Finding the Roots of Belly Dance

Finding the Roots of Belly Dance

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Colorful scarves danced fancifully as the women shook their hips relentlessly, right to left, left to right. Gyrating to the melodic, pop-like beat, they mouthed the words to the Arabic-language song blaring from the stereo.

The women were professional belly dancers who had gathered in New York City for a workshop that would help perfect their Middle Eastern craft. And while all the women came from different backgrounds and skill sets, they had one characteristic in common: not one of them was ethnically Middle Eastern.

This phenomenon isn’t merely an anomaly however; it’s a reflection of the ethnic diversity of women who are preserving the dance throughout the U.S.

With an increasing number of Americans taking up belly dance all over the country, including in cities like New York, many purists worry that the art is being mis-interpreted by its practitioners. They say the dance loses its original meaning if performers have a shallow understanding of the Middle Eastern context in which it originates.

“If the belly dancer has no knowledge of the Arab culture or the language, the dance will come to mean something very different,” said Najwa Adra, a dance scholar and Anthropologist. “It’s recognizable, but what’s performed here really isn’t the same dance.”

But Adra isn’t surprised. She says what’s seen today is reflective of how it was perceived in the United States upon its arrival. The belly dance, known in Arabic as Raqs el Sharqi, made its debut in 1876 during the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibit and was re-introduced in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Columbia Exhibition.

The performers were two women from Syria and Algeria who were a part of a Middle Eastern exhibition called “Little Egypt.” Because of the performance’s Mid-East origins, westerners saw the dance as something exotic and seductive, despite its more modest intentions. Thereafter, a few women began to imitate the dance with an embellished burlesque-like demeanor.

But it wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that belly dance gained a mass following. At this time, during the era of women’s rights, the dance evolved into a practice that was thought to alleviate female sexual repression. “When they moved their hips like that, women found a freedom of expression and liberalism through body movements,” said Adra.

The practice became so widespread that in 1977, the Reader’s Digest featured an article on the dance titled “Everybody’s Belly Dancing.” And not long after, in 1979, ABC television’s 20/20 broadcast a report that more than one million women in the United States were taking belly dance classes.

While the belly dance trend leveled off thereafter, the practice saw a huge resurgence in the early 2000s. And anthropologists attribute this to pop singers like Shakira who have put the dance on display, as well as to America’s growing obsession with body image, health, and exercise.

But as belly dancing becomes more ubiquitous as an American practice, theorists say more women have adopted the dance who have no desire to learn about the Middle Eastern culture. And as a result, they say, practitioners are transposing the art form into a dance that lacks a connection with the culture it seeks to represent.

That’s exactly what caught the attention of Karim Nagi, an Egyptian-American musician of the Arabic drum. After spending years playing percussion in accompaniment to belly dance performers, Nagi realized how mis-guided some dancers had been, simply because they did not understand the lyrics of the songs.

“There could be a girl dancing to a traditional Arabic ballad about a funeral or death, yet she’s dancing it with a big smile on her face.”

That’s when Nagi decided to start an educational workshop called the “Arab Dance Seminar.” Taking place in various cities throughout the U.S. since 2005, he says the goal of workshop has been to encourage practitioners to look beyond the dance as a sexualized commodity and rather appreciate its rich artistic and cultural qualities.

In addition to learning basic Raqs el Sharqi dance techniques, the participants are taught the Arabic lyrics to popular songs, the religious underpinnings of certain movements, and how to determine which dances are appropriate for different contexts.

Nicole Macotsis, a professional dancer since 2003, was one of the participants in the most recent “Arab Dance Seminar” that took place in New York City at the Ripley Grier Studios. Now, in her second year as a participant, she says these workshops are not only helpful, but vital to an accurate portrayal of the dance.

“Certain audiences might think you dance well, with pretty technique, but it will be hard for you to express the feeling and meaning of the song if you haven’t explored what the song means to its original audiences,” said Macotsis.

And Nagi says, this is the realization most of the participants come to by the end of the three-day program. In fact, he says, many workshops have culminated with an emotional outpouring.

“Some women even end up crying. I think that cultural element just makes it much deeper for them, and they realize there is so much to the dance that they never knew before.”

Photo: Ameera David /Arab Detroit