Belly Dance- an art form shrouded in mystery

“Belly dancing”

The word itself results in raised eyebrows, shocked faces and even opposition. Dancers or even students new to the form receive reactions as if they were doing something scandalising; something wrong. People only think of the costume, but don’t pay attention to the graceful moves. They only think about who is performing and where, but don’t notice the skill and efforts required.
It is a pity that a beautiful art form with a rich history has been misinterpreted and wrongly judged for so long and has always struggled to gain social acceptance.
Every art in the world has its own characteristics that deserve respect. And we do not have the right to be judgemental.
It is sheer hypocrisy to enjoy Belly dancing videos or songs from Bollywood and still be shocked if someone in your entourage actually pursues it. And if we are to ever to get over this, we need to discover this art form and its authentic roots.
Many historians say that belly dance is the oldest dance form in the world. Some believe that it originated during the period of the Sumerians which is the 1st civilization ever.

Folk Art only for Women

Belly dancing has always been a folk art- an important part of different cultures, especially for women and not a dance to be performed in front of an audience.
Belly dancing originated in the middle-east and was performed by women, as a ritual dance to help improve female fertility and ease childbirth, as well as an offering to the goddess of fertility. Most movements in this dance were soft and flowy and made use of all the core body parts like the spine, the abdomen, the pelvis and the legs. This helped women develop core strength and have a healthy reproductive system.
Thus, this was a ritual that women performed amongst themselves and passed on from one generation to the next. Every woman, irrespective of her shape and size could participate in this ritual and being slender, in order to belly dance, was never a necessity.

Also, this ritual was performed in synchronization with lunar cycles. So during the dark moon lunar phase, the movements used to be slower, flowy. As the moon progressed towards the full moon, the movements gradually gained speed. On the full moon night, women used to do movements like shimmies, which are fast repetitive movements of the hip.

A Dance for Women as well as Men

As time passed, the fertility ritual slowly took a back seat. As a folk dance, both men and women used to perform this dance. People from the outskirts of Egypt, began to perform this dance at wedding ceremonies. This dance is typically known as “Raqs Baladi” literally meaning Country dance or Folk dance. This is an Egyptian celebration dance that locals performed together. Most of these countrymen were shepherds, and carried a stick with them, also known as an Assaya. When men danced, they usually used a lot of assaya movements. For women, it was more of the hips. But the combination of both is what generally enthralled the audience.
Also, as a social dance, Raqs Baladi was performed at gatherings by ordinary people who were not professional performers. Dancers wore their regular clothes rather than a special dance costume. Being non-trained dancers, their movements were very earthy, folkloric and jumpy, yet very enjoyable.

Several hundred years ago, when women witnessed the health benefits of this dance, it spread all across the middle-east even up to India. Although hard to believe, belly dancing does have certain origins in India too. The Snake charmers or gypsies of Rajasthan are believed to have been doing belly dancing. The Gypsies or tribes that are commonly known as Banjaaras played a key role in transporting this dance form from one country to another. As gypsies travelled West from India, they took different aspects of Indian dancing along with them. Certain movements in belly dance like the neck and wrist movements are quite like those in Indian folk dances.
Some believe that belly dance was performed in the priestess temples of India a long time back. Apart from being a fertility dance, belly dancing was also a form of entertainment for women, especially during long periods of separation from their spouses who travelled for work. They also performed it as a celebration dance to rejoice before the return of their spouse.

The Dance of the Gypsies

Gradually, this dance grew and started to spread across all middle-eastern countries. The gypsies played an important role in this. A lot of gypsies used to travel to middle-eastern countries for business. And soon, the number of gypsies grew so much that they were left without any source of income. These gypsies then began to perform on the streets for survival. When they performed, they carried a musician along. But some of them couldn’t afford it. So, they themselves began to play one of the instruments “Sagat”, simultaneously while dancing, just to save money. These “sagats”, are what we today call Zills or Finger Cymbals.
There was a group of gypsies called,”Gawazee”-female traveling dancers or gypsies of the Indo-Aryan ethnic group. The word “gawazee” has originated from the north – Indian term, Gowar, meaning “singer”. What we today call “Raqs Sharqi” or the classical Egyptian dance, is mostly influenced by these Gawazees. These Gypsies played instruments and danced on the streets.

Male Belly Dancers

Eventually, the times changed. The Gawazees were banned by the government. The reason was very clear. The society found it to be disrespectful for a woman to dance on the streets in fancy clothes. The Gawazee women were never respected. Even marrying them was a big taboo.
Due to this ban, certain male Gawazees, replaced the dancing women. These men were known as Khawaals. These Khawaals donned the look of a lady and kept belly-dancing alive. This is how male belly-dancing was born.
But overall, because of non-acceptance by society this dance suffered a lot.
Gawazees wore unique clothing. It was fully covered and they wore a lot of jewellery. The use of “sagat’’ was an integral part of Gawazee performance.

The indispensable Coin Belt

While performing on streets, artists were offered coins by the public. These artists then stitched the coins to their skirt or to a small cloth and wrapped it around their waist. That’s how today’s coin belt came into picture. Now, it is an essential part of a belly dancer’s costume.

How Belly Dancing got its name

When Europeans and Americans travelled to middle – eastern countries, they found this dance to be very interesting and way too different than their own dances. One ambitious American producer decided to introduce this dance to Americans. The dance form was almost unknown in the United States until 1893 when brightly coloured dancers dressed in exotic garb from the Middle East appeared at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Unlike the tightly corseted ladies of the age, the dancers were dressed in loose-fitting costumes, their skirts hanging low on their hips. And this was quite scandalising for American society.
Till this time, there was no name for this dance. Director of this Chicago fair, coined the term “belly dance”, based on the French term “danse du ventre”, meaning “dance of the stomach”. The three performing dancers were called “Little Egypt”. Their performance at the event included very fast hip movements- shimmies. The dancers gave the audiences a direct gaze and uninhibited happy smiles. It was something fresh, unexpected, and frankly, scandalizing to a society where the rules of decorum and modesty for women were firmly established.

One Dance Form, Many Styles

Bellydance was now spreading to different countries. Wherever it reached, it absorbed the flavour of local dances. So there is a lot of variety in form, style, rhythms and music. Though we say Middle East in general, cultures of all countries in the Middle East such as Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco or Algeria are very distinct and so each country brings its own flavour to this dance form.
For example- the Turkish form includes more of floor work and back bending while the Egyptian form is more fluid and graceful.
Raqs Sharqi from Egypt is often considered the classical style of bellydance. Raqs sharqi was developed by certain dancers who rose to fame during the golden years of the Egyptian film industry. Raqs Sharqi literally means Dance of the East. It is primarily a torso-driven dance, with an emphasis on the articulations of the hips.

In America, after the “Little Egypt” stint, the dance was mostly picked up by local bar dancers. Burlesque dancers too, incorporated a lot of belly dance movements in their routine. Because of this, people began to assume that belly dance is a bar dance.
As belly dancing was originally just a folk ritual, movements and steps were very limited. Performers needed props and accessories to engage and impress the audience. That is how coin belts, hip scarves, veils, swords and golden wings came to be used.

Belly Dance in the Modern World

It is not surprising that most of us think of Shakira when we hear the word Belly dance. This Columbian singer and performer played a huge role in popularizing belly dance or even making the world realize that something like Belly dancing existed. According to news reports, Shakira was 4yrs old when, in a middle-eastern restaurant, she first heard the Doumbek- a traditional instrument that accompanies belly dancing and she began dancing on the table. She once told reporters that she never trained for this dance but it is something that she inherited from her family line. Her paternal grandparents emigrated from Lebanon to New York and may be that is how belly dancing was, for her, an inborn talent, waiting to be discovered. The name Shakira in Arabic means Grateful and this art form is indeed grateful to Shakira for giving belly dancing global recognition.

Recognition in Bollywood

Some researchers believe that belly dance always had certain origins in India. If this is true, we have come a full circle today, with the sudden rise of this dance style in Bollywood. We can already recite a long list of Bollywood belly dance songs that have played in our heads for a long time, ever since they were first released. Bollywood has always experimented with dance and music and we have seen a wide variety of it in the past decade. Hindi films have incorporated many genres of music and introduced to audiences, styles like contemporary, hip-hop, salsa or ballroom, that were not so well-known a few years ago. Bollywood choreographers picked up a few belly dance movements, and choreographed them in a way to suit Indian audience sensibilities. Be it Mallika Sherawat, Katrina Kaif, or recently Nora Fatehi, popular actresses have had us grooving to some really foot-tapping music. Bollywood dancing is full of fun; and combined with belly dance, it becomes even more enjoyable and pretty.
Belly Dance still does not get the same respect and acceptance in India as other classical, folk or even Western and filmy styles. If only the masses were more open-minded, they would realize what they are missing. Nevertheless, the dance form has survived and will continue to grow.
As Madhuri Dixit said in her comeback film Aaja Nachle,
“Kala ko sheher ki nahi, Sheher ko kala ki jaroorat hoti hai”,
It is society that needs Art, not the other way round. For Art is complete in itself.

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