… that ”Belly” Dance isn’t really about the belly at all? If you were to name this dance after the body part that is its main emphasis, it would be called “hip dance.” Among the very serious practitioners, as well, there has been a movement to dispense with the term “Belly Dance” and use a more accurate name, Middle Eastern Dance, or, if you prefer, Oriental Dance or Raqs Sharki.
So if “Belly Dance” is neither accurate nor correct, why is it called that in the first place? And why are some folks trying to change the name?
Let’s address these questions one at a time.
Middle Eastern Dance was first seen by Europeans and Americans in the late 19th century, as part of Worlds Fairs and exhibitions of the like. Many historians cite the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 as the first time Middle Eastern Dance appeared in the West; while this is debated by scholars as to whether this was the actual first appearance or not, we do know that this was one of the most publicized events of its era during which dancers were seen, and it was quite scandalous. If you look at photographs of the dancers as they appeared then, and compare them to Raqs Sharki performers today, one wouldn’t think they’d cause much of a splash: they were not terribly glamorous-looking to our eyes, and they were wearing their street clothes … a whole lot of clothes, in fact, relative to what we wear today. So why was this such a big deal?
Well, to understand why these women caused such outcry, we’ve got to take a look at the context in which they were seen, here in the West. Remember, these were the days before widespread motion pictures, television, automobiles, air travel, and any multicultural awareness as we know it. There were few restaurants featuring cuisine of other countries (if there were, most people didn’t know about them or go to them), and music was something you or someone you were in the presence of played on an instrument. This was the Victorian era, and while neither the United States nor Europe had Victoria as their monarch, England—with its manners, mores, customs, and social structure—was the pre-eminen, dominant superpower of the day. Although there were significant cultural differences between other European and European-centric countries of the time, when looked at from a wider, more global perspective, they were fairly similar in most ways. At the time, modes of social interaction, styles of dress, and standards of deportment that didn’t conform to what prevailed in that era just wasn’t seen by most of the general public.
On top of society being a lot less diverse, we have to consider the predominant style of clothing that women in the West wore then … and that included the corset. This garment had been a part of women’s attire at that time for about 3 or 4 hundred years. During that time, the styles of corsets changed along the way and the ideal silhouette for women that was in fashion evolved; one period would be a long and tubular look, another era would feature a more curvaceous shape, and so on. But one feature remained constant: the rigidity of the torso. It’s interesting to note as well that the Victorian era’s corsets in particular were some of the most sturdy and immovable garments along a very long timeline, thanks to the developing industrial revolution and newly-available technology that made ever-more complicated foundations available and affordable to a wider public.
So, we not only have a society in which women could not move their torso, they weren’t supposed to move their torso. Rules of behavior in those days were much more formal, and strict guidelines about what to say, how to say it, what to talk about (or rather, what NOT to talk about—ever!), how to move and when and so on were extremely complex, conservative, and like the corset, rigid. No woman of any class or station moved their torso or hips if they could help it. Clothing was designed not for comfort, but for decency, as the slightest hint of mobility might excite “ungenteel sensations” in either the wearer or an observer. This was a time when anything naturally human—thoughts, sensations, urges, appetites, functions—whether sexual, automatic, or mundane was laden with paranoia and mystery, and consequently, an inordinate amount of fascination. The physical body as a topic was strictly off limits in all but the most euphemistic manner, and then only if the subject could not be avoided. (This is where the terms light meat or dark meat originated when eating fowl). Oh yes, and “decent” women didn’t appear on stage; even celebrated opera singers and ballet dancers were considered lowly “theatrical” people for the most part.
So into this rather homogenous and restricted environment we see dancers whose entire dance form—like many non-Western dance forms—centers on movements of the hips and torso. Good heavens! The movement itself was already enough to raise eyebrows, but the advertising and promotion for these dancers made the most of the opportunity to further push the boundaries of acceptable decency and subject matter via language by using the term “belly,” not only referring to a body part, but—gasp!—naming it!
And there you have it. The name stuck, and so did the scandalous reputation. Middle Eastern Dance was never intended in its countries of origin to be erotic or seductive, in fact, at it root it is a social dance done by everyone in the family. However a style of movement that has the torso as its focus, plopped into the middle of a quite literally rigid society, in which the body was a taboo subject, coupled with advertising hype flaming the fantasies of the Westerners, and helped along in the ensuing few years by scores of imitators who did exaggerated versions of the dance … well, no one would blame the poor Westerners for thinking what they did–it would have been the only logical conclusion for them with their limited worldview.
This inaccurate—as well as limiting and unfortunate—image of the dance was carried forward through the next few decades to the point that it has been accepted as fact. This is the reason why so many serious scholars, teachers, dancers, and enthusiasts push so hard to right this wrong by educating the public and casting the dance, with its rich regional variations, in a new, correct light; it is due to these determined folks that Middle Eastern Dance is—at last!—beginning to be taken seriously as a major dance form, as worthy a field of study as any other World Dance form.
And so this brings us quite naturally to the issue of calling the dance what it is: Middle Eastern Dance, or if you prefer, Oriental Dance. Why, you ask do I sometimes call it “Belly” dance and other times Middle Eastern or Oriental dance? Whenever possible, I use correct terminology. But I do recognize that the term “Belly Dance” has been in use for some time, and I want people to know what I’m talking about; I love this dance so much that I will do whatever it takes to get people involved in it. I’ll use all of the names at first, and then switch to only correct ones as soon as possible. It is my hope that as more people discover what a diverse and rich art form Middle Eastern Dance is, they’ll gradually adopt the more accurate terms as well.
Whatever you choose to call it, the fundamental joy and emotion of the dance is, and always has been for everyone, young and old, male and female, anywhere they happen to be. I hope you enjoy a rich and rewarding path of discovery in your dance life.