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Raqs Sharqi dancer Chryssanthi Sahar Scharf, Heidelberg.

Belly dance is a term for traditional dance, especially raqs sharqi (Arabic: رقص شرقي‎). It is sometimes called Middle Eastern dance or Arabic dance in the West, or by the Greco-Turkish term çiftetelli (Greek: τσιφτετέλι).

The term "Belly dance" is a misnomer as all parts of the body are involved in the dance; the most featured body part in raqs sharqi being the hips. Belly dance takes many different forms depending on country and region, both in costume and dance style;; and new styles have been invented in the West as its popularity has spread globally.

  • Raqs sharqi (Arabic: رقص شرقي‎; literally "oriental dance") is the style more familiar to Westerners, performed in restaurants and cabarets around the world. It is more commonly performed by female dancers but is also sometimes danced by men. Raqs sharqi is a solo improvisational dance, although students often perform choreographed dances in a group.
  • Raqs baladi, (Arabic: رقص بلدي‎; literally "dance of country", or "folk" dance) is the folkloric style, danced socially by men and women of all ages in some Middle Eastern countries, usually at festive occasions such as weddings.


Origins and Early History

Artistic depiction of belly dancing

As with any dance of folkloric origin, the roots of belly dance are uncertain. The authenticity of even "traditional" or "classical" forms of belly dance is open to question and often hotly disputed.

One theory is that belly dance was originally danced by women for women, to demonstrate or ease childbirth in Iran, India, and North Africa.This is the most popular and realistic theory.This theory is very popular in Western dance schools because it helps counteract negative sexual stereotyping, but there is no written evidence to support it. The book "Dancer of Shamahka" is widely cited, but it is in fact, a romanticized memoir written by a modern author, Armen Ohanian, published in 1918. In Middle Eastern society two specific belly dance movements have been used in childbirth for generations,[1], but this fact is insufficient to account for the history of a complex dance used primarily for public performance.

While these theories may have some foundation, none of them can be proved to be the origin of belly dance. It is more likely that all these factors contributed to the development of belly dance as we know it today [2].

The first recorded Western encounter with belly dance is during Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, when his troops encountered the gypsy dancers of the Ghawazee, and the more refined dancing of the Almeh.

Belly dance was later popularized during the Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, when Orientalist artists depicted romanticized images of harem life in the Ottoman Empire. Around this time, dancers from Middle Eastern countries began to perform at various World Fairs, often drawing crowds in numbers that rivaled those for the science and technology exhibits.

Several dancers, including the French author Colette, engaged in "oriental" dancing, sometimes passing off their own interpretations as authentic. There was also the pseudo-Javanese dancer Mata Hari, convicted in 1917 by the French for being a German spy.


In the West, the costume most associated with belly dance is the bedlah (Arabic for "suit"). It owes its creation to the Victorian painters of "Orientalism" and the harem fantasy productions of vaudeville, burlesque, and Hollywood during the turn of the last century, rather than to authentic Middle Eastern dress.

The bedlah style includes a fitted top or bra (usually with a fringe of beads or coins), a fitted hip belt (again with a fringe of beads or coins), and a skirt or harem pants. The bra and belt may be richly decorated with beads, sequins, braid and embroidery. The belt may be a separate piece, or sewn into a skirt.

The hip belt is a broad piece of fabric worn low on the hips. It may have straight edge, or may be curved or angled. The bra usually matches the belt and does not resemble lingerie. The classic harem pants are full and gathered at the ankle, but there are many variations. Sometimes pants and a sheer skirt are worn together. Skirts may be flowing creations made of multiple layers of sheer fabric such as chiffon, or figure-hugging lycra.

Badia Masabni, a Cairo cabaret owner, is credited with bringing the costume to Egypt, because it was the image that Western tourists wanted.

Since the 1950s, it has been illegal in Egypt for belly dancers to perform publicly with their midriff uncovered [3] or to display excessive skin. It is therefore becoming more common to wear a long, figure-hugging lycra one-piece gown with strategically placed cut-outs filled in with sheer, flesh-coloured fabric.

If a separate bra and skirt are worn, a belt is rarely used and any embellishment is embroidered directly on the tight, sleek lycra skirt. A sheer body stocking must be worn to cover the midsection. Egyptian dancers traditionally dance in bare feet, but these days often wear shoes and even high heels.

As there is no prohibition on showing the stomach in Lebanon, the bedleh style is more common. The skirts tend to be sheer and/or skimpier than Egyptian outfits, showing more of the dancer's body. The veil is more widely used and the veil matches the outfit. High heels are commonly worn.

Turkish dancers also wear bedleh style costumes. In the 80s and 90s the art became debased in Turkey and a 'stripperesque' costume style developed, with skirts designed to display both legs up to the hip, and plunging bras. Such styles still exist in some venues but there are also many serious, respectable Turkish belly dancers who wear more moderate costumes. Even so, all Turkish belly dance costumes reflect the playful, flirty style of Turkish belly dance.

American dancers often purchase their costumes from Egypt or Turkey, but hallmarks of the classical "American" style include a headband with fringe, sheer harem pants or skirt rather than tight lycra, and the use of coins and metalwork to decorate the bra.

For the folkloric and baladi dances, a full-length beledi dress or galabeyah is worn, with or without cutouts.

Props are used,especially in American Restaurant style, to spark audience interest and add variety to the performance, although some traditionalists frown on their use. Some props in common usage are:

  • Finger cymbals (zills or sagats).
  • Cane (in the Saiidi)
  • Veil
  • Sword
  • Candelabra headdress (shamadan)
  • Veil poi
  • Fire sticks
  • Tambourine
  • Fan
  • Snakes (Usually either pythons or boa constrictors)

Steps and Technique

Most of the movements in belly dancing involve isolating different parts of the body (hips, shoulders, chest, stomach etc), which appear similar to the isolations used in jazz ballet, but are often driven differently.

In most belly dance styles, the focus is on the hip and pelvic area.

Important moves:

Shimmy - a shimmering vibration of the hips. This vibration is created by moving the knees past each other at high speed, although some dancers use contractions of the glutes instead. Dancers also put one leg to the side and then shimmy is performed by vibration of the leg which bears the weight. Shoulder shimmy is also an important element of belly dance.

Swinging arms - important expressive means in belly dance and highlights the beauty and flexibility of the dancer. In many cases hands are used to frame around the the moving part of the body to stress the expressiveness of that part.

Hip punches - basic move. Helps alternate the weight on the legs and create impression of the swinging pelvis.

Undulation - rotating movements of the chest forward, up, back and down create impression of riding a camel.

Egyptian Belly Dance

In Egypt, three main forms of the traditional dance are associated with belly dance: Baladi/Beledi, Sha'abi and Sharqi.

Baladi is a folk style of dance from the Arab Tribes who settled in Upper Egypt.

Sharqi is based on the baladi style but was further developed by Samia Gamal, Tahiya Karioka, Naima Akef, and other dancers who rose to fame during the golden years of the Egyptian film industry. Later dancers who based their styles partially on the dances of these artists are Sohair Zaki, Fifi Abdou, and Nagwa Fouad. All rose to fame between 1960 and 1980, and are still popular today.

Though the basic movements of Raqs Sharqi are unchanged, the dance form continues to evolve. Nelly Mazloum and Mahmoud Reda are noted for incorporating elements of ballet into bellydance, and their influence can be seen in modern Egyptian dancers who stand on relevé as they turn or travel in a circle or figure eight.

Although Western dancers view Egypt as the Holy Grail of belly dance, belly dancers in Egypt are not well regarded. Egyptians do not consider it a respectable profession, and most belly dancers performing for tourists in Egypt today are foreigners.

Dancers are not allowed to perform certain movements or do any floor work.

State television in Egypt no longer broadcasts belly dancing. A plan to establish a state institute to train belly dancers in Egypt came under heavy fire as it "seriously challenges the Egyptian society's traditions and glaringly violates the constitution",said Farid Esmail, a member of parliament.[4]

Greco-Turkish Belly Dance

Some mistakenly believe that Turkish oriental dancing is called Çiftetelli because this style of music has been incorporated into oriental dancing by Arabs and Greeks. In fact, Greek and Cypriot belly dance is called Tsifteteli. However, Turkish Çiftetelli is actually a form of lively wedding music and is not connected with oriental dancing.

Turkish, Greek, and Cypriot belly dance today may have been influenced by Arabs before the Ottoman Empire as much as by the Egyptian and Syrian/Lebanese forms.

Turkish law does not impose restrictions on dancers as they do in Egypt, where dancers must keep their midriffs covered and cannot perform floor work and certain pelvic movements. This has resulted in a marked difference in style - Egyptian bellydance is noted for its restraint and elegance, whereas Turkish bellydance is playful and uninhibited. Turkish belly dance costumes have been very revealing, although there is a move towards more modest, Egyptian-style costuming.

Many professional dancers and musicians in Turkey continue to be of Romani heritage. (there is also a distinct Turkish Romani dance style which is different from Turkish Oriental.) Turkish dancers are known for their energetic, athletic (even gymnastic) style, and their adept use of finger cymbals, also known as zils. Connoisseurs of Turkish dance often say a dancer who cannot play the zills is not an accomplished dancer. Another distinguishing element of Turkish style is the use of the Karsilama rhythm in a 9/8 time signature, counted as 12-34-56-789. Famous Turkish belly dancers include Tulay Karaca, Nesrin Topkapi and Birgul Berai.

Western Belly Dance

American Belly Dance

Tribal-style belly dancers.

The term "belly dancing" is generally credited to Sol Bloom, entertainment director of the 1893 World's Fair, the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, although he consistently referred to the dance as "danse du ventre," of which "belly dance" is a literal translation. In his memoirs, Bloom states only that "when the public learned...danse du ventre...I had a gold mine."

Although there were dancers of this type at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, it was not until the Chicago World's Fair that it gained national attention. There were authentic dancers from several Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Syria, Turkey and Algeria, but it was the dancers in the Egyptian Theater of The Street in the Cairo exhibit who gained the most notoriety. The fact that the dancers were uncorseted and gyrated their hips was shocking to Victorian sensibilities. There were no soloists, but it is claimed that a dancer nicknamed Little Egypt stole the show. Some claim that the dancer was Farida Mazar Spyropoulos, but this fact is disputed.[5]

The popularity of these dancers subsequently spawned dozens of imitators, many of whom claimed to be from the original troupe. Victorian society continued to be affronted by this "shocking" dance, and dancers were sometimes arrested and fined.[6] The dance was nicknamed the "Hootchy-Kootchy" or "Hoochee-Coochie", or the shimmy and shake. A short film, "Fatima's Dance," was widely distributed in the nickelodeon (movie theater)s. It drew criticism for its "immodest" dancing, and was eventually censored. Belly dance drew men in droves to burlesque theaters, and to carnival and circus lots.

Thomas Edison made several films of dancers in the 1890s. These included a Turkish dance, and Crissie Sheridan in 1897, and Princess Rajah from 1904, which features a dancer playing zills , doing "floor work", and balancing a chair in her teeth.

Ruth St. Denis also used Middle Eastern-inspired dance in D.W. Griffith's silent masterpiece Intolerance (film), her goal being to lift dance to a respectable art form at a time when dancers were considered to be women of loose morals. Hollywood began producing films such as The Sheik (film), Cleopatra (1917 film), and Salomé (1923 film), to capitalize on Western fantasies of the orient.

When immigrants from Arab States began to arrive in New York in the 1930s, dancers started to perform in nightclubs and restaurants. Some of today's most accomplished performers are their descendants, e.g. Anahid Sofian, Aisha Ali, and Artemis Mourat.[7][8]

In the late 1960s and early '70s many dancers began teaching. Middle Eastern or Eastern bands took dancers with them on tour, which helped spark interest in the dance.

Although using traditional Turkish and Egyptian movements, American Cabaret or American Restaurant belly dancing has developed its own distinctive style, using props and encouraging audience interaction. Many modern practitioners make use of the music of Egyptian Sha'abi singers, including Ahmed Adaweya, Hakim, and Saad el Soghayar in their routines, which combines the percussion of modern Egyptian music with a traditional feeling for music and dance in the Raks Sha'abi (dance of the people) style.

Many forms of "Tribal Fusion" belly dance have also developed, incorporating elements from many other dance and music styles including flamenco, ballet, burlesque and even hip hop. "Gothic Belly Dance" is a style which incorporates elements from Goth subculture.

In 1987, a uniquely American style, American Tribal Style Belly Dance, (ATS), was created. Although a wholly modern style, its steps are based on a fusion of ancient dance techniques from North India, the Middle East, and Africa.

Australian Belly Dance

The first wave of interest for belly dancing in Australia was during the late 1970s to 1980s with the influx of migrants and refugees escaping troubles in the Middle East. Notable musicians arriving in Australia during this period include drummer Jamal Zraika. The large numbers of immigrants created a lively social scene including numerous Lebanese and Turkish restaurants, generating interest in the dance and providing employment for belly dancers.

Early dance pioneers included Amera Eid who started the first belly dance boutique and Terezka Drnzik who established the first full time belly dance school in Sydney. Both of these teachers have pedigrees linked back to Rozeta Ahalyea.

Melbourne's belly Dance scene is a rich one. Dancers such as Claire Naffah, Layla, Alia, Azura, Princess Jasmina, Melissa Christina, Jewel, Barbara, Trisnasari, Melusina, Eugenia and Pamela have greatly helped raise awareness and make Belly dancing grow in popularity, while schools such as Kizmet Belly Dance and Underbelly have played important roles in Shaping the face of belly dance in Melbourne. Melbourne is also also home to some of the country's Premier male belly dancers, who teach and perform around the city, and includes Chris, Jamil, John and Ara.

Canadian Belly Dance

A belly dancer in Calgary, Alberta, Canada in 2008

Canada has a belly dance community similar to United States. One Canadian dancer is Yasmina Ramzy, director and founder of Toronto based Arabesque Dance Company (, founder and producer of the International Bellydance Conference of Canada (IBCC) series, now in its 3rd year. Other Canadian dancers who teach internationally include Hadia, Roula Said, Denise Enan, Lava, Nath Keo, and Sabeya.

Belly Dance in the UK

Belly dance culture has been evidenced in the UK and Ireland since the early 1960s, with many styles being taught including traditional, modern, tribal, Persian, Oriental, Turkish, Greek, Egyptian, American Tribal.

Many festivals are held, with two of the most popular being the Annual Glastonbury Majma, [1] and Raqs Britannia.

September 2007 saw the first Annual International Bellydance Congress being held in the UK. [2]

Male Belly Dancing

Male belly dancer in Istanbul Turkey.

There is much debate over the place of men in the belly dance world. Turkish miniatures from the Ottoman Empire show performances by young men called köçeks. The Sultan employed a köçek troupe in addition to a female troupe. (Metin And: A pictorial history of Turkish Dance). The youths wore heavy makeup, gold-embroidered velvet jackets and silk shirts, harem pants, long skirts, and belts. They were said to be "sensuous, attractive, effeminate," and their dancing "sexually provocative". They minced and gyrated their hips in slow vertical and horizontal figure-eights.

These dancers were so popular that competition for their sexual favors among the male audience caused fights, which resulted in such performances being banned in 1856. [3] Eventually the ban was lifted, but with the suppression of harem culture under the following two Sultans, köçek dance lost the support of its royal patrons, and gradually disappeared.

The current trend for male belly dancers started in the '60s in the United States. Well-known male dancers from the 1970s onward include Ibrahim Farrah and Adam Basma from Lebanon, Bert Balladine, John Compton, Sergio, Horacio Cifuentes, Kasim of Boston, Amir of Boston, Aziz, Kamaal, Amir Thaleb, Prince Andrew, Saleem, Mark Balahadia, Zorba, Francisco Carranza (Mr. Bellydance U.S. 1989), Valizan from Canada, Viraj, Nath Keo, Jim Boz, DaVid, Tito Seif from Egypt, Jamil from Sydney, and Tarik Sultan of New York. Asi Haskal is very famous from the middle east.

Male belly dance is having a resurgence [4] [5] There is heated debate on such issues as whether there should be differences in costuming, attitude, and choreography between male and female belly dancing [9]

Health and belly dancing

Belly dance is a non-impact, weight-bearing exercise and is thus suitable for all ages, and is a good exercise for the prevention of osteoporosis in older people. Many of the moves involve isolations, which improves flexibility of the torso. Dancing with the veil can help build strength in the upper-body, arm and shoulders. Playing the zills trains fingers to work independently and builds strength. The legs and long muscles of the back are strengthened by hip movements.[10] Paffrath also researched the effect of belly dance on women with menstruation problems. The subjects reported a more positive approach toward their menstruation, sexuality, and bodies.

Belly dancing in pop culture

Belly dancing has recently been made popular by Latin American superstar Shakira. Although she is Colombian, her part-Lebanese background has influenced her style.

The Brazilian novella O Clone also known as El Clon in Spanish-speaking countries and the United States, is set in Brazil and Morocco and featured belly dancing in many episodes. The lead character, Jade (Giovanna Antonelli), used it to entice her lover Lucas (Murilo Benício), and to soothe and seduce her husband Said (Dalton Vigh).

Several James Bond films have also featured belly dancers. In The Man With the Golden Gun, the belly dancer Saida wears a spent bullet in her navel, which Bond accidentally swallows while trying to retrieve it.

R&B singer Aaliyah used the belly roll as her signature move. Other singers who have performed belly dance moves include Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Beyonce, Ciara, and Hilary Duff.

A very popular bellydancer, Didem, is a dancer from Turkey. She has made bellydance very famous for the new age. She is a legendary bellydancer which makes her very popular at the whole orient.

The US touring troupe formed by Miles Copeland with input from Suhaila Salimpour, Bellydance Superstars has been exhibiting several different styles of belly dance to the masses, furthering the popularity of bellydance around the world by performing over 600 shows in over 20 countries. The shows have made stars of several of its dancers, including Rachel Brice.

Documentaries about belly dance include: American Bellydancer, Belly, and Temptation of Bellydance.

See also


  1. ^ witnessed by the bellydancer Morocco in 1961, and described in her article "Bellydancing and Childbirth"
  2. ^ "In Search of the Origins of Dance", Andrea Deagan Ph.D.
  3. ^ Hanna, Judith (1988). Dance, Sex and Gender. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226315517. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Donna Carlton (1995) Looking for Little Egypt. Bloomington, Indiana: International Dance Discovery Books. ISBN 0-9623998-1-7.
  6. ^ "New York Times, Dec 7 1893"
  7. ^ Salome. "Interview with Artemis Mourat". Retrieved 18 August 2009. 
  8. ^ "Ozel Turkbas, Melissa Michalak and Anahid Sofian / An Interview". Retrieved 18 August 2009. 
  9. ^ Tarik Sultan, "Oriental Dance, It Isn't Just for Women Anymore"; Dr. Anthony Shay's "The Male Dancer", and Laurel Victoria Gray's "Dancing Boys," (Arabesque magazine, Vol. 12 May-June 1986)
  10. ^ Coluccia, Pina, Anette Paffrath, and Jean Putz. Belly Dancing: The Sensual Art of Energy and Spirit. Rochester, Vt: Park Street Press, 2005

Simple English

A belly dance is a Middle Eastern type of dancing. In the Arabic language, it is called raqs sharqi (رقص شرقي, which means "oriental dance"). Many boys and girls in countries where belly dancing is popular will learn how to do it when they are young. The dance involves movement of many different parts of the body; usually in a circular way.

The term "Belly dance" is translated from the French "danse du ventre". However, this dance is done by every part of the body. The most featured body part usually is the hips. Belly dancing is very different depending on country and region, both in costume and dance style.


Belly dancing came from the dances performed in the Middle East and North Africa. One theory is that belly dance may have come from Arab, a dance when the Arabians were worshipping a goddess. A third theory is that belly dance was always danced just for entertainment.

Another theory is that belly dance was originally danced by women for women in the Levant, and North Africa.[1]


  1. witnessed by the bellydancer Morocco in 1961, and described in her article "Bellydancing and Childbirth"

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