Its origins lie deep in the distant past, born long ago of primitive tribal rituals and celebrations about which we can only guess. Except that such dancing activities have existed and been witnessed until recent times in remote tribal communities of our world, in Africa, Polynesia, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and other places where tribal customs celebrate important occasions, from hunting ceremonies to fertility rites.
From those primitive beginnings, as civilizations developed several thousands of years ago, the formal and refined form of the dance emerged to become what we know today, but retaining some hints of its origins.
The Oriental dance, known in the English speaking western world as the Arabic belly dance or just belly dance, is now mainly the domain of the female sex, whose curvaceous body-form seems so perfectly suited to execute its more graceful and alluring movements. However, male belly dancers have performed throughout history and are well represented in the dance world today. It is known that troupes of male belly dancers performed for the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire and the also performed in public which women were not allowed to do.
Dancing in all its versions, is one of the most ancient forms of outward expression and the Oriental dance in antiquity was considered a classic and respectable art form. But as the belly dance evolved, by its very nature, with its sensuousness and provocative gestures, it acquired a tainted reputation in some quarters where it was easy to exploit the human emotions that the dance evoked and not all dancers were averse to the benefits that might accompany such exploitation.
Most of us in the West have never seen a belly dance, at least not in person, we may perhaps have seen a short segment on TV or at the movies, enough to leave us with the impression that the dance and the dancer means to convey a message of sensuality.
In the western world, because of its portrayal in art, and fiction, the erroneous supposition arose that the belly dance was especially a dance from the harem of a desert ruler or wealthy man of the East. The harem being perceived as a gathering of young females, mostly slave girls, kept there for the pleasure of their owner and guarded to keep them away from the prying eyes or intrusion and temptations of outsiders. And the dance would entertain and please while promoting the performer’s own ambition to gain favor in treatment and preference of the ruler or potentate, the decider of their fate, their master. Master, a word that makes one wince in this modern era, but unfortunately the master-slave relationship still exists in some parts of the world.
In the pre-Islamic period, there certainly were slave-girl entertainers. Some of these, called the Qaina, although slaves, were well trained and very well educated, even in subjects beyond their wedding music sydney and singing skills. The Qaina are mentioned in the famous tale “One Thousand and One Nights”.
In Arabic society it was usual for the women to perform the dancing and singing roles while, quite often, the men would accompany them on the drums.
In the book “Moving History/Dancing Cultures:
A Dance History Reader”, edited by Ann Dils and Ann Cooper Al-bright, there is an interesting description by Karin Van Niewkerk of a class of professional female performers in late 18thcentury Egypt, called the Awalim, who were not slaves. The Awalim were better educated than other women, they had to have a beautiful singing voice, a knowledge of language, and know the rules of poetry such that when called upon to do so, they could, on the spur of the moment, without preparation, compose and sing verses to suit any occasion.
And we should dispel the myths about harem life as depicted in Hollywood movies in which scantily clad females abound. But then, doesn’t Hollywood so frequently take the opportunity to deliver such scenes?
In the Muslim era, the harem, an Arabic word, referred to the living quarters reserved for the wives, concubines, and female relatives of the household. The women would not necessarily have been slaves, though some probably were. The word itself means forbidden, referring to a place where visitors must not enter and the only males who could enter, were husband, sons, brothers and fathers, in accordance with strict Muslim customs.
Harems do still exist, mainly in very conservative Muslim societies such as in Saudi Arabia where they are usually quite small. Even in the last century, harems were not uncommon in many Muslim communities.
But the Belly dance, a modern name applied in the English-speaking world, better referred to as Oriental dance, or raqs sharqi, as it is called in Arabic, pre-dates the Muslim era by thousands of years.
It does seem to have its origin in the ancient Middle East, possibly in Babylon, the cradle of our western civilization, where literature, art, learning, and culture gradually developed. And where there really were many rulers of small towns, cities, and regions, and ancient tales seem to support the general view that women slaves benefited by acquiring skills to sing and dance and provide the entertainment for their “masters”.
But even before that, as mentioned earlier, belly dancing was probably developing as a primitive tribal ritual, perhaps a fertility dance, and similar writhing and body-contorting dances are common in just about every primitive society and are today still a major element in tribal customs and rituals. Some of the slower belly dance movements, it has been suggested, imitate the movements of childbirth and in their earliest form may have served as preparation for the event of childbirth.
Since those early times, dance has been and is now a normal activity for family festive events, both inside and outside the home, at weddings and birthdays and other joyful occasions.
Its performance in public has occurred mainly during the last hundred years or so, and the Arabic belly dance, in Arabic the Oriental dance, is growing in popularity today, performances, demonstrations, and dance classes are offered in many venues, and persons of all ethnic origins are attracted to its many delights and possibilities, as entertainment, as exercise, and as communication between men and women.