Middle Eastern Dance is an umbrella term which refers to all dances of the Middle East and it's surrounding areas from both the past and present. However its also a term commonly used to refer to Raqs Sharqi or "belly dance" and its various styles, offshoots, and predecessors. Many scholars believe that Raqs Sharqi stems from older dances. It has been called the world's "oldest dance," with theories linking it to ancient dances in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Persia, India and other ancient civilizations. There is no way to know for sure just how far back the roots of this dance style actually go.
Middle Eastern dance may have many origins. It is possible that this dance can be traced back to Mesopotamia where temple engravings depicting dancers have been found. These same types of depictions have been found on temples in Egypt dating back to 1000 B.C. and in Greece. It is believed by many that this dance started as an ancient ritual dance for fertility and childbirth. The priestesses were sometimes "sacred prostitutes" where they would perform these dances for clients as they invoked the Goddess. Around 0 B.C. there were Greek writings that described Nile dancers as rapidly vibrating. Some of the movements from these dances might still be the same as modern MED (Middle Eastern dance).
Our modern version of Raqs Sharqi only goes back as far as the early 1900's when it was modified as a stage art to compete with western style stage performances and offer entertainment that would have more appeal to foreign occupiers and tourists. However, the original dances in their pre modified version were likely a form of Raqs baladi or even Ghawazee.
During the Middle Ages, Egypt had different classes of dancers. There were the Ghawazee who were considered street performers and the Awalim who were trained slaves and courtesans to the wealthy. The Ghawazee are "Gypsies" who come form several sub-groups of the Dom. They were noted as early as Napoleon's incursion into Egypt in the late 1700's. They are mentioned in Edward Lane's book about the Customs and Manners of the Modern Egyptians as well as journals and memoirs by travelers such as Flaubert. Many accounts describe their side-to-side shimmy which is still part of their essential repertoire.
The Awalim were highly trained in the art of poetry, music, and dance. They were generally slaves who were trained in facilities throughout the Middle East. Upon completion of their education they even came with a list of poems and songs which they could recite for their master. Their education also trained them in the art of improvisation and the most valuable of them would be those with a high degree of talent in both memorization and improvisation. They were an expensive addition to any household but offered a great deal of entertainment value especially since they would then also be responsible for teaching their art to the rest of the harem. Both classes of dancers had a very different but possibly similar style of dance. For the most part the dance was traditionally done by women for women; the separation of sexes and the veiling of women predates Islam and can be traced back to many ancient cultures.
During the Ottoman reign over Egypt there was a surge in tourism and many soldiers. The Ghawazee dancers of course saw this as a moneymaking opportunity and would follow camps of soldiers to dance for. This embarrassed and angered the ruler of the time, Muhammad Ali Pasha who exiled the Ghawazee to Esna, which is in southern (upper) Egypt, to solve his problem. During this time, many artists whom we refer to as Orientalist painters visited Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia (among other various Middle Eastern countries). They painted many beautiful pieces depicting dancers and harems. Since these artists were not usually allowed into the harem, their paintings are fantastical and hardly depict real life situations. How many women do you know that lounge around all day with no clothes smoking Shisha? These people had lives too.
Similar dances however exist all over the Middle East and North Africa. It is possible that these dance styles spread through the changing borders, political, and economic ties of the early Persian, Islamic, and Turkish empires. Through import and export of entertainers and slaves throughout these regions dances and elements of these dances could have been dispersed to other areas. The presence of trained dancers and street or "Gypsy" dancers is found in many parts of the Medieval Islamic world. The Rom in Turkey perform Roman Havasi (also called Turkish Rom) which has many of the same elements as Raqs Sharqi. The shikkat dance of Morocco also has many common elements. These dances have all developed in separate locations but may have influenced each other or perhaps stem from a common ancestor.
In the late 1800's Middle Eastern and North African dances were making their way into western culture. There were many dancers seeking to imitate the famous Ghawazee and and other dancers depicted in word and pictures by Orientalist. There was much interest in all things Oriental at the time. In Europe it was first called Salome Dancing, in France it became known as Danse de Ventre. The growing tradition of Trade fairs and Expositions in Europe and eventually the US brought native dances to the west who were put on stage to titillate the audiences of Victorian era mentality.
Later dancers such as Mata Hari, played on the continued interest in the exotic east. Ruth St. Denise and Isodora Duncan helped to usher in a new era of dance as well drawing on eastern dances and themes. In the US, Middle Eastern dance became known as "belly dance" or "hootchie cootchie" after it's famous "debut" in the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. It was often imitated and modified by burlesque dancers further solidifying in the minds of western audiences that this was a dance of seduction and sexual prowess.
Back in the Middle East it became a staged performance under Badia Masabni who sought to provide Middle Eastern Dances alongside Western entertainments in her Casino Opera. She had ballet instructors brought in to train the dancers in her shows and their costuming was modified by influences in orientalist paintings, oriental style opera costumes, and early Hollywood versions of "Middle Eastern" clothing. The dancers further modified the costumes to better accentuate their dances.
In the 1920’s, Egypt began making movies with dancers. This was the beginning of choreography in the Middle East, before that dancers would never do the same thing it was pure improvisation. You can see, despite their hard work at trying to do the same thing, that many of the early movies look as tough the dancers are not very good however there are many great dancers among them which you can see if you watch each dancer individually. They only look bad or disorganized because they were unused to the idea of choreography. Some of the biggest dancers have gotten their start at Casino Opera, which has featured dancers such as Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca, Naima Akef, and many more.
In the U.S. dancers started to use the veil as a dance prop, Samia Gamal was the first to introduce this to the Middle East. She actually started using it because her choreographer was trying to find a way to make her arms look more gracefully. Before this time, there is no record of dancers using veils as a dance prop although various Orientalist paintings depict dancers with veils in hand. It is hard to say whether these paintings, like so many Orientalist paintings, were fantastical or real. In the 1950's Folkloric and story dances were starting to die out and were put on a stage to be kept alive.
In Cairo, nightclubs began to blossom and produce some of the most famous dancers of all time. Among these dancers were Souhair Zaki, Noha, Aza Zharif, Nagua Fouad, Nadia Hamdi, Fifi Abdou, and Raqia Hassan. Nagua Fouad also contributed to the use of choreography, she was not all that good of a dancer when it came to improvising but, she had a good business sense and hired a choreographer.
Egypt began to look, to many in the Muslim world, as though they did not follow any of the rules of Islam and so Egypt recently has began to become more strict. That has led to a decline in dancing. The once proud center for this art form may soon throw down its hat. However, two new places are becoming the center of dance. One such place is an island off the east coast of Saudi Arabia, called Bahrain, where they are very lenient. It is turning into the Las Vegas of the Middle East. The other place is Lebanon, which is also more lenient to the rules of Islam. In Turkey, the dance is more of a cabaret, where they dress very seductively and are very scantily clad.
MED felt a boom in the U.S. in the 70's and is making another comeback now thanks to new age philosophies and Artists like Shakira. It is a continuing struggle in the Middle East between tradition and Modernity, religion and secularism. The styles of dance continue to evolve both in the Middle East and abroad continuing to change the dance in numerous ways. It can be difficult to even determine what is and isn't "belly dance" anymore.
Alex Bida. Egyptian dancer. Circa 1860. Watercolour. Victoria & Albert Museum, London
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