There is a resurgence of interest among people in the United States and Europe in the ethnic dance known as belly dancing. To prove this, one needs only to turn the radio on and listen to Shakira or Britney Spears to know that this dance form, whose origins to this day remain unknown, is currently enjoying a revival of some sort and the entire world is catching on.
Why the sudden re-emergence of interest then on this ethnic dance form? Known in the Western world as belly dancing, in Europe as simply an oriental dance and in the Arabic world as raqs sharqi, belly dancing is slowly finding its way to dance studios and fitness centers around the world, in the former as a dance form to be taught to students like the tango and the rumba, and in the former as a fitness exercise like aerobics and taebo.
Proponents of the revival of belly dancing who are mostly women who have become staunch aficionados of the dance are quick to give out three reasons why they are so enthusiastic and eager to bring this ancient dance form back to life the modern world.
The first reason, they say, has to do with the sheer joy belly dancing brings to them. It’s almost like a healing balm, they claim. No matter how tired or stressed out they may be prior to stepping into the dance studio, the minute they begin gyrating their hips and shimmying their shoulders, they start to feel their tensions slowly ebbing away. In less than a few minutes, all the cares of the day are lost in the thrill of the dance as their bodies sway to the sound of the music.
More than ease one’s tension and erase the cares of the day, belly dancing also provides women a more enjoyable alternative to losing weight and keeping fit. Contrary to what its name implies, belly dancing does not only work out the belly but exercises the entire body. As Aisha Ali, a dance instructor in a West LA dance studio declares “a single belly dance session works hundreds of muscles, burns calories and de-stresses the entire body.” Even the American Council on Exercise has declared on CNN that belly dancing is one of the hot new workout trends that have emerged in recent years. Fitness gurus claim that belly dancing for 20 minutes or more is a good aerobic exercise that will not only keep one’s weight down but, more importantly, lower one’s cholesterol levels.
The third and most intriguing reason for the popularity of belly dancing among women is its ability to awaken in each woman the sense of femininity that she normally doesn’t experience as she goes through her day-to-day life. In short, belly dancing makes a woman feel like a woman regardless of her age, height, or weight. It makes her feel beautiful and graceful and helps her to tap into her inner womanliness to bring out that serene gracefulness she exudes as she gracefully executes every step of the dance.
Belly dancing, after all, is a feminine dance form. Through its gentle motions and the manner by which it is performed, and even by the costumes that are worn by its dancers, belly dancing accentuates and draws attention to the various aspects of the female form. Even if historically men have been known to have also performed the belly dance, still the common perception is that it is a dance form most suited to women. Without doubt, for bored housewives and stressed-out working women, the few minutes of losing themselves in the hypnotic rhythm of the belly dance as they gracefully maneuver their bodies to move in tune with the music is an experience that is both liberating and fulfilling. Belly dancing is the only oriental dance that can bring this out in the dancer.
Is belly dancing indecent and inapproriate?
Contrary to popular belief, belly dancing, as a dance form, is not sexual in nature and is therefore, never a sleazy dance. While several Western countries would frown on it as a form of exploitation of the woman’s body, a deeper investigation of its origin as an art form would reveal that belly dancing was never intended as a form of entertainment out to please only the men folk. In fact, belly dancing or raqs sharqi was intended only for the eyes of a woman’s female friends and her husband. It was never intended to be like a striptease act in which the dancer ends up naked at the end of the dance. Belly dancing in its most authentic form does not even allow costumes that reveal more than what is necessary of the female form. A belly dancer is actually covered in layers of clothing — pantaloons, scarves, tunics, and robes.
The perception that belly dancing is lewd and bawdy stems from the fact that when it was introduced to the Western countries, people from these countries modified and embellished the dance to make it more intriguing and attractive to the public, particularly the men folk. Thus it was likened to a striptease act in which barely clad beautiful women danced on top of tables for men who would stuff dollar bills in her corset as a sign that they were pleased with her. None of these elements from the costume to the stuffing of dollar bills were ever part of the original concept of belly dancing. In fact, belly dancing was not a dance that women would perform in front of men. It was a dance they would perform amongst women like themselves as a form of bonding and entertainment. The sleazy factor was never a part of belly dancing as an art form.
Hopefully, with the growing interest in understanding the origins of this dance generated among its enthusiasts, the time will finally come when the true nature of belly dancing will be recognized and it will be given the place of respect it deserves alongside other artistic dance forms.