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Belly Dance

Many kinds, many stories, lots of costumes, much history! Keep up with a FREE subscription to the BABA YAGA newsletter.


Egyptian, Turkish, Greek, Lebanese, and some made-in-America.


"A good belly dancer should be able to make even the most difficult things appear easy to do, and leave you with a desire to see that dancer perform again."— attributed to Mahmoud Reda.

There are a dozen ways to classify belly dance, and the advocates of one style do not always agree that the others are also belly dance. The argument has been going on in the Occident since the late 19th century.

My personal definition is: Mid-Eastern Dance is what the Near and Mid-Eastern people do, and Belly Dance, with its century-long entanglement with World Fairs, traveling shows, hoochie-coochie, Coney Island, burlesque, movies, TV, and just plain wishful thinking, is what the Americans do. But so far I have had few converts.

Andrea Deagon, a notable scholar and writer on the subject, coined a handy term: SITA (solo-improvised dance based on torso articulation), which she describes as “one of the great dance phenomena of our world.” This term is helpful if you are stuck in the perception of belly dance as a process of sexy wiggling. It is often performed by a SOLO dancer who is IMPROVISING to music using movements based on his/her ability to isolate parts of the TORSO in action. The requirement to entertain, engage and transport one’s audience remains the same for good Occidental and Oriental dancers alike. Looking exotic or having good technique is not enough to make a great dancer.

W. C. Morrow, writing in Bohemian Paris of Today, 1900:

The danse du ventre (literally, belly-dance) is of Turkish origin, and was introduced to Paris by Turkish women from Egypt. Afterwards these women exhibited it in the Midway Plaisance of the Columbian Exposition, Chicago, and then at the California Midwinter Exposition, San Francisco. As danced by Turkish women it consists of astonishing contol and movements of the abdominal and chest muscles (hence its other name, muscle-dance), varied with more or less graceful steps and gyrations, with adjunts, such as castanets, scarfs, etc., and the seemingly perilous use of swords. . . The danse du venture, as danced by French and American women who have 'picked it up' is very different from that of the Turkish women -- different in both form and meaning. Whatever of suggestiveness it may be supposed to carry is, in the adaptation, grossly exaggerated, and whatever of grace and special muscular skill, evidently acquired by Turkish women only from long and thorough drill, is eliminated.

Arguments about where the 'authentic' stops and ‘invention’ begins are nothing new. La Meri created descriptions of folk and art dance (after performing ethnic dance all over the planet) in an attempt to help folks understand that one needs to know the rules to really break them properly.

Interview with Mish Mish on AlessandraRaqs:

One of the big changes was the introduction of a more Egyptian style of dance to the West Coast by Shareen El Safy in the last 1970s. Before that most of the dancers I worked with did a combination of Turkish, Greek, and Arabic style dance. Plus we played finger cymbals during the whole dance and did a separate extended veil routine. It was hard for me at first to switch from the five part routine using popular songs like ‘Mustapha’ and ‘Hadouni’ to the highly orchestrated, more sophisticated music composed especially for Egyptian dancers. The posture and the focus were different. The good thing about the Oriental style was it created better dancers overall because it forced them to work more on technique and to appreciate the Arab roots and emotion inherent in the dance. The bad news was that, in the beginning, so many dancers slavishly copied the style that after awhile they all looked the same.
Another major change came about in the 1980s when Fat Chance and the tribal style came along. The good thing was it attracted a lot of new students and gave dancers who were not interested or comfortable with the cabaret style a place to dance. The bad thing was it split the dance community and morphed into some pretty weird stuff. I’m not against innovation or pushing the boundaries, as I remember when Tahia Alibeck was lambasted for dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” but at what point does it cease to be belly dancing?

Serena and Rip Wilson, writing in a 1980 edition of Habibi Magazine:

What is a dance-by-numbers performer, and why won't she be accepted as an artist? For one thing, she is attempting to reproduce, as nearly as possible, something which has already been established. In doing so, she eliminates self-expression which is one of the basics of art. This means that since she isn't saying anything, her only evaluation can be on a basis of How well she imitiates! ... For this reason many pure folk concerts are either not reviewed at all, or are discussed in terms of costuming, color, stamina and agility of performers, etc. Unfortunately, many Middle Eastern dances fall into this category...
In the case of the kit painter, there is very little pretense, and virtually no attempt to invade the world's art galleries... But in the case of the dance-by-numbers people it seems as though the tail is wagging the dog! The format and routine of folk dance have provided a comfortable "printed page" for the dancers who do not wish to spend the time and effort, or who do not have the talent to generate an artistic experience. This has the same therapeutic effect as a coloring book, and about as much artistic merit. Yet, it seems that the coloring books are much more prominent than the true dancers!
How could this happen? Probably the simplest, and saddest explanation, is cultism. A mystique has sprung from the printed page. It produces the righteousness from which cults evolve; it is the perfect insultation against criticism, just as an improper religion is...
Certainly any dance form is worthy of examination. But, like the collection of oddities in my studio, it isn't ALL worth keeping. Yet, the cultist can't be selective. Even worse, she must revere the lifestyle and trappings that go with it. Everywhere I look, I see Arabic writing; people have changed their names to Middle Eastern ones, and the major topic of conversation is the "Spirit of the Galoshees." I can't think of any other ethnic group-fetishist which indulges in this sort of nonsense...
Cults are short-lived. They always leave a waste-land behind. The very restrictions they impose kill them off. But, once they have suffocated themselves, where does that leave the disciple?

Interview with Adem Sanli in a 1981 edition of Southern Dancer Magazine:

First, as you know, the world is changing every day. Everyone wants to be as modern as they can. Here in Turkey, the trend is more to the Western styles of music and dance. You know, rock and disco! Folk dances and belly dances are done mostly for the tourists in the hospitals and finer night clubs in such places as Ankara and Istanbul. There was a time when you could see the best belly dancers in the local pavyons (cabarets). Today these places are importing dancers from such areas as the Phillipines to perform. These dancers work for lower wages and as such, have pushed all the good belly dancers out of the clubs... The dance isn't as it was 20 years ago.

Geraldine Brooks, writing for the Wall Street Journal in the 1980s:

Our Reporter in Cairo Tries Belly Dancing on Stage --Alas, to Mixed Reviews
By Geraldine Brooks, Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
Cairo, Egypt -- When Ashgan the belly dancer thrusts her ample hips, a tidal wave of flesh undulates across her midriff. As she shifts her weight in a little leap from left to right, the thud registers on the Richter scale.
Turbaned Egyptians bang the tables in delight. Ashgan's figure is beyond Rubenesque. Pausing in mid-shimmy, she reaches for a Kleenex from a box on a front-row table, blows her nose noisily and stuffs the used tissue into the cavernous cleavage of her spangled bra.
Ashgan doesn’t exactly look like a hard act to follow. Except for one small problem: I am the next act.
Trying to recall every jiggle from my brief stint at belly-dance school, I untangle my bangles and climb on the stage in Ashgan's considerable wake.....My 10-minute performance seems like a thousand and one nights, and I’m relieved when I hear the shift in the music that allows the dancer to bring the dance [ piece missing ] Egyptian 10-pound note, and demands that I dance again. To my astonishment, the rest of the audience also begins hooting for more.
As an encore I go belly to belly with Ashgan. She keeps inspecting my narrow hips and shaking her head disbelievingly at my 106-pound figure. Then, leaning over, she peers down the front of my costume. “Mafish!” she yells to the audience in Arabic. “Nothing there!”
Later, the club’s manager, Samy Sallam, gives my performance a hard-nosed review: “Your dancing, it is technically quite good. But you don’t have enough feeling. you must learn the emotion as well as the steps.” To soften the blow, he hands me his card and says, rather ambiguously, “Give me a call.”
I didn’t think I’d bother. Reporting debt rollovers suddenly seemed a lot easier than performing hip rolls. But on the way out, I take a last bit of advice from an Egyptian in the audience, just in case.
“Eat more basbousa” he says, referring to a sugary Arabic dessert.

Shelly Muzzy (Yasmela), writing on a Belly Dance group board:

I think it’s impossible to separate styles and try to get back to what is real or authentic. It’s not as if Jamila pulled her steps out of thin air... she was dancing in clubs in LA to live music and doing what she had learned from dancers traveling through the circuit and from old films. Her movements, despite what some like to say, weren’t invented, they are similar to Tahiyya’s and Naima Akef and others... The difference is that she codified the steps and gave them names. We who learned her style then added stuff we saw other dancers doing that we liked... And the fact is, everyone imitates and borrows from everyone else. To say Egyptian is “IT” is just silly... they were copying Hollywood way back before we got their brand of fusion in the 80's... so who knows, really... and what is more, who cares??? Shouldn't we be focusing on what good entertainment looks like?


Oriental dancers appear at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London and perform for Queen Victoria.
Chicago Exhibition Midway features several concessions presenting Oriental dancers. The French term, danse du ventre, translated to Belly Dance, causes an uproar in a society where piano legs were covered in polite houses.
Mary Garden performs her Dance of the Seven Veils in the opera Salome in Chicago.
Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal perform in Cairo.

REFERENCES joins the what is belly dance? fray with a well-written, strongly opinionated and humorous article. I do not agree with everything she wrote, but she made me laugh!

Andrea Deagon keeps links to some of her articles on her website.

Bohemian Paris of Today at

Maura Enright, La Meri on Traditional and Derivative Ethnic Dance,, Web.

Mish Mish, interview on AlessandraRaqs. Mish Mish is still active, running the Karavans Dance Troupe in Washington State.

Shelly Muzzy (Yasmela) was a co-founder of the Bou-Saada Dance Troup in the mid 1970s in Washington State.

Serena, an iconic American belly dance performer and teacher, died in 2007.

Geraldine Brooks is a noted journalist and author.

"Egyptian officials at the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance prefer to emphasize folk dancing as being more in keeping with Egyptian tradition than belly dancing. Cairo newspapers regularly scold 'the belly dancing cult'... Reflecting this opinion, belly dancing receives no government encouragement or assistance, is mentioned by officials with a frown, and is attributed to the Turks, who ruled Egypt for 400 years. Turkish officials, less inhibited in such matters, enthusiastically agree. 'Of course it started with us,' said one emphatically. 'Everyone knows that.' That is arguable, but there is no doubt that belly dancing is widespread in Turkey today, most dancers coming from Sulukule, the old Gypsy quarter nestling under the walls of Istanbul.

"'The Turks have nothing to do with it,' insists Miss [Nadia] Gamal. 'All they did was to introduce the sagat.' She says belly dancing originated with the Phoenicians, the ancestors of present-day Lebanese. It was performed by virgin maidens about to be sacrificed to the gods. Later in Arab history, Miss Gamal says, women in harems, trying to attract their masters' attentions, found the belly dance a most effective way to get their message across. "— Elias Antar, La Danse du Ventre, Saudi Aramco Magazine, 1971, Web and print.

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Latest revision: 2015.11.22
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