Bellydancing history: Is modern bellydance REALLY bellydance? Would you have seen I Dream of Jeannie in Ancient Egypt? Find out by reading on...
When you think of bellydancers, do you think of rubies in navels, sultry eyes and some slightly laviscious rumour about seven veils, or do you think of swirling, almost gypsy-like skirts and the tinkle of ankle bells? Whichever it is, it is certain that 'authentic' bellydance is far removed from these visions.
Certainly everyone knows the story of Ishtar, who descends into the Underworld shedding one veil at each of the seven gates or Salome who danced for King Herod and immortalised the Dance of the Seven Veils. The story of Ishtar is from ancient Babylonian texts and Salome is a creation of the great Oscar Wilde. It is ironic how modern mythology has adopted these as 'the real thing'.
Where did the name come from?
In the late 1880s, Turkish dancers were taken to a San Francisco fair., the then name 'danse du ventre' (French for 'dance of the belly') was converted into 'bellydance'. Hollywood latched onto the latest craze of anything Egyptian, and developed the 'western bellydancer' resplendent in sparkles, bra, belt and beads and a ruby in the navel. The new glamorous look was in turn adopted by the Egyptians and the modern day bellydancer became a mix of different cultures, costumes, moves and music.
Traditionally, Middle Eastern dancers were more folkloric, with long dresses, coin belts, and headscarves. Their dance was for the harvest, the seasons and so on. Men and women both danced as a celebration of life but their movements were more stylised than that of many modern dancers.
In Egypt, in the harem, women danced for each other, the eternal and total 'woman's dance'. They danced to entertain themselves and others, separated from the men by culture and strong walls.
Westerners saw the dance as something other than what it was and transplanted it into their own culture, giving it a whole new dimension of sensuality and provocativeness. What had been a personal celebration became a public exhibition and west and east alike contributed to the final result.
Modern bellydancing ranges from one extreme to another with wispy costumes and covered dresses both common. Still, the fantasy of 'I Dream of Jeannie' and Salome and Mati Hari is hard to escape. Many dancers promote themselves as being 'authentic' or 'traditional' or 'folkloric' without really knowing the implications of their claims.
So many cultures have contributed to modern bellydancing that it is hard to know where to start - Turkey, Egypt, India, Lebanon, Greece and Spain are only some of the countries whose dance moves are now ingrained in bellydance and, while the result is a rich and fertile ground for bellydance to grow in, are we in danger of losing the more traditional side?