ORIENTAL DANCE is known by many names, including middle eastern dance, raqs sharqi (dance of the East, Egypt), raqs shaabi (dance of the people, Tunisia), danza oryantal (oriental dance, Turkey), danse du ventre (dance of the belly, France), and in this country, belly dance. It is one of the oldest dance forms in the world and is reputed to have originated in ancient matriarchal societies as a ritual and therapy dance for fertility and childbirth. Even into this century, La Meri, the American ethnic dancer, reported having seen the dance performed in Morocco at the bedside of women in childbirth. Some argue this point, but the dance's specific use of stomach muscles, breathing techniques, and vocabulary of contraction/release movements are related to skills taught today for natural childbirth and strongly support this claim.
Whatever its origins, the dance has evolved into a performance art of great richness and subtlety. Its technique is a marvel of counter-rhythmic isolations coordinating the head, torso, feet, hands and arms in a graceful flow. Musicality is essential in the mastery of numerous rhythms, as are abilities in both choreography and improvisation. In spirit, the dance is at once sensual, exuberant and poetic, and can express a wide range of emotions dependent on the skills and discretion of the dancer. In structure, it is not one dance, but really a suite of dances, with endless interpretive possibilities. One of the dance's major appeals is its accessibility. Women of all ages, backgrounds and skills can practice the dance and work at their own levels. And because of its subjective nature, it offers a very rich outlet for personal expression.
The Oriental Dance is found throughout the Near and Middle East on all levels -- as a popular dance enjoyed not only by women, but by men and children as well, and as a performance art that can be found from the street to the festival, from the cabaret to the concert stage. And there are many variations, from regional differences, i.e., Egyptian, Lebanese, North African, Turkish, etc., to stylistic differences such as the folkloric vs. the cabaret style. Currently, there are also numerous offshoots such as the modern Egyptian cabaret (related, but different than the traditional “Awalim” style), American Interpretive, Tribal, Gypsy and Gothic styles.
Interest in this ancient dance is now at its highest since the Sixties and Seventies and continues to grow world-wide. Nearly every state in the U.S. and every province in Canada has teachers and troupes, and the dance enjoys immense popularity abroad, especially in Brazil, Europe, Australia and Japan. Articles continue to appear in major international publications, and there are hundreds of websites dedicated to the dance. Many of the movements have found their way into our own dance culture through break dancing, hip hop and the performances of such pop stars as Shakira and Britney Spears, and appreciation of middle eastern music is also at an all time high thanks to the world music explosion, which has brought many of the great middle eastern musicians and music styles to renown in the West. This explosion, however, has brought with it a mixed blessing to those of us who fear that the beautiful mother of all these styles has all but disappeared. - Anahid Sofian