Middle Eastern Dance
a beautiful, ancient, yet misunderstood art
Author: Hala Fauzi (All copyrights reserved)

Middle Eastern Belly dance, one of the most ancient and most beautiful art forms, builds and maintains a healthy and creative body and mind. The movements are simple, fluid and natural to the human body. Even though no one knows how or where this dance originated, we know from the archeological digs in Egypt and elsewhere that the dance moves have existed at least since the Predynastic period in ancient Egypt through the New Kingdom and beyond. For more information, please refer to "Ancient Egyptian Dances" by Irena Lexova: "The dance consisted of a succession of figures in which the performer endeavored to exhibit a great variety of gestures. Men and women danced at the same time or in separate groups. Some danced to slow airs, adapted to the style of the movements; others preferred lively steps regulated by an appropriate tune. Sometimes when dancing, the women accompanied themselves on lutes or pipes." Lexova page 7

Figure 1: Festival of Sekhet celebration

Current forms:
In the modern world, this dance, in its various forms, is common to many countries in the Middle East from Morocco covering the entire Arab world to Turkey, Iran and all the way to Afghanistan. Because of its beauty and simplicity, it's accessible to all body types, ages, genders and levels of flexibility. In Egypt, for example, when people celebrate weddings, graduations, birthdays or any festive occasion, everyone from grandparents to grandchildren gets up and dances to express their happiness.
Even though each country and even each region within one country has its own style and emphasis, the movement vocabulary and basics are all the same. It's like different dialects of the same language.

Figure 2:Dabke dance of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria & Iraq

Names of the dance:
In Arabic, this dance is simply called "raks" which translates to "dance". If it needs to be differentiated from other forms of Western dance, it is referred to as "raks sharki" which translates to "oriental dance". No one knows why it got to be called "belly dance" in the west. Some historians believe that during Victorian times, when the Westerners first came into direct contact with this dance, it might have looked to them like the dancer was moving the belly which is in fact a very gross misrepresentation. In Middle Eastern dance, like many eastern traditions and arts, there is a strong sense of grounding and connection to the earth. The same is true of Martial Arts like karate and other forms of eastern dances like Indian dance. The artist initiates the moves from the center of gravity, which is the belly and hip area. The unfortunate part is that associating a dance with a body part does not do it justice at all. In Middle Eastern dance, like many Eastern and Western expressive arts, the whole body and soul are involved in creating a beautiful, live expression. Calling it "Belly Dance" is like calling Ballet "toe dance". Even though the toes are involved and do attract the attention of the inexperienced eye, the dance is much more than the toes. If the dancer's whole body, soul and spirit are not involved, there will be no dance and no beauty. It will merely be mechanical movements.
In Middle Eastern dance there are some isolation movements where the on-looker might think that only the hip is moving, or only the arm is moving. In those beautiful moves, the dancer cannot execute them beautifully and gracefully without years and years of training and repetitions and without the rest of the body being 100% involved in executing these deceptively simple moves.

Why are all the books written about this dance by Westerners?
Dance is so much an integral part of the culture in the Middle East that it is almost like breathing and eating. That is probably why there is not any literature about this dance written by anyone from the Middle East except to document a specific event. It is rare that people write about mundane daily routines or basic instinctive habits like breathing or dancing in the Middle East. It wasn't until the Westerners started expanding in the Middle East for colonization purposes that this dance started attracting their attention and getting documented more and more.

The rise and fall and rise of the dance:
In Ancient times, it is believed that this dance has been performed in Temples and sacred places for spiritual purposes. Over time, and as the whole world moved from matriarchal heritage to more patriarchal modes of thinking, the spiritual got detached from the physical and the dance took a more social and cultural form. People have continued to dance through the ages to express their wide variety of emotions, moods, and social occasions and to celebrate big events in their lives.
In the more recent history, in Egypt for example, Middle Eastern dance has continued to flourish and grow as an art. Even though the long colonization by the British (about 100 years) did affect how this dance is viewed, it survived the Victorian principles adopted by the Egyptians as "modern" and "better" than their own indigenous cultural expressions, be it in dress, life style or dance. One direct effect of adopting the Western ways of life is that men now rarely perform this dance in public, even though they dance in the privacy of their local communities and family celebrations. Another effect is that the educated class in the Middle East looks down upon the dance as primitive and unsophisticated. Again an attitude adopted from the long period of colonization. It survived as a private expression of joy for major life events and in indigenous communities that were not affected as much by the Western ideals. In the Westernized sections of society, it took the form of night club and adult entertainment.

Figure 3: Hala Dance Company doing a village basket dance at Stanford's International Festival

In current times, the dance is becoming more and more popular in the West and is experiencing a revival of sorts from the same West that caused its demise in the Middle East. Many women and men in the West are finding it liberating, beautiful and a natural way to express their unique body and style without having to conform to strict physical conditioning or very strenuous training. People of all ages, genders, body types and skill levels are able to express themselves beautifully and naturally through the fluid moves of this dance without feeling conscious about their bodies, so they experience a level of freedom that was not accessible to them through any other form of dance.

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