19th Century Literature
April 17, 2013
Bellydance Through the Ages
(the presentation can be found: here)
The green fabric billows around her form as she steps, steps, steps with the rhythm of the music, letting it take her to the center of the stage. A kick, a shimmy, and the veil slips off her, clutched in her hands as she uses it to frame her moves. She swishes it up, twists it down as she ungulates, kicks, and shakes.
Finally, she bends her body backwards and she lets it fall to the ground. She is ready to show the audience what she has prepared for them; a form of dance as old as music. A dance that, while changed throughout eras and lands, has withstood the test of time, withstood the change of season, withstood cultural differences. A dance that lived with the pyramids of egypt, zilled its way across Turkey, and gained popularity with the rise of the romantic movement in the 19th century.
Evidence about the origins are scarce, and its history is highly speculative, but it is agreed upon by most that its roots are in the Middle East. In this cradle of civilization, and the homeland of bellydance we find the first traces of the moves we see in modern bellydance, more than 6,000 years ago.
So what is bellydance? It is one of many names for a solo, improvised dance based on torso articulation. Some of its other names in english speaking countries are Oriental Dance,Egyptian Dance, Arabic dance and Middle Eastern dance. It’s hard to correctly define just what makes bellydance bellydance, which is why knowledge of the origins are so scarce. Unlike ballet which is really a classical dance and has its structured movements, bellydance is different. Bellydance is like language, its history spans through all civilizations and all eras, and like our english language, it has been derived from other languages, as well as shaped and molded by the events of time. It is a hodgepodge, composition of traditional, folk dances from the lands that it moved through.
As I have said, there are a multitude of dances that when accumulated create what we know today to be bellydance. One of the most prevalent influences of modern bellydance was the 19th century Ghawazi dancers. The Ghawazi of Egypt were a group of female traveling dancers of the Nawari people, a subgroup of the Dom people, sometimes referred to as "Gypsies". The term ghawazi in Egypt refers to the dancers in rural Egypt who have preserved the traditional 18th to 19th century style. The Ghawazi dancers were the main inspiration for Raqs Sharqi which translated mean “"The Dance of The East", or "Oriental Dance", even though only Egyptian dance is technically Raqs Sharqi. This is the style more familiar to Westerners, performed in restaurants and cabarets around the world. It is more commonly performed by female dancers but is also sometimes danced by men. It is a solo improvisational dance, although students often perform choreographed dances in a group.
This way of dance is pre-Islamic and is taught by word of mouth, which has changed over the centuries. Some people believe that it originated as a fertility or Goddess worshipping dance, and in North Africa it can still be used to help during childbirth. It combines a powerful grounded feel with the ability to express the subtleties of the music through strong technique.
The term "belly dance" is a translation of the French danse du ventre which was applied to oriental dance in the Victorian era. The term is somewhat misleading, as every part of the body is involved; the most featured body part usually is the hips. Belly dance takes different forms in different regions, both in costume and dance style, and new styles have evolved in the West as its popularity has spread globally.
Sha'abiyya, the folk style is the oldest, danced in the fellahin (farming comminities), often as a celebration during weddings. Different communities use different steps, but there are general styles, such as Saaidi from Upper Egypt, which the Ghawazee gypsies danced to. The Musicians Du Nil do wonderful folk music, using instruments such as the mizmar, tabla, arghul and rababa. Fellahi style has a loose and relaxed feel, with many repetitions and lots of shimmies.
Ghawazee style is tighter, with fast spinning and a more masculine feel. Saaidi music is also danced to by the men with sticks, and the magnificent Arabian horses. The arms in folk are usually relaxed and heavy; at the sides, on the head or widely framing the heart and head area.
Sharqi, or classical is the most refined form of Egyptian music and dance. The composer Omar Faruk Tekbilek has created beautiful classical music with a Turkish feel, and Mohamed Abdul Wahab Egyptian classics. Instruments such as violin, ney, and qanoon are used to good effect. This style is more balletic, with smaller movements, isolation and lyrical, expressive arms and upper torso. A veil may be used, floating behind the dancer. Its style is more detached from the audience and spiritual at its best. Unfortunately it is not really seen in Egypt.The arms in Sharqi are straighter and more expressive, describing slow, airy patterns around the dancer. Sharqi is more of a theatre dance, requiring space for large gliding steps and spins. The dancer can go very low down, in a wider stance than other styles of Egyptian dance. Courtly classical is a variation which is more sensual, with heavier elbows.
Cabaret/Nightclub is a mixture of the above styles, with strong Turkish influences such as hip lifts and deep back bends. American dancers in particular, enjoy mixing other dance styles such as Flamenco and even acrobatics, with Egyptian steps. Veils and other props are often used, and the dancer concentrates on entertaining the audience. Some of the best cabaret style can be seen on old Egyptian films from the 1940's where the crossover of Turkish and Egyptian styles can be seen. This is the style often used in restaurants and is more like what people imagine when they think "bellydance". In Egypt, cabaret is the term reserved for the less artistic dance for men's entertainment whereas nightclub style is more what bellydancers would want to see.
Turkish Dance is more showy and energetic than traditional Raqs Sharqi, and includes floorwork, zill-playing and more wrist circling. There are traditional folk steps included in cabaret choreographies which can make it very exciting. Rhythms are often irregular. Costume in Turkish dance is skimpy compared to Egyptian cabaret, although this seems to be changing now, and high heels are often worn. In Turkish folk dance, however the costume is traditional and the dance is different from bellydance. I have seen Turkish men dancing folk-style and they were very elegant, shimmeying their shoulders up and down. It reminded me of Armenian Dance.
American Tribal is a recent and powerful style developed in America. It mixes up movements and clothes from gypsy, bedouin, and other Middle Eastern or North African tribes and is usually danced in a group where the leader improvises and the others copy. Leaders may change during a dance. Tassel belts are often worn as well as heavy turbans and tiered skirts. Snake arms are often used, as well as deep upper body undulations, floorwork, and vertical figure eights. The terms used for the techniques and the way they are danced eg foot position and posture may be different to what dancers in the UK are used to. There are now different types of Tribal.
So when you behold the dancer’s rhythmic undulations know that you aren’t just seeing a finished project, the final masterpiece. Know that you are playing your part in history, witnessing it as it unfolds. You are seeing the work of generations far back, back from the 19th century and beyond.