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F - 83 : Who invented Belly Dancing?

Given that only four people signed up for the Belly Dancing Class, I thought propping up the activity may be a good idea. Now that Ballroom Dancing is seriously considered as a new Olympic discipline, will Belly Dancing get there too? The views are radically split though. In some countries the activity is illegal and dancers end up in prison. Belly Dancing's history is not well understood either. How could something so sensual develop in a conservative Sunni society? Or is this one of the many stories of human hypocrisies where we say one thing but actually do the other?

The Dance of the Almeh, by French Painter Jean Leon Gerome, 1863

The Western World learned about Belly Dancing in the 19th century. The dance fascinated many European writers and painters – probably not for its athletic performance. But like the stories of harems, Belly Dancing fascinated Victorian men and gave the Orient its exotic reputation. It was the time before steamships, phones or photos. Everybody talked about it but nobody really knew what it was. Except for the few travelers like Lane and Flaubert which described dancers and the dance they saw on their trips to the Middle East. At some point it was suggested that Belly Dancing had ancient Egyptian and Roman roots. How they could have survived the puritanism of early Christianity or Islam is unbeknown to me.

Portrait of an Egytian Dancer, also by Gerome, 1873

What we know with certainty is that Belly Dancing was widely practiced in Egypt and the Harems of the Ottoman Sultans in the 18th century. Egyptian people, women and men, danced it fully clothed at social gatherings and celebrations. Then there were the professional performers like the Awalim – musicians and poets. Assume they played in coffee houses which popped up all over Cairo in the 16th and 17th century. By 1700, Cairo had 3’000 coffee places where 35’000 boxes of coffee from Yemen were consumed.

Coffee House in Cairo in the 18th Century

Some coffee houses were open in the morning where you could get your first cup after morning prayers. Others opened in the evening and entertained their guests with music. I guess the Awalim not only played music but also had female dancers. Belly Dancing must have become an erotic show. For a young Egyptian boy, going to the coffee house was part of his rite of passage to become a man. That Egypt's King Muhamed Ali banned Belly Dancing in 1834 for immorality would confirm this view. There is a funny anecdote I should mention - in diplomatic circles Muhamed Ali was criticised for spending too much time in his Harem and neglecting his government. Despite his ban, Belly Dancing survived and even managed to become an officially recognised job. Wonder how this happened?

King Muhamed Ali unsucessfully tried to ban Belly Dancing

How Belly Dancing became part of the Ottoman Harem culture is another mystery that I could not solve. The sanitized version is that the women in the harem danced to entertain themselves and pass time. But that could have been achieved with less effort than learning how to Belly Dance. If you are one of several hundred women in the harem though and the only way for a better life is to be noticed and associated with the Sultan, Belly Dancing may be worth it. We should remember that the women in the Ottoman Harem were slaves with zero personal freedom. Everything required the Sultan’s or his wife’s agreement.

"Beauty Pagan" in a Harem to get the Sultan's attention - Western Painting (of course)

Belly Dancing is very showy in style and dressing but requires a lot of training and discipline. Dancers use their core muscles to move and the majority of movements come from the hip and the pelvic region. Shoulders and torso movements follow, so does the leg work. Having no experience in belly dancing, I leave the technical details to the dance teacher we hired. She will be able to explain better than I ever could.

For conservative Muslims, Belly Dancing costumes are far too revealing. They consist usually of a fitted bra, a large belt that sits on the lower hips and a flowing, translucent skirt or pants. Traditional Islam has not much sympathy for this type of dancing – there is too much nudity. In Iran and Afghanistan Belly Dancing is not allowed. Existing cabarets were closed, dancers raped, prosecuted and imprisoned. It is not a nice story.

Banat Almeh, Student Troop of the Awalim Dance Company, Atlanta GA, 2013

In the US however, Belly Dancing developed. Emigrants from the Middle East introduced it in the late 1960s and there is now a lively culture of Belly Dancing throughout the country. The video below is from a dance performance from Georgia. Seems learning how to Belly Dance is quite fun and the girls have a good time. Since the skill is difficult to master, they also look proud when performing.

A Belly Dancer from Morocco at a recent Wedding in Cairo. Despite criticism from the Muslim Brothers, Belly Dancing is now a respected Tradition in Egypt

Today, Ballroom Dancing is officially recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee. Such recognition usually opens the door for participation in the next Olympic Games. Maybe Belly Dancing is next? At this point, team Egypt or US is the favourite.

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