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The Great Debate
Several days ago, I did a 20 minute belly dance workout for a group of young women. This group in particular was involved in a Folklorico (Spanish dance) group. A lady thanked me for taking the time to do this and asked the question, “where does belly dance come from?”. Of course I had to answer her in the most honest answer possible. I told her and the others, “It is really hard to say. There are so many influences, so many countries involved”.
Shortly after, I stepped aside and watched the group practice. I noticed that some of the movements involved pushing the hip slightly away from the body and with handkerchief in hand, doing circular hand movements; similar movements you see in belly dance. Folklorico and belly dance existing together, but of course, different histories.
Belly dance is a western term of the dance performed historically by women, who dance by isolating the hips and torso. Tracing it back to where it originated, is difficult. If you want to bring about a great debate between professional belly dancers, just ask the question.
After doing some research, it seems to me that asking where belly dance came from, is like asking about the origin of the drum! Better yet, the question is similar to the “what came first, the chicken or egg”. Nevertheless, the research is intense, and there will never be that final answer. Sorry Regis.
If we were to literally trace our finger back into time, we would start off with belly dance, to the French words Danse Du Ventre (dance of the belly), to what was called Oryantal Dansi in Turkey, and finally back to Egypt where Raqs Sharqi (or Raqs Sharki) originated, which literally means “dance of the east”.
Egyptian women did perform dances in front of high court officials. The group of professional dancers was called Raqs Sharqi. Dances of the country or local dances were called Baladi. Pictures of this time frame reveal that women danced by moving their hips in circular motion, with their arms above their head.
Now, at the same time this was going on, women were also doing religious dances to the gods/goddesses. Tilting of the pelvis back and forth in front of a fertility goddess was part of a fertility dance. Women did this in hopes that they would be bountiful.
Some argue that belly dance, or Raq Sharqi was solely meant for religious purposes. One in particular was Armen Ohamian, “The Dancer of Shamakha”, who believed that the dance should always be sacred. What people see now of belly dance, is degrading, according to Ohamian.
Think of the countries that contributed to belly dance. Egypt, Africa, Turkey, India, and Iraq, were busy countries trading with one another. Foreigners visiting these countries more likely than not, danced when there was music. A local onlooker probably liked what she saw and incorporated moves into her dance. So, when you hear someone say that belly dance was influenced by many countries, you can make a good argument.
Ghawazee were the professional dancers in Egypt. Even the origin of the dancers trace back to India. They traveled from India into Persia, dancing along the way. Some refer to them as gypsies, while others rightfully call them travelers.
One belly dancer made a good argument about belly dancing originating in Baghdad. She stated that the dances were done there and it was only perfected in Egypt. Of course, there were those who posted their opinions and thoughts in opposition to her theory.
Belly dance used in birth rituals is another theory. Women gathered around the expecting mother, dancing the baby into the world. The undulating movements of the torso helped eased the labor. Couldn’t this have happened while the professional dancers were performing and while a woman was performing a religious dance? Of course!
Time happened to belly dance as it evolved into what we know today. In 1893 Little Egypt performed at the Chicago World Fair. Mata Hari and other women made belly dance their own. Belly dancers in Cairo popularized the dance by performing in night clubs. Today, there are so many variations of belly dance.
This is an exciting topic. Who really knows, but “the know” is belly dance is an art. A dance that came from once upon a time.
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