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Is the Bedlah from Hollywood?

The Origin of Our Costume


by Leyla Amir
posted March 28, 2013

As long as I can remember, the origins of the bedlah (the two piece costume of Middle Eastern dancers) has been widely controversial and debated among the artists of Raqs Sharqi (belly dance).  The dance itself, along with the costume, has gone through many centuries of changes and name identifications in accord with period fashion as well as contact with outside influences.

The traditional name for the dance from the people of Egypt has been “Raqs Sharqi” (literally, Dance of the East).  Often, naming or labels occur due to outside influences such as the French coining the term “Danse Orientale” and “Dance Du Ventre” or as the slang term that was coined in the USA, which was “Belly Dance”.  Apparently that last appellation began to be applied after the public had witnessed the dancer known as Little Egypt at the 1893 World’s Fair who had been seen as “shaking her belly” in her two piece outfit. Even though some history buffs have suggested that Little Egypt was an Algerian, from the pictures and film of her that I have seen, I would surmise that her costume was comparable to something she might wear in her everyday life in her country. Other names include “Middle Eastern Dance”–a broader term that could include both Oriental and folk styles of the dance.  These terms have been used throughout the centuries to define a specific style or fashion along with its dance that was born of undocumented foundations in various countries that, when grouped together, are now referred to as “The Middle East.” 

Pictures documented by A.W. Stencell (*1)  illustrate how, once the genie was out of the bottle in the USA after the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the inclination of the general public  was to label the dancing as lewd. The pictures were used to developed into “girlie-shows” of carnivals and midway side-shows, becoming “hoochie-koochie” dancers in Oriental costumes of the era, as a draw toward adult entertainment.   By the inherent nature of their costumed movements, these dancers and their dance were branded as scandalous and they were said to be dancing without using the head nor the feet.

”During this time in the USA, it was not customary to see a dancer stand in place and just use their middle section to dance.  Dancing was more a whole-body endeavor. …By this time, the public had already been exposed to seeing ballet performances and general public dancing, which had full body movement, moving on the floor and not stationary with only isolated middle-of-the-body movements.”(*1)   

In the USA, after years of using the Oriental dancer as a draw for street carnivals,  belly dancing moved into theater houses of the burlesque, embedding indelibly the image of the Oriental dancer’s costume with burlesque. No doubt that that image challenged the fashion of the costumes to be even more revealing in order to accommodate burlesque’s intent, thus changing the style of the costume once again. There was no attempt to portray the movements as a cultural dance form in the burlesque presentations–other than being exotic.

Throughout history, Egypt has had one of the strongest influences in the development of the dance known there as Raqs Sharqi. Egypt is recognized through its antiquities as a highly developed culture, including its art forms of music and dance.   The Egyptian dance style, while continuing to evolve even until this day, still has a foundation of recognized movements and traditions to which we dancers refer as “Raqs Sharqi.”  When using this term, most are thinking about the Egyptian style.  For the purpose of this article, and because of my background, I will be referring mostly to the Egyptian beginnings of the costume and its cross-pollination from outside sources over the centuries.

The costume or bedlah (referring to the bra, belt and skirt), of Egyptian Oriental dancers has also had the distinction as being the most popular style. However,  fashions have changed over the years with the help of some outside influences.   In 1981, when I first began performing in Egypt, the dance fashion at the time incorporated long beaded fringe, but previously, shorter or non-existent fringe was the norm.  With time, costume fringes have shortened again and have nearly disappeared. Dance costume styles make an ebb and flow of  adapting and applying fashion throughout history that reflects cultural changes  and outside influences much in the same way the dance and music have been affected.

I would like to theorize a possible trail of how Egypt influenced, and may have started, the trend of the now well-known bedlah that typifies present day Raqs Sharqi costumes.

There are many theories regarding the bedlah, including one that claims the style originated in Hollywood, and another that claims it came from images made famous by Orientalist painters  when European fantasy paintings were published in books and magazines.  Since my point of reference is the Egyptian dance, I want to re-state my view that ancient Egypt had a major influence in the development of the bedlah.

Chronological  History of Egypt with the Foreign Influences

Pre-dynastic Egyptian history has been dated back to 7000 years ago (before 3100 BC).  The 1st Dynasty (3100-2686 BC) has been dated to 5000 years ago when the Pharaoh Mena whom Egyptologists recognized generally as the first Pharaoh who united the North and South Kingdoms under one ruler.   Egypt was known as “Egepta” or “Kimet Land” (referring to dark earth), the rich and fertile land provided by the yearly flooding of the Nile.  Egypt’s ability to feed itself abundantly made it a powerful evolving civilization that stayed isolated with natural physical barriers, allowing it to flourish and help protect it from what most considered lessor civilizations and invaders during that earlier era.

A succession of invaders eventually changed the civilization of ancient Pharaonic times towards what it is today.  Starting with the 15th Dynasty (1650 BC), Egypt was ruled by the Hyksos (Syrians),  Persians, Greeks, and Romans.  The Roman invasions culminated in the end of the Pharaonic dynasties with the demise of the last Pharaoh, Cleopatra. Later invasions included people from central Arabia and Saudi Arabia, the Ottoman Empire, and the colonial invasions of the French and the British. In addition to these cultural and political influences, Egypt became connected to other Middle Eastern countries of the area also and was the end point of the “Silk Road” camel caravans, bringing food, spices, textiles, and  fashions.  While it is true that many of the invaders, visitors, and trade merchants assimilated and absorbed much of Egypt, it is also true that, in turn, Egypt absorbed some of their customs.

Presentation of Evidence

As a foundation for the dancer’s fundamental costume style,  I present some pictures from “Al-Mawsu’ah Al-Misriyal”.(*2)  The drawings and pictures were taken from the discovered tombs that were decorated elaborately with scenes of life that existed at the time they were painted. These comes from my husband’s books. He has a masters in Egyptology from Chicago University, Oriental Institute. He grew up as a child studying and seeing first hand the antiquities, accompanying his father as he traveled
Egypt in the service of the Royal Family.

scan A

Tombs of the nobles all depict activities of daily living, while the tombs of a king had murals depicting a religious nature.
This is a daily activities scene of musicians from a nobles tomb. Party goers at top and musicians at the bottom


Bare assed servants

2 servants dressed quite bare and shear.

styles of dress from neighboring countires

Different dress styles from Lybia and other parts of Africa


Funeral dance

A funeral dance

Party dancers

A party with musicians and dancers


Teaching dance in ancient Egypt

These are a teachers and students, of dance and acrobatics.

A religious scene with Musicians usng a def

A religious scene with musicians using a deft

dancers in hip wraps

Female dancers doing acrobatics bare chested with a cloth or skirt around their hips.


Acrobats with breasts exposed with a one sholder strap and shear lower body covering ending at the line at mid calf.

African Dancing

Dancers from Africa.

Funeral Dancing
This is a funeral dance or el "mau" dance.


beaded Hip Wrap

Is this a beaded hip wrap? She is bare breasted and wears earrings while doing a backbend.

scan F

Dancers wear adornment around the hips with a possibly beaded belt!

Musicians on harp, flute, and thodar- a precurser to the guitar.

Leyla's photo
With special permission, Leyla was allowed to take the above photo in the tomb described in the photo below

Tomb name

Many drawings and carvings show that it was common for dancers, both women and men, to be nude in the chest area, with only a decorative belt or cloth wrap around the waist.  It was permissible to show the posterior nude for  dancing and entertainment but not commonly the front genital area, although some drawings show acrobats, wrestlers, slaves and children as fully nude. 

At that time, Egyptian cloth was made from linen. It might have been worn, either sheer or opaque, in an empire style dress that sometimes exposed the breasts.  Accompanying text in the diagrams states that male and female dance attire was form-fitting and revealing.  Decorations included gold jewelry and clay beads colored yellow, red, blue, black, orange and turquoise from bright dyes made from plants and precious stones. 

People, including women, often shaved their heads, because it was cooler and helped avoid lice. Instead, wigs were commonly worn that were decorated with jewelry or plaited into braids.  Another common practice for entertainers was to place a cone of perfumed wax upon their heads, which melted, emitting a perfumed fragrance.

Fashionable styles, including the entertainer’s costumes, changed over time as new, out-of-country influences and religious ideas were assimilated into Egyptian culture, frequently resulting in more body coverage.  This, too, would influence the dance style and costuming. Each of the traditional Egyptian dance styles, such as Oriental, Saidi, and Fellaheen, has a distinct set of movements and music along with its costume.  Most are reminiscent of the everyday dress of the area.
At one point in the past, the dancers known as the “Ghawazee” had a distinct costume style that did not allude to Egypt.  It has been suggested by some that they were Gypsy travelers from India who eventually settled in Luxor.   The Egyptian Bedouin, who live in the Sahara Desert, also have their own unique costuming that is reminiscent of their daily dress and a distinct sound to their music, also.  To my ears, it has the underlying Egyptian flair but with heavy beats almost sounding like the traditional Arab music.

Today’s performers of Raqs Sharqi still have their hip and chest areas adorned with jewels, appliques, glass beads and sequins to accent the body and movements as they had in the past.  The styles have changed from the time of the Pharaohs, but they still use essentially the same idea to accentuate the female body and movement.

Each Middle Eastern country with Oriental dancers has its own fashion that reflects cross-pollination of design. The dancers’ breasts are not fully exposed any more, but usually more than most women would show during their everyday life but less than their beachwear.  Sheer dresses with cleverly placed cutouts expose the body to give the illusion of semi-nudity while covering certain body areas for modesty.  This fashion has been adapted into the more traditional styles such as the Saidi or Beledi (country) dress that may be sheer or feature a cutout at the chest area to reveal a decorated bra.  Performances in venues that highlight authenticity of costume style or who perform in a family audience would be more likely to have a less showy or flashy costume and would be more modest.

In Conclusion:

Personally, I believe that the bedlah of today’s Oriental dancers was inspired by ancient Egyptian daily dress, while the more traditional and folk dancers have their costumes derived and inspired by the dress of daily life in the country of origin.  This would lead me to conclude that real life inspired the costumes of Hollywood movies and what was available knowledge at the time rather than vice-versa.

What I have observed throughout the years is that the distinction between the costume styles for the Oriental dancer has had the gap closed of late between the different Middle Eastern countries and many dancers tend to lean toward emulating the newer style of the Egyptian dancers. I would assert that this is due to the fact of the popularity of the Egyptian style and its music.  The newer costumes now are more giving of movement with the advent of the new stretchy fabrics and the simplicity of design and adornment.  The ease of making such a costume for a world mass-market also plays into the economy of producing a less time-consuming product than in the past. From my observation, it is only the folk style that has remained a constant in each country.

Reference & Resources:
  • * A.W. Stencell, Girl Show: Into the Canvas World of Bump and Grind. Toronto Canada: ECW Press 1999.
  • * Dr. Mohammed Gamel El Din Mokhtar “Facts of Egypt” Cairo: Egypt Press, 1973
  • Author’s Bio page

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  1. Elizabeth Hopkins

    Mar 28, 2013 - 05:03:06

    Very good early evidence in this interesting piece. I don’t think the two piece was ‘invented’ by Hollywood as is sometimes claimed. I wrote an article about this for Mosaic in 2009. I looked at a variety of evidence from different times and areas and although I touched on this early evidence, I didn’t go into such depth. Lovely pictures. Thanks! 

  2. Pauline Costianes

    Apr 2, 2013 - 09:04:32

    You describe the history of Oriental Dance once it fanned out from the 1893 Columbian Exposition, as being delegated to being lewd.  I think we don’t help ourselves one bit by continuing to call this “belly dance” which as Morocco calls it, is the “horrible misnomer.        
    The late Ibrahim (Bobby) Farrah also believed we did ourselves and our dance a huge disservice by continuing to use this name, rather than to educate the public that the direct translation of Raqs Sharki is “dance of the east – Oriental Dance.

  3. Leyla Amir

    Apr 4, 2013 - 12:04:43

    I would agree with you Pauline that it does do the dance, IMO, a disservice to call it Belly Dance. In today’s  world the use of the term also involves a lot of other styles that are also not what would be a culturally based dance that we recognize as from the Middle East.   This is in it’s  self another another topic of deep discussion. 
    As far as being labeled lewd, for the time when it was first seen and experienced in the USA, that is what it was referred to by the public and writers of the time commenting on an exposed body with “non lady like” movements of the lower part of the torso.
    Those of us who are deep in the dance for artistic reasons have to realize also that the dancers did indulge in “after dance” activities, as they do today also.
    Although many are not involved in such “after dance” activities it is still an assumed thought that many of us do endeavor to fight by using the correct label for the dance. There will always be those who care and those who don’t think it matters.
    The ancient Egyptians had a much different view of the body than we do today and exposing the body, especially in a dance situation was not unusual nor thought of as immoral…. different times and cultural.

  4. Sierra

    Apr 10, 2013 - 12:04:46

     Shukran…love and appreciate the amount of research and detailed studying that went into your article.
     Funny…when I started dancing in 1973, my mother was so horrified, she begged me not to as it was “hootchy Kootchy” dancing.  When she first saw me dance, she became the biggest fan of Orientale dance and helped make my costumes!
    I feel that many of the paintings of the dancers depicted in tombs and such, doing what looks like a backbend, is instead depicting or reenacting the Goddess Nut and her established background as Goddess of the Sky and Creator Goddess.
    Dr. Mohammed Geddawy, he taught many workshops in the 1980’s; studied Egyptology and could read hieroglyps and was given access to papyrus texts describing music and dancing….said that many of the moves, especially seen in Upper Egypt and Saiidi, had their original roots in Egyptian Sacred dances, performed for particular Neteru.  There is a particular movement in Saiidi dance, that he says is documented and is an offering to Hathor.  Because of the immense colonization and changes, many of the original meanings are not remembered.

  5. Michelle

    Jun 6, 2013 - 12:06:27

    Thank you publishing this wonderful story. i quite agree that Egypt plays a huge part in belly dance overall.

  6. Leyla Amir

    Jun 6, 2013 - 10:06:53

    Hi Sierra…The caption on the back bending figure states that this is from the New Kingdom and calls it  “A special dance style”.  My reference from the book and also my husband who has a masters in Egyptology from the highly regarded Chicago Oriental Institute was to show how the hip belt and acrobatics was a common from of dress and expression with-in dance forms during ancient Egyptian times.  The Goddess Nut was usually depicted in the reverse over the universe (representing the Universe …and opposite of a back bend) thus symbolizing the gathering and encompassing those into her body of protection as a Goddess. This depiction is especially notable in some of the tombs as she is painted encompassing the length of the room on the ceilings as though she were the sky (Universe).
    I do agree that some of the dance styles and movement’s may have originated or at least been used during religious rituals, which could have also included the dress styles.

  7. Kathy claypool

    Jan 25, 2018 - 12:01:28

    Very nice article with some great graphics.

  8. Lalena

    Jan 10, 2021 - 10:01:00

    Interesting article. I agree the ancient Egyptian images have lots of sheer clothing & maybe hip scarves, but I don’t see the bedlah represented in any of these images. From what I’ve seen, the closest and earliest examples are orientalist art, like “La danse de l’almée” by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1863). If there are earlier artwork example of a bedlah-like outfit, I’d be very interested to see them. 🙂

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