From James Bond films to telenovelas, it’s rare to find a depiction of the Arab world without belly dancers.
The Arab world is by no means immune to exoticism. From the fables of the Arabian Nights to Hollywood blockbusters, the Arab world has often been depicted as a land of mystery, danger and sensuality, populated in the collective imagination by exotic characters such as sheikhs and harem odalisques. These exotic tropes have deeply permeated Western perceptions of the region. One of the most enduring symbols of Western perceptions of Arab culture is the oriental dance, or belly dance. But how did it evolve to become so symbolic of the Arab world?
The Ghawazee, Egypt’s Roma dancers
The roots of belly dancing can be traced back to the ghawazee, a group of traveling dancers who originated in 18th century Egypt and were Romani. The ghawazee, who attracted a growing audience, were banished from Cairo in the 1830s by Egypt’s King Muhammad Ali Pasha, and had to relocate to the Saeed region, or Upper Egypt , where they proliferated free from state reprisals.
The indelible mark of Orientalism
The origins of the practice and the way it became popular and associated with the Arab world are linked to the Orientalist movement. During a trip to North Africa in 1832, the French painter Eugène Delacroix was struck by the beauty of the dancers, contrasting with what he saw as the pitiful state of European women’s fashion. Other European travelers to the Arab world, such as Edward Lane and Gustave Flaubert, wrote extensively about the dancers they saw.
The French term “danse du ventre”, which literally means belly dance, first appeared in a review of Jean-Léon Gérôme‘s Orientalist painting of an Arab dancer, “The dance of the Almeh,” painted in 1864. “Almeh” is a word derived from the singular form of the word “Awalim” in Arabic, which loosely means “show women.”
The popularity of belly dancing, or oriental dancing, soared in the West at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, when Syrian dancers introduced the art form to the American public and caused a sensation. However, the dance was first introduced to the U.S. in 1876 in Philadelphia, but didn’t catch on until the Chicago World’s Fair.
A cultural trademark, despite some controversy
Since then, belly dancing has evolved to accommodate the entertainment expectations of the modern age, with new styles and variations emerging over time. Despite efforts by conservative religious movements to prohibit it during the 20th century in particular, it continues to enjoy popularity in the Arab world, where it is usually performed as part of many wedding ceremonies. Today, it is practiced both as a professional art form and as a hobby, known as “Raqs Sharqi” in the Arab world, meaning “oriental dance”.