While "belly dance" conjures orientalist images of sensual dancers with bared bellies, many of the traditions we view as authentic (i.e. veil dances) came from Westerners and 1920s-1950s Golden Age Hollywood movie. Our earliest memories of exotic women actually sprin gfrom 18th century orientalist paintings by French/British travelers illustrating what they believed represented Middle Eastern society, some of those idealized images came from men who never visited the countries they portrayed. As a child, I viewed 'Dance of the 7 Veils' the most authentic dance possible As an adult, I realized Oscar Wilde's 19th century play Salome accompanied by Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations actually created the veil dance which Rita Hayworth's 1953 film, Salome, solidified Yet, the idea of sensual women showing their bellies remains ingrained in our minds thanks to Hollywood, fantasized renditions and social imagination.
After spending 18 years familiarizing myself with American bellydance and 8 years working on my PhD surrounding representations of the Turkish and Anglo-African in Western Literature, I wanted to break down what represents bellydance today.
So, how did 'bellydance' start?
Clearly, every single Middle Eastern country has its own local dance from the debke to Zaar trance dancing. However, it became generalized and introduced to mainstream America in the late nineteenth century through the Chicago World's Fair. Future American Congressman Sol Bloom encountered Algerian dancers at the 1889 Paris exposition. Recognizing a money making venture due to the variety of acts (dancers, gymnasts, and "glass-eaters"), he booked them for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair which focused on countries representing Columbus' global explorations including Turkey, Egypt and Syria.
Although the fair featured dancers from differing Middle Eastern cultures, Sol Bloom's Algerian Village received more attention when the public learned that French soldiers visiting Algeria described the local dance as "danse du ventre," which translated loosely to "belly dance," including an article by the Princeton Union which decried the "abomination known as belly dance."In his autobiography, he admits the attention spread like wildfire which sparked imitators in "amusement parks all over the country" as witnessed through the numerous Little Egypts emerging throughout the country and Edison's decision to film one of them, Fatima, in 1896 under the "Little Egypt"/"Coochee Coochee Dance" title.
Note: Despite reports of the dancers baring their bellies, this image of Salina, one of the Algerian Village dancers, shows that the dancers did not. However, they were uncorseted (unlike 19th century American women) and wore lose single-layer clothing (unlike the numerous layers attached to female fashion in Victorian society). So, admittedly, while dancing audience members could probably easily see the movements of the dancers. However, dancers from the Egyptian Village wore vests atop chemises, giving the illusion of bared chest and belly, yet those areas did not receive the same censure as Sol’s dancers.
However, the "belly dance" craze not only brought Middle Eastern dancers to the forefront, but western dancers using Middle Eastern names who appeared to the fantasy (if not the actuality in costuming). For example, Catherine Devine, dancing as Ashea Wabe\Little Egypt, wore a body stocking and cropped top with raised skirt giving the illusion of the contemporary costume with bared belly and skirt with splits.
So, what is bellydance today?
American bellydance is an amalgamation of different middle eastern dances – floor dance routines pull from Turkey, neck slides and 'snake arms' pull from India, and line dances/shimmies/hip circles pull from Israel, Egypt and and North Africa. Veil dances and wings are purely American constructs not traditional to any Middle Eastern culture. Other props used such as fans or poi balls pull from other cultures. American bellydance proves even more American by pulling from ballet and American modern dance for arm postures and floor movements (i.e. grape vines).
Because American bellydance pulls from so many Middle Eastern dancers and now increasingly pulls from Asiatic cultures with fan dances and polynesian culture, many are considering shifting the name to transnational dance, Raqs Sharqi or MENAT to recognize the cultures it pulls from without using the overtly sexualized term of "belly dance."
So the next time you take a bellydance class, remember, you don't have to 'show your belly.' Although contemporary styles incorporate it did not belong to the clothing style of the Algerian dancers initially brought to the US over 100 years ago. So, take a belly dance class and realize you're pulling from an amalgamation of multiple rich cultures and enjoy the fun!