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Arabic Dance (Belly Dance)

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A woman dressed in flowing robes performs an arabic dance.

Arabic Dance is found across the Middle East and in some Northern African countries. In the West, it is more commonly known as 'belly dance'. In Arabic countries, it is usually known as Raqs Sharqi (pronounced 'rocks shar-kee'), which translates as 'Oriental Dance', or 'Dance of the East'.

The term 'Arabic Dance' covers many different forms and styles, as might be expected given the large geographical area in which it is performed. The dance focuses on movements of the torso and is characterised by strong muscle isolation. More advanced dancers can 'layer' one or more moves so that they are performed simultaneously. It is a strongly improvisational dance, with an emphasis on communicating emotion.

Dress varies depending on the style of the dance, from the tassels and headdresses of the tribal style, to the coined hip-scarf and decorated bra top popularised by Hollywood and used in the cabaret style.

Arabic dance is predominately danced by women; men have their own, separate styles of dance. However in some cultures, men have also been known to perform the dance. Arabic dance can be performed by women of any age and size.

Top Arabic dancers include Dina, Fifi Abdou and Sohair Zaki.

History of the Dance

The origins of the dance are unclear. The main theory is that it began as a series of abdominal exercises designed to help girls prepare for pregnancy. Regular performers of the dance do develop excellent muscle tone and control, which is likely to help when giving birth, and some of the moves of the dance are reminiscent of the abdominal excercises recommended by midwives to many pregnant women today. The dance may also have originated in the fertility dances that were prevalent in ancient times, or possibly with the travelling Roma (Gypsy) peoples.

Certainly, some Arabic cultures used to (and may still) practice birthing rituals that include moves that are a fundamental part of the dance, such as the 'camel', or belly roll. For example, a dance scholar and performer named Morocco described taking part in a Berber birthing ceremony in the 1960s, in which the woman giving birth was surrounded by concentric circles of women who continuously performed abdominal movements - presumably with the same intent as when, in the Western world, family members support and encourage the mother by performing breathing exercises with them. This dance was considered sacred, and the menfolk remained outside the tent at a respectful distance until the women came out to present the new-born baby to the father.

It may be that all of these things were instrumental in the origins of the dance. But whatever the truth of the matter, the dance was traditionally a social, rather than performance, activity. While dancing was, and is, a common pastime for both men and women, many Arabic societies frowned on women socialising with men outside of their family group, and the genders were kept separate, to a greater or lesser extent. For example, during celebrations women would socialise in one room and men in another. Both genders danced, but not in mixed settings, and it was considered improper for women to actually perform dance in front of men.

Similarly, each house had a women's quarters, or harem (from the Arabic word haram - 'forbidden'), where men were not allowed to venture. Dance was a major social activity undertaken by women, for women, in their own time. The idea of the 'harem' has been rather embroidered upon by Hollywood, leaving many Westerners thinking that a harem refers to a Sultan's troop of wives and concubines, and that Arabic dance was an exotic and erotic dance performed to seduce the Sultan. The women in the Sultan's retinue likely did dance, but normally this would have been for their own pleasure and to pass time.

Women would therefore usually come together to dance as a group at a social occasion, or during a break in the day's work, with each individual improvising their own moves within that group. However the dance could also be performed as a solo, or everyone might fall back to watch and admire a particularly impressive or energetic dancer, encouraging them on with ululating cries.

With dance around them all the time, girls traditionally learned the dance not by tuition, but by emulating the moves of the women around them. As a result, Arabic dance has not been codified as have other forms of dance, such as ballet. While there are many basic and instantly recognisable moves, they are often referred to in different ways by different teachers. Many dancers, including professionals and teachers, are entirely self-taught, and there are few recognised standards of the dance.

In some ways, this has prevented Arabic dance from gaining the recognition and respect that it deserves as an artform. However, it does mean that the dance remains very interpretive and highly individualistic.

The 'Dance of the East' in the West

Arabic dance has also been held back from gaining prestige as an art form in the Western world due to the wide-spread misconceptions about the dance, some of which have already been mentioned. These misconceptions date back to when the dance was first introduced to the West.

As previously mentioned, Arabic dance is better known in Western countries as 'belly dance'. This term was coined by the American events promoter Sol Bloom in 1893. Sol Bloom used this expression to drum up scandal and interest for the display of Arabic Dance at the World Fair held in Chicago that year. This was the first time that most Westerners had seen the dance.

The term 'belly dance' is actually a misnomer, as while some of the key moves have an affect on the abdomen, they usually generate from elsewhere. For example, the 'shimmy' is effected by shaking the thighs back and forth, with the result that the hips appear to move up and down very quickly. Similarly, the 'camel', or belly roll, is generated from the pelvis. It may be that Sol Bloom had heard of the French term danse du ventre, meaning 'dance of the stomach', and took his cue from there.

Victorian Scandal

Whatever the reason, Sol Bloom's term quickly caught on, and generated the interest and scandal he wanted. In the Victorian period, even the very mention of bellies was seen to smack of indecency, and the dance, and the dress of the women performing the dance, soon caused scandal too.

A common misconception in the West is that belly dance is performed in very scanty costumes that reveal the abdomen. While this can be true now, it was not then; in fact the conservative and religious nature of the countries in which the dance is practised mean that it is often still considered extremely inappropriate for a woman to expose the stomach, or even arms and legs, in public. The modern cabaret dress of slashed or see-through skirts worn with decorated belt and bra top are, like the veil dances and bejewelled navels also often associated with belly dancing, an invention of Hollywood. Even today, some women performing in these outfits wear a body stocking underneath so as not to expose their flesh. Women would traditionally have danced either in their normal day-to-day clothes or in their party wear, which, while more ornate, would still not usually have been revealing in any way.

So why, if these women were so covered up, did their costumes excite such scandal? It must be remembered that this period of Western history was notable for its conservative attitudes. Women of the period wore tightly corseted dresses and had their hair pinned back into intricate styles. This was in sharp contrast to the dancers, who wore loose fitting garments and had unbound hair. Western women of the period would have only have dressed like this when getting ready for bed, in the presence of only their husbands or family. They certainly would not have gone out of the house dressed this way.

The moves too were unlike anything most Westerners had seen before. The dance involves strong muscle control and, unlike most Western dance forms, concentrates on movements of the body instead of the arms or legs. These undulating and earthy moves seemed terribly improper to the Westerners, and thus a dance that is primarily feminine and sensual was misunderstood as being erotic.

The misconceptions of the dance abounded as other acts began to notice its success and started to copy with a crude, sexualised version that became known as the 'Hoochy Koochy'. This in turn informed burlesque, cabaret and strip dances. As a result, it is perhaps not surprising that the term 'belly dancing' became irrevocably connected in the Western mind with stripping and lap dancing. The fact that the dance is not usually performed on a stage, but rather on a dance space on the same level, or even in amongst, the audience, and that some dancers collect tips, also reinforces the misconception that belly dancing and lap dancing are not far removed.

Hollywood Takes Notice

The Middle East already conjured up thoughts of spices and deserts and, by the 1920s, Hollywood had picked up on the exoticism of all things Middle Eastern and started featuring Arabic locations and culture in films. Many of these films included Arabic dance, often performed by famous dancers of the period, including Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal. While the portrayals of the dance in these films tended to owe more to the fantasies of Westerners than the actualities of the dance, it is these images that have informed many of the Western ideas of the dance. These films in turn not only influenced the Arabic film industry, but also influenced the dance, particularly in the matter of dress.

Arabic Dance Today

Arabic dance has changed significantly in the modern era, and has been influenced by other dance styles, such as ballet and flamenco. Egypt, especially Cairo, is considered the modern centre of Arabic dance, although even today it is still regarded as somewhat improper for women to perform in front of mixed or male-only audiences. The stigma does not attach itself to the audience, but rather to the dancer, and many dancers still do not admit their profession to family and friends. In terms of social dancing, celebrations are often now mixed gender affairs, but many women will not dance if men are present.

Arabic dance has also become increasingly popular in the West, despite the salacious overtones still associated with the term 'belly dance'. Its popularity is down to the fact that it is a beautiful and feminine dance that is open to women of all ages, shapes, sizes and fitness levels. The dance is still open to interpretation and lacks specified standards, but this has encouraged it to continue to expand and diversify, with many new forms coming into being, such as American Tribal. The dance offers much to those who take it up, not least increased fitness and flexibility, and can help create a positive self-image as it is by turns sensual, graceful, sexy and fun.

Basic Moves

The terms used to describe the dance here are fairly widely used. However, due to the nature of the dance as described above, many other terms for these moves exist.

Please note: while Arabic Dance is not a strenuous dance form, less fit individuals may wish to consult their doctor before trying these moves.

Basic Posture

Stand with your pelvis tilted forward slightly so that your tailbone drops and is pointing down towards the floor, and bend both knees very slightly. This is the basic posture for the dance.

Hip Drop

Raise your left heel and rest the weight on your toes. Raise the hip. Try to do this by contracting the muscle in your side, keeping the rest of the body still, but not rigid. Your right knee should remain bent. Now let the hip drop sharply back into place. Try performing a hip drop in time to the beat of the music.

'Figure Eight' Hips

Stand in the basic posture described above. Move your left hip forward, then bring it all the way back. Now move your right hip forward and again, bring it all the way back. It is called a 'figure eight' because it is as if your hips are describing a figure eight in the air.

Shoulder Shimmy

Stand in the basic posture. Move your left shoulder back and your right shoulder forward. Now reverse, so that your right shoulder is back and your left shoulder is forward. Repeat this over and over. Try varying the speeds. Keep your arms still, at your sides.

Hip Shimmy

Stand in the basic posture. Drop one knee, then the other, as if you are trying to run but are glued to the spot. Try to keep the movement just in the knees and keep the rest of the body still, and remember to keep the knees very slightly bent at all times. Try varying the speed, or making the move bigger and smaller.

Arabic moves can be layered, with practice. For example, a shimmy and a figure eight can be performed at the same time. To do this, the dancer will move the hips in a figure eight while simultaneously shaking the knees.

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