What is Belly Dance or Oriental Dance?

Middle Eastern solo improvised dance means different things to different people. Given that there are numerous different terms designating the practice – ‘belly dance’, ‘Oriental dance’, ‘raqs sharki’, ‘raqs baladi’ etc, it is everything but a fixed category. Various processes and media have advanced the spread of the dance across the globe into a popular form of entertainment, recreation, arts, and sports. 

Historically, the dance tradition is associated with the Mediterranean region and the Middle East, and is up to present day widely practised in social and performance contexts, by professionals as well as amateurs, as a solo improvisation accompanied by rhythm and/or music

Its characteristic features, with regard to local variations, include articulated movements and isolations of the torso, arms, hands, and head, and small steps.

To the world, Egypt is viewed as the Mecca of Belly Dancing, and the modern popularity of the Egyptian Belly Dance owes much to the legendary icon Fifi Abdou. Touted as a national treasure, Fifi is considered the Queen of "Raqs Baladi" an ancient native folkloric dance that originated in Egypt.

What we call belly dance is a theatrical version of the social folk dance done in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. It's an expression of celebration and fun done by both sexes. Male belly dancing, a centuries-old tradition in the Middle East, is making a comeback - against the odds, considering its periodic suppression by government and religious officials. Tito Seif is one of Egypt's most well known male Oriental/belly dancers. 

The Ghawazi people in Egypt sing and dance while children observe and begin to learn the artistic traditions.

The term ‘belly dance’ indicates contact between Middle Eastern native dances and Westerners. The relationship between Westerners and Middle Eastern solo improvised dance can be traced back to European colonialism and Orientalism of the late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries. 

For many European writers of the nineteenth century, the Orient correlated with libertine sexual experiences, unobtainable in Europe. ‘Oriental sex’ became a mass commodity available through art and literature and the term ‘Oriental’ allowed the readers instantly to identify it with sensuality as well as backwardness. The Protestant belief system contributed to the perception of non-Christian bodies and dancing as sensual, wild, hypersexual representations of the savage. 

Lady Mary Montagu was one of the first Europeans to write about the native dances of the East being ‘artful’. Most later (male) travellers used terms like ‘voluptuous’, ‘shameful’, ‘stupid’ and ‘savage’ to describe the dance. Under the male gaze, the female dancer was perceived primarily as a shameful and sexual object. 

Public female entertainers of the time in Egypt, such as Kuchuk Hanem, were not greatly respected, and were often perceived as women with loose morals. As opposed to the female entertainers performing in harems, the public singers and dancers performed unveiled in front of unrelated men. For foreign travellers, this distinguished them from the general image of the veiled female in the ‘Orient’. 

The veiling of the ‘Oriental woman’ in the colonialist context was a phenomenon highly charged with Western male fantasies. European travellers were obsessed with it, representing it as a kind of mask hiding the secrets of the Oriental woman. The desire to control by being able to see behind the veil and gain knowledge took sexual overtones and turned into the desire to unveil and reveal – a fantasy of seduction. Europeans often insisted that the female dancers perform naked and many agreed to do so. 

Since many foreign travellers were mostly interested in female dancing, performing for tourists in Egypt became a profitable profession for women. Increasingly under European cultural and economic influence, public dancers also became more associated with prostitution and the spread of media images helped to solidify this affiliation.

Pictures from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Photo courtesy: belladonnabellydance.wordpress.com

Pictures from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Photo courtesy: belladonnabellydance.wordpress.com


During the turn of the twentieth century, Westerners had little information available about the Middle East, except from what they had received from Orientalist literature, artwork, and photographs. The great fairs in Europe and America served as cultural windows to colonial domains and the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 is known to have introduced performers from the Middle East presenting ‘belly dance’ numbers. Wearing no corsets, sometimes scantily clad, with loose hair and freely moving bodies, they caused sensation and outrage. 

1889: L'Exposition Universelle, the French World's Fair, commemorated the Centennial of the French Revolution. The Eiffel Tower, Edison's Electricity Pavillion and "La Rue du Caire" drew millions of visitors to "The City of Lights" during the 6 months it was open. Those lights allowed people to visit after dark and the scandalous "danse du ventre" by the "almees" was particularly enticing...

The dance became popular entertainment in vaudevilles whose performers were often featured in films and peep shows. Hollywood Middle East themed films were inspired by the performers at these fairs as well as Orientalist literature. Effort was made to create a convincing image of the ‘Orient’ through costumes, music, stage setting, and dance. Yet, these elements were altered to suit the tastes, expectations, and preferences of Western audiences. 

This harem dancing sequence is from "Tarzan's Revenge", the only Tarzan film to feature Glen Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion. The film was directed by D Ross Lederman in 1938 and also starred Eleanor Holm, the 1928 and 1932 Olympic backstoke champion; George Barbier as Eleanor's father; and Hollywood gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, as Eleanor's mother.

A film in two parts called the Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur) and Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb). For more information on this movie, see http://rouge.com.au/7/tiger.html

The Western representation of the ‘Oriental’ belly dancer travelled globally through media images, and was appropriated by Egyptian dancers of the early twentieth century, as it reached through the Egyptian film industry and other media, together with the prejudices attached to it, to local audiences. Thus, the Oriental ‘belly dance’ of the Western Orientalist context was reintroduced into a Middle Eastern context, where it merged with local traditions. This complex is now fundamental to the globally widespread forms of ‘belly dance’.

Samia Gamal in the Egyptian film 'Zanouba' (زنوبة) in 1956.

Camelia of Cairo Egyptian belly dance show in 7th Oriental Passion GLOBAL MIDDLE EASTERN DANCE CONGRESS in Athens, Greece 2016.