History of Belly Dance: Part I

Religious Roots of Belly Dance

Belly Dancer from the 40s

There is a lot of misinformation about belly dance. Some people think it’s a dance of seduction. Others consider it to be as taboo and risqué as stripping. Still, others will tell you that it’s a dance concubines performed for sultans. All of these ideas are totally inaccurate.

The reason why most Americans hold so many misconceptions about the dance form we know as “belly dance” is because there isn’t a lot of scholarly research on the subject. Most of the research has been completed by American dancers fairly recently, and it’s taken decades for the most credible dancers to make their information widely available.

Here’s what’s true about belly dance: It’s a 3,000-year-old folk dance that originated in the Middle East. Exactly where in the Middle East is a point of contention. Nobody knows for sure because of the lack of extensive research, but what research there is indicates that belly dance started either in Turkey or Egypt. Art that’s been preserved within ancient Egyptian pyramids confirms that the dance has roots in this region. Poses depicted in Pyramid art are similar to some of the poses belly dancers strike.

Belly dance actually has religious roots. Thousands of years ago it was performed as a religious fertility rite. But as monotheism took hold of the world, it developed into a secular folk dance. It became a dance of celebration that would have been performed at family gatherings—always by women and for women, never with or for men.

In several Middle Eastern cultures, belly dance movements are also passed on from mother to daughter to prepare young women for childbirth. To this day, women will gather during a family member’s labor and dance around her, performing specific stomach undulations that the mother-to-be should perform as she gives birth. Some of these movements are taught in LaMaze classes.

What’s in a Name: The Origin of the Term Belly Dance

The Arabic name for the dance commonly called belly dance is "Raks Sharki,” which translates into “Oriental Dance.” Oriental Dance refers to the region of the world from which the dance originates. Belly dance is also sometimes called “Raks Beledi” or literally “dance of my country.” Since “beledi” sounds so similar to “belly,” many believe this is why the name belly dance persists.

1893 Chicago World's Fair

The term belly dance was coined by a man named Sol Bloom during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Bloom was a promoter who wanted to garner attention for a group of dancers from the Middle East. These dancers were performing undulations, and though they were completely covered from head to foot in clothing, they danced without corsets. Consider the Victorian mindset of the time, and you will realize that going without a corset in public would have been scandalous. Even to mention a particular body part like “belly” in polite company would have been vulgar. Knowing how offended his audience would be by the term belly dance, Bloom used it on purpose in order to shock patrons into coming to see the dancers. He hoped to draw them with the allure of the taboo, much in the same way that we all slow down to look at road accidents these days.

Dancers at the Chicago World's Fair

Bloom’s term helped solidify some misconceptions about belly dance. The idea that the dance is somehow risqué originates with his term. Even worse for belly dancers, the name is a misnomer: the term belly dance implies that the dance movements are restricted only to the abdomen, and thus oversimplifies the artistry and athleticism involved. In reality, belly dance requires the use of many muscles from head to toe. Perhaps most unfortunate of all, the term belly dance fails to communicate the idea that this dance is a folk dance representing the very ancient and very complicated history of the Middle East.

Online Belly Dance Resources

  • Belly dance legend Morocco is one of the most-respected authorities on belly dance history. Her website includes great information on Middle Eastern culture.
  • One of the largest belly dance studios in the U.S., AtlantaBellyDance.com has an online store and a library of articles on belly dance history, costuming, and performance tips.
  • Dancer Shira’s website is one of the most comprehensive web resources for belly dancers.

This post is part of the series: The History of Belly Dance

While it’s had a lot of American influence, belly dance is really a Middle Eastern folk dance with religious origins. Follow the history of this popular exotic exercise from its beginnings in ancient Egypt to its recent appearance on Lollapalooza.
  1. The History of Belly Dance: Part I