Origins of Belly Dance
We don't know how belly dance originated, but that is not surprising. The same is true of every other folk dance in every other country in the world! However, there are a few things we do know:
- There is NO evidence that belly dance began with priestesses in fertility worship.
- There is NO evidence that belly dance originated as a birthing ritual.
- There is NO evidence that belly dance was created "by women for women".
All of these myths originated in the 20th century when belly dancers were trying to distance themselves from the sleazy reputation belly dance had gained in the US, Turkey and Egypt. They have no foundation in fact. So where did belly dance come from?
Google, and you'll find hundreds of websites claiming that belly dance originated from a Middle Eastern birthing ritual. If so many sources say so, it must be true—or is it? The truth is by no means as straightforward!
The prevalence of the "birthing" theory is easily explained. For one thing, it appeared on Wikipedia for years—and many websites copied the information from that source. Secondly, Western belly dance teachers want to believe it! Faced with constant misconceptions about belly dance—"Isn't that like stripping?" and so on—being able to cite a wholesome, non-sexual origin for the dance is like manna from Heaven. The famous belly dance blogger, Shira, calls it "Wishtory".
The inconvenient truth is that there's NO evidence to support the "birthing ritual" theory. In fact, virtually all the historical evidence indicates otherwise.
The Chicken or the Egg?
It is absolutely true that there is evidence of some belly dance moves being used in childbirth in the Middle East. However, it comes only from modern sources.
In 1961, the belly dancer Morocco (Carolina Varga Dinicu) had the fascinating experience of being invited to a traditional birthing in Saudi Arabia. She witnessed first-hand how the women walked in a circle, executing belly rolls and flutters, with the mother alternately joining the circle or squatting. She also met a woman who explained that the practice had been passed down through the generations.
Morocco was very moved by her experience. But even so, she makes it clear in her article that only two abdominal moves are used in the ritual—and as we all know, abdominal moves are only a very small part of our repertoire.
Of course, it is possible that the dance evolved from those two basic moves. But why not the other way round? Let's imagine a woman in some ancient village who loves to dance. She notices that belly rolls ease her labour. She tells the other women of her village. They all dance socially and know the moves, so it's easy for them to follow her advice. Soon, they all adopt the idea. They meet mothers from other tribes at the souk, and the word spreads further and further with each generation. Isn't that equally as plausible?
Even if the birthing theory is true, the transition to performing took place so long ago, it scarcely matters. All the evidence indicates belly dancing has been used to entertain for hundreds and probably thousands of years.
The Roman poet Martial (A.D. 38-101) commented on the female "erotic ballerinas" who entertained visitors to Ephesus, Turkey, in the days of the Roman Empire. They wore diaphanous robes and "gyrated . . . to a steady beat". Of course, we don't know how they danced—but they did wear tiny cymbals on their fingers.
Female dancers also appear in Persian miniature paintings of the 12th and 13th centuries.
A Dance for Women by Women?
We can be very confident that originally, belly dance was not just a dance for women by women. We know that because, before the advent of Islam in the Middle East, there were troupes of professional belly dancers who danced to entertain men.
How do we know that? Because when Islamic beliefs became stricter and prohibited women from dancing in public, a new type of dance troupe sprang up—the Köçeks. They were young boys dressed as women, heavily made-up and dancing effeminately—which suggests they were hired to replace the female troupes that could no longer perform.
Köçeks still perform in Turkey today. They still wear skirts and vests, but they wear shirts and trousers underneath, and their dance is less effeminate—a real contrast with male Turkish belly dancers, whose style is usually very soft and feminine.
In Egypt, female belly dancers were common in 1798—over two hundred years ago. We have the testimony of Napoleon's invasion troops to prove it. There were two types of dancers: the Ghawazee, gypsy dancers who danced in the street for money and (not surprisingly, given their low status and lack of education) often resorted to prostitution; and the Almeh, educated women skilled in singing, dancing and poetry, who were well-paid for performing. An Egyptian man would never marry a Ghawazee woman, but an Awalim was considered an acceptable bride, provided she gave up her profession.
So Where Did Belly Dance Come From?
On the whole, I prefer Andrea Deagon's view of the origins of belly dance.
Personally, I wonder why modern belly dancers are so fixated on the distant origins of belly dance in any case. Ballet dancers, flamenco dancers, contemporary dancers - most dancers don't worry overmuch about how their dance originated. And as a dancer who has studied many genres, I think it's elitist to put belly dancing on a pedestal above all other dance forms as a dance which is somehow sacred or magical.
In the West, we have used belly dance as a vehicle to promote sisterhood and feminine empowerment. That's fantastic, but we, in the modern Western world, have chosen to use it for that purpose: it doesn't mean it has any connection with the origin of the dance.
There are so many belly dance styles out there today—why should we be ashamed of having developed our own version of an ancient dance, and feel the need to connect to a tarnished history?
If you're going to embark on further research, it's worth reading this article on Wishtory on Shira.net, to help you identify proper research. Do read to the end—the article goes so far as to identify some well-known books as unreliable.
Dancer of Shamahka
Before I finish, I must mention The Dancer of Shamahka because it's often cited as proof of the birth ritual theory. But far from being an ancient work, it's an "autobiographical" novel by an Armenian belly dancer, published in 1918. Here's the relevant passage:
Thus in Cairo one evening I saw . . . one of our most sacred dances degraded into a bestiality horrible and revolting. It was our poem of the mystery and pain of motherhood, which all true Asiatic men watch with reverence and humility. . . In this olden Asia which has kept the dance in its primitive purity, it represents maternity, the mysterious conception of life, the suffering and the joy with which a new soul is brought into the world. . . But the spirit of the Occident had touched this holy dance and it became the horrible danse du ventre, the "hoochie-koochie".
Remember the author, Armen Ohanian, was writing at a time when belly dancing's reputation in the West was at its worst, as she's clearly aware - she knows the American name for it (hoochie-koochie). By the time she wrote the book, she had been living in Europe for years.
If you read the rest of the novel, you'll find it's written in an overblown romantic style (and, one suspects, embellishes the facts!). So we can't be sure whether her statement above is true, or is just an attempt to counteract the negative press—much as the birthing idea is used today by modern belly dance teachers.
Besides, you note she doesn't suggest the "sacred dance" is for women only—she says "true Asiatic men watch with reverence". So she was used to men being in her audience.
Further Reading on Belly Dance History
© 2020 Marisa Wright