by Tasha Banat
posted August 1, 2010
A well known dancer with a strong background in Egyptian style Belly Dance made a claim that all Belly Dance began in Egypt. Maybe it did and maybe it did not because references to Belly Dance are found in manuscripts such as “Gilgamesh". This manuscript is a story regarding Gilgamesh’s love for the Goddess Ishtar, a dancer. This manuscript is proven to have originated from the area now known as " modern day Iraq” . The manuscript ‘Gilgamesh’, has been determined to be written during a time frame which would be older than the time period that the Old Testament of the Bible is said to be dated from.
However, that is not really the point of this article because this person was talking about “cabaret style Belly Dance”. I believe that we can agree that this type of Belly Dance originated in around the late 1800’s give or take a decade or two.
I would assume that we now know that this form of dance was never considered traditional in style, but a dance complete with costuming that was suited to please the latest batch of conquerors which consisted mainly of French and British. This was the result of the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
What really got to me was her reasoning and I quote. “Everyone knows Egypt is over 5000 years old so obviously belly dance began in Egypt, because Lebanon didn’t exist”.
Maybe it is because I feel more and more desperate to preserve what is left of the Asian Arab culture, but each and every part of the world has existed in one form or another since the beginning of time, regardless of what the region was called back then and we are no different.
Please do not think I am attacking the person. Actually, I do not blame the lady for her statement. I would blame myself, though, if I allow this kind of information to be accepted without any thought given to the possibility that it is not entirely accurate.
So to all of you Belly dance experts out there: Belly Dance describes a particular style of dance which most agree began in the Arab speaking world, including Egypt and Lebanon, as well as many other regions then defined as the Near East. This area stretched all the way from modern Morocco to Iraq (and sometimes Iran, even though the people there are Aryan).
The Ottoman Empire controlled much of the Near East and much of Turkish culture . For example, dances such as the Black Sea folk dances influenced today’s Debke (Asian Arab folk dance). There was also a traditional style of belly dance that each region claimed as their own by music, dress, song, and movement.
Then events leading up to the First World War and the demise of the mighty Ottoman Empire came about. The results of that war created most of the political borders that exist in that part of the world today. The French foreign legion controlled North Africa since about 1850, including present day Lebanon and the British took control of Egypt and the Asian Arab world as well as mandating Palestine to create a State of Israel (Balfour declaration) in the early 1900s.
This is where the history of Cabaret Belly Dance began and everything about the dance then and now is predominately “The French Connection.”
Since visual art has no political borders, it is only natural that Europeans became enamored by the mysterious beauty that the Arab world had to offer. Belly Dance became one of the more popular forms of entertainment when the French invaded North Africa and Lebanon . The unique style of Belly Dance left those in Western and European countries in awe of the feminine sensuality of the dance.
The British, in my opinion, back then were kind of rigid, prim, and formal. In general, the British and their monarch style of Parliamentary Democracy lacked that French pizazz.
All really cool decadent visual arts came from mainland Europe and the French were the leaders where cabarets featuring the “Can Can” and other dances flourished in every French controlled region. It stands to reason then that the cabarets as well as their scandalous costuming ideas probably existed in North Africa (except Egypt) including present day Lebanon well before the first nightclub ever opened in Cairo.
Remember that the cabaret style of Belly Dance itself was considered a western cultural event and the night clubs of those days were only there to entertain invaders and their families, not the local people.
I will acknowledge however, that in those days, the sun never set on Great Britain and that they were definitely great warriors: thus becoming a dominant force and influence on the countries they colonized. They did nationalize dance, theatre, and just about everything else in Egypt based upon their Westernized viewpoint; thus Egypt became and continues to remain " the Hollywood of the Arab film industry."
I also believe that the many wars in the Asian Arab world have also contributed to the downfall of the Belly Dance commercial industry, especially in Lebanon until the mid 1990s.
Finally, the Asian Arab world is making a comeback and if all goes well; our part of the Arab culture will not disappear after all and we will again be recognized for our grand contribution in of all the arts.
I have written this article for the purpose of questioning and assimilating information in order to arrive at a conclusion that is a bit more cohesive and understandable in it’s historical and political climate. I hope this helps to reeducate and reevaluate the normal everyday acceptance dancers have assumed about the roots of the dance known widely as Belly Dance. The background of our dance culture here in Western society may not understand or have the basic knowledge of these historical as well as cultural and regional affects that are the foundation to Belly Dance. They have understandingly arrived at knowledge based on miscellaneous events and have created and copied information regarding the roots, culture and historical variance of "Belly Dance" based on these long made assumptions. By writing this article I hope to open new dialogue and a broader understanding of the Arab/Asian dance foundations.
Ready for more?
- 6-10-10 Debke, A Brief History
How does one combine Debke with Bellydance? What does that mean? In order to combine two beautiful dances, we have to first separate them and understand the different types of Arabic music
- 7-12-07 Belly Dance:Time for Personal Assessment or How old are your Shoes?
What do you personally want from the dance? In order to answer this honestly, you must make a personal assessment of your goals and include your achievements.
- 1-25-07 One Banat: An Exploration of Some Belly Dance Costuming Origins by Tasha Banat
Since the establishment of Israel, the definition of the term “Middle East” seems to have changed and now has come to refer to a conglomeration of a number of unrelated countries in the Asian and African parts of the hemisphere.
- 8-18-05 Re-defining Belly Dance and Middle Eastern Dance by Tasha Banat
The fact is that “Middle Eastern Dance” is not an acceptable definition for Belly Dance and let me explain why.
- 7-30-10 Morocco’s Four-Day Folk Fest Schikhatt, Tunisian, Zar and Guedra, report by Mary
Schikhatt (a Moroccan word meaning "wise woman") is a dance performed before weddings at bridal parties as a way to "educate" the bride in the movements she would be expected to mimic on the wedding night.
- 7-23-2010 Friday Night Performances at IBCC 2010, photos by Samira, video collage by GS staff
International Bellydance Conference of Canada April 23, 2010 at the Hungarian Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto,Ontario, Canada. Performers include: Raks Sahara, Ashira, Maryfar, Laura Bellydance, Daluah, Tribe Maya Fire, Sa’Diyya, Monique Ryan, Sabaya, A La Nar, Sarah Skinner, Akimi, Earth Shakers, Roshana Nofret, Sofia & Chanty, Ebony Qualls, Danza Della Luna.
- 7-18-10 Belly Dance in Patriarchy, Escaping the Switzerland of the Soul by Andrea Deagon PhD
However, I do believe that belly dance is able to attain such vitality and complexity in the modern world precisely because it’s embroiled in serious cultural and personal contestations. It is precisely clashes of aesthetic values, conflicting paradigms of sexuality and gender, and economic as well as political inequities that strike the dance’s most beautiful notes.
- 7-15-10 Sema Yildiz, A Star of Turkish Dance by Zumarrad/ Brigid Kelly
She was fortunate, she says, to grow up in a Roma (Gypsy) community rich in dance and music – the Fatih district, which houses the Sulukule, famous for its entertainment and considered the oldest Roma settlement in the world.
- 7-15-10 Queen of Denial, Chapter 2: Dancing in the “City of Lights” by Rebaba
I’m breathing very hard, and can tell I’m very, very shiny and red, even under the stage lights, but I think he likes me. And he is completely dumbfounded that an “American” girl is auditioning for a job as a “Danseuse Oriental!” I know I’m way too fat, but thank God I’m a belly dancer, and apparently a novelty, because I couldn’t get away with this in any other dance form! Fortunately, I’m only 19 years old and my excess flesh is young, tan and firm!”
- 7-12-10 Fusion: How much is too much? by Najia Marlyz
In America, and evidently elsewhere, we dancers seem to have a voracious appetite for new steps and movements, so like hungry chipmunks, we have grabbed all we could stuff into our cheeks of Turkish and Arabic steps and gestures, resorting to incorporating and mixing of Saidi, Kaleedgi, Blue Guedra, Ghawazi, etc. We’ve chewed all of them up together and spit them out and found that they have not sufficiently nourished us.