About Oriental Dance (aka Belly Dance)

In Arabic it is called “raqs sharqi” which translates literally to Eastern Dance or Oriental Dance: raqs- dance, sharqi- Eastern, Oriental. In Turkish it is called Oryantal Dansı. It originates from the Middle East and it is believed to be called Raqs Sharqi to differentiate it from Raqs Beledi*, it’s more common dance relation. Beledi meaning of the country, folk or people, raqs beledi refers to the dances done by ordinary people. Raqs sharqi refers to the stage presentations as performed by professionals. Raqs Sharqi’s basic movement vocabulary consists of intricate hip articulation, flowing arm movement, and undulatory movements of the torso. This is often augmented by floor work, the playing of finger cymbals, or the use of many props, including veils, canes, candelabras and others. On stage it is performed mostly by a soloist, although there are also troupes. Often dancers will use the terms belly dance and Oriental dance to refer to both Raqs Sharqi and Raqs Beledi.

*To learn more about Raqs Beledi read “Baladi or Beledi” by Hadia and “Zeinab” by Hossam Ramzy

In the Middle East, Oriental dance is based on folk dance (for example: raqs beledi in Egypt, Romany dance in Turkey, Tsifitelli in Greece), danced by females and males, from the very young to the very old at family celebrations, weddings and parties. There are professional performers that perform commonly at weddings, in hotel nightclubs, in theaters and on television. Although it is performed throughout the Middle East, the dance has flourished the most in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey. An integral part of Middle Eastern culture, and seemingly indispensable at important celebrations, dance in general is not a highly respected profession in the Middle East. It’s professional practitioners are often associated with loose morals and prostitution. Many Oriental dancers outside of the Middle East, in cultures where dancing in public is not seen as inappropriate often try to disassociate the dance from these sorts of low connections, focusing more on it’s value as art and as family friendly entertainment.

The Ghawazee of Cairo – Sir David Roberts 18th century dress

The Ghawazee of Cairo – Sir David Roberts
18th century dress

The true origins of this art form are hotly debated. What can be said for sure is that elements of the dance were taken from many of the regions that met and melded in the Middle East, through trade, war and travel. A few influences particularly notable, Africa, Turkey, Greece, Persia, the Rrom people and the Arabic-speaking countries. Certain movements such as the belly roll and flutter are traceable to birthing rituals practiced by some Berber tribes in North Africa, some Bedouin tribes in Arabia (pre-Saudi) and others.*

*See Morocco’s article “Roots”.

This dance form was exported to many countries and many versions of it are now being taught and performed all over the world. Western and Russian influence on this dance form has added a whole new dimension. Extensive use of veils, swords and sometimes even snakes is now commonly incorporated, and the influence of jazz and ballet is often seen. Entire stylistic offshoots and fusions have developed here, in America, such as Vintage Oriental (American Cabaret), American Tribal Style, Tribal Fusion and others. These are in addition to the many stylistic variations from the Middle East, for example, Turkish, Egyptian or Lebanese styles.*

*See Different Styles of Oriental Dance

Oriental Dance is known in many places as belly dance.

“The term “belly dance” was coined in 1893 by Sol Bloom, impresario of the Midway Pleasance & “Street in Cairo” exhibit at the Colombian Trade Fair and Exposition (World’s Fair) in Chicago, IL. He did it deliberately, to titillate the dirty minds of the Mid Victorians of that era, who would pay any price to see something they thought was salacious, so they could go home and pretend to be shocked.”- Morocco

Belly dance is now considered by many to be a very disrespectful misnomer, while others are trying to redeem the word and give it new meaning despite it’s historically poor reputation.

By any name this has grown to be a prolific and well loved art form. Many participate in classes for the physical and emotional benefits. Oriental Dance is known as a very body friendly form of exercise as well as a chance for a person to dress their best and let their inner beauty shine through. To some it has become a profession and a life’s pursuit, to spread knowledge and show the dance form in the best possible light. Many others just like to watch and enjoy.

I recommend reading another excellent article “A Brief History of Oriental Dance” by Salome.

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