Oriental dance, Arabic dance, raqs sharqi (Eastern dance), la danze serpiente. It’s a dance of many names, but one in particular is the most enduring: belly dance, translated from the French danse du ventre. Coined in 1864, this name haunts the present – like a nineteenth century ghost.
French art critic Charles Asselineau used the term “danse du ventre” in his scathing review of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting La danse de l’almée (The Dance of the Almeh):
“The head is inverted …, the arms are twisted, the hips are dislocated. The goal of all this writhing is to project to the forefront a nude and bloated belly, which is the centre and highlight of the painting. Don’t bother exhausting archaeological dictionaries; don’t go ask a scholar what this danse du ventre really was. Examine instead the ardent gaze of the spectators, their outstretched necks, their anxious attitudes.” (Translated from French)Teri Williams. “Why do we call Middle Eastern dance “belly dance”?” Edinburgh University Press Blog. May 23, 2019.
This painting was just one of many eroticized, orientalist fantasy artworks from this period. This art, along with the work of travel writers, and dance performances at world’s fairs, created a scandalous legacy that no amount of shimmying can shake. Dancer and writer Wendy Buonaventura traces this legacy in her book Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World, which offers a concise history of belly dance, focusing on the nineteenth century onwards. How the dance evolved, particularly in the West, is the heart of the book, as she states:
“The story of how Egyptian baladi and its equivalent in other Arabic-Islamic countries changed from a private to a professional entertainment, how it was exported to the West and became, on the one hand, a subject of scandal and, on the other, an enduring inspiration for Western art is the main subject of this book. It is the story of how an ancient art has survived against all the odds.”Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World, page 15.
An enjoyable, beautifully illustrated read, Buonaventura’s book provides a fascinating timeline of an ancient art. Among the nineteenth century sources referenced, this quote by the French novelist Charles Gobineau resonated with me:
“Hours pass and it is difficult to tear oneself away. This is the way the motions of the dancing girls affect the senses. There is no variety or vivacity, and seldom is there a variation through any sudden movement, but the rhythmic wheeling exhales a delightful torpor upon the soul like an almost hypnotic intoxication.”Serpent of the Nile, page. 18.
His description of the hypnotic quality of the dance reminds me of my own reaction to seeing it for the first time at a baroque concert back in 2016. Years later, I remain very much enchanted. In late summer 2017, I took my first belly dance class and since then, this art has become a significant part of my life. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why this blog rarely get’s updated – most of my nights are filled by dance classes, and pre-pandemic, I would attend shows on weekends and sometimes weeknights as well (and sometimes perform, too). I’m obsessed. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve done my fair share of bingewatching and social media doom scrolling this past year too, but for the most part, when I do have the free time, I’d rather be dancing.
Recently, my passion for books, history, and dance converged by joining a belly dance book club. (Yes, that’s actually a thing!) Serpent of the Nile was the focus for the last couple of meetings. I’m not that familiar with the historiography of belly dance and my assessment of this book will inevitably change as my knowledge grows. At the time of this reading I was a passive reader, drinking it all in with delight, and now sharing what I found most interesting.
Did you know that dance, as Buonaventura writes, is “by its very nature it is one of the most powerful means of auto-intoxication we have, developing energy in the body and then releasing it”? I’m choosing to take Buonaventura at her word here, as I definitely consider dance a kind of therapy in its own special way. It’s also interesting to note her reference to nineteenth century physician Havelock Ellis who said, “A girl who has waltzed for a quarter of an hour is in the same condition as if she had drunk champagne.” So much for being a passive reader – I did look into this reference (from his book Studies in the Psychology of Sex), and he is actually quoting the physician Fernand Lagrange, who discusses how “it is possible to be made drunk by movement” in chapter two of his 1890 text The Physiology of Bodily Exercise. Today we have a better understanding of the endorphins released during exercise, but it’s interesting to read about this historical context, particularly as it applies to dance.
The respectability of belly dance, or lack there of, comes up repeatedly in Serpent of the Nile, and naturally was a point of discussion in our book club meeting. This brings us back to the name: belly dance. The harem fantasy projected by nineteenth century Western artists continues to shape the image of this art. If you’ve made it this far reading, let me make something very clear now: belly dance is NOT exotic dancing/stripping and I wish the dance could be stripped (pun intended) of this perception. I do not mean to deny the sensual aspect of it, but I resent that most people’s familiarity is limited to a revealing costume and hip shaking. I also want to point out that respectability for this dance is equally lacking in the East (specifically in terms of public performance), but that could easily be a whole other post.
One thing discussed during the book club meeting was how we censor ourselves depending on who inquires about our dancing. When speaking to men, or someone who is religious, we tend to say either “middle eastern dance” or “Egyptian dance.” These terms avoid any negative connotations of “belly dance” by emphasizing the cultural/folkloric aspect for more respectability. I may add that I have also had people mishear me and think I said “ballet dance.” The more correct, but little known, term is “raqs sharqi,” meaning Eastern dance, but this has been slow to catch on outside the dance community. During our discussion, someone mentioned the term “MEHNAT dance,” which I had not heard before. It stands for: Middle East Hellenic North Africa Turkey – a better, all encompassing term that likely won’t be catching on anytime soon, but one can hope. Until then, the words “belly dance” haunt our modern vernacular, a defiant, nineteenth century ghost.
But the dance, like language, is ever evolving. Belly dance has long been a fusion art, incorporating movements from the dances of Persia, Syria, India, and Turkey. Over time the dance also borrowed from ballet and flamenco. Twentieth century cinema in both Egypt and America inspired further development, creating a style now called Golden Era. In fact, did you know that the popular, two-piece bra and skirt costume associated with belly dance was conjured from Hollywood fantasy? And the dance continues to evolve. More recently, late in the twentieth century, American dancers added their own spin on it, creating American Tribal Style, which has its own distinct costuming and other characteristics. Who knows what developments this century will bring, but I’m excited to be a part of it.