Belly Danced, Part IV:
Rise of the
Pagan Anti-Belly Dance League
visual depiction of belly dance generally is considered to exist
inside a 5,000-year-old tomb in Saqqara, Egypt. Hieroglyphics
reportedly state that the women in this particular relief are
engaged in a dance representing “the mystery of childbirth.”
Saqqara, however, has a new challenger – a much older cave drawing
in, of all places, Creswell Crags, England.
it’s true. The oldest visual depiction of belly dancing
possibly is in the British Isles, far and away from the Middle
In 2004, anthropologists
announced that 13,000 years ago, someone in Creswell Crags drew
a picture of women dancing around, shaking their rather prominent
posteriors. Anthropologists originally thought the
cave etching depicted a flock of birds. That was until someone
blinked a couple of times and realized that instead, this was
a group of Magdelanian-era divas getting their pre-historic groove
on, courtesy of the same generation of artists who brought us
Upper Paleolithic drawings of bison on the walls of Altamira Cave
To an untrained
eye, the etchings may not be convincing as either, but to be fair,
the artists in question were doodling during the pre-school of
human creative history.
similar etchings exist in continental Europe as well, so technically
maybe the Cave-Brits were trumped at belly dance by the Cave-French.
But for the purposes of this article, we’re going to give the
thumbs up to Merry Olde (very, very, very Ye Olde) England.
Creswell Crags etchings differ from Saqqara on the downside for
their lack of sophistication, but on the upside for the fact the
specific motion they depict
assure us that these Magdelanian gals are clearly shaking their
scholar simply calls the dance depicted in the Saqqara relief “energetic.”
But that could mean anything. The same scholar seems to lump it
in with the more acrobatic style of dancing usually considered to
be Pharonic. Maybe this dance was interpretive. Maybe the dancers,
when they really got into it, did not shimmy or do hip drops of
any kind, but instead acted out birthing -squatting and straining
and moaning and the like (think Grace Jones playing the character
Strangé giving birth to a perfume bottle for a whacked-out commercial
in Eddie Murphy’s movie “Boomerang”) which never would fly with
an audience at a modern Egyptian nightclub.
dance representing childbirth is one thing. A dance representing
the “mystery of childbirth” sounds much more…well, much more mysterious.
One always thinks that a dance representing childbirth automatically
focuses on the woman’s role in giving birth. What if, instead,
the dancers were trying to act out what a newborn baby goes through
coming down the birth canal? What would that look like?
Probably something also unlikely to fly with an audience at a
modern Egyptian nightclub…
All this is
to say that we can’t really know for sure what this ancient Egyptian
dance actually looked like. Now, it’s not an unreasonable theory
that this involved a form of belly dancing. In fact, it’s probably
very likely that it did. The above diatribe simply was to note
that this theory could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt
in a court of law.
to Saqqara, Creswell Crags offers no written caption telling us
why the Magdelanian women are dancing. While their moves
are hip-centric, nothing indicates that this activity specifically
has something to do with childbirth or fertility rites. The Magdalenian
women are naked, but tastefully in profile rather than, to put
it politely, full frontal. Given its prehistoric and rough-sketch
nature, one might expect to see crudely depicted giant phalluses
or pendulous breasts (the usual stuff related to fertility cults)
lurking around. Anthropologists insist that a couple of etched
triangles nearby in the cave represent female genitalia, but this
might be an overly hopeful theory. Sometimes a triangle
is just a triangle.
Magdelanians could have been dancing just to keep warm.
It was, after all, the Ice Age.
to the New Testament era, first century A.D. By this
time, the Celts, only one tribe that lived in the British Isles,
had descended into Spain and traveled at least as far east as
Turkey. In fact, the Celts at this time had taken over all
of central Anatolia, before being subdued by the Romans.
The Apostle Paul’s New Testament Letter to the Galatians, written
between A.D. 48-57, was, in fact, written to Christian Celts in
while the Celts traveled overland south and east, the ancient
Phoenicians (from what is now Lebanon) had sailed west in the
opposite direction throughout the Mediterranean, establishing
settlements in Tunisia, Sicily,
most importantly for belly dance history, Spain.
By the first
century A.D., the Phoenicians had long since lost Carthage in
Tunisia to Rome during the Punic Wars and, like the Celts, were
now under Roman rule.
valuable conquest for Rome was Spain, where the Phoenicians had
descended upon Iberians and then mingled with incoming Celts.
The Phoenicians founded the Spanish city of Cadiz – the oldest
city in Western Europe - in 1,100 B.C. The Celts arrived about
three centuries later. The defeated Phoenician leadership
in Carthage handed Spain over to Rome in 201 B.C. during the Second
Punic War. Phoenician Spain continued to rebel until
the Roman Emperor Augustus clamped down hard around 19 B.C., finally
bringing Spain to heal around A.D. 14.
Spain proceeded to lubricate the dietary habits of the Roman Empire
by producing vast amounts of excellent quality olive oil, as well
as contributing enormously to the entertainment industry of the
Mediterranean. During the first century A.D., Christianity
was being exported from Israel, Lebanon, Syria in the east as
were acclaimed musicians and belly dancers, usually as slaves.
Belly dancers in particular also were coming from the west — from
girls, wherever they came from, at this time apparently were luxury
import items and thus were subject to a 25 percent duty tax, equal
to that of precious gems.
performers were free, or managed to gain their freedom.
Modern British mystery writer Lindsey Davis brings such a belly
dancer to life in the character of Thalia, a snake dancer/rope dancer
who moves up in the world when she becomes the owner of a Syrian
circus. Thalia is a supporting character in Davis’ fabulous
and witty series about the trans-Empire adventures of Marcus Didius
Falco, a first century private investigator under the Emperor Vespasian.
of Falco’s comments regarding Thalia is something to the effect
of “This was not the first time I had see a dancer with her clackers
in a frazzle.”
was during the first century A.D. that belly dancing experienced
a significant evolution as a soloist performance and trans-Mediterranean
century A.D. also may be the first time someone widely published
negative comments about belly dancing. The poet Martial, a pagan
and a Spaniard with Roman citizenship had this to say about his
own preferences for banquet activities:
makes a solemn promise not to read from a fat manuscript or assault
you with cheap dancing girls from Spain waggling their lascivious
thighs in the same old bumps and grinds…” Epigrams,
Keep in mind
that as a poet, Martial got paid to be sarcastic and entertaining.
In one of his epigrams, he calls his own hometown of Cadiz “that
sink.” So, in reality, maybe he liked belly dancing, or
maybe to him it really was just “the same old, same old.”
But he never had anything really positive to say about it on the
record. He generally portrays belly dancing as a tawdry
endeavor. Here’s another example:
all about belly dancing to the rhythm of Spanish castanets.
could writhe to those Spanish tunes in a way to stir up the libido
of Peleus, trembling with age, or Priam at Hectors funeral.
got her master – that was on fire and in torture with love. She
was a slave girl when he sold her. She’ll be his mistress now
he’s buying her back again.” Epigrams, VI 1xxi
notes, incidentally, that Rome’s latest pop songs usually came
from either Spain or Egypt.
the Roman poet Ovid was a fan of belly dancing. In “The
Art of Love” (published in A.D. 1) he encouraged all women – including
proper Roman wives and daughters - to learn some belly dance moves
so they could show off after dinner when guests are over.
Ovid was banished
to the Black Sea shortly thereafter by the Emperor Augustus, who
felt that his “Art of Love” was too risqué for pagan moral values.
Girls and the Merry Magdalenian.” Sean Clarke, The Guardian.
UK, April 15, 2004.
Martial. Translated by Barriss Mills.
Purdue University Studies, Indiana. 1969.
Martial. Selected and translated by James Michie.
Modern Library. New York. 2002.
Art of Love. Ovid. Translated by James Michie.
Modern Library. New York. 2002.
Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists. Tony
Perrottet. Random House, New York. 2003.
of the Ancient Near East, 2 vol. Edited by Jack Sasson. Hendrickson
Publishers. Massachusetts. 1995.
- The first
century fictional belly dancer Thalia appears in Venus in
Copper and Last Act in Palmyra by Lindsey Davis.
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Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
- 2-14-03 God
Belly Danced. Part 1: Biblical Accounts of Belly Dancing
in the Ancient Near East, , by
While Yahweh is not female, the man may have given Chavah a name similar
to Yahweh because the woman and Yahweh had something vital in common
- 3-13-03 God
Belly Danced, Part 2: Biblical Accounts of belly dance
in the ancient Near East, , by
DeAnna Putman According
to the Hebrew scriptures, female belly dancers were reputable
- .7-10-03 God
Belly Danced, Part 3: Biblical Accounts of Belly Dance
in the Ancient Near East by
character in the Bible has been so misunderstood as Salome.
Critics condemn her as a wanton slut. Supporters embrace her
as a symbol of oppressed female sensuality. Neither is true.
- 5-15-06 God
Belly Danced, Part 4: The Rise of the Pagan Anti-Belly
Dance League by DeAnna Putman
Dancing girls, wherever they came from, at this time
apparently were luxury import items and thus were subject to
a 25 percent duty tax, equal to that of precious gems.
- 8-13-06 God
Belly Danced, Part 5: Belly Dancers in the First Century
Banqueting Tradition, by DeAnna Putnam
So, like in the Old Testament Book, belly dancing
can at times be connected specifically with wine and viticulture
Belly Dancer of the Year 2005
Page 1 Duos, Trios & Troupes photos by Monica
May 28, 2005, San Ramon, California.
Rocking with Raqia by Taaj
Each explanation brought the class closer to understanding the
essence of Egyptian style.
Photos from Bellydance Superstars Audition
in San Rafael, CA, Feb 2006 by GS staff
lighting conditions! Though, we did managed to get a few.