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Gilded Serpent presents...
Re-defining Belly Dance
and Middle Eastern Dance

by Tasha Banat

Published 8-18-05
It has come to my attention that we are all guilty, myself included, of trying to sanitize the terminology and definition of Belly Dance by giving it other, more socially acceptable names.  The one that I will attempt to re-define or clarify is “Middle Eastern Dance.”  This title sounds very nice on the surface, but it is inaccurate to the people of Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, the Khaliji, who make up the “Middle East.”

The fact is that “Middle Eastern Dance” is not an acceptable definition for Belly Dance and let me explain why. 

Belly Dance is performed throughout the Arab world and beyond.  It is its own entity with its own movement, steps, music, costuming, and venues. 

Middle Eastern Dance, on the other hand, is strictly regional, with its own movement, steps, music, costuming and venues and only indicative to Asian Arabs. Even those dances that are a common part of the Middle Eastern society have to be qualified; examples are: Lebanese, Palestinian, Jordanian or Syrian Debkes; Shikani from Iraq, The Khaliji Dances from the Gulf, and even Lebanese Cabaret Belly Dance.  Then these dances are further defined as Debke Jebali,  Palestinian Debke Shmaliya, etc.

To further clarify this, please let me use another example:  “American Dance.”

What would be your definition and how would you present it?  Is it Rock and Roll or Country Western?  Is it Disco, Jazz, Tap or what?  What would be an acceptable definition for “American Dance?”  How about “American Tribal Style”?  This is a great example of a well defined dance style that was created in America.

Of course there is no set example as to what American Dance means just as there is no explanation or standard definition for “Middle Eastern Dance.”   My point is it has to be qualified further in order not to be misleading. 

Now I will explain why it is important to some of us in this business. I have spent much of my life performing, documenting, and preserving these dances from my little corner of the world.  As a matter of fact, my Belly Dance Routines have always included some Debke because that was the dance of my childhood.

The issue I am facing is that the definition “Middle Eastern Dance” is being used by Belly dancers everywhere who could not get funding for Belly Dance or could not even get into a school or other institutions because it falls under a category that is not acceptable to those “powers that be” who sit on boards and make the decisions.

The problem is no one seems to think that there is a difference between a Middle Eastern Folk Dance and a Belly Dance. 

This creates a very frustrating situation for all concerned and is an unfair evaluation of Middle Eastern Folk Dance and Belly Dance because they are both fundable entities which need to be preserved, archived, and shared so that they are not lost or distorted into something that does not resemble either. 

They both are beautiful venues created and preserved by my Arab ancestors and needless to say, we can use all the positive display of our culture that is available today.  So, please understand that I am not attacking any other individuals or groups of people who are funded so do not misunderstand me.  I am not sulking because I have to wait in some funding line either.  Anytime money is spent on art, especially from my part of the world, I am thrilled for those who can pull it off successfully.

The down side is that “Middle Eastern Dances” may be forgotten or mislabeled like so many other cultural contributions by Arabs in general and that is unacceptable.  I realize these things are probably trivial to most, but hopefully, you are a proponent of Arabic Art, irregardless of your religion, philosophy, ethnic origin etc: 

Maybe I am being personal and picky or just afraid that another contribution by my people will be erased because of some political situation.  Maybe I am upset that nothing cultural is ever defined as Arabic but I do not want to lose my cultural identity. 

Currently in the interest of cultural accuracy, there seems to be several obstacles to overcome. 

  1. We need to try to find some other way to define Belly Dance or better yet, stop being ashamed of the word “Belly Dance”.  Call it what it is and let’s begin to qualify what we do correctly.
  2. 2. We should begin to make sure the world recognizes that Egyptian Belly Dance, Lebanese Belly Dance, Turkish Belly Dance, American Tribal, and even Hula, are all accurate definitions for styles of belly dance.
  3. We need to admit that Egyptian Dance, Lebanese Dance, Turkish Dance and Middle Eastern Dance are NOT accurate substitute phrases by themselves because they do not qualify the type of dance being performed. 

It is my hope that if you read my article to this point, you will at least consider the possibility of changing your way of presenting Middle Eastern Dance and to start to use the term Belly Dance, perhaps with further definition, if that is the dance your are presenting and performing.

I have learned over the years to accept that fact that the political, regional, geographical, and historical definitions of the Middle East are different. 

So I am going to state that the Middle East is ONLY Asian Arab when it comes to Dance and not African Arab with the exception of Egypt and only when it includes the word “Cabaret”.  Egyptian folk dance is not Asian Arab in style or content.

That makes it important for teachers to recognize that Debke is regional and only part of the Asian Arab, not African Arab, culture. The Arab term for Middle East was “B’lad E’Shaam which is now Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Israel

This is the acceptable definition of the Middle East and Middle Eastern Dance is more commonly defined as Debke rather than Belly Dance, even though everyone in Asian Arab counties (including Israel), African Arab countries and beyond knows how to belly dance or at least knows what belly dance looks like.

Your comments are most welcome.

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