Oriental dancer with a veil

Debunking the Myths around Oriental Dance

Oriental dance: A mesmerizing art form loaded with history

Also known as Belly Dance or Egyptian dance, Oriental Dance has been an object of fascination for centuries. If you have never had the pleasure of witnessing an oriental dance performance, I hope this will encourage you to research into the genre and watch some performances, whether on the Internet or live. But first, make sure you stick around to discover some of its most interesting and controversial aspects; its history, the different styles, but also, the myths that have surrounded it for ages.

Dancer Mata Hari posing in an oriental dance outfit
Dancer Mata Hari posing in an oriental dance outfit, Getty/Heritage images. Credits: https://www.francemusique.fr/en/between-fantasy-and-reality-history-oriental-dance-21137

Hips undulations and shoulder shaking might be what comes to your mind at the mention of oriental dance. Aside from the stereotypical belly rolls, of course. But hip drops, chest drops, shimmies (body vibrations), and twirls are also integral parts of oriental dance. Contrary to many other dance types, oriental dance focuses on isolated torso and hip movements. This particularity makes it so unique and recognizable.

However, oriental dance suffers from an overwhelmingly stereotypical and rather negative representation in the media. To understand why the stereotypes of oriental dance are so rampant, we would have to understand the history of this iconic dance genre. That way, we will see where along the lines different misleading narratives were created and how much of an impact they have on our perception.

The history of oriental dance

Ancient art of Egyptian musicians
Ancient wall art of Egyptian female musicians.
Credits: http://nefernathy.e-monsite.com/pages/les-loisirs/musique-et-danse.html

Origins

Egypt is the birthplace of Oriental dance. But, as suggested by its name, it has been present in numerous Middle Eastern countries for a long time. Different styles of oriental dance have also emerged in other parts of North Africa, also known as the Maghreb. With all its different styles combined, it encompasses a variety of Arabic and Arabic-influenced dance styles.

Amazigh people (formerly known as Berbers) have also come up with many of the folkloric dances comprised in the “oriental dance” umbrella. Evidently, several styles and cultures have come together to create the variety found in oriental dance. Some would also argue that it shows similarities with Indian dances, so India might have had some influence on it. Furthermore, the use of certain moves, like shimmies, have led some to believe that other African cultures could have partaken in the shaping of oriental dance as we know it, as such moves can also be found in their traditional dances.

Popularity worldwide

The most popular style of oriental dance, Raqs Sharqi (which literally translates into Eastern dance), became the face of the genre thanks to its success in Cairo nightclubs. However, there are many other styles practiced in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the rest of the world. Each dance still carries its own cultural significance and history. In Morocco, for instance, Shikhat dancers animate weddings, not only by dancing energetically, vibrating their hips and swinging their hair, but also by running around the room and doing somersaults, making the performance even more mesmerizing.

The popularity of oriental dance has long crossed beyond the boundaries of the Middle East. Indeed, the dance is very popular in Europe, North America and Asia. Raqs sharki, the most common style, seems to have gained popularity in the West at the end of the 19th century, with the advent of Orientalism and the exotification of colonized cultures. Later on, Hollywood made it even more famous. Through cinematic representation, the archetype of the “belly dancer” became much more fleshed out and altered the general perception of oriental dance.

Debunking the misconceptions around oriental dance

Issues with the term “bellydancing”

Picture of a belly dancer in a typical raqs sharqi outfit
Belly Dancer wearing a two-piece red outfit.
Photo by Marlon Lara on Unsplash

At this point, you, as a reader, must have noticed that I have refrained from using the term “belly dance”, even though most people know it as such. That is because “belly dance” has a negative connotation, due to its history, meanings, as well as the imagery it evokes.

The term “belly dancing” has been notoriously used to reduce the art form to a vulgar activity. Some people who refer to oriental dance as belly dance usually view it in the most stereotypical way: a tacky dance, where women shake their bellies and butts while wearing skimpy outfits. (Of course, that is not always the case: some might simply not know any other term.) This negative perception of the dance form could simply be derived from a difference in taste. However, it appears very likely that such sentiments come from the Western influence of Orientalism.

Orientalism

Painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Dance of the Almeh, by Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Credits: pinterest.com

The term “belly dance” originates from the French expression “danse du ventre”. Used in a review of an Orientalist painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Dance of the Almeh, the term “danse du ventre” heavily influenced the shift in perception of oriental dance. Indeed, the English translation was first used in 1893 at the famous Exposition Universelle of Paris to categorize the performance of Middle Eastern dancers. From that point on, the vision of oriental dance shifted: it became the dance of the Harems. Through the eyes of Orientalism, it became a sexual parade made to entice men, a tool of seduction and, simultaneously, of submission.

Though there have been periods in the past when European countries have held Egypt and the Arabic world in very high regard, the Western world does have a history of viewing their cultures with a certain level of contempt and superiority. More than the artistic depiction of cultures of the Eastern world, Orientalism is the study of such cultures through the lens of Western Imperialism. It is infamous for propagating an image of inferiority and intrinsic subservience of Eastern cultures and reducing them to their most stereotypical aspects. To this day, orientalism still very much affects our perception of different cultures.

In many ways, that ideology has shaped some of the most aggravating misconceptions of oriental dance. And to make matters worse, most of these myths and misconceptions promote misogynistic attitudes towards the dance genre.

Oriental dance is for women

We all know how much the sultry and hypnotizing moves of oriental dance bring out the femininity of dancers. Indeed, in our collective consciousness, this type of dance is associated with traditionally feminine themes. The choreography highlights the grace and technique of the female body, the dancers usually wear colorful, sequin-adorned costumes, and in certain cases, they use swift and gracious hair movements as an integral part of their dance routine.

Though this particular imagery can accurately describe some oriental dance styles, it does not encompass the entire culture of oriental dance. In fact, it all comes down to which type of oriental dance we are talking about. It is true that most performers of raqs sharqi, the most popular dance type, are women. But oriental dance does not stop – or start – at performance shows. In fact, it is a very important part of Maghrebian and Arabic culture: many styles of oriental dance are derived from folkloric dances. More than a mere spectacle, these dances have a much more social purpose in these cultures.

Dancing is a staple of family celebrations. Indeed, weddings, birthdays, religious celebrations… give families the opportunity to gather and celebrate by playing music and dancing together. So, during family celebrations, it is very likely that both men and women, of all ages, will shake their shoulders and move their hips to the sound of the darbuka. To make the party more entertaining, it is also likely that professional female dancers will be hired to perform, but men are not excluded from joining in and dancing along to the music. Men have historically danced chaabi and other types of oriental dances.

Men in modern Raqs Sharqi

Male belly dancer posing
Male “belly dancer” Rachid Alexander in oriental costume.
Credits: Pinterest

However, men can also perform what we consider as the most stereotypically feminine styles of oriental dance. Though they do tend to face a certain amount of backlash, whether in Middle Eastern countries or Western countries, male dancers can perform just as well as women. Contrary to popular belief, men are able to master the body technique of raqs sharqi, percussion, or shimmy just as well as women. The female body structure and the tendency of female dancers to have curvier bodies can make certain moves more visually impactful. It does not, however, mean that men can not pull it off. On the contrary, some male performers are even famous for their unique dancing style and signature moves.

Beliefs related to femininity

For some people, oriental dance does have a relation to femininity. Indeed, some people still believe that oriental dance originated from early pagan rituals meant to initiate girls into their womanhood. That is partly because the practice is believed to have health properties for pregnant women and new mothers, as the pelvis movements make for great post-pregnancy exercise. This explains its strong link with womanhood.

All in all, there is no denying that many oriental dance styles have a tendency to accentuate the female body. However, what is important to understand is that, first and foremost, it does not exclude men from enjoying and partaking in the dance. But most importantly, the feminine aspects of oriental dance do not have to be associated with negative and misogynistic themes. 

Oriental dance is sexy

Drawing of a oriental dancer
“A star rehearsing”, drawing by Léon Bonnotte, 1936.
Credits: https://hprints.com/en/item/80367/Leon-Bonnotte-1936-Une-etoile-repete-Oriental-Dance

In the process of making oriental dance a female-only art form, another even more insidious and harmful stereotype was created. Many of us only perceive oriental dance in a sexual way, instead of seeing it as the art form that it is.

Oriental dance can absolutely be sensual. It can demonstrate a lot of sex appeal, whether in a playful or sultry manner. Nowadays, many women take up oriental dance classes to learn to express their sensuality and own their sexiness. There is absolutely nothing wrong about that.

However, there definitely is something pervasive about associating the entire genre to sexual promiscuity. That, because, it reduces it to a stereotype instead of appreciating its various aspects. Especially since, as said previously, many already perceive it as a women-only dance genre: with these two aspects combined, what transpires from oriental dance is seemingly its tendency to objectify and oversexualize women. Additionally, it creates this impression that performances aim to please the male gaze, instead of being enjoyable for all types of people, which is not only inaccurate, but also misogynistic.

The sensual aspect of oriental dance comes from the involvement of butt, hips and bosom movements, which tend to emphasize body parts associated with sex appeal. Along with that, some performances do seek to be seductive, and use romantic or sensual songs to convey these particular themes. However, oriental dance does not limit itself to this. It can also evoke a variety of emotions and tell an infinite number of stories. Oriental dance can be sad, melancholic, or cheerful. It is even possible to incorporate comedy into the choreography. Bottom line, it does not necessarily need to have a sexual connotation.

The oversexualization of oriental dance

Learning to challenge our warped views of oriental dance is very important. But for that, we must understand where those views come from. One possible source for these misconceptions could be the Western depictions of Middle Eastern harems. Harems used to be common in Middle Eastern and some Mediterranean cultures. In the general context of Muslim culture, the harem designates the room or space where all the women of the family can gather, and where men can not enter.

In the past, Sultans would have their wives, concubines, female entertainers and slaves reside in harems. This practice fascinated Europeans, as shown by the numerous representations of harems in Orientalist paintings. Many of these artistic depictions amplified the dimension of sexual subjugation, making harems practically synonymous with it. Therefore, paintings depicting harems where women are lying around in subjective positions and wearing very little are not uncommon in Orientalist art. As though sexual availability was the only purpose of women in harems.

It also happens that in certain cases, high-profile dancers would reside in harems. They would perform privately and on special occasions. These are the dancers, like the one depicted in The Dance of the Almeh, who have inspired the current vision of oriental dancers. Sensual, enticing, and Salome-esque.

Stigmatization of oriental dancers

It seems that the oversexualization of oriental dance has had real consequences on performers in certain countries. For instance, in Egypt, the very cradle of oriental dance, the practice has become associated with poor moral values, promiscuity and indecency. Many even see it as a form of prostitution. Such performances have become stigmatized, forcing some dancers (usually women) to perform in secret.

But why would Egypt become so intolerant of an art form created on its very lands? Over the years, Egypt has adopted stricter (religious) views on the costumes and choreographies displayed in dance shows, which are seen as haram (sinful). Though people have not stopped celebrating oriental dancers in conservative countries, it has become increasingly harder for performers to do their jobs.

Traditional and new types of oriental dance

Raqs Sharqi

Oriental dancer with isis wings
Dancer performing Raqs Sharqi with Isis wings.
Photo by Vitor Pinto on Unsplash

Raqs Sharqi truly epitomizes the art of the spectacle. It was created for the stage and the limelight. Because of that, raqs sharqi choreographies are usually more elegant and sophisticated than other dance styles. It involves a lot of big, fluid moves, twirls and travelling. Sometimes, dancers use accessories, like veils, fan veils, canes or candles, to make the performance even more grandiose. 

You can easily recognize Raqs Sharqi dancers by their costumes. They usually wear a two-piece attire, comprised of a decorated bra and a skirt, and sport a jewel-decorated belt around their hips. Costumes can be extremely extravagant: sequins, sparkles, studs, pearls, feathers… more is more! Skirts can be flowy, ruffly or body-hugging. The costume emphasizes the dance movements and adds dramatics.

Shaabi

Shaabi originates from Egyptian rural folkloric traditions. Shaabi music is very popular amongst working-class people of all ages. It combines traditional oriental music with modern electronic sounds, creating songs which are perfect for nightclubs and parties.

Baladi and shaabi dance moves resemble each other. However, shaabi tends to be very cheeky and fun. It has the purpose of creating a warm, friendly ambiance, where people can gather and dance together. Shaabi mostly consists of step patterns on flat feet (instead of tiptoes).

Shikhat, or Moroccan shaabi

Shikat are the master-entertainers of Moroccan celebrations. Mostly for weddings, but really for every social gathering, shikhat come to perform the eponymous dance, Shikhat, as energetically as they can. To celebrate an occasion, a family might hire one or several dancers (usually several) who will be dancing along to the violin and the darbuka.

They wear long, ample dresses cinched around their hips with a belt, meant to emphasize their moves when they shake their hips and butt. To shimmy, shikhats will do rapid steps or on their tiptoes while holding up their arms. They also swing their hair around, do somersaults and dance on the ground. All in all, the dance is very intense and takes a lot of stamina and passion.

Raqs Baladi

Though traditionally a social dance, many dancers do perform baladi on stage nowadays. Baladi means “my country” or “my homeland” in Arabic. The name translates the phenomenon of villagers emigrating from rural Egypt to the cities, and bringing their dancing styles along with them. 

Step patterns make the basis of baladi. It also involves a lot of spins and some travelling steps. It can be danced alone or by several people. The traditional attire for baladi consists of a long loose dress, called galabeya, and a scarf tied around the hips to accentuate the dancers’ movement.

North American Tribal

Jamila Salimpour wearing a tribal costume
“Mother of Tribal Dance” Jamila Salimpour wearing a Tribal costume, 1967.
Credits: http://thebestofhabibi.com/vol-13-no-4-fall-1994/jamila-salimpour/

American Tribal Style has roots in Raqs Sharqi, as well as Romani folkloric dances. But to be more precise, we owe this beautiful dance to one dedicated dance teacher, Jamila Salimpour. Dubbed the “mother of Tribal Belly Dance” to honor her efforts to study the roots of oriental dance, Jamila Salimpour explored the different regional variations of raqs sharqi to create Tribal dance. 

The extremely theatrical aspect of tribal dance makes it very striking, as well as its costumes, which are reminiscent of Amazigh and Romani traditional attires. The use of finger cymbals, like in Spanish flamenco, also adds intensity to the style. If you watch a Tribal performance, you will get to enjoy the slow, very precise moves of the dancers, paced by occasional isolated percussive movements, resulting in a hypnotizing choreography

Fusion

Fusion simply consists in the fusion of two dances, such as oriental dance and salsa, Hawaiian and oriental dance… All it requires is the use of dance moves from each dance genre. Over the years, oriental Bollywood fusion has gained some popularity. However, some people do not appreciate fusion. Indeed, many argue that merging two completely different styles together might stripe each particular dance off of its authenticity, and therefore beauty. That said, many do enjoy it, viewing it as two cultures coming together in a harmonious way. Fusion can create very culturally unique, beautiful performances.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Have you ever tried oriental dance? If not, I hope this article might have encouraged you to look more deeply into it, and understand that it is just as complex and culturally rich as other dance genres.

One great thing about oriental dance is that anyone can do it. Regardless of your body shape, height, whether you are slim or curvy… Oriental dance cultivates a sense of inclusivity when it comes to bodies. Nowadays, this desire for inclusiveness is also expanding to gender.

The variety of oriental dance is a testimony of its incredible historical and geographical journey, a journey that has yet to end.

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