Figure 1: Festival of Sekhet celebration
The Gilded Serpent presents...
Middle Eastern Dance,
a Beautiful, Ancient, yet Misunderstood Art
by Hala Fauzi

I originally wrote this article as a handout for Redwood School, in Saratoga, California, when I gave them a workshop and presentation about Folkloric dance in Egypt. I thought the article would be of interest to the dance community as well.

Middle Eastern Belly dance, one of the most ancient and most beautiful art forms, builds and maintains a healthy body and a creative mind. The movements are simple, fluid, and natural to the human body. Even though no one knows how or where this dance originated, we know from the archaeological digs in Egypt and elsewhere that the dance moves have existed at least since the predynastic period in ancient Egypt through the New Kingdom and beyond.*

Current forms:
In the modern world, this dance, in its various forms, is common to many countries in the Middle East covering the entire Arab world from Morocco to Turkey, Iran and all the way to Afghanistan. Because of its beauty and simplicity, Middle Eastern dance is accessible to all body types, ages, genders and levels of flexibility. In Egypt, for example, when people celebrate weddings, graduations, birthdays or any festive occasion, everyone , from grandparents to grandchildren, dances to express their happiness. Even though each country and even each region within one country has its own style and emphasis, the movement vocabulary and basics are all the same. It's like different dialects of the same language.

Figure 2:
Dabke dance of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria & Iraq
Names of the dance:
In Arabic, this dance is simply called "raks", which translates to "dance". If it needs to be differentiated from other forms of Western dance, it is referred to as "raks sharki" which translates to "Oriental dance". No one knows why it got to be called "Belly dance" in the western world. Some historians believe that during Victorian times, when the Westerners first came into direct contact with this dance, it might have looked to them like the dancer was moving her belly, which is in fact a very gross misrepresentation. In Middle Eastern dance, like many eastern traditions and arts, there is a strong sense of grounding and connection to the earth. The same is true of martial arts like karate and other forms of eastern dances like Indian dance. The artist initiates the moves from the center of gravity, which is the belly and hip area. Unfortunately, associating a dance with a body part does not do the dance justice at all. In Middle Eastern dance, like many Eastern and Western expressive arts, the whole body and soul are involved in creating a beautiful, live expression. Calling it "belly dance" is like calling ballet "tip-toe dance". Even though the toes are involved and do attract the attention of the inexperienced eye, the dance is much more than the toes. If the dancer's whole body, soul and spirit are not involved, there will be no dance and no beauty. It will merely be mechanical movements.

In Middle Eastern dance there are some movement isolations that might make the onlooker believe that, for example, only the hip is moving, or only the arm is moving. In executing these isolated movements, however, the dancer can only present the movement beautifully and gracefully through many years of training, repetition, and the full involvement of his or her entire mind and body.

Why are all the books about this dance written by Westerners? Dance is so much an integral part of the culture in the Middle East that it is almost like breathing and eating. That is probably why there is not any literature about this dance written by anyone from the Middle East except to document a specific event. It is rare that people write about mundane daily routines or basic instinctive habits like breathing or dancing in the Middle East.

When Westerners began to colonize in the Middle East, the dance that was native to the area also began to attract their attention and documentation.

"Hala Dance Company" doing an Egyptian basket dance at
Stanford University's International Festival in May 2002
The rise and fall and rise of the dance:
In ancient times, it is believed that this dance was performed in temples and sacred places for spiritual purposes. Over time, and as the whole world moved from matriarchal heritage to more patriarchal modes of thinking, that which was spiritual became detached from the physical and the dance took a more social and cultural form. People have continued to dance through the ages to express their wide variety of emotions, moods, and to celebrate social occasions, and significant events in their lives. In more recent history, Egypt for example, Middle Eastern dance has continued to flourish and grow as an art.

Even though the long period of colonization by the British (about 100 years) did affect how this dance is viewed, it survived the Victorian principles adopted by the Egyptians as "modern" and "better" than their own indigenous cultural expressions, be it in dress, lifestyle or dance. One direct effect of adopting the Western ways of life is that Egyptian men now rarely perform this dance in public, even though they dance in the privacy of their local communities and family celebrations. Another effect is that the educated class in the Middle East looks down upon the dance as primitive and unsophisticated. Again, this is evidence of an attitude adopted from the long period of colonization.

Dancing survived as a private expression of joy for major life events and in indigenous communities that were not affected as much by the Western ideals. In the Westernized sections of society, dance took the form of nightclub and adult entertainment. In current times, the dance is becoming increasingly popular in the West and is experiencing a revival of sorts from the same Western culture that aided in its decline in the Middle East. Many women and men in the West are finding raks liberating, beautiful, and a natural way to express their unique body and style without having to conform to strict physical standards or unhealthy body postures. People of all ages, genders, body types and skill levels are able to express themselves beautifully and naturally through the fluid moves of this dance without feeling self-conscious about their bodies. Therefore, they experience a level of freedom that may not have been accessible to them through any other form of dance.

*Note: For more information, please refer to "Ancient Egyptian Dances" by Irena Lexova: "The dance consisted of a succession of figures in which the performer endeavored to exhibit a great variety of gestures. Men and women danced at the same time or in separate groups. Some danced to slow airs, adapted to the style of the movements; others preferred lively steps regulated by an appropriate tune. Sometimes when dancing, the women accompanied themselves on lutes or pipes." Lexova page 7.

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