As a former belly dancer, people (both men and women) were always in awe that my husband “allowed me” to “dance for other men.” This is where their belly dance education began.
The term ‘belly dance’ is a distortion of the Arabic term raqs al baladi, meaning ‘dance of the people.’ When a dancer named Little Egypt performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Victorian audiences were appalled by her rapid hip movements and uncorseted (although fully clothed) body and determined that baladi simply meant ‘belly’. And so the term ‘belly dance’ was born.
Although the origins of belly dance are not completely known, historians agree that it is not an uncontrolled hoochie coochie dance that enslaved women performed for the sexual pleasure of their masters. Rather, the art of belly dance is considered a social tradition performed by both men and women for weddings and festivals. In the Middle East and Northern Africa, the sexes often celebrated events separately. Therefore, men danced for men and women danced for women.
In family circles, it is said that mothers, aunts and female friends would perform various movements to show a young bride which muscles would be useful in childbirth. For example, hip twists, lifts and drops would loosen the pelvic floor. Abdominal undulations would help a woman push the baby out. In short, belly dance may have been one of the earliest forms of Lamaze. Judging from my 55 minute labor, I would say that these movements are very effective too!
In my recent pregnancy this year, I pushed my baby out within 2 minutes! Quite literally, I got the urge to push, which broke my water, called the midwife and by the time she got on the phone the baby was completely out and crying! Luckily my husband was awake to deliver her.
But back to the story of belly dance, even in the sultan’s harem (the women’s quarters in the palace), women performed the dance for one another to pass the time away. It was a form of entertainment by women for women in a time when illiteracy was widespread. Surely these women also noticed its advantages in childbirth as well as some sultans were known to have dozens of children.
To thousands of modern belly dancers across the globe, raqs al baladi is a sacred, empowering dance. It represents a sisterhood that all women share by connecting us to our earthy past and honoring us as creators of the future. When we choose to dance for men, it is not to submit, but to let them know who is really in charge!