Belly Dance

The origins of belly dance: A review of ‘Egyptian Belly Dance in Transition’ by Heather Ward

I’d like to continue my review series with a book I recommend to any belly dance enthusiasts who are interested in learning about the roots of belly dance: Egyptian Belly Dance in Transition: The Raqs Sharqi Revolution, 1890-1930 by Heather Ward.

Heather’s book busts widely held orientalist stereotypes of belly dance. In Heather’s words, stereotypically:

… raqs sharqi [belly dance] was created by Egyptians in response to Western influences and desires. The argument goes that savvy Egyptian entertainment hall owners, catering to Western audiences as well as to upper-class Egyptian audiences with Western tastes, created a dance and associated costuming style that embodied Westerners’ Orientalist fantasies of Middle Eastern dance. The name that is most commonly invoked with this argument is Badi’ah Masabni, the Syrian entertainer and entrepreneur who owned several entertainment halls in Cairo and Alexandria from the 1920s through the 1940s. Indeed, many aficionados of raqs sharqi believe that Badi’ah singlehandedly invented the dance.

p. 49, Egyptian Belly Dance in Transition

This view has been formed over time through group consensus of dance students and performers, based on an ‘Orientalist’ stereotype of an irrational, backwards ‘East’ which passively reacts to a dominating, powerful, rational ‘West’. Heather uses her academic training to question and refute this narrative through a careful analysis of Arabic language primary sources and supplementary foreign language sources viewed with a critical eye. She shows how raqs sharqi was created by Egyptians for Egyptians by adopting foreign ideas and technology for their own purposes as an authentically Egyptian cultural expression.

So if belly dance was created by Egyptians for Egyptians, how did it come about anyway? Before there was belly dance, there were professional female entertainers (the ‘awalim and the ghawazi) who in 1700s and 1800s were hired to perform for important family events such as celebrations of birth, marriage, or public festivals. In 1830, Muhammad Ali (the Ottoman governor of Egypt) banned public performance by female entertainers, in response to public concern over the propriety of the female entertainers, who were sometimes associated with prostitution and other vices. By the early 1900s, dancers had migrated to performing in urban entertainment halls instead of at traditional celebrations as a way to evade restrictions on public performance.

These entertainment halls were a melting pot where dancers and other performers from all over Egypt, North Africa, the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Europe performed. In this space, ‘awalim/ghwazi dance absorbed influences from a variety of dance styles and aesthetics to become the raqs sharqi we know today. “Two critical features that mark raqs sharqi as a concert dance and differentiate it from the dances of the ‘awalim and the ghawazi are (1) Performance for the sake of performance, and (2) Performance for a primarily non-participating audience”, and they were in place as early as the 1890s in dance in the entertainment halls (p. 58). From the urban music hall of the 1920s, raqs sharqi was disseminated to the wider Egyptian public through the new medium of television, where the ‘golden era’ films of the 1930s to the 1960s cemented raqs sharqi as a part of the Egyptian cultural heritage.

If this brief summary of belly dance history is of interest to you, I urge you to read Heather’s book which covers the full story in much more detail. A word of warning – the language can be somewhat formal and academic at times, but it is worth persevering. Heather’s book is a fascinating historical overview of belly dance as authentically Egyptian, and not the stereotypical Orientalist view that it was created to ‘please Westerners’. I hope you read and enjoy it!

Recommended Reading

Ward, Heather D. 2018. Egyptian Belly Dance in Transition. Jefferson, NC, USA: McFarland.

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