Women, Wisdom and Dance

The Art & History of Belly Dance

First I hear the deep drumming of the Doumbek. Then I hear the melodious reed flute and oud, and then laughter and Zagareet (trilling) of women. I’m at a Hafla, an informal, Arabic dance party. The music is rhythmic and percussive with haunting repeating melodies, creating hypnotic waves of mood and sound. There is, of course, great food and wine. Friends meet, dancers dance, women gather and share. In the circle of friendship and music the art of belly dance is alive and well.

What is belly dance? Where did it come from? What do women share in this ancient, feminine dance form?

In all the ages people danced – to express emotion, to invoke strength and wisdom, and to connect in groups and families. Throughout history dancing is the oldest form of spiritual expression and it is acknowledged that all other art forms developed from dancing.

Women also danced in fertility rituals celebrating all of life. They danced to awaken energy and praise the mysteries of life, expressing longing, suffering, joy and sorrow. Dancing brought harmony with the universe. Belly dance was used to ease pregnancy and childbirth, and dancing, worship and social life were not separate from everyday life. Belly dancing, also called Oriental dance and Baladi, has been called the oldest dance in the world from which modern dance developed.

Women’s sacred dancing, moving the hips and pelvis was originally practiced all over the world. Some countries retained the rites of worship where matriarchal influences were central to community life. Here, goddesses were revered and between 1600 and 1200 BC men and women’s dances continued to shape the great cultures of the world. Nobles and common people still celebrated in dance as part of societal and spiritual life.

The world and its beliefs began to change, and through what is now Northern Africa, Turkey, and Europe, old beliefs, and the rituals accompanying them, were replaced by new, mostly religious ones, that repressed all art forms, including the freedom of dance. Baladi died out in many parts of the world although in some regions it developed into entertainment for the higher social classes. During this time, separation began to occur between worship and social life and for the first time, dance rituals that had been danced by whole communities were replaced by entertainment, and professional dancers first appeared.

Increased formality and standard "rules” affected mainly the women’s dances. Men’s dances continued to provide physical strength, flexibility and agility, needed for fighting in wars. Through suppression and inferior social position, women’s dance was divided into two classes, and the movement and styles of the old fertility rites with their wave-like movements of hips and pelvis were performed without their religious meanings. Belly dancing lost touch with its sacred origins when it was aimed solely at entertaining.

Clarissa Estes describes, in Women Who Run With the Wolves, that archetypically, women are still trying to oppose the split between societal roles and the vibrational, intuitive and instinctual self: the desire of the wilder self to awaken the natural urges to express, shake, loosen and be free. In more modern times, during dance celebrations in the home in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the near East, women experienced these levels of vitality through belly dance, easily letting go of obstacles "on the path”.

In her book, Grandmother’s Secrets, Rosina-Fawia Al-Rawi–Arab studies and ethnology expert–tells of her initiations into womanhood as a young girl growing up in Baghdad under the sharp eye of her fiercely-loved grandmother. She weaves the intriguing story of belly dance, its history of being transported and embellished over thousands of years by the gypsies, and its healing effects on the body and the psyche. Al-Rawi describes the deep spiritual meaning and potential healing effects of Oriental dance; its ability to break through cultural norms, express body wisdom, partake in ritual, and loosen culturally acquired conditioning, and blockages. A way of releasing memories, belly dance creates self-awareness to inspire, and strengthen, and the courage and inspiration of self-discovery.

In belly dance all body parts are equally valued for their function. The pelvis conveys deep feelings and great strength – a way of releasing body tension and all those things inside that say no, achieving freedom from rigidity and moral codes. The shimmy is fun, warming and intensifying. The belly wave or undulation imitates the belly’s contractions during labour, and massages the inner organs. Feet are the connection to the earth where, in the East, they are pampered, bejeweled and coloured with henna. The legs represent strength, as in the pillars of a temple. The head is held high. Because women are centered in the lower part of the belly, movement is free, as if the head were beyond the reach of the lower body. Eyes communicate feelings and emotion and the arms show expressions of opening and closure, receiving and giving, joy and sorrow

Local belly dancers, Jeannie Schweitzer and Tricia Campbell, shared with me their journey in Oriental dance. Jeannie says that, "belly dancing has always been a secret longing, with the beautiful costumes and shiny, mysterious movements.” She feels that our sexually repressed social attitudes and her own experience of sexual abuse kept her from considering belly dance for herself. Years later, with the encouragement of dance friends, she decided to try it and says, "my sense of humor carried me the rest of the way!” Oriental dance became an oasis for Jeannie and a way to heal the frozen emotions and body tension which had been present for so long. "The movements and experience of going within helped me express the depth of who I am and how much passion for life I had and hid for so long.” Jeannie feels the health benefits cannot be emphasized enough and says: "Our personal judgments and limits melt away with the movement and music.” For Jeannie, belly dancing has been "a way where women can gather and experience the power and beauty of being a woman.” Her message is to not buy into the cultural taboos and to use belly dance to "love the skin you’re in”. One woman said to her that belly dance was like déjà vu; a deep ancestral memory just waking up.

For Trish "belly dancing is a way to connect with the Goddess inside; to connect to the real self; your spirit and also all of the women who have danced since the beginning of time.” Trish feels belly dancing is pure, natural and "very organic!” Dancing with the mind and body in sync can stress and tension and is very relaxing for the spirit. It keeps the physical body strong and healthy by massaging the internal organs. This dance cannot be done properly if the mind and body do not work together.” Tricia was intrigued by belly dancing and the ability of dancers to shimmy for so long! Her message is: "It’s important for people to know that belly dancers come in all different shapes, sizes, ages and colours. So many women hesitate to join a class because they feel they are not skinny enough or pretty enough but these things don’t matter in a class. Belly dancing helps you find your beauty and the class is a time to celebrate You!” Trish says "belly dancing is a way of life” and that she will be belly dancing for eternity.

In the near and Middle East women continue to experience suppression and in Egypt, women are not allowed to belly dance publicly. Belly dancers in North America and Europe acknowledge the responsibility of keeping Oriental dance alive during these trying times. The art of Baladi helps bring awareness of: muscles, emotions, fears, and spontaneity and joy. The moves and postures invoke stages of growth, connection with dancers of the past, present and future, and with those who cannot dance.

Chris Goyer-Swift is a freelance writer in Campbell River.