"Wishtory" and the Search for Origins
Updated: Mar 20
The following is a reader's digest/compilation of three articles, "Fact or Fiction: Which Belly Dance Urban Legends Should You Believe?" By Shira, "The Oldest Dance'? Really???" also by Shira, and "In Search of the Origins of Dance: Real History, or Fragments of Ourselves" by Andrea Deagon, PhD., as well as my own thoughts stitching them together. The water cycle analogy is also my own. I've combined and condensed them in an effort to make it easier for new dancers to get solid footing on the issue of bellydance's history, without feeling too overwhelmed. Enjoy!
To begin with, Shira states "The Internet is full of web sites boldly claiming that oriental dance (belly dance) is "the oldest dance", "an ancient birth ritual", "a goddess dance", and "thousands of years old". There have also been a number of books published and videos released over the years that make similar claims. I refer to these claims as WISHful hisTORY, or 'wishtory'." (Shira, 1) Dr Deagon, speaking of the early days of bellydance in the United States says "What were we to believe? In the 1970's there was so little information available that we had to take what we could get. This might be blurbs from record jackets... or the wishful imaginations of spiritually included dancers, or real research and observations watered down by transmissions until the original meaning was all but lost." (Deagon, 3) "The person who started a given story may have told her students, 'I don't know. Perhaps it was because....' Over the years, that student may have passed it on to her students as a 'fact' that she learned from her teacher, forgetting that it was presented to her as speculation." (Shira, 1) "Why not simply embrace (the myths)? After all, it COULD have been true - couldn't it? Well, maybe, but Oriental dance still struggles to gain the kind of credibility needed to obtain arts council grants.... (and) projecting our own wishes onto the dance form of another culture creates a distorted view of that culture." (Shira, 1) "When people ask us "How did this dance begin?" they expect an answer that is rooted in material fact -- the provable world we share. And this is the sort of answer we ought to give them. .... Sticking to fact -however little there is of it - is respectful to others, as it allows them to form their own interpretations of the dance without being influenced by "origin myths" that might not reflect their own feelings or beliefs. But even more important, this level of caution and truthfulness is respectful of the people of the past, whose lives we do not really know and should not describe as if we did." (Deagon, 3) "...In our ancestors' absence, we fall into habits of thinking that mar our search for the origins of this ancient dance. One is that we tend to see the past as more simple than the present, and to imagine that today's complexity is a development from something more primitive and unified. Another is that we tend to use the past as a justification for present view or practices-- we want to see our own ideas and practices as correct and natural." (Deagon, 3) "...most simple stories of the origins of Middle Eastern dance are essentially about what the dance means now Some of our "origin myths" emphasize sexuality and the dance as an instrument of seduction. Other emphasize its feminist, spiritual, and expressive potentials" (Deagon, 3).
On the topic of the role of origin myths in our modern dancer's psyche, Dr. Deagon continues: "Many 'origin myths,' whether they emphasize sensuality or spirituality, seduction or self-actualization, have an element of truth to them.... The problem with all of these stories is that they are not adequate explanations for the origins of Middle Eastern dance. They are not history. They are simply stories that, in the guise of history, interpret the present in mythic images that feel right to us." (Deagon, 3) and Shira adds "I'm not saying dancers who enjoy these modern-day non-Middle-Eastern additions to the dance should abandon them. However, I encourage you to learn the truth behind how these practices came into being, and pass that truth on to your students, friends, co-workers, and audience members. In that way, we can educate people about the true nature of the dance and celebrate modern-day innovation at the same time." (Shira, 2) "women of today can be empowered without making fanciful claims about the past that we are unable to confirm." (Shira, 2) "At the same time, as dancers and artists -- and simple as human beings -- we are entitled to feel ancient connections. We are entitled to tell our own archetypal stories through dance. .... Our mythic past gives us a way of understanding ourselves by plotting our own lives and feelings into the sweep of time and imagination. In our dance -- if not in our scholarship -- we may invoke any truth, any image, and experience we want to represent, from ancient priestess to village maiden, from prostitute to queen." (Deagon, 3).
When we think of how our history is imagined, it is important to note the ways history has been conceptualized over the years. "..19th-century scholars.... envisioned human history as a series of stages from the most primitive to the most advanced. They portrayed people from previous times -Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, Neolithic (or modern) agriculturists in their small settled villages-- as living in the childhood of the species. They saw Western industrial civilization -- that is to say, US -- as humanity's maturity. They spoke of tribal peoples as simple or naive, while thinking of themselves as sophisticated and wise. "Today, scholarly thinking has changed. Anthropologists have recognized that technological progress does not make people more intelligent or more complex. ...... But we still have a tendency to think of the past as simple. ... So we try to explain the origins of the dance in simple, linear ways -- whether we point to the harems of the Ottoman kings or the rituals of the Great Goddess. " (Deagon, 3) Later in the piece, Dr. Deagon says "'Belly dance' -- an expressive dance which emphasizes complex movements of the torso -- is, quite simply, a folk dance of this area. It is a way of moving, and a way of understanding what dance is, that ranges far and wide. People of both sexes do it; it appears at many different kinds of functions in many different forms. The basic techniques of our dance, and the spirit of self-expression in which it is done, are spread out so broadly thought the area and throughout history that pinpointing any specific origin for it is an impossible task." (Deagon, 3). Shira asks "Why can't we accept that the earliest origins of Oriental dance are lost in time?" (Shira, 2) To this, I would add the following:
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 (especially given the ancient tradition of trade and legacy of empires expanding and falling, to say nothing of colonialism) I recommend thinking of the history 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 inspiration, movements, contexts, aesthetics, and so on that make up bellydance. 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.
1. Shira, "Fact or Fiction: Which Belly Dance Urban Legends Should You Believe?", Shira.net. http://www.shira.net/about/fact-or-fiction.htm, accessed January 16, 2019.
2. Shira, "'The Oldest Dance'? Really???", Shira.net. http://www.shira.net/about/wishtory.htm, accessed January 16, 2019.
3. Deagon, Andrea, "In Search of the Origins of Dance: Real History or Fragments of Ourselves," Habibi 17.1 (Spring 1998) 20-21, 35-36. http://shira.net/about/origins-deagon.htm, accessed January 16, 2019.