Belly dance is a dance form originating in the Middle East, featuring isolation and articulation of the torso, chest, and hips. Unlike many other familiar dance forms like ballet, which are primarily concerned with the movement of limbs through space, belly dance movement originates from the torso. Broadly speaking, belly dance movements can be characterised within seven core movement families, describing shapes you can draw with your chest and hips: lifts and drops, slides, shimmies, twists, circles, figure 8’s, and undulations (Shemiran Ibrahim, The Seven Movements of Belly Dance). A skilled belly dancer can isolate the chest from the hips or vice versa, keeping one part still while the other one moves, or even do one move with the hips and a completely different one with the chest.
But movement alone doesn’t make belly dance. Technique, as in well-executed movement, is one important puzzle-piece, but it’s not the full picture. Belly dance is an expressive dance concerned with the emotional interpretation of music through movement. (Britannica, Expressive Dance) So a dancer uses her technique to effectively transmit her feelings. Perfectly executed movements on their own without deeper intention are sterile and expressionless. This makes the expressiveness of the dance just as important as the technique.
Now we have a definition of belly dance covering the movements and the expressivity. What about the performance aspect? Belly dance as a ‘concert dance’ for an audience is typically performed in the Middle East by a female solo performer. (Wikipedia, Concert Dance) The dancer improvises to Middle Eastern music, often played by a live band. She entertains the audience to range of musical styles, from well-loved classics to folklore. Some elements of a show may be set or choreographed, but in the main, improvisation, spontaneity, and audience interaction are typical in a Middle Eastern dance performance.
From this Middle Eastern style of performance belly dance, belly dance has spread across the world and diversified into a range of styles. Some ‘global’ styles of belly dance still focus on solo improvised dance to Middle Eastern music. Others fuse group or solo choreography with Middle Eastern or Western-fusion music. Still others use group-improvisation techniques. Some feature Western-style theatrical storytelling performances. Some have a ‘sparkly’ aesthetic where performers wear beaded bras and skirts, and others have an ‘earthier’ feel with voluminous layered skirts, coins, and shells. In general, belly dance has evolved and fused with other art forms to become a transnational fusion (Donna Mejia, Blog Post). In my opinion, none of these styles are the ‘correct’ way to belly dance, but if you accept the premise that belly dance is all about expressing music through movement using isolation and articulation of the torso, chest, and hips, then they are all belly dance:
As a student of belly dance, ask yourself, what type of belly dance would I like to do? Do I like solo dancing, or performing in groups? Middle Eastern or fusion music? Improvisation or choreography? Let these preferences guide your choices for choosing a style that works for you.