Belly dance is a Western name for an Arabic style of dance developed in the Middle East. In Europe, it is sometimes called oriental dance. Similarly, In Turkish it is referred to as oryantal dansı ("Dance of the East"). Some American devotees refer to it simply as "Middle Eastern Dance".
In the Arabic language it is known as raqs sharqi رقص شرقي ("eastern dance") or sometimes raqs baladi رقص بلدي ("national" or "folk" dance). The term "raqs sharqi" may have originated in Egypt.
The performance dance form known in the West as the Belly Dance, is based on one of the social dances native to the Middle East. In palestine, this social dance is called Raks Baladi, and is performed by people of all ages and both sexes during festive occasions such as weddings and other social gatherings for fun and celebration. It is the theatricalized version, performed by male (such as Jim Boz and Tito) and female (such as Morocco and Belly Dance Superstars) professional dancers and called Raks Sharki in Arabic, that is most popular in America today.
In its native lands boys and girls learn the dance from an early age. As with all social dances, it is learned informally through observation and imitation of their elders during family and community celebrations, as well as during informal gatherings with friends. Today, Middle Eastern dance classes are offered throughout the world, and skilled dancers are able to share their knowledge of the dance during studio classes and workshops.
The exact origin of this dance form is actively debated among dance enthusiasts, especially given the limited academic research on the topic. Much of the research in this area has been done by dancers attempting to understand their dance's origins. However, the often overlooked fact that most dancing in the Middle East occurs in the social context rather than the more visible and glamorous context of the professional nightclub dancers, has led to an overall misunderstanding of the dance's true nature and has given rise to many conflicting theories about its origins. Because this dance is a fusion of many dance styles, it undoubtedly has many different origins -- many of them in ethnic folk dances.
Many dancers subscribe to one or another of a number of theories regarding the origins of the form. Some of these theories are that the dance form:
* descended from dances in early Egypt
* descended from a religious dance Temple Priestesses once practiced
* had been a part of traditional birthing practices in the region(s) of origin
* had spread from the migrations of the Romani people (also called 'Gypsies') and related groups, with origins in India.
Of the theories, the first explanation is rarely invoked, even with such high-status proponents as the Egyptian Dancer Doctor Mo Geddawi promoting it. Much of the support for this theory stems from the similarities between poses in Egyptian artwork and the modern dance moves.
The most well-known theory is that it descended from a religious dance. This idea is usually the one referred to in mainstream articles on the topic, and has enjoyed a large amount of publicity. 1960s American Singer/Dancer Jamila Salimpour was one proponent. It was also popularized in works such as Earth Dancing and Grandmother's Secrets.
The "birthing practices" theory covers a sub-set of dance movements in modern Raqs Sharqi. Strongly publicized by the research of the dancer/layperson anthropologist Morocco (also known as Carolina Varga Dinicu), it involves the rework of movements traditionally utilized to demonstrate or ease childbirth. Although lacking an "origin point", this theory does have the advantage of numerous oral historical references, and is backed by a commentary in the work The Dancer of Shamahka.
Two points suggest Romani dance as its origin. The Roma, and other related groups, are seen as either having brought the form over as they traveled, or picked it up along the way and spread it around. Thanks to the conflation of Roma forms of dance into the Raqs Sharqi sphere in the West, these theories enjoy a vogue in the West that is not necessarily reflected in their origin countries -- although some of that may be due to strongly-held prejudices against the Romani.
Whatever the origin point, dance has a long history in the Middle East. Despite the restrictions in Islam regarding portraying humans in paintings, there are several depictions of dancers throughout the Islamic world. Books such as The Art and Architecture of Islam 650-1250 show images of dancers on palace walls, as do Persian miniature paintings from the 12th and 13th centuries.
Outside of the Middle East, raqs sharqi dancing was popularized during the Romantic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries as Orientalist artists depicted their interpretations of harem life in the Ottoman Empire. Around this time, dancers from different Middle Eastern countries began to exhibit such dances at various World's Fairs; they often drew crowds that rivaled the technological exhibits. Some dancers were captured on early film; the short film "Fatima's Dance", was widely distributed in the nickelodeon movie theaters. It drew criticism for its "immodest" dancing, and was eventually censored due to public pressure.