Sex, Lies and Bellydance: a Historical Rant

Do I have your attention? Good.

This post is not what you think it is. For some of you, it may be good. For others, it may be a letdown. But just to get a little something off my chest:

Belly dance does NOT come from mystical childbirth rituals. It was NOT an ancient precursor to pole dancing, nor was it something scantily-clad women did while lolling about in a harem in anticipation of seducing the Sultan. It wasn’t an ancient Pagan ritual, or an exotic art of the Devadasi. Nor were there bands of free-spirited, skirt-flinging  gypsies who were Bohemian Chic before Madonna came along.

Have I crushed your dreams yet? Good.

Truth is, the history is belly dance is pretty unsexy. Long story short, raqs sharqi as we know it today is a stylized version of social dances that people did for fun at parties and weddings in the Middle East.

Anybody who’s spent lots of time at Middle Eastern and Mediterranean weddings knows that Uncle Ali is not expressing his feminine side when he joins the debke line, and Grandma is NOT teaching her 4-year-old granddaughter Yasmine how to seduce her future husband. Plain and simple, they dance to have fun – just like most of us do!

True, family-style celebratory dances don’t tug at the contemporary woman’s sex-positive feminist heartstrings the way goddess worship and childbirth rituals do. On that note, many teachers might even alienate potential students if they sacrificed “wishtory” for a simpler explanation. But isn’t there something noble in and of itself about dancing to have fun?

Don’t get me wrong. If you personally view belly dance as an extension of your spiritual beliefs, or an empowering activity that makes you feel more feminine, or even something that makes you better in bed, by all means – embrace it! Art is a blank slate upon which we can apply our own personal experiences, desires and ideals. Trouble is, when we bring too much of our own “baggage” to the classroom, everybody misses out. And we cheapen the rich, diverse culture that our beautiful art comes from. (Not to mention, too much talk about fertility and seduction brings the conversation right back to sex, which is the last thing our industry needs!)

As a baby-belly, I learned some variant on the “ancient precursor to Lamaze classes” myth, including epic accounts of a squatting pregnant woman surrounded by a circle of their friends, all sympathetically undulating and encouraging the woman to belly roll her baby into the world. It was crushing to discover no solid proof that this actually happened – and to get laughed at by Arab friends when I asked them about this version of “history.” But in the end, I came out a stronger performer when I put the vibrant spirit of the Middle East back in Middle Eastern dance.

Class dismissed!

Orlando belly dancer Carrara Nour

About Carrara: Carrara is a professional belly dancer offering authentic Middle Eastern dance performances for weddings, corporate functions and special events in Central Florida (Orlando, Melbourne, Daytona). Learn more about Carrara here or follow her on Twitter at @CarraraNour.

Comments · 10

  1. love this! thank you for the knowledge…makes me feel even better about this beautiful art…

  2. This is a well thought out and very articulate rant. Finally, a belly dancer that sees this artform for what it truly is. A family-friendly and celebratory form of dance that anyone regardless of age, gender can do with a rich history and culture behind it all. I can’t tell you how many times that I have seen(and bookmarked) belly dance websites where a group or even an individual dancer claims this dance as some sort of prayer to the mother Goddess or part of some Pagan ritual.(not that there’s anything wrong with doing so. If it works for you, then good.) Good luck trying to tell that to the dancers that actually feel this way, though. Ms. Nour, you’ve done it again. You really should think about becoming a writer.

  3. Your Arab friends must be male.

    Speak to the last of the belly dance icons, Morocco and you will feel differently. She WAS PRESENT AT “ONE OF THOSE ” BIRTHS, AND YES,IT HAPPENS JUST LIKE YOUR FRIENDS LAUGH AT. GO TO THE TRUE SOURCE. Where did you get your info?

  4. For the record, I’ve read all of Morocco’s writings (including Belly Dancing and Childbirth) and I have nothing but the utmost admiration for her as a scholar and dancer. I mean that with 100% sincerity. While I don’t discredit what Morocco witnessed or the possibility that some women in the Middle East have used belly dance to prepare their muscles for childbirth, I also think it’s dangerous to leap to the conclusion that our performance art is directly derived from childbirth rituals. Especially when the article only cites ONE bellydance-specific movement that was used in the ritual. Last time I checked, we used more than one movement in belly dance!

    Aside from Morocco’s solitary eyewitness account, I have seen very little scholarly documentation suggesting any sort of link between belly dance and birthing rituals. But if you know of any reliable references on this subject, please feel free to enlighten me.

  5. Thanks so much! Sometimes, a dance is just a dance. I’m not sure why we’re so hell-bent on proving its ancient origins when so little documentation exists prior to the 1800’s.

  6. Interesting that Morocco is brought up as an authority. Because she has spent a lot of time since she wrote that article then trying to explain that, in her estimation, what she witnessed was not belly dance, but rather an associated set of movements. There is a difference.

    I think one thing to keep in mind when we start looking for the history of Belly Dance is that much of it is mired in shadow. Because much of it was done away from outsiders eyes, because the people who were doing the dancing were more concerned about things such as survival than recording their day to day lives, because yes, much of belly dance is about women in a society which was secretive about women and womens lives. And lastly, much of what we know is seen through the lens of the foreign traveler/explorer, many times males. They did not necessarily bring a full and detached understanding about what was going on and the underlying reasons.


  7. @Tahira – I completely agree. Morocco is always the first to clarify that just because a certain set of movements was done in a certain context, doesn’t mean there’s a causal relationship between the two. She’s done so regarding Belly Dance and Childbirth, as well as other articles she’s written. As they teach in Statistics 101: Correlation does not imply causality.

    Love what you said about understanding and interpreting the ancient origins of the dance. Much of the history of belly dance is lost in time or, like you said, filtered through the eyes of rich, sex-crazed white men. (Ah, Orientalism! The harems and Turkish baths! But we won’t go there. LOL) There’s a lot we can state pretty confidently about history from the 1800s and beyond, but the early stuff is a mystery.

    On that note, why do we always have to talk about belly dance as being “ancient” if we don’t know diddly about its ancient roots? It wouldn’t surprise me if some historian discovered an ancient precursor to modern-day belly dance. But would it really be “belly dance?” To me, I associate belly dance with its modern form and 19th-20th century influences: Orientalist paintings, Old Hollywood movies, the Russian Ballet. Dance has evolved in America from the waltz to swing dance to the Electric Slide and Jersey Shore fist pumping. I’m sure dance in the Middle East had several incarnations between the dawn of civilization and now.

    Instead of searching for ancient meaning in a modern day dance, I think it’s more productive to explore and become versed in the modern origins of belly dance. I’m still learning this, and will have a lot more to say when I attend Sahra Saeeda’s Journey Through Egypt certification in Orlando in a couple weeks ;) But there’s so much rich, beautiful insight that can be gained by studying popular singers and music composers, watching Golden Age Egyptian dancers, hanging out at Arab nightclubs to watch live musicians and people dancing casually, etc.

    Alas….I digress! Have a great day, Tahira! :-D

  8. Carrara, my long time friend and dance mentor is Morrocan, she is in her 60s, and have studied dance in different parts of the world but espacially Egypt with the greastest authorities: M.Reda, F.Fahmy, M.El-Leisy, M.Geddawi, F.Mustapha and many more.

    After reading you blog, I can asure you that if ever you’ll get to meet each other, she would grab you, squeeze you, hug you and maybe adopt you! Lol!

    Because she has heard it all, and she still hears those incredible strories from newcoming student once in a while.

    In 2006, we were both in Cairo for a semi-private seminar with Dr Farida Fahmy. At one of her lectures, a participant brought up the “mystical childbirth rituals” thing again, and Mrs. Fahmy, with a polite grin, said: “Frankly, nobody knows from wear our style of dance came from, not even us Egyptians, it’s a dance for goodness sake, learn and enjoy”.

    Then I remember that in 2004, the first time I was in Egypt, she said the same thing at the end of her

    So as for me, lets just say that I heard it, not once but twice, from the horse’s mout! ;o)

  9. OOPS! Sorry, for my mistakes, I should have written “where” and not “wear”… (I’m French speaking)

    Merci for reading me! :o)

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