The history of belly dance

Daimona

Moderator
I'm a bit rusty on belly dance history and after experiencing someone mixing belly dance and reenactment, I've started wondering:

If we look at the documented history of belly dance, middle eastern dances and North African dances, how far back in time do we get with the facts if we exclude wishtory, false assumptions and pure guesswork? Seeing the evolution of the dance the past app. 100 years (or as long as we've hade moving pictures), things may change drastically.

What are presumably the oldest dance forms of the folk dances?
What are the oldest written descriptions of dances from the Middle East and North Africa and how is the dance itself described?
 

Roshanna

New member
There are lots of written descriptions by Western travellers from the start of the 19th Century onwards, as well as drawings and later on photographs, so it's possible to form quite a clear picture of Egyptian dance going back 200 years or so (although some Western accounts have to be taken with a fairly large grain of salt).

Several mediaeval Arabic sources relating to dance have been translated by Dr George Sawa - http://www.shira.net/about/aesthetics-dancers.htm
 

Shanazel

Super Moderator
"What he/she needs is a long neck and long sideburns..."

No wonder I wasn't a bigger success: my neck is too short and my sideburns never grew in. I fit all the other criteria admirably. ;)

Shira always has interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing that.
 

Daimona

Moderator
There are lots of written descriptions by Western travellers from the start of the 19th Century onwards, as well as drawings and later on photographs, so it's possible to form quite a clear picture of Egyptian dance going back 200 years or so (although some Western accounts have to be taken with a fairly large grain of salt).
Exactly. I'm trying to look further than some of the westernized fantasies from the 19th century.

Several mediaeval Arabic sources relating to dance have been translated by Dr George Sawa - http://www.shira.net/about/aesthetics-dancers.htm
Thanks. I hadn't read these articles yet.

What I read from the the first quote ( http://www.shira.net/about/aesthetics-dancers.htm#Qualities ) about the dances:


  • There are several types of dances and a dancer must know and master them as well as being creative herself/himself.
  • Finger movements are important in some of the dances (I interpret it is about handling various props).
  • Turning controlled is important. Following rhythmical patterns, two ways of stepping is described.
  • Dances related to culturally important animals, such as the camel (ibil) and the horse (kurraj).
  • Props: Wooden horse statues on garments. Wands/sticks.


The second quote (http://www.shira.net/about/aesthetics-dancers.htm#Anecdote):

  • Props: Palm leaves and olives. (?)
  • Dastband: Dancing while holding hands (persian).
  • Dances related to animals (camel).


Are there more?
 
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Shanazel

Super Moderator
That there exist westernized fantasies about middle eastern dance is undeniable but to dismiss all western observations of middle eastern dance/music/culture out of hand would be a mistake. The image of the criminally stupid European/American blundering through the middle east is as overblown as orientalist fantasies of belly dance as sheik seduction. A little bit more balanced view of all sides might be very productive.
 

Roshanna

New member
That there exist westernized fantasies about middle eastern dance is undeniable but to dismiss all western observations of middle eastern dance/music/culture out of hand would be a mistake. The image of the criminally stupid European/American blundering through the middle east is as overblown as orientalist fantasies of belly dance as sheik seduction. A little bit more balanced view of all sides might be very productive.
Agreed. I'm very aware of and critical of orientalism, but dismissing Western sources out of hand isn't the answer. Rather, you need to be aware of an author's viewpoint and possible biases when reading any historical source, and not view any source as objective truth. Dealing sensibly with information from unreliable sources is a large part of studying history.

When it comes to 19th century travellers' accounts, the writers' prejudices and preoccupations are usually rather obvious (e.g. wanting to see things as exotic, or grotesque, or sexual, or barbaric) - but that doesn't mean they would necessarily be inaccurate when it came to things like describing where they saw dance and in what context, what kind of musical instruments were used, roughly what the costume looked like, how the performance was structured, what props were used... And whilst Flaubert and Nerval were looking at things through a very orientalist filter, they were clearly not stupid - both had some totally screwed up attitudes towards women and towards the Middle East, but they were also intelligent people and brilliant writers. Edward Lane is a bit trickier to deal with because he tried hard to present himself as fair and objective so you need to make more of a conscious effort not to just go along with everything he says...
 

Shanazel

Super Moderator
Objective truth is elusive, allusive, and illusive. That is what makes studying history so fascinating. Try as we might, no historian is capable of being completely fair or objective about everything and maybe not about anything.

People looked at and look at life through the filters of their own time and their own peculiarities. Sometimes those filters obscure and sometimes they illuminate. A historian who looks back through his or her own filter and critiques the behavior of past generations instead of simply observing it is missing some important information. That Flaubert and Nerval had "some totally screwed up attitudes towards women" tells us as much about that time period as the color of the fabric used to make costumes, for example. Which makes one wonder: how much did the attitudes of men toward women and specifically toward dancers at any given time affect costuming and the structure of dance? And how is that mirrored in our own time?

Historical tangents. It's a wonder any of us ever get anything done. :)
 

Roshanna

New member
A historian who looks back through his or her own filter and critiques the behavior of past generations instead of simply observing it is missing some important information.
It's not so much a question of critiquing in the sense of criticising, as being mindful of the different viewpoints and cultural attitudes of writers, and taking them into account.
 

Shanazel

Super Moderator
That is exactly what historical critiquing should be but too often is not. People get emotionally caught up in comparing then and now with the viewpoints of then coming out on the short end of the stick thanks to the modern (and therefore superior;)) understanding of the world. There are fashions in historical thought as there are fashions in art. Right now the fashion is for focusing on the negatives wrought by western culture. No denying there are negatives, but one cannot take those negatives out of context and call it history.
 

Ariadne

Well-known member
You just put into words something that has been niggling me for years. I love history and when I am studying it I try very hard to understand and interpret it from the cultural POV of the time. It makes it very hard to explain my thoughts on what I've learned at times though since trying to explain it in a way that people can understand NOW ... well, yeah.

It's like the discussion we had on here several years ago where some people were venting about the tendency to think of Egypt as not being part of Africa. They were basically branding anyone who thought that way as an idiot. I tried, and failed I think, to point out that according to what I have read historically from that area of the world people didn't used to think in terms of continents like we do now. It used to be that anything bordering the Mediterranean was considered one area (including lower Egypt) and when they talked of Africa it could just as easily be referring only to that area below that depending on the context. It's not that they were stupid it's that the context has changed and sometimes these old ideas stick around even when the reason for them hasn't.

History, I love you but you frustrate me! :wall:
 

Daimona

Moderator
That there exist westernized fantasies about middle eastern dance is undeniable but to dismiss all western observations of middle eastern dance/music/culture out of hand would be a mistake. The image of the criminally stupid European/American blundering through the middle east is as overblown as orientalist fantasies of belly dance as sheik seduction. A little bit more balanced view of all sides might be very productive.
Yes. I'm not dismissing all observations done by westerners though history.
Rereading what I wrote previously, what I wrote didn't turn out they way I intended as I had left out some important details and I'm sorry about that.

I'm actually simply and open-mindedly trying to get a view of older sources and how the dance is described in older sources working after the principle of "What do we know and what may we interprete from these facts" while putting aside what I think I know about the history. It is a time consuming exercise and I don't expect to get to a conclusion immediately, but I've used this method successfully in other fields and sometimes I've even had to rethink everything I thought I knew about the subject.


The first task in this exercise is to get an overview of what descriptions there is.
How have any danceforms in the Middle East been described through the centuries?

Then, it is time to ask:
Are there anything in these descriptions that resembles the dance styles we see in this region today?
 

Kashmir

New member
That there exist westernized fantasies about middle eastern dance is undeniable but to dismiss all western observations of middle eastern dance/music/culture out of hand would be a mistake. The image of the criminally stupid European/American blundering through the middle east is as overblown as orientalist fantasies of belly dance as sheik seduction. A little bit more balanced view of all sides might be very productive.
Except male westerners would often not be able to see the dance of "normal" women. So we get either the dances of teh public women (Bee Dance anyone?) - or they made it up.
 

Shanazel

Super Moderator
That's true though I think misinterpretation might be more of a problem than telling out and out lies. But should we consider the dances of "public women" to be any less significant than those of "normal women"?
 

Kashmir

New member
That's true though I think misinterpretation might be more of a problem than telling out and out lies. But should we consider the dances of "public women" to be any less significant than those of "normal women"?
Only if it is seen as representative of all women (in some cases it might be - but think of some styles of western dance done by "less" respectable women - pole dancing as representative of American dance?)
 

Shanazel

Super Moderator
Agreed, though there was less difference between public dance and private dance in the early and middle 20th century middle east (think Golden Age Dancers who were not exactly considered top notch society ladies but still quite circumspect) than there is between pole dance and square dancing, for example.

Pole dance is something of an international phenomenon rather than American, though. Now I'm wondering what equivalents would be. Kashmir, if I'm up all night contemplating this, I am calling you long distance in the middle of the NZ night. ;)
 

Ariadne

Well-known member
I think a more likely comparison would be social vs exhibition dancing in Latin dance. The difference can be vast but the moves are all from the same base because the music is the same. As far as I know there was little difference between music in court vs home back then outside of possible increased complexity, more parts? What is it we say? Movement follows music?
 

Shanazel

Super Moderator
Speaking of dance history, one of my embroidery design students just sent me a book called "Grandmother's Secrets: The Ancient Rituals and Healing Power of Belly Dance" by Rosina-Faawzia Al-Rawi. Said she saw it at a book sale and thought I should have it. Such a sweetie and what good timing, hmm? Has anyone read it?
 

Roshanna

New member
You just put into words something that has been niggling me for years. I love history and when I am studying it I try very hard to understand and interpret it from the cultural POV of the time. It makes it very hard to explain my thoughts on what I've learned at times though since trying to explain it in a way that people can understand NOW ... well, yeah.

It's like the discussion we had on here several years ago where some people were venting about the tendency to think of Egypt as not being part of Africa. They were basically branding anyone who thought that way as an idiot. I tried, and failed I think, to point out that according to what I have read historically from that area of the world people didn't used to think in terms of continents like we do now. It used to be that anything bordering the Mediterranean was considered one area (including lower Egypt) and when they talked of Africa it could just as easily be referring only to that area below that depending on the context. It's not that they were stupid it's that the context has changed and sometimes these old ideas stick around even when the reason for them hasn't.

History, I love you but you frustrate me! :wall:
Interestingly, my partner is an ancient historian who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Roman Mediterranean (and specifically the Roman imperial fleets, including in Egypt), and actually what you say about the Mediterranean being one interconnected region seems to be a very mainstream view amongst professional historians, at least in the context of the ancient world. There are quite a number of books on the subject, e.g. 'The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean' by David Abulafia (which I have not actually read yet, despite there being two copies of it in our house...) or "The Making of the Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean from the Beginning to the Emergence of the Classical World" by Cyprian Broodbank (which I also have not read, but it's on my list of possible birthday presents for my partner ;) ).
 
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Roshanna

New member
Speaking of dance history, one of my embroidery design students just sent me a book called "Grandmother's Secrets: The Ancient Rituals and Healing Power of Belly Dance" by Rosina-Faawzia Al-Rawi. Said she saw it at a book sale and thought I should have it. Such a sweetie and what good timing, hmm? Has anyone read it?
Yes. The autobiographical bits are interesting, but the historical bits are questionable at best.
 
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