I know I haven’t posted in months but I swear I’ve been busy writing other things. Plus, I am doing tons of research for an e-Book project I’ve been writing for about a year. I call it “Cairo to California: A History of Bellydance.” I set out to answer some basic, straightforward questions that a newbie might ask: When and where did bellydance start? Is it just for women or do men bellydance, too? Isn’t it related to childbirth? Is there more than one kind of bellydance? When did it come to the U.S?
I was inspired to write this because of my own interests and curiosities. Writers are often told to write the book they want to read, and this is mine: a concise yet comprehensive history of bellydance. When I first started bellydance in 2001, I had only a small inkling of its global appeal and variety. Its history in Egypt was vague—something to do with ghawazi dancers and gypsies. Its history in America was just as murky and it became clear that there were competing stories on the subject. I started to recognize different bellydance names: classical, cabaret, orientale, raqs sharqi, baladi, shaabi, hagalla, dans du ventre, tribal; different national influences outside Egypt: Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon, America; names of its stars: Badia Masabni, Tahiya Carioca, Samia Gamal, Morocco, Jamila Salimpour. But I struggled to understand what they had to do with one another, what their historical contexts were, and how they influenced the evolution of bellydance. That’s the problem I am attempting to address.
Of course, the first problem is with the word “bellydance” itself which is highly problematic and controversial. It is a remnant of the colonization of North Africa by French and British governments in the 18th and 19th centuries. In French society of those periods people danced formal minuets, waltzes, quadrilles, and later, tango. Ballet had become a full-fledged theatrical form. These styles of dance emphasize traveling, extensive arm, hand and leg work, and a high, straight carriage of the torso. What they saw when they looked at native North African dancers was a dance that didn’t travel and de-emphasized the appendages in favor of the torso: they saw belly dancing and called it “dans du ventre”—dance of the stomach.
Today, many dancers reject the term altogether and use terms that more specifically address which variety of Middle Eastern dance they teach or perform. Raqs sharqi, for example, is a style created in Cairo in the early twentieth century. It was derived from raqs baladi, a folk style performed in rural settings. Both of these are performed today and represent distinctive variations and regional histories. My teacher, Helené, calls what she does Orientale. Deb Brown, a Cairo resident, once warned “Don’t call what I do bellydance!” But many other dancers are trying to re-appropriate the term from its fall during the burlesque years. For my purposes, I do use the term when I am referring to all its variations collectively. “Bellydance” indicates a family of dances with recognizable, recurring patterns of movement. So, there. That settles that issue (well, for me anyway).