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Erica in her new Turkish costume!
Gilded Serpent presents...
Unity through Belly dance
by Erica

If you are reading this publication, then you too have fallen in love with belly dancing.  Some say that 'belly dance' is an inaccurate name for this art form and prefer Oriental Dance or, even more precisely, Raks Sharki.  The title Oriental Dance is derived from the geographical origin of the dance. Raks Sharki is the Arabic name for the set of movements we study.  Though respect must certainly be given to the foremothers of this dance and the importance of learning the history and development of the movements must not be overlooked, I find the adaptation to new regions and to modern times to be equally important. 

The changes and accommodations belly dance has made to the modern woman is a testament to the importance of the dance to all of us and to the power it has to unite women from every country in the world in a sisterhood that celebrates our bodies and our abilities.

Belly dance began as a form of movement for women by women.  The Girls Only Club was started to encourage and help women through difficult and challenging physical phases of life (such as child birth), through celebrations that include physical explorations (a belly dancer was often employed at weddings as both entertainment and to help the new couple learn about, and feel at ease with, each other in the bedroom), and through taxing times (releasing excess stress through ritual dances such as Zar). 

The misinformed stereotype of harems of women dancing to seduce a single Sultan implies that the dancer is doing something for another person, not herself.  This objectifying dynamic distances and isolates the individual.  The reality is much more positive towards women and does not have the effect of estrangement.  Learning the dance in a nurturing environment and in a way that helps our bodies and makes us feel good is the reality of this expression of creativity and celebration.

Once men discovered what women were up to behind closed doors and the word was out, it did not take long before the mysterious and pleasing dance was on display for everyone.  In the late 19th century belly dancing first came to North America. 

As with all things from the Orient at the time, the dance was desirable to the audience it found on this un-initiated continent.  The dance caught on here, as it had in every other country, and before it knew what hit it, belly dance was being changed to fit with North American sensibilities (a phenomenon that anything introduced to North America is subject to!). 

Over the years some of the changes that have been incorporated into the dance include arm positions, costuming and accessories.  From the days of a women entertaining her family by dancing in the close quarters of her own house to the highly staged theatrics of today, the dancer has earned a great deal of room for movement. 

Whereas once arm movements were limited to the frame of the dancer and she used delicate, confined movements, today we are often on stage or in large open areas where we are the center of attention for many on-lookers and need to project our energy and our individuality more forcefully than in the past. 

A long time ago, in a distant land (Sonora, CA), Editor's 1st homemade costume with belly jewel intact!

Today's belly dancer has the freedom to have her arms spread out, using as much space around her as her arm length allows, moving from one spot to another.  These changes have become essential when performing for audiences, as well as just being a welcome addition to the repertoire of moves available.

As for costumes, modernity and the demise of modesty have given rise to interesting twists on costuming.  From Dina's mini skirts in the mid 1990's to the Marilyn Monroe inspired outfits at IAMED's galas and competitions, there are no holds barred!  Costumes are as individual as the dancers who wear them and the designers who create them.  There is still a large number of do it yourself costumers out there.  Certain dances are associated with traditional dresses or harem pants and these pairings can still be seen today.  As for the ubiquitous jewel in the belly button associated with belly dancers, this accoutrement was entirely the fabrication of Hollywood.

Silent films introduced to a large audience the exotic, scantily clad harems of women dancing seductively for a Sultan.  The stereotype continued through to James Bond films, and the jewel as an accent to the belly was unknown to the Middle East. 

(The name 'belly dance' is somewhat misleading, as the emphasis of the dance and the movements is actually on the hips, not the belly.  Some costumes do leave the belly exposed, though most of the traditional and folkloric dresses are full length and cover the majority, if not all, of the body.  Some historians suggest that the misnomer came from mis-hearing the name Baladi, one of the rhythms we hear in Middle Eastern music.)  Veils, too, are a North American introduction, though we now see them used in countries all over the world.  A woman on another continent saw someone here using a long narrow piece of fabric, loved the way it looked, and added it to her routine.  The connection this makes between dancers, between artists, between women, is one of the most important parts of belly dance. 

The dance is fun to learn, is easy on and good for the body (for any body), and is a way to connect us all to each other. 

Through modern technology, it is possible to see a woman you admire doing the same thing as you, to see a woman you have never met or heard of doing the same movements as you, a woman in a country you will never visit dancing the dance you do in your living room every night.  Teachers who are fortunate and courageous enough to travel to new lands are bring back with them knowledge and moves to share with the rest of us, make it possible to create a globally unifying experience every time we don our hip scarves, put on our Middle Eastern music, and practice those shimmies.  So next time you are working on a hip drop or undulation, remember that there are hundreds of women out there in apartments, houses, huts and shacks all working on the same isolation and loving every minute of it, just like you are.

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

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