An Analysis of the History and Origins of "Belly Dancing"
Indian Dance is described in the West as "belly dancing," but the name "belly dancing" does not do justice to the style of dance which the title conveys. Indian and Middle Eastern dance actually has more of a history to it than what the West views merely as a kind of erotic show. Described as "danse du ventre" by the French in the Victorian Age, the English translation has come to signify the Indian dance, which in Arabic is known as raqs sharqi or raqs baladi -- the former meaning "Dance of the Near East" and the latter meaning "Folk dance." Essentially, what Westerners have identified as "belly dancing" is actually the traditional folk dance of the Middle East and India. This paper will discuss the origins and history of Indian Dance, or "belly dancing," and show how it has come to be understood today.
One common myth surrounding Indian "belly dancing" is that it grew out of a "birthing ritual" -- but as Marisa Wright states, there is actually little to no evidence for this claim. Rather, the promotion of such an origin actually came about due to the bad reputation that Indian "belly dancing" was receiving in the West at the beginning of the 20th century. In an attempt to justify what was being condemned as a provocative dance, some authors (and dancers) like Armen Ohanian described a "sacred dance" that was being corrupted by "the spirit of the Occident," transforming the "holy dance" into "the horrible danse du ventre, the 'hoochie-koochie'" (Wright). This attempt to legitimize the raqs sharqi worked to a certain extent -- but it did not change the nature of the "belly dance." The dance, as Wright shows, has always been (from the earliest time) a dance for men's entertainment: "All the evidence indicates belly dancing has been used to entertain, and particularly to entertain men, for hundreds of years" (Wright).
History is no less obliging when it comes to setting the record straight. In the Judeo-Christian narrative, there is the story of the Middle Eastern dancer Salome, whose provocative dance so enthralled Herod that he promised to give the girl anything she desired for recompense -- and, so the story goes, that is how John the Baptist lost his head (for she asked for it on a silver platter). Likewise, there are the writings of Martial, the Roman poet of the 1st century AD, who "commented on the female 'erotic ballerinas' who entertained visitors to Ephesus, Turkey, in the days of the Roman empire. They wore diaphanous robes and 'gyrated…to a steady beat'" (Wright). When one considers the actual style of dance that is involved in Indian "belly dancing," these reports should come as no surprise. In fact, the art of Indian dance appears "in Persian miniature paintings of the 12th and 13th centuries" (Wright) and can now be found in European museums: "Women dancing head downwards constantly appear in Persian pictures; several examples may be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the same subject often occurs on the valuable pencil-cases formerly made with so much taste and art in Persia" (Jusserand 118).
The fact of "belly dancing" as primarily a form of Indian and Middle Eastern entertainment is indisputable. Nonetheless, some similarities do exist between the dance and "traditional birthing" practices. Wright describes how in the 1960s Carolina Varga Dinicu, a "belly dancer," witnessed a traditional birth in southeast Asia: she recorded "first-hand how the women walked in a circle, executing belly rolls and flutters, with the mother alternately joining the circle or squatting" (Wright). The report that Dinicu produced afterwards made no attempt to locate "belly dancing's" origins in the birthing rite: it was merely acknowledging a similarity: "She makes it clear in her article that only two abdominal moves are used in the ritual," and Wright further points out that such moves make up only a fraction of the moves in the "belly dancing" repertoire.
The War over Modern Interpretation
Researcher Andrea Deagan, however, attempts to uncover the history of the dance by looking beyond India to the Aryan West and the ancient Egyptian rituals. Several stories coming from ancient Egypt relate creation myths, and Deagan notes how the "belly dance" has been identified in recent times as an expression of these myths.
What Deagan uncovers instead is a kind of culture war between those who view the dance as seductive and corrupt and those who view it as empowering and historically and culturally valuable. Essentially, in the 60s and 70s when the dance really began to become popular (as a result of Bollywood films), a cultural debate in the West flared up in unison with the sexual revolution already underway and the Feminist movement gathering steam. "Belly dance" became the victim of political spin: depending upon how one viewed it said much about one's take on gender roles and norms. By explaining the significance of "belly dancing," one was making a judgment on the traditional role of womanhood.
Divorcing oneself from political taboo allows one to take an objective look at Indian dance without fear of offending either Feminist or traditionalist. Therefore, one may choose to consider Indian dance as an historical art form.
As Deagan notes, dance has always had a place in worship. The Greeks practiced dance in their annual worship ceremonies (out of which grew the theater). However, there is little recorded information concerning the nature of the raqs sharki. Wright observes that "with the advent of Islam, Muslim women were no longer allowed to dance in public and their place was taken by men" (Wright). This idea corresponds to the Asian and Middle Eastern sense of decency and modesty. Women, even today, are forbidden to dance in front of men publicly. Even in Egypt, where "belly dancing" was witnessed by Napoleon's army more than two centuries ago, the dance was viewed negatively. Wright states that in Egypt, however, the dance was performed by two types: a low type (which was performed in the streets and was often linked to prostitution), and a higher type (called "Almeh," which was performed by "educated women skilled in singing, dancing and poetry, who were well-paid for performing") (Wright). The low type mainly consisted of gypsies (and no self-respecting Egyptian would ever marry one); however, the high type "was considered an acceptable bride, provided she gave up her profession" (Wright). The point of this illustration of Egyptian mores regarding the dance is that even though the West (in the 20th century) has attempted to portray it as having cultural significance, the fact is that "belly dance has been debased and associated with prostitution in its countries of birth for many centuries. It is still not a 'respectable' dance in the Middle East." On the other hand, it has become iconic in India -- thanks, of course, to Bollywood cinema and the rise of the Bollywood sirens.
Since its rise in popularity in the 20th century, Indian dance, or "belly dancing," has taken on a new kind of significance. As in Egypt, there are those forms which are considered as part of a cultural narrative, and there are those types that are more sensual and erotically-driven for male spectators. The modern Western style of "belly dancing" is hardly, however, cultural. As Wright notes, it has its real origins in Hollywood: the very costume of the "belly dancer" -- "the bedleh, comes from Hollywood!" (Wright).
To recap, the origins of Indian dance, or "belly dancing," are somewhat obscure in that there is not much written information regarding the subject. However, from what little can be gathered, it appears that the dance's origin was for entertainment: even still, anthropologists tell of "many types of tribal dances performed…