Belly dance is gaining in popularity in the U.S., appealing to women as a new form of exotic exercise. Wanting to dance like Shakira and Beyonce—two pop performers who regularly incorporate belly dance moves in their choreography—women are seeking out belly dance studios hoping to learn the undulations they see in music videos and drop a few pounds at the same time. Many of the women who are first exposed to belly dance by music videos are surprised to learn that the dance isn’t meant to be sexy. They can probably thank Sol Bloom—the American inventor of the term “belly dance”—for creating the perception that belly dance is a dance of seduction.
Belly Dance and Its American Influence
Sol Bloom isn’t the only American to leave his mark on belly dance. Americans have had a lot of influence on the dance from elevating it to an art form worthy of study, to developing new styles, and even creating the standard costume.
When you think of a belly dancer, the first image that pops into your mind probably involves a woman with long hair wearing a sequined bra and belt set. America’s own Hollywood is responsible for the creation of this costume as sequined bras and belts are not traditional Middle Eastern garb.
Soon after Bloom introduced Americans to belly dance, the Orientalist art movement took hold of the elite, making it fashionable to travel to the Middle East via steamboat. Wealthier Americans with the means to travel developed a fascination with Middle Eastern culture, and many of them wrote books or created art about what they saw on their travels. Much of this work was influenced by the artists’ xenophobia, and, as a result, representations of the region were usually romanticized. Out of this movement came the idea of the belly dancer girl and the myth of the dance of the seven veils.
Seeking to capitalize on this fascination with the Middle East, Hollywood began showcasing belly dancers in movies. And to sensationalize the subject even further, they featured belly dancers wearing sequined costumes that revealed the navel.
Americans who traveled to Egypt after seeing these films accepted that the depictions were accurate. So when they arrived in the nightclubs of Cairo, they expected to see women in glitzy beaded costumes. Smart Egyptian nightclub dancers took note of the demand for this image, and they soon adopted the sequined bra and belt set as their own in an attempt to make good money off of tourists.
Modern Belly Dance
Belly dance has been steadily rising in popularity around the world, particularly in the U.S. Much of the credit for its popularity goes to the Belly Dance Superstars, a touring group of dancers promoted by Police manager Miles Copeland.
The Belly Dance Superstars have brought belly dance into the mainstream, putting on entertaining Hollywood-style shows, touring widely, and even joining Lollapalooza.
Presently there are two main styles of belly dance performed and taught in the U.S.: Cabaret and Tribal. Considered more traditional, cabaret belly dance is performed to pop or classical music and involves a dancer wearing the typical bra and belt set. Cabaret is the kind of dancing you’ll usually find in Middle Eastern restaurants, and it’s considered family friendly and safe. Tribal is a new genre with a different look,
different movements, and even its own style of performance music. Tribal Fusion dancers often look like warriors, wearing elaborate costumes made from hundreds of antique coins and layers of tassels, shells, and jewelry. Their movements are often earthy, snake-like, and sometimes resemble the pop and lock style of hip hop. When it comes to Tribal music, often anything goes.
Belly dance is constantly evolving as Americans continue to influence the dance form. But one thing that has remained constant is the sense of community and celebration of the female form that has existed since Oriental Dance’s beginnings. Since the dance is so closely tied to the celebration of the feminine body, belly dancers embrace their tight-knit community.