Bellydancing is the last vestige of goddess worship in the Middle East and is in danger of becoming extinct. Bellydancing began as ritual for childbirth preparation in the ancient Middle East. Before Islam and Christianity, when the Mother Goddess was worshipped, sex and childbearing were sacred. During this time, many societies were matriarchal, and bellydancing was performed by women for women.
In Arabic, the dance is called Raks Sharqi, meaning "Oriental Dance". Bellydancing was later translated from the French Danse du Ventre, or stomach dance, which was used to describe tribal dances from a group of matriarchal Berbers in Algeria called the Oulid Nail. Bellydancing is not the only dance done by women in the Middle East. There are regional folkloric dances which also emphasize hip and abdominal movements. However, bellydancing is the most popular well known international dance.
The dance was done with many layers of colorful clothing, belted at the waist. No skin showed. The dancers bounced layers of skirts by tilting their pelvises violently.
There is an old tradition rarely seen of young men bellydancing in long, unrevealing robes with a scarf tied around the hips. They danced in coffee houses, strictly for the enjoyment of men, who were excluded from women's gatherings. To this day, Middle Eastern men exhibit a fascination for the dance, and for participating in this ancient women's art.
The Middle East Restrictions
Today many Middle Eastern countries forbid women to perform the dance. During the 1950's, bellydancing was declared illegal in Egypt. After a popular uprising ensued, the government repealed the ban with one condition -- that dancers no longer show their stomachs. (That law still remains in effect.)
Why is bellydancing being stopped? Dallal, a professional Mideastern dancer, thinks, "The anti-bellydancing sentiment and reactionary religious extremism was beginning when I visited Cairo. The bellydance shows were not decadent in any way, but the dancers had such charisma and strength that the audience was compelled to silence by the lift of a dancer's arm driven to frenzy by a dancer's union with the drumbeats. I think the Arab men are afraid of the tremendous power in the hands of women when they perform this dance."
Recently, radical Islamic fundamentalists have succeeded in removing bellydancing from televised programming, and they terrorize restaurants and nightspots that feature the art. Famous dancers that performed the art have either retired or moved to other countries. In 1893, the promoter of an Egyptian music and dance group at the Chicago World's Fair became concerned because nobody was interested in seeing the dancing show. It occurred to the promoter to rename the performers Bellydancers. Thus renamed, the dance created a controversy that became a media sensation. Lines gathered around the block, eager to witness the outrageous act of Bellydancing.
In the U.S., women are becoming involved in this very ancient dance. Bellydancing is used as a way of celebrating woman's femininity, as it helps women gain confidence in their bodies. Bellydance exercises are also used in natural childbirth classes, and a recent survey done by Mideastern Dancer Magazine reports that women who bellydanced delivered their first child with shorter periods of labor.
Bellydancing acts as an aid to exercise as the sweat and gentle nature of the hip movements help one to stay fit. Women who bellydance are having a lot of fun and feel young at heart!
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About The Author
Lucy Pappas has a degree in ethnomusicology from UCLA and is studying bellydancing. The above article was written in collaboration with Dallal, who teaches bellydancing (Mideastern dance). Lucy and Dallal can be reached at Mideastern Dance Exchange, 350 Lincoln Road, #505, Miami Beach, FL 33139.