocked and dancers were
sometimes arrested and fined. Belly dancing in America was nicknamed the
Hootchy-Kootchy or the shimmy and shake. A film featuring belly dancing was
considered to be immodest and was eventually censored. Men flocked to burlesque
theaters, carnivals and circus lots to see belly dancing.
2. Ruth St.Denis used Middle Eastern-inspired dance in a silent film Intolerance
and her goal was to lift dance to a respectable art from at a time when dancers were
considered to be women of loose morals.
3. Hollywood produced the films The Sheik, Cleopatra and Salomé to
capitalize on Western fantasies of the orient.
4. Immigrants from Arab State who arrived in New York in the 1930s danced in
nightclubs and restaurants and some of todays most accomplished performers of
belly dancing are their descendants.
5. In the 1960s and 70s many dancers began teaching. Middle Eastern and Eastern
bands took dancers on tour with them which helped to spark an interest in the dance.
6. American Cabaret or American Restaurant belly dancing uses traditional Turkish
and Egyptian movements but has developed its own distinctive style.
7. Tribal Fusion belly dance uses many different styles including flamenco, ballet,
burlesque and hip hop.
8. Gothic Belly Dance is a style which uses elements from Goth subculture.
9. In 1987, American Tribal Style Belly Dance (ATS) was created and although a
completely modern style, its steps are based on a fusion of ancient dance techniques
from North India, the Middle East, and Africa.
F. Australian Belly Dance was due to the influx of migrants and refugees escaping
troubles in the Middle East in the late 1970s and early 80s.
G. Canadian Belly Dance is similar to the community in the United States.
H. Belly Dancing in the UK and Ireland has been evidenced since the early 1960s
with many styles being taught.
I. Male Belly Dancing
A. There is historical evidence of male belly dancing from the Ottoman Empire
which the Sultan employed both male and female belly dancers with the males
performances being so sexually provocative to have caused fights from the audience
causing these performances to be banned in 1856. Eventually the ban was lifted but
with the suppression of harem culture with the two following Sultans, the dance lost
the support of the royal patrons and gradually disappeared.
1. Male belly dancing today is resurgence but there is heated debate on whether the
costumes and choreography should be different than for female belly dancing.
J. Health and belly dancing
1. Belly dancing is a non-impact, weight-bearing exercise that is suitable for all ages
and is good for the prevention of osteoporosis in older people. It is also a good form
of exercise for younger people and helps them to feel good about their bodies.
K. Belly dancing in pop culture has recently been made popular by Latin American
superstar Shakira. Although she is Columbian, her part-Lebanese background has
influenced her style.