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A History of Belly Dance by Tascheleia Marangoni

posted Feb 26, 2011, 11:03 PM by Tascheleia Marangoni   [ updated Feb 26, 2011, 11:31 PM ]
In April 2001 I produced a show entitled 'The Oldest Dance...A Historical Journey of Belly Dance'. It was a great success and a wonderful learning experience! For four months I researched, reading and watching every book and video I could find. With limited resources I was surprised at how much information I was able to find. From my research I created a brief summary which was the basis and narration for my show.

Before I share my summary with you I just want to touch base on one very important point. Since I began my romance with Belly Dance I have been as fascinated with the history of the dance as the dance itself. I don't think you can really call yourself a Belly Dancer without having some understanding of the culture, the music and the history. So like a scavenger I have scrounged for every bit of information I could find and in some ways I feel I have only scratched the surface. One thing that has been fairly consistent in my research about Belly Dance is that there are few consistentcies. Many points of this history are up for debate, everyone is an expert and everyone will tell you something different. So I want to make it clear that I am not an expert and this is simply a summary of the information that I have gathered over the last few years, so in a way it is a summary of my experiences as a Middle Eastern Dance Artist.

Dance, the world's oldest art form. For thousands of years, Homo Sapiens roamed the fertile crescent hunting for food and seeking shelter from the weather. They did these things instinctually in order to survive. At some point however, humans began to dance. They began to move their bodies for enjoyment, pleasure and entertainment. They learned to move their bodies to rhythm, the rhythm of their hearts and later the rhythm of drums. The Belly Dance, considered by many to be the world's oldest dance form, is one of the most sensual and mesmerizing dances, the most closely related to Mother Earth of all dances and also the most controversial and most widely misunderstood. I want now to share with you the history of the world's oldest dance and to dispel many of the myths of Belly Dance.

Around 5500 B.C. civilization was well under way in a part of the world we now refer to as the Middle East. Humans lived in large communities in homes of clay. They hunted and gathered food and had already begun the first steps toward farming. People from this time were highly religious and superstitious. They prayed to Goddesses. Women were revered as a very important part of society because of their child bearing abilities and were considered for this reason to be much closer to Mother Earth. Women were often looked upon for advice about crops and harvest and other village matters. In turn women would seek advice from their Goddesses. Often they would take offerings of fruit and grains to their idols and they would dance in celebration of their power and kindness. The movements were centered around the abdominal region, the part of the body from which life comes. It is believed that these dances were the beginnings of the Belly Dance.

Ancient Egypt, one of the most fascinating of all of the ancient civilizations. Dance and music were and are a very important part of Egyptian culture. It was quite common for a Pharoh to be entertained by a dancer or a large group of dancers. I feel it is important to represent this part of history as Belly Dance (Oriental Dance) for the most part is considered to be Egyptian: many of it's movements and much of it's music can be traced back to ancient Egypt. The dance form we know today as Belly Dance however is an amalgamation of many folkloric dances from Northern Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. The modern Belly Dance costume which is generally Egyptian is believed to have originally come from India.

960 B.C.: King Solomon of Israel had 700 wives and 300 concubines in his harem. A harem was really a city within a city: a large enclosed area with only one way in or out, where many woman and children lived out their lives. The woman were allowed no lovers, boyfriends or male visitors of any kind, they were entirely the posession of the king. These woman often danced for their own amusement and entertainment: in a large group they would take turns, tying a scarf around the hips of the next dancer. If they were lucky enough, eventually they would dance for the king.

The Phoenicians were an ancient civilization from the region which is now referred to as the Levant (east coast of the Mediterranean - Lebanon). They were often called the purple people because they discovered and made use of a purple die extracted from sea anenomes. The Phoenicians traded widely throughout the Mediterranean and eventually built the great city of Carthage on the site which is now Tunis in the country of Tunisia (Northern Africa). It has been recorded that beautiful Phoenician women could be seen dancing there, playing their hand cymbals.

The Dance of the Seven Veils is a very famous historical dance. Most people are not even sure why this dance is so famous, they simply know if they hear mention of it that it is something mysterious and erotic. There are two tales of this dance: one from eastern mythology and one from the Bible. Ishtar, the Babylonian Goddess of love and fertility, dressed in all of her finery, set out to seek the safe return of her lover who had died and been taken to the underworld. Ishtar had to pass through seven gates, removing a veil at each gate, to reach the most secret chambers of the underworld and retrieve her lover. While she was away from the Earth the cold, barren months of Winter reigned . When she returned with her lover, Spring was born once again. Solome, coerced by her mother Queen Herodias, danced for her stepfather King Herod on his birthday. In her dance, Solome slowly removed each of her seven veils further enticing her stepfather to do her bidding. When her dance was done, King Herod granted her any wish not knowing that Solome's mother had convinced her to ask for the head of John the Baptist.

The original Gypsies left the province of Rajisthan in northern India around 1000 A.D. in search of a better life. These great people, the Rom (ancestors of all Gypsies) took with them the music of their people and many beautiful dances. Eventually, some of the gypsy tribes made their way as far as Persia (Iran). These two great cultures shared their music and dances for endless nights over the campfire and the true Gypsies were born. In time many of the Gypsy tribes left Persia. Some of these tribes traveled through Turkey and southern Europe as far as Spain. Other tribes traveled through Egypt (some remaining in Egypt) and northern Africa to Spain. In 1500 A.D. the last of the Moors, Gypsies and other minority groups were expelled from Spain and hid in the outer mountain regions. It is from these people that the fiery dance of Flamenco was born.

After Islam came about in 673 A.D., woman became more and more restricted in Society. In many parts of the Middle East, not only did woman follow many strict rules in relation to everyday conduct in society but they were also forbidden to dance. Music and dance was so much a part of their lives however that women found a way to dance. They danced in the privacy of their homes or courtyards when no men were about; they danced in secret. And so the dance continued to be passed down from Grandmother to Mother to Daughter. The hip and abdominal movements so familiar to us as Belly Dance were kept alive in the hearts and homes of woman - whose only joys in life were often their children and dance.

Tathib, the Egyptian male stick dance or martial art, can be traced back to ancient Egypt. The dance is generally performed by only one or two men and is a graceful battle carried out with a 6 foot bamboo stick, ancient movement and traditional Egyptian music. The woman's version, the cane or stick dance, is not as old but equally as impressive to watch. The woman's stick dance came about when a group of women secretly watching Tathib thought it would be comical to mock the men's dance. The idea caught on and the stick dance integrated itself into Egyptian folkloric and modern dance.

The Ghawazee, the Gypsies of Egypt, are also origianally from India, just like the European Gypsies. This group of people who live along the Nile and on the outskirts of the desert have a very old and interesting tradition. Female children are taught to dance from the time they can walk. When a female child reaches the approximate age of twelve, she is sent out to make a living as a dancer. The young woman roams from village to town to city and dances on streets and in cafes in hopes of being appreciated enough as a dancer to receive the odd coin. She sews the coins she receives for her dancing into her clothing for lack of a better place, hence the tradition of the coin decorated costume. After five or six years of dancing, the young woman has hopefully earned enough money for her dowry and can now return to her people to buy herself a husband, settling down to continue the tradition.

In 1893, Chicago hosted a World's Fair with a large variety of entertainment and merchandise from all over the world. Chicago succeeded in bringing the world to America. One of the countries in attendance was Egypt, bringing Eastern entertainment and wares to most Americans for the first time. One of the feature entertainers in the Egyptian tent was a young woman by the name of 'Little Egypt' who dazzled and horrified American audiences with her snakelike movements and wild hips.

In the 1920's, the wild, anything goes dance of Burlesque was born. There were many reasons why the Americans of this time threw all caution to the wind. With the first World War having recently ended, life and the economy were improving, people could begin to really live again. Their dance and entertainment were influenced for the first time by foreign culture, particularly the East. The Charleston and the Hootchie Kootchie, two popular dances from this time period, were both derived from Oriental dance movements. The world of Burlesque was also heavily influenced by Oriental dance and culture. The Belly Dancer and the Burlesque Dancer were both a very popular attraction in a time when sexy was in.

The Bedouins, the nomads of the desert, reside mainly in the outskirts of the Sahara and Syrian deserts. They are an amazing people who have existed for over one thousand years living off of what little the desert has to offer. They too play a part in the evolution of Middle Eastern music and dance and are well known for the shrill sound the woman make in times of celebration, called the zaghareet.

The music and dance styles of Morocco have added yet another dimension to modern Belly Dance. Formerly occupied by the French, Morocco holds a people of diverse tribes and culture in a land perched on the tip of North Africa. The Shikaht is a woman's dance that combines song, gesture and movement in a unique dance of the East.

The 1940's brought forth many great Oriental Dancers. During this time period Egypt, as well as other Middle Eastern countries, produced many wonderful movies often featuring some of the most famous Oriental Dancers of the time. Music in this part of the world was also taking a new turn and the dancer and her music evolved into what we now consider to be Oriental Dance or Belly Dance. Belly Dancers of today owe much to dancers from the 1940's such as Samia Gamal, Naima Akif and Tahia Carioca (to mention only a few). They made history in dance by showing the world that Oriental Dance is truly an art form.

Belly Dance is a very popular tourist attraction in modern day Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. The Belly Dancer's repertoire in Egypt however is quite different than in North America. A Belly Dancer is generally accompanied by a live orchestra or ensemble. The dancer hires her musicians and rehearses with them and they are inturn hired as one. The feature act (Belly Dancer) is often led in by another dancer (comparable to an opening act) who playing her hand cymbals for the feature dancer later joins the ensemble. Her performance, generally twenty minutes in length, consists of an exciting entrance, a veil dance, a drum solo and a dramatic exit. The dancer and the music are one: the dancer commands the music and the music commands the dancer. This repertoire is really the heart of modern Belly Dance and what you could expect to see in Egypt. In North America we try to stay as true to this format as possible, there are some differences however. First of all, if you are going to see a Belly Dance performance in the Middle East it will either be in a five star hotel or sometimes in a club for the enjoyment of the tourists or at a wedding where generally tourists are not allowed. A Belly Dancer is an important person to have at a wedding in Egypt and often families pay top dollar to get the best. In North America if you are to see a Belly Dance performance it will generally be in a Greek, Arabic or Indian restaurant, however we do perform at weddings and family functions as well as in Festivals and stage performances. More often than not we perform to taped music prepared by the dancer as opposed to live music. Often the venue in which we are dancing is just not willing to pay for live music and a dancer, they will pay for one or the other. Their are exceptions of course and if the dancer has the drive and the right musicians she can do anything. We still perform twenty minute sets following the set up as in Egypt and our shows can be just as exciting, especially for a North American audience who has very little understanding of or exposure to the dance.

Belly Dance is truly an art form that belongs to the world; a dance for all people. It is also a woman's dance. I have never met a woman who did not feel sensual and somewhat connected not only to herself but also to Mother Earth while dancing the dance. Belly Dance brings out every women's feminine side - it makes us feel beautiful. That is probably one of the biggest reasons why it is so hard to regulate the dance and in turn have it recognized as an art form in the same way that other dance forms are recognized. I see three sides to this dance form which make it very unique. There are the millions of women throughout the world who study Belly Dance for the reasons mentioned above - in many ways it is a form of therapy for a lot of women. It is also a dance form that has come from a very ancient part of the world - it is tied in deeply to the roots of these people and they view it as part of their culture and history not as a dance form. Then there is the dance itself. Oriental Dance has evolved into a very intricate dance form where a lot of study and training is required. For those that take Oriental Dance seriously, as much work is required as with any other dance form. Professional dance is professional dance, it does not matter if it is Ballet, Jazz, Ukrainian or Middle Eastern. I am very proud to call myself an Oriental Dancer. I am enticed by the history and the music but most of all by the dance itself. With all of the dance forms I have studied and watched over the years, I have seen some of the most amazing and exciting dance from Oriental Dancers. One lifetime will never be enough to fully understand the world of Oriental Dance!

Tascheleia
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