Monday, 11 May 2009

An Introduction to Belly Dance

Published: February 03, 2007
Writer: Nadia De Leon

Authentic Belly Dance is not the deceptive immoral dance of seduction that western Hollywood-influenced stereotypes would have us believe. Belly Dance has been misrepresented by cabaret dancers and incorrectly portrayed to the public by the media. In reality, Belly Dance is a natural, earthly, beneficial, enjoyable and completely ethical dance that honors women and femininity. The proper term for this dance, which can both be a highly disciplined art as well as a form of casual exercise and entertainment, is Oriental Dance. The first American teachers disliked the word "belly dance" because of its wrong sexual connotation and focus on the women's torsos and not on their dancing technique. In her article Roots the well-known and respected teacher Morocco (Carolina Vargas Dinicu), who has more than thirty years studying, performing and teaching Belly Dance, states: "To use the disgusting misnomer 'belly dance' is not only incorrect, it is an insult equivalent to calling Flamenco 'cockroach killing'"[1]. Nowadays, the term Belly Dance has been accepted by many teachers and reclaimed by new dancers because the body part where the movements are focused is, indeed, the belly. And this has nothing to do with a seductive goal; in fact, it has to do with fertility.

Many dance scholars support a theory that places Belly Dance as the oldest dance in the history of humanity, stating that it originated as a fertility ritual thousands of years ago. They use as evidence for their theory 17,000 years-old rock engravings found in southern Italy, Greece and Egypt, as well as famous fertility goddesses/ women sculptures such as the Venus of Willendorf. Furthermore, some dance researchers, such as dancer, writer and editor Daniella Gioseffi in her book Earth Dancing, claim that Belly Dancing was originally a ritual form for the Mother Earth Goddess in primal matriarchal or polytheistic societies where the dance honored femininity and was passed down from mothers to daughters.

Another important theory about the origin of Belly Dance is the one based on its childbirth facilitation and training capabilities. Several dancers including the famed dance ethnologist La Meri, who traveled extensively throughout the Middle East for research and training purposes in the '20s and '30s, claim to have witnessed rituals in which a woman in labor is surrounded by other women who perform Belly Dancing in a sort of hypnotizing ritual for moral support.

Belly Dancing arrived to America as an imported cabaret spectacle referred to as Danse du ventre, which originated in the Middle East during the colonization of Africa by European countries. Referring to this degradation process, the Armenian dancer

Armen Ohanian states in her book The Dancer of Shamahka:

Thus in Cairo one evening I saw, with sick incredulous eyes, one of our most sacred dances degraded into a bestiality horrible and revolting. It is our poem of the mystery and pain of motherhood, which all true Asiatic men watch with reverence and humility, in the far corners of Asia where the destructive breath of the Occident has not yet penetrated. In this olden Asia, which has kept the dance in its primitive purity, it represents maternity, the mysterious conception of life, the suffering and the joy with which a new soul is brought in the world. Could any man born of woman contemplate this most holy subject, expressed in an art so pure and so ritualistic as our eastern dance, with less than profound reverence? Such is our Asiatic veneration of motherhood, that there are countries and tribes whose most sacred oath is sworn upon the stomach, because it is from this sacred cup that humanity has issued. But the spirit of the Occident had touched this holy dance, and it became the horrible 'danse du ventre' I heard the lean Europeans chuckling, I saw lascivious smiles upon even the lips of Asiatics, and I fled.

Even today in some Middle Eastern regions that remain unaffected by the influence of Western ways of thinking, women dance in a circle around a mother in labor to induce her to repeat the movements and to give her the psychological support showed in the live-giving gift in every woman's destiny. In the informal and familial settings of some Muslim societies, women still gather by themselves in a separate location to dance to the rhythms of the drums, have fun and interact. This traditional form of Belly Dance is called Raks-sharki. Nevertheless, in most of the Middle East the rise of Political Islam has led to more puritanical attitudes in general. Dancers who appear in public, dancing in front of men who are not family to them contradict orthodox Islamic values. As a result, the widely held notion that professional dancers are prostitutes is being reinforced through the Arab countries, from Afghanistan to Morocco. In Egypt the rise of Political Islam is creating a backlash against Belly Dance. By law, in the country that names itself as the place where Belly Dance was born, these dancers cannot dance in television, and police monitors live performances to ensure that the dancer's skirt ends below the knee and that the navel is covered, even if only with transparent material.[2]

These attitudes might sound opposite to our values of freedom and free will, but they are actually understandable given Arab religious and cultural values. Therefore, what I find strange is that here in the U.S. dancing Belly Dance could be a cause to suffer the weight of many prejudices. Dance should be respected as a universal language that allows us to better understand the cultures of others. The fact is, it is impossible to even try understanding cultures different to ours, or widen our concepts in general, if we do not start with an open mind that does not judge dances by the amount of clothes wore by the dancers instead of the cultural meaning attached to them. Once again, the dancer Morocco states this indignation in wonderful words in her article Roots:

When I first came into Oriental dance (...), I was drawn by the beauty of its music and movements and gave no thought to the possibility that it might be misinterpreted by ignorant or misinformed viewers. Innocent that I was, I assumed that the grace of a skilled dancer was sufficient to prove the beauty and legitimacy of this ancient art form. How wrong I was! I've lost count of the times that an erroneous and degrading value judgment of my morality and worthiness was made, based on (...) previous performances of those who, in every profession, cater to the lowest common denominator.[3]

The truth is that Belly dance does not only have many physiological benefits (including good posture, muscular strength, coordination, cardiovascular fitness, eases menstrual pains, improves circulation and digestion, and releases tension), it also has several psychological benefits. Most importantly, it improves self-image and confidence, which is a very important benefit, especially for young women. Belly Dance lets us get in contact with our body and accept it as it is. Belly Dance makes any thin or overweight woman enjoy feminine dancing. This acceptance of ourselves in front of the mirror image as much as in front of other people is more easily achieved in an "only girls" atmosphere. That's why many Belly Dance teachers, including myself, don't even aloud men in their studios. Second, Belly Dance also develops teamwork and a deep feeling of sisterhood among the members of a "dancing troupe". Tribal Belly Dance is danced in couples or larger groups where dance is improvised by the "cue-er", who is the woman on the front left corner. This title is shared because of the rotation of positions, resulting in a group dynamic in which the higher level of team work is reached with the synchronicity of the dancers.

Belly Dance can be a way of life, or something a woman does "just for kicks every other Friday night", but it is always beneficial to the women who practice it. Belly Dance has a way of seducing us, women, into the quest for the light of our own feminine identity, as well as constructing a place of belonging for that identity, in history, in society, regardless of the time, place and culture we come from. Belly Dance invokes and evokes the universal energy of womanhood from the astral collective consciousness into our striking present, into our sweat and skin, the tips of our fingers, and the rhythm of our hearts beating life.

[1] Vargas Dinicu, Carolina (Morocco), Roots, Habibi Vol.5 No.12

[2] Nieuwkerk, Karin van, A trade like any other: female singers and dancers in Egypt, Austin : University of Texas Press, 1995.

[3] Vargas Dinicu, Carolina (Morocco), Roots, Habibi Vol.5 No.12

Source: Associated Content

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