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Bellydance History


Bellydance is probably the most ancient form of dance. Its origins date back to the ancient Middle-Eastern and Eastern cultures. Although today many people consider it to be a seductive dance aimed at entertaining a male audience, men were allowed to actually see this peculiar artistic expression just in recent history. Traditionally, bellydance was performed by women for women, as part of ancient fertility rituals and of religious ceremonies.
In Arabic, the name of this dance is raks sharqi, literally meaning "Eastern dance," but it is also called danse orientale. It became known as dance du ventre after the European orientalists travelled in Eastern countries at the end of the 19th century, and then the name has been translated as belly dance.


There is evidence that bellydance was already spread in ancient eras in the Maori culture of New Zealand and in the Hawaii islands, where it is known with the name of Hula. Thousands of years ago, women danced in honour of the Female goddess in the big Temple of Artemis, in Ephesus. There, priestesses venerated the goddess with ritual dances that, according to the descriptions, had movement similar to bellydance. The priestesses had a very sought-after role because they were considered to be the personification of the goddess. In some religions, they were considered to be sacred and they were chosen among the most educated girls belonging to noble families.
Women honoured the Mother goddess in all Mesopotamia, in Kuwait and in Iran, Turkey and Syria. It was also known in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia, in Cyprus at the Altar of Aphrodite and in Greece in the Temple of Venus in Corinth.
A great contribution to the spread of this art is certainly to be given to the Romani peoples, who moved from India to Europe and to the Mediterranean Sea overland, and from there they spread to the Middle East, North Africa, Mediterranean Europe and the East.
During their displacement, bellydance was influenced by the different cultures met along the way, influencing them as well. It then became the bellydance we know today, which is kept alive especially in Arabic countries.

The first direct contacts with Western Europe happened thanks to the landing of Napoleon's troops in Egypt. In Cairo his soldiers could see bellydance performed by the gawazee, who were gypsy dancers that performed in camps set along the Nile, and they were enchanted by it. The impact with the strong and persuasive expression of these bellydancers was so strong that they were accused of generating chaos among the troops. Thus the French Generals ordered them to be persecuted. The treatment reserved to these women is a clear expression of the colonialist male mentality of the time.
The general attitude towards bellydancers began to change thanks to the appreciation of foreign travellers, especially to the Europeans who went to those countries for trade. At first they didn't appreciate that kind of performance because they were not familiar with the music and because they had in mind a kind of female beauty which was different from that of the gawazees. Then, they began to be so fascinated by it to prefer their art instead of the best European ballets

Then, travellers, intellectuals, artists, explorers and scientists became more and more benevolent when speaking about those strange bellydancers "whose beauty shine through everything they do," as the French painter Eugène Delacroix wrote.
Among the events that afflicted the existence of women dancers, there was also their banishment from Cairo established by the Egyptian Governor Muhammad Ali in 1843. Although all the ups and downs and the disfavour it went through, bellydance survived in harems and in private parties, where women continued to dance among themselves.
In the mid-19th century, it became known in America thanks to the "World's Fairs," huge touring exhibitions which were famous from one side to the other of the Atlantic, that allowed Middle Eastern dancers to perform in front of a vast audience who remained enchanted by them.

At that time even the world of cinema got interested in bellydance: producers, aware of how popular bellydance was, started to use often the figure of the bellydancer in their movies. In fact, in the 30s and 40s the request for bellydancers was so high that in Egypt they couldn't find enough of them. Thus, they had to turn to Western women. It often happens to see in a movie of that time a brief performance of a bellydancer wearing Oriental-style dresses and doing bellydance moves, but having blond hair.

Besides all these influences, even today in the Middle East and in Northern Africa far away from cities, women dances still have a crucial role in rituals, therapies or pure entertainment. On the other hand in cities it is possible to see the most evolved and refined performances in terms of technique and interpretation. Bellydance is today known both in the West and in the East mostly in its entertaining version. This is essentially due to the kind of places where it is performed.
But thanks to the growing interest shown by women towards this fascinating form of art, schools and professional bellydancers' companies are being created, and they are able to put on actual bellydance shows which are performed in tours taking place in prestigious theatres and festivals all over the world.
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