Names and terminology
The term “belly dance” is a translation of the French term “danse du ventre”, which was applied to the dance in the Victorian era, and referred to Egyptian and oriental female dances.
In Arabic, the dance is known as Raqs Sharqi (“Eastern Dance”) or as Raqs Baladi in Egyptian Arabic (“Country Dance” or “Folk Dance”).
Dalilah filming Keyf Ansak in Cairo, Egypt 1957.
Belly dance is primarily a torso-driven dance, with an emphasis on articulations of the hips. Unlike many Western dance forms, the focus of the dance is on isolations of the torso muscles, rather than on movements of the limbs through space. Although some of these isolations appear similar to the isolations used in jazz ballet, they are sometimes driven differently and have a different feeling or emphasis.
In common with most folk dances, there is no universal naming scheme for belly dance movements. Some dancers and dance schools have developed their own naming schemes, but none of these is universally recognised.
(video) A belly dancer on stage in Japan, 2016
Movements found in belly dance
Many of the movements characteristic of belly dance can be grouped into the following categories:
Percussive movements: Staccato movements, most commonly of the hips, used to punctuate the music or accent a beat. Typical movements in this group include hip drops, vertical hip rocks, outwards hip hits, hip lifts and hip twists. Percussive movements using other parts of the body can include lifts or drops of the ribcage and shoulder accents.
Fluid movements: Flowing, sinuous movements in which the body is in continuous motion, used to interpret melodic lines and lyrical sections in the music, or modulated to express complex instrumental improvisations. These movements require a great deal of abdominal muscle control. Typical movements include horizontal and vertical figures of 8 or infinity loops with the hips, horizontal or tilting hip circles, and undulations of the hips and abdomen. These basic shapes may be varied, combined and embellished to create an infinite variety of complex, textured movements.
Shimmies, shivers and vibrations: Small, fast, continuous movements of the hips or ribcage, which create an impression of texture and depth of movement. Shimmies are commonly layered over other movements, and are often used to interpret rolls on the or riq or fast strumming of the oud or qanun (instrument). There are many types of shimmy, varying in size and method of generation. Some common shimmies include relaxed, up and down hip shimmies, straight-legged knee-driven shimmies, fast, tiny hip vibrations, twisting hip shimmies, bouncing ‘earthquake’ shimmies, and relaxed shoulder or ribcage shimmies.
In addition to these torso movements, dancers in many styles will use level changes, travelling steps, turns and spins. The arms are used to frame and accentuate movements of the hips, for dramatic gestures, and to create beautiful lines and shapes with the body, particularly in the more balletic, Westernised styles. Other movements may be used as occasional accents, such as low kicks and arabesques, backbends, and head tosses.
In the Middle East
Origins and history
Belly dancing is believed to have had a long history in the Middle East, but reliable evidence about its origins is scarce, and accounts of its history are often highly speculative. Several Greek and Roman sources including Juvenal and Martial describe dancers from Asia Minor and Spain using undulating movements, playing castanets, and sinking to the floor with “quivering thighs”, descriptions that are certainly suggestive of the movements that we today associate with belly dance. Later, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, European travellers in the Middle East such as Edward Lane and Flaubert wrote extensively of the dancers they saw there, including the Awalim and Ghawazee of Egypt. In the Ottoman Empire belly dance was performed by both boys and women in the Sultan’s palace.
Tahmasp, Humayun Meeting
Belly dance in the Middle East has two distinct social contexts: as a folk or social dance, and as a performance art.
As a social dance, belly dance (also called Raqs Baladi or Raqs Shaabi in this context) is performed at celebrations and social gatherings by ordinary people (male and female, young and old), in