The History And Culture Of Bellydance

Much evidence can be pointed at to show the existence of dance in Ancient Egypt, with many aspects of it resembling the dance as we know it today.

In Pharonic times around 5000BC there were tomb paintings showing female dancers and musicians.  The first evidence of dance was found in the tomb of Neb Amon (18th Dynasty) which was uncovered at Thebes.  Some aspects of the dance were in celebration and some as entertainment. There were also wall paintings of dancers in the old Neolithic shrines of Catal Huyuk in Turkey in 6000 BC.

Dance was also related to the worship of fertility goddesses such as Hathor in Egypt, Ishtar in Babylon and Aphrodite in Greece.  The dance was linked to fertility and sometimes performed during childbirth.  Even today if there is a belly dancer performing at a wedding she quite often has her picture taken with both the bride and groom putting their hands on her belly as a symbol of fertility.

Ancient writers record movements which identify with Egyptian dance as we know it today, such as moving the hips, circles, swaying and shaking of the body.  Images like 'The Banquet' on the tomb of Netumun dated 1400BC illustrated the development of choreography and music in Egyptian culture.

Further to this evidence of dance in the Ancient Egyptian times, much proof also exists of dance during the Roman Empire. In 30BC the Roman writer and poet Martial says that dancers from the Nile were sent to Rome and in 60BC the Romans imported dancers from Syria into Rome.  Papyrus confirms the existence of a group of dancers in Egypt in 206AD.

In 527AD the Empress Theodora (wife of Byzantine), a celebrated oriental dancer and actress enacted laws to protect women's rights.  The new Byzantine converts were used to dance being a central part of worship and so the church included it into its Christian rituals.  Records of this dance, although not written about was found on sculptures.

Salome danced for King Herod - he was so taken with her that he offered her up to half of his kingdom in return - she asked for the head of John the Baptist.

641AD was a very significant time for Egypt, with the year seeing the advent of the Domain of Islam, when Egypt renounced all western influences; this was followed by what is known as 'The Golden Age of Islam'.  During this time the arts began to flourish, along with mathematics, astrology, astronomy and medicine, and Cairo became the main cultural capital.

During the Ottoman rule in the reign of Haroun al Rashid, the dance evolved greatly.  The almeh/awalim (the learned women) were held in very high regard both artistically and morally.  These female intellectuals were the only people allowed to go into the harem without requiring permission in order to teach and advise the ladies in the harem how to dance.  They also taught them tasteful conduct, graceful demeanour and fine manners.  The learned women were able to sing, recite poetry, play musical instruments and dance, even at mixed gatherings, thus they were held in high regard for their artistic and moral standards.  The awalim left Cairo during Napoleon's occupation as they refused to entertain his soldiers.

Equally as important, although not so well regarded, were the ghawazee (meaning invaders or outsiders).  They sang, told jokes and interacted with the audience but were often linked to prostitution. The ghawazee did a side to side shimmy to a very fast 4/4 beat.   Any coins thrown at them were stitched into a bodice, belt or head covering which they wore when they danced, which has developed into the hipscarf as we know it today.  They wore heavier, more complicated outfits which did not allow as much freedom of movement.

During the 19th century 400 ghawazee were captured and beheaded before having their bodies bundled into sacks and thrown into the Nile.   They fraternised with the French and Napoleons generals blamed them for creating unrest and causing great disturbance.  They were told to keep away from the barracks or they would be severely punished.  When they did not do this they were banished from Cairo by Mohammed Ali in 1934 and sent then to Esna, Aswan and Kena.  Female impersonators called Essne Khawals took their place.  Any women who defied the ban were liable to 50 lashes for a first offence and hard labour for any further infringement. 

The travellers to cairo would make their way 500 miles down the nile to esna and aswan to see these infamous ghawazee dancers whose fame preceeded them.  One of the most well known of these dancers was called Kutchuk Hanem.

When the ghawazee lived in Cairo they contributed over 1/10th of all taxes collected in Cairo.  When they were banished taxes were increased.  They returned in 1866 when the ban was lifted. 

The orientalists, a group of artists, writers and explorers who visited the Middle East during the 18th and 19th century, depicted the dancers they saw on their travels, with two of them being Flaubert and Nerval.  The images they brought back depicted fantasies of the dance and portrayed images of nudity and eroticism.  They told tales of opulent harems and dancing girls.  These blatant images of sensuality were instrumental in colouring the hungry western minds with exotic and curious delight.

Another event which held further significance in the development the dance was the World Trade Fairs. The World Trade Fairs brought the dance to the public's attention and the name belly dance was borne.  In 1893 Sol Bloom brought the 'The Streets of Cairo' exhibit to the Chicago World Trade Fairs.  The dance displayed at the world trade fair was that of the ghawazee.

The public there are entranced by a dancer at the World Trade Fair called La Belle Fatima, otherwise known as 'Little Egypt', although her dancing enraged the censors.  Little Egypt danced in much less revealing costumes that those worn today but Sol knew that belly dance would scandalize, interest, and ultimately increase business.  Little Egypt is said to have saved the fair from financial ruin although we do not know if this is entirely true.  There is conflicting evidence as to whether there was actually a single identifiable person called Little Egypt, or whether it was just a generic term used.  One of the dancers was named Fahreda Mahzar (born in Syria).  Tickets to see her perform cost between 20-75 cents, as opposed to a 25 cent flat rate to watch her rivals dance.  She went on to marry a Greek restaurant owner and continued performing.  She died of a heart attack in 1937.  It was said that as part of her act she lay down on the floor, placed 2 partially filled glasses on her stomach and made them clink together in time to the music!  Sometimes she balanced a candle stick on her head. Whatever the truth of the matter Little Egypt inspired a host of imitators who introduced the dance into burlesque shows.  These 'Little Egypt's' presented an even bolder version of belly dancing!

When the French first saw the dance they called it 'danse de ventre' - dance of the stomach.  The Americans translated it to belly dance.  In Greece belly dance is called Cifte telli (also the name of the Turkish rhythm), and in Turkey it is called Rakkase.  In the Middle East it is often called danse orientale.

Discoveries in Egypt had a profound effect on the West in the 20th century, with dancers trying to emulate the eastern style and make it artistic. 

Many writers and artists of the west were inspired by what was happening in the east.  Among them was feminist Ruth St Denis (1879-1968).  She was born in Newark, New Jersey and became a pioneer of modern dance in America and Europe.  As well as being a dancer she was also a poet and she wrote the poem 'I dance the eternal ecstasy of being'.   Her recitals were inspired by the art and religion of Egypt, Turkey, India and Asia.

Oscar Wilde wrote a one act play called Salome, which opened in 1903 with Salome being played by Sarah Bernhart.  The interest in eastern mysteries was heightened by the discovery of Tutenkhamuns tomb in 1922. Also in 1922, American born Josephine Baker brought to the stage a chorus girl style of dance.

The  first Egyptian Cabaret was casino Badia, or 'Opera Casino' (the official name), and was opened in Cairo in 1925 by Badia Masabni, a dancer and actress born in 1892 in the Lebanon (which at that time was still part of Syria).  This held great importance for the development of the dance, as it is where oriental style dancing evolved. 

The casino stood where the Cairo Sheraton stands today and gained such notoriety that they named the bridge beside it 'Kubri Badia'.

At one time Samia Gamal and Tahia Carioca both danced there along with a highly trained troupe of dancers.  Although Badia did not dance at this time she would always be seen on stage in full costume, playing finger cymbals.  The dancers would come forward one at a time to do a solo turn.

Raks baladi was previously performed stationary and in small spaces.  For the first time oriental dance was performed on a stage and Badia adapted the dance to utilize stage space and refined the movements to include not only hipwork but also chest and arm movements, bringing to life oriental dance.  These oriental dancers had a varied repertoire, graceful arm movements and performed to oriental music with classical middle eastern instruments. 

The Casino Badia was instrumental in bringing oriental dance to a wider audience offering 3 performances a day with a 6.00pm performance for ladies only.  Every 15 days there was a new show which was choreographed for the first time.  The troupe was trained by American choreographer Isaac Dickson.

Another major change at this time was costuming.  Up until this time dancers wore a long dress with a scarf accentuating their hips.  The beaded two piece bedlah made its appearance due to influences of Hollywood movies and European cabarets.  Props were also introduced.

The casino started to fade after the revolution in 1952 when places like this were destroyed.  It has been said that Churchill's son and the Duke of Gloucester both frequented the casino.

The Golden Age of Cinema bought into the public eye some amazing talent in singing, composing and dancing, with some of these talents being Tahia Karioka, Samia Gamal, Naema Akef, Farid el Atrache, Modammed Abdul Wahed, and Om Koulsoum.

TAHIA KARIOKA  (1915-1999)

Tahia was born in 1915 with the name Abla Muhammed Karim.  The changed her name to Karioka after the brazilian samba dance she performed at the casino.   She studied at the Ivanova Dancing School before working at the casino where she reputedly earned 20 LE (Egyptian pounds) a week at the age of 14 when she started cabaret dancing.  King Farouk of Egypt was so impressed with her dancing he invited her to dance for his anniversary.  She appeared in 120 films, first as a dancer.  She stopped dancing at the age of 32 and carried on acting.  Tahia was married a total of 14 times and died in 1999.

SAMIA GAMAL  (1924-1994)

Real name Zainab Ibrahim Mahfuz - she changed her name to Samia Gamal when she started working at the Casino Badia.

Samia was considered to be second to Tahia and it was thought that she made the dance more expressive and respectable. She wore high heeled shoes to dance in 'because she could afford them' and started the fashion for barefoot dancing on stage when her shoe strap broke! 

She appeared in Valley of the King's in 1954.  This was the first film to include Egyptian music, dance and costume.  Appearing in many films she had an on off romance with Faride el Atrache. Samia died on 1st December 1994 in Cairo at the age of 79 from a heart attack.           

NAEMA AKEF  (1929-1966)

Naema was born in Tanta on October 7th 1929 into a family of circus acrobats and although not an official member of the troupe she filed in when a dancer was absent or ill.  Naema was thought of as a baladi style dancer.

Naema married director Hussein Fawzy after starring in more than 15 of his movies.  One of the most famous of these films was Tamra Henna (The flower of henna)

She died at the age of 27 on of cancer on 23rd April 1966.

FARID EL ATRACHE  (1910-1974)

Farid el atrache was born in the Lebanon in approximately 1910 and became one of the leading composers of Egyptian music.  Farid's mother sang and played the oud, which spurred his musical interest at an early age.

Over his lifetime, Farid starred in 41 movies and composed approximately 75 songs specifically for films. There are at least 45 other songs that have been recorded. He also composed for such famous singers as Warda and Sabah.   Farid passed away in Beirut in 1974 at an estimated age of 60.

Farid el Atrache has left a huge legacy to Arabic music. He is considered by Arab musicians to be the best oud player of his time. His songs are still popularly used in many belly dance routines today. His voice and sad singing style was so unique and popular that Farid is still one of the most imitated singers of all time.

MODAMMED ABDUL WAHED  (1907-1991)

Born in Cairo in 1907, Adbel made his first recording at the age of 13.  A composer and oud player, he wrote more than a thousand songs and personally sang hundreds of them.  He originally wrote traditional melodies but Western influences began to have an affect on his music.  In 1926 he had the chance to complete a stage musical based on 'Antony and Cleopatra' which had been left unfinished by the late Sayyed Darwich.  He introduced female singers like Leila Mourad into his movies and began to feature large orchestras with mixtures of western instruments.  He left film in the 1950's to concentrate on his singing.  He stopped singing in 1960 but continued to compose for other singers such as the legendary Om Koulsoum.  He died of a heart attack in 1991.

OM KOULSOUM  (1904-1975)

Om Koulsoum was born in a small village to a poor family in approximately 1904.  She learned to sing from her father, who was the imam of the local mosque.  Om along with her father and brother performed on special occasions, and in a short space of time they became in great demand due to her strong, exceptional voice.  In 1923 the family moved to Cairo to further her career.

In 1926 professional musicians were hired to accompany her singing replacing her family and by 1928 she had risen to the top of the ranks of Cairo's professional singers.  In the 40s and 50s her repertory changed and was now based on love, patriotism, nature, and religion, highly regarded by the Arabic people.

Om Koulsoum suffered health problems for most of her life but deteriorated rapidly in 1971.  She gave her last concert in December 1972.  On February 3rd 1975 she died from kidney failure, millions of Egyptian mourners paid their respects at her funeral.

Her songs are legendary amongst the great Arabic songs of all time.  Songs such as "Alf Leila We Leila", "Ana Fintezarak", "Ente Omri", "Fakarouni", "Leilet Hob", and "Lessa Faker", most are as popular today as they were when she first made them.

Belly dance evolved again after the Revolutionin 1952. The form of dance attributed to the Reda Troupe (which was formed in 1959 in Cairo by Mahmoud Reda) flourished, as it was in keeping with nationalist President Gamal Abdel Nassar's desire to bring Egyptian culture to an international audience.  The troupe was formed as a means of celebrating national pride.

Reda visited many Egyptian villages and recorded folk steps.  He took Farida Fahmy along with him and if the dancers were all women then Farida would go in and film them.  Reda then sanitised the dance, taking out the pelvic movements to make it more respectable.
There are two main types of dance found in Egypt, folkloric found in the performing arts and cabaret/nightclub style dancing. 

The folkloric dance would be performed at shows and celebrations and the dance would be performed by both men and women together.  One style of folkloric dance is the men's cane dance which originates from the old Egyptian martial artform from upper Egypt called the Tahtib. The long stick used in Tahtib is known as the Assaya .  Female dancers dance with a cane more delicately - it has been suggested that the woman's cane dance is a parody of the men's dance.

Cabaret style dancing is often found at weddings, especially high social status weddings.  The dancer leads the wedding procession (zeffa) wearing a shamadan.  The shamadan was originally worn to light the way for the bridal procession before street lights.  An upper class Egyptian wedding is not complete without a performance from a belly dancer.  There is a prestige factor associated with this, a top dancer can get paid up to $3,000 for a 45 minute performance.  Cabaret style dancing is also performed at many 4 and 5 star hotels in Egypt as well as in nightclubs and dinner cruise shows. 

Cabaret style dance has a very controlled style, often including balletic moves.   Muscular control is emphasised - as the saying goes 'less is more'.  Although the dancers wear 2 piece bedlahs they must wear a body stocking to cover up abdomen as in 1952 it was made illegal to show the stomach. 

CULTURE

In Islamic society, a woman's honour is her most important gift.  This can only be upheld by never submitting to any kind of temptation.  This is why she wears the veil so that she can conceal herself.  Classical Islam defines the wife's obligation to provide sex as being of greater importance than her obligation to have children.  A muslim can have up to 4 wives.  The wife must never leave the house without her husband and does not speak unless spoken to.  They must give total submission and attendance to all their husbands needs.  It would be extremely difficult for a woman who has been brought up in this culture to become a belly dancer!  According to fundamentalists belly dancers differ from 'decent' women because they use their bodies to make a living instead of hiding them as much as possible.  They profit on a material level but pay for it in terms of respect and status.

One member of the Egyptian Parliament called the dance 'adulterous filth' and one fundamentalist lawyer commented that what went on in the nightclubs - drinking and belly dancing, is a violation of Islamic law.  Islamic fundamentalists have forced nightclubs out of business that featured dancers.  In 1977 12 out of 14 nightclubs were burned down by Islamic Fundamentalists, live belly dancing was also banned on TV but surprisingly old films featuring belly dance were still allowed to be screened.

Many dancers have given up dancing because of pressure and even financial inducements from Islamic fundamentalists.  Islamic Fundamentalists occasionally disturbed weddings where they broke instruments and chased female performers from the stage.  The Islamic Fundamentalist feelings are most strongly felt in areas in the such as Miya and Asiyut, the Islamic strongholds.

Egyptian dancer Halal Safy gave up dancing in 1989 after seeing a vision of the Prophet Mohamed and took the veil.  After taking the veil she said 'Egypt will not lose anything worthwhile if belly dancing is stopped'.  She earned up to 1000 a day when she was belly dancing - the average take home pay for a civil servant is 50 a month. 

Dancers are also faced with endless bureaucracy when applying to obtain their licences - they need three in all.  When the dancer applies for a licence with Musannafat (the organisation which grants licences) she must show that she can dance.  If her movements are seen to be too lewd or provocative then she will not be granted a licence.  There is pressure by fundamentalists to deny granting licences.  Those already dancing are often intimidated or offered bribes to retire.   Generally speaking, a dancer who dances for men is disparaged.

Even today the situation is very much the same, Mona Said runs a dance school in Cairo but because of fundamentalists she runs it under the guise of a health studio.  What puzzles me is that each year Cairo holds several festivals, the largest one being Ahlan wa Sahlan organised and run by master teacher Raqia Hassan.  On the evenings of the opening and closing shows there are many Egyptian people in the audience.

Despite its prohibitions against dance and music, Islam has never succeeded in eliminating either from the culture of the Middle East and hopefully it never will.

Belly dance delights and incites - it seems to triumph over all obstacles.

The Arab world appears to be both proud but at the same time embarrassed of its dance.  At every period in the centuries of Islamic culture there is evidence of descriptions or condemnations of the dance.  The Egyptians attitude towards dance, especially professional has always been ambiguous.  The principal reason is that dance is frowned upon by Islam.  A basic tenet (A religious doctrine that is proclaimed as true without proof) of Islam is that women should not display their bodies in public.

The acceptability or unacceptability of dance is intimately bound up with the role of women in society and what is permitted or forbidden for them to do. 

On the acceptable side is dance as a social pastime, performed in the home by women for women as a means of entertaining each other.  On the unacceptable side is professional dance, which was the province of gypsies and poorer members of society.  They have a pride in the dance but no respectable family wants its daughter to pursue the profession.  They don't want it to die out but they don't want to nurture it either.

A dancer remains a citizen of low social status unless ironically she becomes famous.  Top oriental dancers become national icons, and often expand their careers into cinema or TV where they acquire further wealth and fame - there is a social stigma attached to dancers - when they become famous this turns into adulation on a massive scale such as FIFI ABDU and DINA.   If dance is performed in a theatre in a folkloric manner then it is seen as valuable and beyond dispute.

Most husbands prefer to keep their wives at home, only a few husbands are so convinced of their wives artistry that they allow them to continue to dance - so many must choose between marriage or work.  There are also differing views from veiled women - some take the view that dancing should be done at home, not in front of strangers while others believe that there is nothing quite like watching an accomplished dancer to make you feel happy. It is said that 90% of Egyptians see belly dancing as shameful.

The class system also has differing views on belly dancers - lower and middle class men have a social environment which allows things that are otherwise prohibited.  They have their own habits and customs and accept the dance more readily and allow their wives to dance.  Even considering this, most men would want their wife to repent and stop working.  Some wives dance because they are the only person who can bring income into the family and they must dance to provide food and an education for their children.  Middle and lower middle class are the most strict in their condemnations of dancing and describe the professional as 'haram' (taboo), immoral, disrespectful, shameful and dirty.   Upper middle class are repulsed and ashamed to be touched by a dancer 'we only look at them we do not talk to them'.  One of the most serious terms of abuse is being called 'son of a dancer'.

I have been to numerous 5 star hotels featuring dancers and many of the audience have been upper class Egyptian people.  It seems to be that they are quite happy to watch a dancer in this setting or at a wedding, as long as she is not their daughter/wife.  Dancers often perform at weddings, the more famous the dancer the more prestige the host family gains.  Despite this importance entertainers are generally not honoured or accorded much prestige. 

Fifi Abdu once said - In Egypt, everyone dances, at weddings, parties and at home - it is such a shame that they cannot do this free from reprisal. 

One Egyptian dancer said 'you can't become a belly dancer by going to school - it has to be in your blood and soul'.

In Egypt, although dance is accepted as a creative pastime in the home, families discourage their daughters from pursuing it as a profession.  It wass associated with 'sins of the flesh' and was thought to bring about the demise of society.  The stigma attached to Egyptian born dancers and the associated problems stop many dancers from pursuing their dreams.

In the 70-80's Egypt saw a wave of American and European women clamouring to learn the dance first hand.

In the 80-90's a wave of Islamic Fundamentalism swept belly dancing out of favour.  In 1957 there were 5000 registered dancers, in 2000 there were only 357, many of them non-egyptian.

Local MTV interest has made many young people believe that belly dancing is 'old fashioned' so they are not interested in it. 

It has taken the western world by storm as a perfect way to tone up, have fun, and offer a chance for social involvement such as haflas etc.  In the west belly dance is accepted as a form of dance without having to suffer any social stigma.   Ladies join classes because it gives them a chance to make them feel like a woman.   Oriental dance, presented and performed in an appropriate atmosphere, is a positive statement of the femininity, beauty, strength and grace of the female form. 

One of the main attractions to the westerner is that this style of dance is accessible to women of all ages, sizes and backgrounds - each woman can explore her own individuality and femininity.  

The fact that the dance has survived to this day, and continues to develop, testifies to its enduring appeal.

Copyright Caroline

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