We all do it. We use the term “Belly Dance” to conjure up images of shimmies, rich music, intricate isolations, and sequined costumes. We all have our own interpretation of what “Belly Dance” is, but have we actually stopped to ask ourselves where the term comes from?
While commonly embraced and popular, “Belly Dance” is a debatable term. It is only used in the US, Britain, Australia, and a few other English-speaking countries.
Some believe that “Belly Dance” originates from the Arabic word “Beledi”. Beledi means “my country,” and is also used to describe a 4/4 rhythm commonly found in Middle Eastern music. Others feel that the similarity between “belly ” and “beledi” is just a coincidence.
The historical explanation behind the origin of the term “Belly Dance” derives from its’ translation of the French words “danse du ventre.” “Danse du ventre” was used during the Victorian era as a derogatory colonial name for dances isolating the hips and torso. It was used to describe burlesque and can-can style shows. The term “danse du ventre” arrived to the U.S. when the 1893 World Fair in Chicago featured exhibitions of dancers imitating “Egyptian” dance. In actuality, Turkish women from Egypt were the ones performing the “danse du ventre”. Truth be told, the isolation of the belly of “Belly Dance” comes from the regions of Turkey and Greece, (not Egypt!)
The correct Arabic term for the dance we’ve all come to know and love is “Raqs Sharqui”. “Raqs” means dance. “Sharqui” means of the East. Raqs Sharqui references the cabaret performance style traditionally danced as an improvisational solo. At any rate, the term “Raqs Sharqui” has not been widely embraced in its original or translated form.
So…. Now that we have “the know”, what do we call this beautiful art form?! Anyone who has shimmied her way through a Shimmy Flow class knows that there is much more to “Belly Dance” than then belly. While the core is an integral element of the dance form, it seems quite limiting to name it this way. This would be like calling Ballet “leg dance.” Targeting just one anatomical part of the body does not do the dance justice.
Furthermore, I find that the term “Belly Dance” drives audiences to expect performers to expose their midriff. They are confused if a costume covers one’s torso. Does this mean a dancer who does not expose and isolate her belly cannot perform Arabic dance? Of course not!
While “Belly Dance” is widely accepted, I encourage us to remember the cultural roots of our shimmies, twists, and rolls. Raqs Sharqui became a performance art in Egypt. It is a dance that was born, embraced and embellished by many Arabic cultures, and later adopted by the world. I feel that “Arabic Dance” is a more respectful, fitting, and encompassing term to reference an art form that is older than we know. Let us use the power of words to reflect the power of this dance!
Whatever you decide to call Arabic Dance, may it come from a place of respect, passion, fulfillment, and sheer joy!
Resources: Souhail Kaspar, Morocco’s “You Asked Aunt Rocky: Answers & Advice About Raqs Sharqi & Raqs Shabbi,” and “The Belly Dance Book.”
Ziva Emtiyaz is an award winning International Dance Artist excited to share her knowledge and life experiences about the big world of dance!