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Belly Dancing

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Native to the Middle East, and now popular worldwide, belly dance takes many different regional forms, both in costume and dance style, indicating that distinctive dance moves may have been transported to these regions and incorporated with local dance styles.

Artistic depiction of belly dancing

General

Today there are many forms of belly dance. Some, such as American Tribal belly dance, are clearly modern evolutions of the traditional forms. However, due to the ancient origins of belly dancing, the authenticity of even “traditional” or “classical” forms of the genre are open to question and often hotly disputed.

There are two basic divisions within “traditional” belly dance. The first, raqs baladi, is a social dance performed for fun and celebration by men and women of all ages in some Middle Eastern countries, usually during festive occasions such as weddings. People learn the steps informally from an early age by imitating their elders during family/community gatherings.[citation needed].

The second form, which has become popular in the West, is called raqs sharqi. This is more commonly performed by female dancer

As with any dance of folkloric origin, the roots of belly dance are uncertain.

One theory claims that belly dancing was originally from Ancient Babylon in southern Iraq.[citation needed] Adnanite Arabs introduced belly dancing and drumming. Before the arrival of Islam the tradition was for women to dance at social gatherings, while the men played the drums.[citation needed] After the Arrival of Islam, belly dancing was banned. During the Ummayd and the Abbasid dynasties, belly dancing was commercially promoted. Local poor women and, later on, slaves from other parts of the world, especially PersiaIndia/Pakistan and North Africa learned to belly dance to entertain rich men.

During the time of the Abbasid and the Fatimid dynasties, the Arabs settled in EgyptEgyptians adopted the dance and it became part of Egyptian tradition.

Another theory is that belly dancing is a reworking of movements traditionally utilized to demonstrate or ease childbirth, and was used by women for that purpose. There are numerous oral historical references, backed by commentary in The Dancer of Shamahka. This particularly relates to a sub-set of dance movements found in modern raqs sharqi.[1].

Costume

In the West, the costume most associated with belly dance is called bedleh (Arabic for “suit”). It owes its creation to the Victorian painters of “Orientalism” and the harem fantasy productions of vaudevilleburlesque, and Hollywood during the turn of the last century, rather than to authentic Middle Eastern dress.

The bedleh style includes a fitted top or bra (usually with a fringe of beads or coins), a fitted hip belt (again with a fringe of beads or coins), and a skirt or harem pants. The bra and belt may be richly decorated with beads, sequins, braid and embroidery. The belt may be a separate piece, or sewn into a skirt.

The hip belt is a broad piece of fabric worn low on the hips. It may have straight edge, or may be curved or angled. The bra usually matches the belt and does not resemble lingerie. The classic harem pants are full and gathered at the ankle, but there are many modifications. Sometimes pants and a sheer skirt are worn together. Skirts may be flowing creations made of multiple layers of sheer fabric such as chiffon, or figure-hugging lycra.

Badia Masabni, a Cairo nightclub owner, is credited with bringing the costume to Egypt, because it was the image that Western tourists wanted.

Since the 1950s, it has been illegal in Egypt for belly dancers to perform publicly with their abdomens uncovered, or to display excessive skin. It is therefore becoming more common to perform in a long, figure-hugging lycra one-piece gown with strategically placed cut-outs filled in with sheer, flesh-coloured fabric.

If a separate bra and skirt are worn, a belt is rarely used and any embellishment is embroidered directly on the tight, sleek lycra skirt. A sheer body stocking must be worn to cover the midsection. Egyptian dancers traditionally dance in bare feet, but these days often wear shoes and even high heels.

As there is no prohibition on showing the stomach in Lebanon, the bedleh style is more common. The skirts tend to be sheer and/or skimpier than Egyptian outfits, showing more of the dancer’s body. The veil is more widely used and the veil matches the outfit. High heels are commonly worn.

Turkish dancers also wear bedleh style costumes. In the 80’s and 90’s the art became debased in Turkey and a ‘stripperesque’ costume style developed, with skirts designed to display both legs up to the hip, and plunging bras. Such styles still exist in some venues but there are also many serious, respectable Turkish belly dancers who wear more moderate costumes. Even so, all Turkish belly dance costumes reflect the playful, flirty style of Turkish belly dance.

American dancers often purchase their costumes from Egypt or Turkey, but hallmarks of the classical “American” style include a headband with fringe, sheer harem pants or skirt rather than tight lycra, and the use of coins and metalwork to decorate the bra.

In Egypt, America and Europe dancers wear full-beaded dresses for the folkloric and baladi dances. But generally costuming varies with the particular style of dance.

Props are used to spark audience interest and add variety to the performance, although some traditionalists frown on their use. Some props in common usage are:

  • Finger cymbals (zills or sagats).
  • Cane (in the Saiidi)
  • Veil
  • Sword
  • Candelabra headress
  • Veil poi
  • Fire sticks
  • Tambourine
  • Fan

Steps and Technique

Most of the movements in belly dancing involve isolating different parts of the body (hips, shoulders, stomach etc), which appear similar to the isolations used in jazz ballet, but are often driven differently.

In most belly dance styles, the focus is on the hip and pelvic area. One of the most famous moves in belly dance is the shimmy, a shimmering vibration of the hips. This vibration is created by moving the knees past each other at high speed, although some dancers use the glutes instead.

Raqs Sharqi

Raqs Sharqi translates from Arabic as “dance of the Orient” or “Oriental Dance”. Belly dance is a misnomer as all parts of the body are involved in the dance, and the most important body part is the hips.

Raqs Sharqi is, fundamentally, a solo improvisational dance with its own unique dance vocabulary that is fluidly integrated with the music’s rhythm. The most admired Raqs Sharqi dancers are those who can best project their emotions through dance, even if their dance is made up of simple movements. The dancer’s goal is to visually communicate to the audience the emotion and rhythm of the music.

Many see Raqs Sharqi as celebrating the sensuality and power of a mature woman. A common school of thought believes that young dancers have insufficient life experience to convey the requisite emotions.[citation needed] Sohair Zaki, Fifi Abdou, Lucy, Nagua Fouad, and Dina are all popular Egyptian dancers above the age of forty.

Despite the fame of female dancers, men often perform Raqs Sharqi in the West, but not in public in Arab countries.

Egyptian-style raqs sharqi is based on Baladi, a folk style of dance from the Arab Tribes who settled in Upper Egypt. Later the work of belly dance legends Samia GamalTahiya Karioka,Naima Akef, and other dancers who rose to fame during the golden years of the Egyptian film industry. Later dancers who based their styles partially on the dances of these artists are Sohair Zaki, Fifi Abdou, and Nagwa Fouad. All rose to fame between 1960 and 1980, are still popular today, and have nearly risen to the same level of stardom and influence on the style.

Though the basic movements of Raqs Sharqi have remained the same, the dance form continues to evolve. Nelly Mazloum and Mahmoud Reda are noted for incorporating elements of ballet into Raqs Sharqi and their influence can be seen in modern Egyptian dancers who stand on relevé as they turn or travel through their dance space in a circle or figure eight.

In Egypt, three main forms of the traditional dance are associated with belly dance: Baladi/BelediSha’abi and Sharqi.

Arabic belly dance was among the first styles to be witnessed by Westerners. During Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, his troops encountered the Ghawazee tribe. The Ghawazee made their living as professional entertainers and musicians. The women often engaged in prostitution on the side, and often had a street dedicated to their trade in the towns where they resided, though some were quasi-nomadic.

Turkish forms

Some mistakenly believe that Turkish oriental dancing is known as Çiftetelli because this style of music has been incorporated into oriental dancing by Arabs and Greeks, illustrated by the fact that the Greek belly dance is called Tsifteteli. However, Turkish Çiftetelli is more correctly a form of wedding folk music, the part that makes up the lively part of the dance at the wedding and is not connected with oriental dancing.

Turkish belly dance today may have been influenced by Arab people before the Ottoman Empire as much as by the Egyptian and Syrian/Lebanese forms, having developed from theOttoman rakkas to the oriental dance known worldwide today. As Turkish law does not impose restrictions on Turkish dancers’ movements and costuming as in Egypt, where dancers are prevented from performing floor work and certain pelvic movements, Turkish dancers are often more outwardly expressive than their Egyptian counterparts. Many professional dancers and musicians in Turkey continue to be of Romani heritage as well. (However, people of Turkish Romani heritage also have a distinct dance style which is uniquely different from the Turkish Oriental style.) Turkish dancers are known for their energetic, athletic (even gymnastic) style, and particularly, until the past few years, their adept use of finger cymbals, also known aszils. Connoisseurs of Turkish dance often say that a dancer who cannot play the zills is not an accomplished dancer. Another distinguishing element of the Turkish style is the use of theKarsilama rhythm in a 9/8 time signature, counted as 12-34-56-789. Turkish belly dance costumes can be very revealing, with the belt sometimes worn high up on the waist and split skirts which expose the entire leg, although dancers today are costuming themselves more like Egyptian dancers and wearing more modest “mermaid”-style skirts. The Turkish style is emphasized further by the dancer wearing high heels and often platform shoes. Famous Turkish belly dancers include Tulay Karaca, Nesrin Topkapi and Birgul Berai.

When immigrants from Arab States began to immigrate to New York in the 1930s and 1940s, dancers started to perform a mixture of these styles in the nightclubs and restaurants. Often called “Classic Cabaret” or “American Cabaret” belly dance, these dancers are the grandmothers and great-grandmothers of some of today’s most accomplished performers, such as Anahid Sofian, Aisha Ali, and Artemis Mourat.[citation needed]

180px-BellyDancer1

Popularization of belly dance

Outside the Middle East, raqs sharqi dancing was popularized during the Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, whereby Orientalist artists depicted their interpretations of harem life in the Ottoman Empire. Around this time, dancers from different Middle Eastern countries began to perform at various World Fairs. They often drew crowds that rivaled those of the technology exhibits.

The term “belly dancing” is generally credited to Sol Bloom, entertainment director of the 1893 World’s Fair, the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Although there were dancers of this type present at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, it was not until the 1893 fair that it gained national attention. There were authentic dancers from several Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Syria, Turkey and Algeria, but it was the dancers in the Egyptian Theater of The Street in Cairo exhibit who gained the most notoriety. The rapid hip movements and the fact that the dancers were uncorseted, was considered shocking to the Victorian sensibilities of the day. In fact, there were attempts by many, most notably Anthony Comstock, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, to have the Egyptian theater closed.[citation needed]

Although it is popularly believed that a dancer named “Fatima”, also known as Little Egypt, stole the show, and continued to popularize this form of dancing, there is in fact no evidence to support this claim.[2] Neither photographs, nor reviews of the Egyptian Theater mention any such person. The truth is that photographs, as well as accounts of the entertainments, show that there was not one solo dancer, but an entire troupe who performed in the Egyptian Theater. The popularity of these dancers spawned dozens of imitators after the Fair, many of whom claimed to have been dancers at the Chicago Fair. The most well known was Farida Mazar Spyropoulos, who was neither Egyptian nor Algerian, but Syrian.[citation needed]

The dance performed by the many dancers calling themselves “Little Egypt” was nicknamed the “Hootchy-Kootchy” or “Hoochee-Coochee”, or the shimmy and shake. Due to cultural misunderstanding about the nature of the dance and misrepresentations by the many imitators in Burlesque halls and carnival sideshows, the western world considered it risqué. A short film, “Fatima’s Dance,” was widely distributed in the nickelodeon movie theaters. It drew criticism for its “immodest” dancing, and was eventually censored due to public pressure.[citation needed]

Thomas Edison also made several films of dancers in the 1890s in response to the craze. These included the Turkish dance, Ella Lola, 1898, and Crissie Sheridan in 1897, both available for on-line viewing through the Library of Congress. Another in this collection is Princess Rajah dance from 1904, which features a dancer playing zils (finger cymbals), doing “floor work”, and balancing a chair in her teeth.[citation needed]

Several dancers, such as the French author Colette, and many other music hall performers, engaged in “oriental” dancing, sometimes passing off their own interpretations as authentic folkloric styles. There was also the sensational pseudo-Javanese dancer Mata Hari, who was convicted in 1917 by the French for being a German spy during World War I.[citation needed]. The great dancer Ruth St. Denis also engaged in Middle Eastern-inspired dancing, but her approach was to put “oriental” dancing on the stage in the context of ballet, her goal being to lift all dance to a respectable art form. (In the early 1900s, it was a common social assumption in America and Europe that dancers were women of loose morals.)

While the beautiful classical Raqs Sharqi is still popular in the West, many dancers have created fusion forms such as American Tribal Style inspired by the folkloric dance styles of India, the Middle East and North Africa and even flamenco. Dancers in the United States, while respecting the origins of belly dance, are also exploring and creating within the dance form. Many women today in the U.S. and Europe approach belly dance as a tool for empowerment and strengthening of the body, mind, and spirit. Issues of body-image, self-esteem, healing from sexual violation, sisterhood, and self-authentication are regularly addressed in belly dance classes everywhere.[citation needed]

Male belly dancer in Istanbul Turkey.

There is much debate over where and when men became part of the belly dance world. In various media, the art form is most often represented and emphasized as empowering for women, which may imply a belief that men have no place in an art form that is frequently and erroneously believed to be historically female. However, dancers such as Morocco (Carolina Varga-Dinicu), Tariq Sultan, Jasmin Jahal, Chris (Melbourne, AUS), Shiva (Sydney AUS), Jamil (Sydney AUS) and Laurel Victoria Gray have produced ample evidence to the contrary.

Pictorial evidence in the form of Turkish miniatures made during the Ottoman Empire show public performances being done by young men and boys called köçeks. These dancers were widely popular; in fact, the Sultan employed a troupe of these male dancers in addition to a troupe of female dancers, (Metin And: A pictorial history of Turkish Dance). It has long been assumed that these dancers were female impersonators, because they performed in wide flamboyant skirts. A comparison with the female dancers however, shows that this was merely a costume worn for the dramatic effect caused by the swirling fabric. The female dancers did not wear specialized costumes at this time, but the ordinary dress of all women, which consisted of a pair of “harem pants”, a long shirt, tight fitting vest covered by a flowing robe tied at the waist by a belt or shawl. Nevertheless, some of these male dancers did at times impersonate women. This was because they were not simply dancers but musicians and actors as well. As was the case in Shakespearean times, all dramatic roles were played by males since women were not allowed to entertain in public.

These dancers were so popular that fights often broke out over which troupe was considered the best.[citation needed]These upheavals were so frequent that they resulted in such performances being banned for a period of time during the 1830s.[citation needed] Eventually the ban was lifted, but the decline of the Ottoman Empire, together with a push for modernization and the adoption of western tastes led to the eventual decline of such performances in Istanbul as well as other countries of the Empire such as Egypt.[citation needed] Eventually, due to tourist demand, their place was taken by female entertainers.[citation needed] Köçek dancers can still be found in the rural communities of Turkey, most notably in the region of Kastamonu. They have even begun appearing on television variety shows and on DVDs throughout Turkey.[citation needed]

The current professional version of raqs sharqi, developed in Egypt in the 1930s, was deliberately designed to display an idealized notion of feminine grace beauty and glamor. Even so men continued to play a behind the scenes role in its development. Many of the most renowned choreographers and coaches are in fact men, such as Ibrahim Akef (cousin of the dance star Naima Akef) and Mahmoud Reda (founder of the renowned Reda Ensemble, the first theater dance troupe of Egypt).

The current trend of male performers of this dance form started in the ’60s and 70s in the United States by such performers and teachers as Ibrahim Farrah (an American of Lebanese descent from Pennsylvania), Roman “Bert” Balladine and John Compton to name a few. Today male belly dancers are becoming more visible, not only in the United States, but around the world.[citation needed] These modern performers have even began to resurface in the Middle East in Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt. Most male dancers face artistic as well as social challenges. Such issues as whether there are or should be differences in costuming, attitude, and the dynamics of choreography between male and female belly dancing is a subject of debate among both male and female dancers.

Given the recent boom in interest regarding belly dance, a new generation of male dancers has embraced the form. Although still small in number compared to their female counterparts, their numbers have grown dramatically in the past 20 years.[citation needed].

Well-known male dancers in the U.S. and Latin America from the 1970s onward include Bert Balladine, John Compton, Sergio, Horacio Cifuentes, Kasim of Boston,famous Zill player on George Abdo’s albums, Amir of Boston, Adam Basma, Ibrahim Farrah, Yousry Sharif, Aziz, Kamaal, Amir Thalib, Mark Balahadia, Francisco Carranza (Mr. Bellydance U.S. 1989) Canadian dancer Valizan, Jim Boz, and Tarik Sultan. Some of these dancers are American-born, others were immigrants from the Middle East and Europe. Basma was born in Lebanon. Sharif (who comes from Egypt and relocated to the U.S. in the early 1990s) was a member of the Reda Ensemble, the first national dance troupe in Egypt. Directed by Mahmoud Reda, a former gymnast who represented Egypt in the Olympics, the Reda Ensemble has existed continuously for over four decades. Other male belly dancers across the globe have made an impact on this dance form, most notably Horacio Cifuentes, who now resides in Germany and who has infused his ballet background with various types of Middle Eastern dance to create an impact on both male and female belly-dance styles. Tarik Sultan of New York has made a great contribution in the documentation of the history of the male role in the dance. His article “Oriental Dance, it isn’t just for women any more”, is one of the most historically and culturally accurate article on the subject. Also, Dr. Anthony Shay, the author of Choreophobia, in his article “The Male Dancer”, tackles the myths that the dance is a strictly female form and that men who did perform it were only imitating women. He offers historical and cultural sources to show that men have always been present in Middle Eastern dance, not only on the social level, but in the professional arena as well. Many dancers are now fast gaining recognition around the world as a dancers of exceptional skill such as; Egyptian male dancer Tito Seif, who performs in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh; Syrian male dancer Jamil, renowned performers in Sydney, Australia, and Tarik Sultan who is located in USA and performs reguraly in Egypt.

Regardless of occasional opposition both within the dance community by those who see the dance as an expression of female power, or those who view professional performances of this dance as “a woman’s job”, the number of male dancers around the world is growing and enjoying more acceptance.[citation needed]

[edit]Health and belly dancing

Belly dance is a non-impact, weight-bearing exercise, which is especially good for women, since it can reduce the risk of osteoporosis. There is minimal stress on knees and feet. Depending on the intensity of exercise, participants can increase breathing and raise their heartbeat, which can assist in building cardiovascular strength. [4] It can burn as many calories as light jogging, swimming or riding a bike.[5]

Professor Fobröse at the athletic academy in Köln, Germany, showed that regular belly dancing not only strengthens trapezius and abdominal muscles but also strengthens the heart and increases circulation.[6]

The advantage of belly dance is that it is suitable for all ages and body types.[7] It can be as physically challenging as the dancer or student chooses. Many belly dance moves develop the ability to move various muscle groups independently, increasing flexibility in the torso and back. Dancing with the veil can help build strength in the upper-body, arm and shoulders. Playing the zills can get fingers trained to work independently and build strength. The legs and long muscles of the back are strengthened by hip movements.[6]

Anette Paffrath at the University of Hamburg ressearched the effect of belly dance on women with menstruation problems. The statements of the women showed a more positive approach toward their menstruation, sexuality, and bodies during the course of the class.

In Eastern and Indian philosophy pelvic area is the source of strength and storage of energy. Belly dance movements focus on this vital area, freeing the flow of energy in this important area. The movements associated with belly dance strengthen the abdominal and pelvic region, preparing a woman for labor and birth with less pain and more celebration. Traditionally it is believed that belly dance was taught by wise women to prepare for pregnancy and birth.

[edit]Prohibition of belly dancing

Belly dancing has been banned or restricted in some jurisdictions.[citation needed] In Egypt, there was a ban on foreign belly dancers for a year due to the complaint from Egyptian dancers that they were taking away business. The ban was eventually overturned in September 2004. [8]

State television in Egypt no longer broadcast belly dancing. A plan to establish a state institute to train belly dancers in Egypt came under heavy fire in the mainly Islamic country. This plan “seriously challenges the Egyptian society’s traditions and glaringly violates the constitution”,said Farid Esmail, a member of parliament. [9]

[edit]Belly dancing in pop culture

Belly dancing has recently been made widely popular by Latin American superstar Shakira, whose dancing combines belly dance, Latino, and other modern dance styles. Although she hails from Colombia, her part-Lebanese ethnic background has influenced her music and dance style significantly.

The Brazilian novela O Clone also known as El Clon in Spanish-speaking countries and The United States, set in Brazil and Morocco, featured belly dancing in many episodes. Belly dancing was a mainstay of the plotline, where the protagonist Jade, portrayed by Giovanna Antonelli, used it to both entice her lover Lucas (Murilo Benício), and to soothe the temper and seduce her husband Said (Dalton Vigh).

Several of the James Bond films have also featured belly dancers prominently. In the film version of The Man With the Golden Gun, the belly dancer Saida uses a spent bullet fitted into her navel as an ornament, which Bond accidentally swallows while trying to retrieve it from her.

R&B singer Aaliyah used the belly dance as her signature move, which she called the belly roll, and it was featured in many of her music videos. Other singers who have performed belly dance moves in their music videos include Britney SpearsChristina AguileraJessica SimpsonCiara, and Hilary Duff among others. Yet of all the pop music stars, only Shakira has had professional belly dance training.

Today the dance in many variations is alive and well all over the world, and in a great many interpretations. There are many belly dance competitions. Some of the most popular in US are Arabesque Belly Dancing Competition (CA), Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition (CA), Belly Dancer of the Year Pageant (CA), Belly Dancer USA (OR), Columba Gorge “Gorgeous Bellys” Bellydance Competition (OR), Double Crown Belly Dance Competition (OR), Desert Fire (TX), Wiggles of the West (NV), Jewel of the Nile’s Belly Dance Nationals Competition (MD).

See also

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