A belly dancing group at Yale performed a show this week in an effort to raise money for the New Haven soup kitchen. Though the Yale Affiliates Belly Dance Society is practicing philanthropy, there remain to be jarring misconceptions about the dance that they and many others across the country practice. This story is a good example of those misconceptions and a good way to start off this portion of my blog, which will be all about the art of belly dance.
Let’s get those preconceived notions straightened out right away and learn about the origins of belly dance!
The name “belly dance” comes from the French phrase “danse du ventre”, which translates to “dance of the stomach”. But the dance involves much more than just the stomach; it engages the arms, fingers, hips, legs, head, feet and, of course, the face.
Perhaps the most pervasive misconception of belly dance is the idea that it’s actually just stripping. As is mentioned by a dancer in the article, it is a widely spread misconception in America that belly dancing is a purely sexual dance or a sort of strip tease.
This is not true. Belly dancing is an art form that is thousands of years old. There are several different theories as to how it began. One is that it was a folk dance performed by women for women as a way to celebrate the female body, fertility and childbirth. Many of the movements in belly dance – undulations, contractions of the abs, shimmies – are historically related as reflections of the body’s responses to and preparation for childbirth. Early pagan communities often worshipped female deities and were fascinated by the functions of the female body.
Another theory is that the dance was created for the purpose of aiding in childbirth, as is evidenced by the popularity of pre-natal belly dance. In addition to celebrating women giving birth, the dance may have begun as a way to assist in the act of birth.
Another origin story is that belly dance began simply as entertainment, done at informal gatherings among family and friends, and became popular when traveling gypsies adopted it and showcased it wherever they went. There’s evidence for this in the blending of certain dance movements, like the Indian head slide and shimmy, as well as the use of props like veils and canes.
In any of these origin stories, the primary interest is in a functional or communal dance. America, and in particular Hollywood, tends to romanticize and sexualize belly dance as a purely erotic dance. Though its exact origins are unclear, there is much more evidence that it began as a folk dance than anything meant to seduce or entice.
As with any dance, belly dance has evolved over time, and continues to evolve. There are some moves and costumes that are very traditional and unique to certain countries and communities, and there are entirely new styles that have come out of collaboration and fusing different forms together. The dance can be sensual, but it can also be so much more. It is interpretive. It can tell a story, evoke a mood, or illustrate music. It can be performance-oriented, exercise, stress relief, a group activity or simply an enjoyable hobby.
As a dancer in the article points out, belly dancing takes practice. It takes discipline and dedication to perfect an art form, just like any other dance. It is thus extremely important that everyone learn about this ancient dance and cultivate for it the respect it deserves.