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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.