To most, belly dancing conjures up a picture of an elaborately costumed Middle Eastern woman, with midriff exposed, dancing a very sensual dance. While this form of belly dancing exists, common misconceptions must be dispelled. Belly dancing is not limited to women, and is not simply one form and type of dance. Belly dancing is popular in much of the Middle East and parts of Africa, and costume and allowable moves vary greatly.
The moves in belly dancing vary in different countries. However, virtually all belly dancing involves isolated movements of muscle groups. Naturally, the abdomen movement is most famous, however, isolation of arms and legs may also be employed. Dances can be elaborately choreographed or freeform.
Most familiar belly dancing is the Turkish form, which predates Islam. Women in harems were certainly taught to belly dance, but men might learn as well. In Turkey, costume and movements are not restricted. Influence may have come from Gypsy culture, as well as from the Greek dance Tsifteteli. The dancer also uses finger cymbals, or zils, to keep time with the music. Shoes are often high heels, and costuming tends to be quite skimpy.
Turkish belly dancing was welcomed in the US by the 1930s. It is often called Cabaret belly dancing by dancers today. Those who perform this dance might perform in nightclubs or restaurants.
In Egypt, belly dancing is an ancient art form, depicted in some hieroglyphics. Unlike the Turkish form, modern Egyptian belly dancing calls for more modest costuming. Certain moves, such as gyrations of the pelvis, are not allowed, as they are considered inappropriate.
Both Egyptian and Turkish belly dance celebrate the mature woman, one whose physique differs significantly from the Western style of beauty. A little extra size or a bit of a belly is considered advantageous. Maturity is also thought to lend greater expression to the dance. Complexity and ease of expression are thought to arise from a woman who is experienced.
Egyptian belly dancing generally separates the sexes to promote decency. Women may perform for each other, singly or in groups. A professional belly dancer may perform for men, but most women do not perform the dance for any other than close family.
The sensuality of the dance is opposed to Islamic interpretations of a woman’s role in society, especially among those taking a Fundamentalist Islamic view. Some Islamic countries have banned or severely restricted the art form. In Palestine, there is some indication that belly dancing may be banned altogether.
Initially, male belly dancing may have been performed by eunuchs, dressed effeminately, in Turkish harems. Often, male dancing was not considered as important or as interesting as the dances performed by women. Modern views have changed this perspective, and the male belly dancer is now welcomed almost as much as the female.
Belly dancing in the US is most likely seen in Moroccan restaurants, though often one can hire a belly dancer for special events. US belly dancing is increasing in popularity as a fitness regime. The isolation of muscles can make belly dancing particularly good exercise. Women often feel more comfortable pursuing a dance form that welcomes a few curves, as opposed to dance and exercise forms which preference the very thin.
To appreciate the art of belly dancing, there are several popular dancers who are well worth watching. Neena and Veena Bidasha, the “belly twins,” have appeared on US television shows and have created belly dance videos. Their work inspires some of the dance choreography of Britney Spears and Shakira. Jasmina, who works at the exclusive Le Meridien Heliopolis in Cairo, is considered to be one of the best practitioners of the modern form.