Belly dancing

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v Belly Dancing: Sensual, erotic and an inseparable feature of Turkish tradition for centuries

[This essay can be found on, where there is much more information]

There have been many theories about the origin of belly dancing, but most evidence links it to the Middle East and Africa. Some say it was originated by the Phoenicians; others claim that it was introduced into Egypt by the Turks. Egyptian tomb paintings dating from as far back as the fourteenth century BC depict partially clad dancers whose callisthenic positions appear to be very similar to those used in belly dancing.

Anthropologists have recorded many types of tribal dances performed specifically as a prelude to sexual stimulation and initiation rites, courtship displays and fertility rituals. To many primitive societies living close to nature, the undulating movements of the pelvis and abdomen, involving muscular control, were symbolic enactments of both conception and birth and constituted an essential part of their religion and way of life. When a woman was giving birth, she would adopt a squatting position, bearing down as she moved her abdomen in a rolling motion, which assisted birth.

In Africa and Polynesia dancers of both sexes would gyrate their hips and breasts in an endless variety of postures, to an ecstatic rhythmic beat which developed into a complete erotic dance. In India the symbolic movement of the dancers was not only an art but an act of worship. On Indian shrines and on a thirteenth-century temple wall at Konarak, Hindu dancing girls carved in stone are depicted in various erotic postures similar to those employed in belly dancing.

Good dancers had incredible muscle control - every gesture and posture included the whole body, each movement being a significant expression of love towards the gods. Not surprisingly the dance became rather more erotic than spiritual. Many of the temple dancers became debauched, turning to prostitution, and were banished from the temple.

Two great centres of ancient dancing were the town of Cadiz in Spain and the river Nile in Egypt. The expression of the dance was in the individual dancers' body movements. The transparent garments worn by the dancers were frequently discarded. In Egypt the tradition and skills of the dance have changed little through fifty centuries, and as in ancient Egypt the garments worn have always been a negligible element of the art.

The dancing girls of Egypt from the Ghawazee tribe performed unveiled in the public streets to amuse the rabble. Their dancing had little elegance. The dancers would begin decorously enough, but soon their movements became more energetic and more vibrant, in time with the rapid rhythmic beat of the cymbals. They often performed in the court of a house or in the street in front of a house, on festive occasions in the harem, such as a marriage or the birth of a child. The Ghawazee dancing girls were never admitted into a respectable harem, but they were frequently hired to entertain a party of men in a house of ill repute. These performances were more lascivious and they usually wore nothing but the smintiyan (trousers) or a very full skirt called a Tob.

Middle Eastern music has definite rhythmic patterns: the rhythms are uncomplicated and the belly dance is improvised - a visual expression and interpretation of the rhythms. The musicians improvise too, their moods and speed changing dramatically from lively tempto to slow, dramatic and intense ones.

The music is divided into two sections: The Ciftetelli and the Taksim. The Ciftetelli is sometimes referred to as the belida. an Arabic word referring to the lively part of the dance. The musicians play happy, lively music with a combination of instruments, varying in tempo from slow to medium to fast. The predominant beat is basically four count 1-2-3-4 which is played slower (slowed down) or much faster, doubling the beat of four counts to 1 and 2 and 3 and 4, the accent being on the first and third heat. 9/8 rythm is three beats of two counts and one beat of three counts, the accent being on the 1-3-5-7 beats, as follows:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Other rhythms, such as 7/8, 6/8 and 5/4 are more complicated.

As the Ciftetelli speeds up, the dance movements become more abandoned and exhilarating. During these fast combinations of dance steps vary with the use of the 'zil'. In complete contrast to the Ciftetelli rhythm is the taksim section. Here the musicians play an improvised solo, invariably making use of the ud or clarinet, both of which produce a soulful wailing sound. This section is played much more slowly and is more dramatic and intense. As the taksim begins, the dancer descends gracefully to the floor, sensually performing as she moves into the dance area, until the music changes to a livelier tempo.

The danse du ventre (literally belly dance) of Turkish origin was introduced to Paris by Turkish women. They exhibited it in Midway Plaisance of the Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and then at the California Midwinter Exposition in San Francisco. As performed by Turkish women the dance consists of control and movement of the abdominal and chest muscles; hence its other name 'muscle dance'. Varied with graceful steps and gyrations, cymbals an scarves, it was performed solo, accompanied by male Turkish musicians with Turkish instruments.

A dance closely associated with it, of wholly independent religious origin, is the hula hula dance of Hawaiian women. It is possibly less energetic and abandoned than the Turkish dance. The Americans and other western women learned belly dancing from the Turks and Egyptians, but their versions are often less graceful and subtle than the original, possibly because of their more puritanical attitude towards the dance.

> Belly Dancing sensual or sexual?

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Last modified on: 2000, Tuesday December 12.