Learn about the history of belly dance and why its more than just fitness. What is belly dance? The answer to this question depends on who you ask and where you believe it is from. The Orient, Middle East, Africa, Greece? This ancient form of dance has many names and shares movements most natural to the body from around the world. But, each culture that has embraced its gifts from the beginning of time has created meaningful movements that tell stories about the people who dance them. We invite you to take the time required to learn about belly dance cultures, styling, and interpretation. Provided are a few links that may help get you started on your journey of better understanding.
There is not one name for this art form simply because so many styles and forms of the dance exist throughout many cultures. However, most Americans call this beautiful expression "Belly Dance". Here are a few other common names:
• Middle Eastern Dance: This umbrella term includes belly dance, among other forms. Some people consider it a more prestigious title than belly dancing. While this term acknowledges the culture that historically has had the strongest association with belly dance, it fails to recognize the many other cultures which form and influence the world of belly dancing today. Dance lessons are a great way to learn more about belly dance history.
• Balady or Raks Balady (also spelled Baladi or Beladi): This term means "dance from the country." The basic rhythm of the dance is often referred to by its Arabic term, balady (or maksoom).
• Egyptian Raks Al-Sharqi: Dance of the Easterner
• Danse du Ventre: A French phrase for dance of the belly, When the dance was presented at the Chicago World's fair in 1893, the world was deep into a period of art history known as the Orientalist era. Traveling European painters and writers brought home fascinating descriptions and illustrations of the Orient, mesmerizing the west with human curiosity.
• Dance Oriental or Oryantal Dansi: This name arose from the traditional Turkish term Oryantal, which referred to the area now known as the Middle East, but once commonly called the orient. To the western ear this sounds a bit confusing because the orient is thought of as being Asia. We must keep in mind that geographical boundaries and associations from where they are now. A brief peak at maps over the ages will show the boundaries are very different than long ago.
Raqs sharqi (literally “eastern/oriental dancing”) is the style more familiar to Westerners, performed in restaurants and cabarets around the world. It is a solo improvisational dance, although students often perform choreographed dances in a group.
Raqs baladi, (literally “local dancing”, or “folk” dance) is the folkloric style, danced socially by men and women of all ages in some Middle Eastern countries, usually at festive occasions such as weddings. However, this naming is used synonymous in Egypt with Raqs sharqi as a generic term for “belly dancing.”
What makes this dance so hypnotic and exciting to me is the expressiveness with a powerful focus on isolating different parts of the body. Moving independently in patterns, layering with other isolation's in limitless combinations. The dance is known to be rich in improvisation leaving it unpredictable, fun, and surprising. And then there is the shimmy. Who doesn't love well placed shimmy... The most popular of all movements evoking powerful energy and excitement with its thousands of variations.
Belly Dance is performed for many reasons including: entertainment, cultural ritual, physical fitness and celebration. Because belly dancing has a variety of origins and purposes it's often individualized for each culture for the simple reason of allowing the dancer to fulfill an undeniable expression for one's self.
The Many Styles of Oriental Dance
Dance is a living and evolving art form. It evolves as cultures evolve and as it is adopted by new cultures leading to many different styles of “belly dance.”
Folkloric Belly Dance: (Raqs Baladi)
This style incorporates the dance of the people. Some popular ethnic folk dances include the Fallahin (Egyptian farmers), Hora from Turkey, Kalamatianos in Greece, Dabke in Lebanon, Al Ardah in Saudi Arabia. Folk dances are used as a framework for introducing the folkloric roots of eastern dance culture, from which belly dance emerged. Folkloric Dances are generally performed by the people of that particular tribe or nation. While they are also performed for specific reasons, one of witch is celebration,, not all ethnic dances are folk dances. For example ritual dances, or dances of ritual origin are not considered to be folk dances. Ritual dances are usually called "Religious dances" because of their purpose. The terms "ethnic" and "traditional" are used when it is required to emphasize the cultural roots of the dance. In this sense, nearly all folk dances are ethnic ones. An example of this is the Polka. It can cross ethnic boundaries and even cross the boundary between "folk" and "ballroom dance". While ethnic differences are often considerable enough to mention. It is my opinion it can be seen as inappropriate to misuse or perform these dances without proper understanding and respect for the nature of the dance. When outsiders perform such dances it is to be done with great care and respect.
When the dancing begins it may be done spontaneously in what ever a person is wearing while other dances will have specific costuming. Scarf, pottery, cane, and stick are used by belly dancers in routines for a folkloric flair. Folkloric routines will be featured in belly dance stage shows in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Costuming will reflect the origin of the dance
Egyptian Style Oriental Dance:
Egyptian Style as the title indicates originates in Egypt. Often Egyptians will dance more to the rhythm of a piece than the melody, although there are a few dancers who do dance quite melodically at times. Also Egyptians often carry their energy low in their body, so their dancing seems much grounded, even when they are dancing in rélevé. Floor work (dancing seated or lying on the floor) was made illegal in Egypt for most of the 20th century, soyou only see it rarely, usually in a vignette, character dance or candelabrum dance. As with all Oriental dance, Egyptian Oriental is heavily steeped in the folkloric music and dance of Egypt. For example, Saidi rhythms and elements are very common. A well known Egyptian style dancer is Samia Gamal.
Golden Era: (Hollywood inspired)
Many separate Golden Era Egyptian Style with more modern stylizations. Golden Era refers to the stars of Egyptian dance from the 1920-1950's. Some of the most famous names of that time included Samia Gamal, Tahiya Karioka and Naima Akef. Souhair Zaki, Nagwa Fouad, Fifi Abdo, Mona Said and Aza Sharif also reached the height of their popularity between 1960-1980's.
Egyptian singer/musician composers of from the 1930s to the 1970s: Mohammed AbdelWahab and Farid Al Atrash. Today's modern Egyptian belly dance incorporates sound mix, orchestra, and drum machine, seasoned with lively vocals.
Big names in modern Egyptian dance are Dina, Tito and Randa Kamal. There are also many non-Egyptians who have adopted Egyptian styling in their own dancing as well as worked and built their reputations in Egypt. A few names worth knowing include many dancers from the USA, Yasmin & Leila Nour - Russia, Asmahan – Argentina, Soraya – Brazil and Orit – Israel.
Costumes are customarily very glitzy and elaborately beaded. Various styles have been popular over the years. Madame Abla is legendary for her modern Egyptian costume designs. The late great dancer and choreographer, Ibrahim “Bobby” Farrah, of New York, was a male belly dancer of Lebanese heritage who perpetuated the cultivation of Modern Egyptian dance style in America.
Oriental Dance in Lebanon shares some similarity to Egyptian Style Oriental, relying on much of the same Arabic dance music and cultural references. However, it often draws on Lebanese ethnic and folkloric dances such as Dabke as opposed to Egyptian ethnic dance. Lebanese dancing can often include intricate floor patterns and very elegant arms, intricate abdominal and hip movements particularly in the classic styling that has similarity to Golden Era Egyptian Oriental. You will see floor work in Lebanese Oriental dance. A more modern stylization was brought to the public by the dancer Nadia Jamal who experimented with some modern fusions, incorporating Western dance elements. After her, many Lebanese dancers chose to wear high heels when they performed and incorporated more of a jazzy, outward energy.
Turkish Style Oriental:
There is a shared dance vocabulary between Turkish style and Arabic styles of Oriental Dance. However, Turkish belly dance music is often characterized by the sounds of the oboe, clarinet, oud, ney, kanoon, and hand drums. Turkish style dancers also often play finger cymbals (zills). Turkish style Oriental is influenced by the various folkloric dances of Turkey as well as the folkloric dances of the Romani people living in Turkey. Many popular dance performers in the past and present are Romani, and they add their own flavor to the dance.
In Turkish Oriental there are popular rhythms with a limping count, like a 5, 7 or 9 count in addition to 4 and 8 count rhythms you find most commonly in Arabic Oriental. Classic Turkish styling of the 1920-1960's has many similarities to classic and Golden Era Egyptian and Lebanese dance. Classic Turkish dancers also used many Arabic pieces of music. There was a lot of cultural crossover at the time via the Ottoman Empire. The most obvious exception being when a Romani 9/8 rhythm was included in a show.
Costumes are among the more risque of the cabaret styles, Often consisting of bra and belt with a skirt baring plenty of leg. They are usually beaded, but may use coins too.
More modern Turkish dancers continue to draw upon Arabic music and dance for inspiration as well as Turkish Roman and folk dance. However, the modern Turkish dancer’s approach is much more jazzy and aggressive. Turkish dance also includes floor work and more extensive use of the veil than Egyptian or Lebanese Oriental dance. Some names worth knowing in Turkish Style Oriental Dance include Nejla Ates, Birgul Beray, Tanyeli, Asena, Didem, Reyhan and Hale Sultan. Some non-native names worth knowing dedicated to Turkish style dancing are Artemis – USA, Eva Cernik – USA. To learn more about Turkish Style Oriental I recommend Artemis’ article Turkish Dance, American Cabaret and Vintage Orientale and Kristina Melike’s article An Introduction to the History of Turkish Oriental belly dance.
Contemporary American Oriental Dance:
Many contemporary American and other belly dancers around the world continue in the eclectic tradition of Vintage Oriental Style Dance, liberally fusing various elements of different Middle Eastern Cultures. Many have also taken it further incorporating elements Jazz, Ballet, Modern Dance, Latin Dance, Spanish and Flamenco, Roma dancing, Hip hop, Indian dances, etc. as well as returning to the Middle East to learn what is happening now in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey’s dance communities.
As long as the dancer continues to have a strong base of Arabic or Turkish Oriental movement vocabulary in their repertoire, a fairly large variety of creative license is accepted under the title of “belly dance”. There is also a trend towards more large theatrical style presentations.
A few notable dancers and troupes I feel really represent trends in Contemporary American Oriental Dance include: Suhaila Salimpour, Belly Dance Super Stars, and Tamalyn Dahlal (for their theatrical presentations).
American Classic Style Belly Dance:
This style describes the belly dance performed and cultivated by American women, (and a few men) since about the early 1970's. It developed out of the rich collation of cultures in the American melting pot, especially in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Immigrants brought belly dancing from Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Central Asia, Lebanon, Israel, Armenia, The Balkans, Persia, Iraq, India, and Africa. All these cultures have their own unique customs, traditions, languages, foods, music, and dances, yet each recognized some form of the belly dance as a part of their heritage. Prior to the 1970's, in most cases, the dance was not well perpetuated and was performed at a fairly basic level. In the less conservative American environment, the dance began to flower into its full potential. Belly dance classes sprung up at community centers and colleges. In ethnic restaurants throughout the nation, American dancers with exotic names like Princess Sheharazade, Ellena the Persian Kitten, and Jodette, swirled on stages, flooded with colored lights, to the rhythms of live Middle Eastern music, amid the savory aromas of ethnic cuisine. The American style of belly dance incorporated cultures from around the globe and added its own liberating trademarks. One of these trademarks was the steady development of the gymnastic use of the veil within the dance. Another was a wider stance and bolder use of space than in the Middle East. The American Classic style began spreading all over the world, even circling back to influence dance in the Middle East. Egyptian dance businesses flourished to meet the enjoyment of the western woman’s love of this dance. Many Lebanese and Turkish women today study with Delilah's Belly Dance video series.
The American women of every, ethnic heritage became fascinated with the dance.. Magazines dedicated to the art and catering to its ever-widening population of devotees sprouted up in America: Habibi, the Belly Dancer, and Arabesque were among the pioneer trade publications. As they undertook to seriously study and refine the depth of belly dance techniques, dancers also began to recognize and define an overview of the dance's commonality and structure. Belly dance was becoming as wholesome as apple pie in America and this could only help its reputation for women internationally. This synthesized belly dance evolved from many cultures and resonated within women as deeply as their very DNA. This dance intrinsically belongs to every woman, so it easily transcends all borders. "Carolyn Anderson "
American Tribal Style Belly Dance:
Tribal is a style developed by Jamila Salimpour. It was crafted by the close study of the stars of belly dance. While this form of the dance included elements of Middle Eastern and North African dance styles from Byzantium, the Renaissance, and Victorian era, it was enhanced with a good dose of show biz theatrics. Introduced in the 1970's at California-style renaissance pleasure fairs, women who experienced Tribal belly dance became transfixed! It quickly defined itself as a wildly popular American style. American Tribal Belly Dance performances might include the balancing of swords and other props, snake dances, and folk line-dances.
Costuming is distinctive with black and silver assuit, and facial drawings to simulate tribal tattoos.
A later offshoot of the California Tribal troupe was spearheaded by Carolena Nericcio. She and her troupe became known as Fat Chance Belly Dance. It is a style built on a group improvisational technique that is known as "American Tribal Style". She Took her trained dance style to a new level when she created new ways to communicate with other dancers in a live performance and still maintain the integrity of improvisation. This unique coded system of group improvisation set them apart as a new form that quickly gained popularity worldwide.
Costuming elements from India, Turkey, Afghanistan and North Africa were fused with movements from Vintage Oriental Style Dance, Flamenco and Indian dances. Tattoos are also very popular among many American Tribal Style (ATS) dancers. It has a distinctive and colorful, costumed character of its own by use of choli tops from India, tightly wrapped turbans, Afghan jewelry and camel tassels. See Kajira's Tribal Bible for a historic look at this belly dance style.
Many dancers differentiate between pure Fat Chance ATS and other group improvisational offshoots by calling those Improvisational Tribal Style (ITS) or Tribal Belly Dance. Other notable ATS, ITS or Tribal Belly Dancers include Kajira Djoumahna of Black Sheep Belly Dance and Paulette Rees-Denis of Gypsy Caravan.
Tribal Fusion Belly Dance
An exciting and dramatic representation of belly dance with direct roots in the ATS style. Rachel Brice is a well-known performer who has helped develop this theatrical style. It is performed as a solo or group dance and incorporates more modern movements from dance forms as well as yoga.
An eclectic style that includes any different genera of dance, costuming or music mixed with traditional elements of belly dance.
Gothic, Fantasy, Goddess are among a few other styles not listed with a description
Sites used to help gather information include:
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