How Bellydance History is Like Molecular Physics
Updated: Sep 5
Bellydancers have come up with some incredible stories to explain the origins of our dance. And while we can know a lot about the past century, the further back we go, the blurrier the picture gets. In her article about bellydance urban legends, Shira asks "Why can't we accept that the earliest origins of Oriental dance are lost in time?" I propose the following, as a way to create some sense of resolution around this issue.
You are bound to come across some version of the phrase "bellydance as we know it today", which generally means raqs sharki as it has been performed leading up the golden era and recorded in early Egyptian cinema. This style was popular with the concert halls and it formed from the dances of the awalim and Ottoman court dancers.
As Dr. Deagon points out, we tend to want to simplify the past, conceptualizing it as straight roads, with no on or off ramps. Instead (and in light of the ancient tradition of trade, the legacies of empires expanding and falling, to say nothing of colonialism) I recommend thinking of the timeline of bellydance as a series of rivers and streams that merge and diverge, mixing together and forging their own paths. Liquids are made of lots of molecules that stick together, and are always moving. Think of it, you can never look at the same river twice.
So, if we keep following the streams up river, they turn into little creeks, and into places where it's just saturated groundwater flowing towards the creeks, until you reach the mountain top where the fog is condensing (you remember the water cycle from grade school science, right?). Shira's question could be posed as "Why can't we accept that the earliest origins of Oriental dance are lost in (the mists of) time?" I contend that when it comes to the origin of bellydance, it isn't lost to the mist, but rather, it IS the mist. All those little molecules that will make up the river are all of those little inspirations, movements, contexts, aesthetics, and so on that make up bellydance.
If we traveled through time to stand in those mists, the droplets that eventually condenence into Dan Oryantale/Raqs Sharki are things like finger cymbals, the silk road and monsoon marketplace, centuries of trade and shifting empires, the qaina and later the awalim, the Romani migrations, the Ottoman courts, Egyptian night clubs and later cinema, and so on.
As an aside, it says something about how complicated bellydance's history is that molecular physics is easier to explain than bellydance history ^_~
In conclusion, when reading or listening to ideas about the history of bellydance, think back to history class about sources and use critical thinking to evaluate them. When preparing a performance for the public, be sure you are being respectful of the cultures of origin and the living people impacted by the perceptions of their culture. When thinking of what inspires you do dance, and what aspects of yourself and society you would like to use your dance to explore, give yourself free reign (pun intended), Queen.