Orientation to Oriental Dance Styles
Updated: Mar 20, 2022
Post 1 of 11 To kick things off lets get our bearings, here is the diagram created by Nadira Jamal showing the relationship of bellydance and Middle Eastern dance, and the degree of influence of western esthetics on a variety of styles.
Next, a little about terminology. The term "belly dance" is a translation of the French "dans du ventre" and started being used by orientalists who were scandalized by uncorseted women dancing. I, and many others, use the term because it is the one most recognizable to the general public, but it is not what the dance is called in the countries of origin. (That's right, countries, plural!) In Egypt and other Arabic speaking countries, it is called Raqs Sharki, which means oriental/eastern dance. In Turkey it is called Oryntal Dansi, with the same translation. I think, when talking about a cultural dance, we should use the name from the culture of origin. But the history of our dance's development makes that a bit complicated. Should we use the Arabic or the Turkish? If we mean just one of those styles that's easy, but what about when we mean any of the traditional or offshoot styles? Should we translate the name into English to stand in for all traditional styles, regardless of which country they come from? There are some problems with imposing another language on it, but beyond that do we say "oriental dance" with all the orientalist associations of that word? Or "eastern dance" which leaves most people thinking of something more like Thai temple dance or Japanese Geisha performances? How about fusion styles? These posts are meant to be an introduction for new dancers, and I'm afraid I've thrown you in the deep end of the politics involved in our dance! For now, there is not one answer that makes everyone happy. I'll be updating these posts to better reflect more woke naming conventions, but will also include some of the old names, so that when you come across un-updated sources you'll be able to recognize what they mean, and so you'll be able to see the history.
I want to give a little background and context to the styles we'll be going over in these posts, there's always a "before that" and an "after that". What's going on now will be the history future dancers build on, which is pretty exciting. This post is a VERY brief overview of the history of Raqs Sharki. There are A LOT of origin myths about where bellydance came from, the writer I mentioned in class, Andrea Deagon, has a very interesting article about that topic. It's a bit long, but something you might want to save and look over as you have time. For today let's start with what we know. Bellydance is both a social dance in Egypt (raqs beledi) and the Levantine region, as Shira explains quite succinctly, and as you can see in this video (although the music choice is a little odd ^_^), and a performance style for stage (raqs sharqi) Moving back from there we come to the Awalim, who were female entertainers for the upper class, performing in private homes. They sang, made music, poetry, conversation, as well as danced, they had a similar profession to Geisha. In the old days, if entertaining for men they could be behind a screen and recite poetry, or make up verses off the cuff about the clients whom she could see but who couldn't see her, and they would dance with and for the women. The profession came from the Qaina tradition, when it was considered ideal for a girl of Moroccan origin to receive 16 years of training between Mecca, Medina, and finally getting their arts training in Baghdad: where the music of Persia, Turkey, Greece, and the Arab world were already mixing (for more information like this, check out the book Before They Were Belly Dancers). Their roll was filled by Awalim as the Arab world moved away from slavery and the profession became controlled by the women providing the entertainment. Even today in Egypt the dancer hires her musicians and back-up dancers, a continuation of this female run profession. (That said, men have bellydanced for centuries, and continue to dance socially and professionally today, which is another box to unpack ^_^) Between 900 and 1100ce the Rom, Lom, and Drom tribes (commonly referred to by the slur "gypsies") left Northern India/Southern Pakistan. In the early 1300s they arrived in both Turkey and the Arab world. In Turkey and much Europe they go by Rom or Romani, in Iraq they're called Kawliya. In Egypt there are a varieties of families of this descent (the names Nawari, Sunbati, and Ghawazee are all used, but again this is a complicated subject). The term Ghawazee has at different points in history meant either public dancers or countryside dancers. They would contribute to the dance's evolution as we'll see in the coming posts (and each group has their own folkloric styles that will be gone over in the folk dance category). Some centuries after their migration the Ottoman empire expanded to areas where "proto-bellydance" was happening, between 1512 and 1522ce. They brought entertainers such as the Awalim back to Istanbul. In the early 1800s European Orientalism began, they began visiting Turkey and the Arab world. As defined by Edward Said orientalism is “the romanticization of the Other as primitive, exotic and even barbaric in order to justify the Western desire to expand colonial empire and hold power”. This had an influence on the dance because, racist or not, these European industrialists, colonizers, and tourists were still paying customers. This is the environment in which the dance transformed from the living-room and wedding entertainment into the stage oriented Raqs Sharki (and Danse Orientale, as it's known in Turkey) that we know today. (Nissa has more information about this period in Egypt in her book "Raks Sharki Revolution", I'm hoping someone publishes parallel research on Turkey during that time ^_^) . In this clip from a French movie, golden era star, Samia Gamal (who cut her teeth in Badia Masabni's Casino Opera), plays a character who is forced to dance in what the French writers fantasized a "harem" would be. Next post we'll pick up with the vintage Egyptian style!