Historical Information Bellydance

Introduction to Bellydance

Compiled by Urshulah

Historical Background

Middle Eastern dance or Bellydance as it’s known in the West is an ancient art form. It entails a lot of theory and practice but without the heart no art form comes to life! It is a dance which comes from within and is shaped by each person’s own personality, creativity and intuition.

The postures and movements of bellydance have a long and interesting history. Anthropologists have suggested that the dance was a form of ritual celebration of fertility dating from around 30 000 BC. Some of the world’s oldest artifacts depict the female figure in postures similar to those found in bellydance today (Sharif K, 2004:6.)

From around 4000BC early civilizations that originated in the Middle East e.g. Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians focused on the ‘birth dance’ which formed a direct relationship between the fertility of women and the fertility of the earth (Sharif K, 2004:6.) All rituals were danced, expressing joy, sadness, fear, etc. It was a way to express life and death. Women especially were very much in touch with nature, their bodies and fertility. Fertility and therefore ovulation was a matter of survival. Women realized that their own cycles coincided with the cycles of the moon and women living in close proximity in groups and communities actually started menstruating at the same time. So with full moon they would gather on hilltops to celebrate fertility which included dancing with fast rhythms and movements were focused around belly centering sexual energy. When they were menstruating they also gathered on hills and was then accompanied by slow music. They then danced with slow movements easing the pain and expressed their moods and feelings. These dances were purely spontaneous, natural and free and can be considered as the oldest dances of civilization. Dancing in these times was also a way to stretch past one’s own limitations and to connect to the divine/gods/God. Dancing was seen as sacred.   

The first evidence of professional dances was seen in the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs when dances were exclusively danced for the rulers. Dancing transformed from a sacred dance into choreographed performances as indicated by the tomb of Netuman 1400BC (Sharif K, 2004:7.)

In Crete (1600 to 1200 BC) dancing was still used in rituals but also as entertainment for all social classes. The dancing was lively with women dancing with loose flying hair and moving their whole bodies. The Cretan men were also famous for their dancing. They realized the flexibility and agility gained by dancing helped them to a certain level of perfection in warfare.

Although wisdom and knowledge were revered in Classical Greece they also worshipped military power. Socrates was quoted as saying that the best male dancers were also the best warriors. They ascribed great importance to dancing. Formal dancing became very popular and the dancer’s own individual expression started to become less important. Women during this time had an inferior position in society and the public image was split between being virtuous decent citizens with no unsuited or intense body movements on the one side, and on the other side there was the sensuous erotic dancing which was still based on the early rituals, but which was now connected to prostitution and inappropriateness. It wasn’t seen as a sacred dance anymore.

During the Roman times the situation for dancing even deteriorated. Dancing and the body were of no importance as the body was seen as the prison for the soul. In the Roman Empire man’s social standing was not measured by physical and spiritual perfection as was done by the Greeks but rather by wealth, ascent, political success and number of children. The Romans saw dancing solely as a source of entertainment. The most celebrated dances were imported from the city of Cadiz, a Phoenician colony. They were famous for there wild moving thighs and their soft and smooth hips.

The first two centuries AD the fathers of the Christian church had a positive and holistic approach to the body. Then a new trend brought a split between body, mind and soul. The body was damned as the seat of all desires. Ritual dancing was seen as evil.

During the Middles Ages there was a surplus of women in the cities. They were used as cheap and untrained labour and became sex objects. Marriage became a woman’s only life-insurance. The only alternative was prostitution or the convent.  Towards the end of middle ages there was social discrimination against women. Witch-hunts was at the order of the day and all dancing and singing was prohibited by the church. Despite the ban on dancing, ordinary people kept on dancing their rituals. At the time Gypsies brought lively sensual earthy pelvic dances from Asia through Africa and East Europe to Europe. They were driven mainly from India by hunger and passed through various regions. Some came via Afghanistan, Turkey, Egypt and North Africa (Morocco).  Music, songs and dance formed a central part in the lives of Gypsies.
The West first discovered Oriental Bellydancing when the Moors came from Africa and Arabia to Spain in approximately the 11th Century AD. Therefore Bellydancing is not the product of one culture or tribe but rather a mixture carried by age old knowledge and maintained strength and influence over time.

Development of Bellydancing throughout the Arabic world continued with an appreciation of different levels of artistic skills but without the conscious connection to the original underlying rituals. The attitude to the dance of the feminine pelvis was always ambivalent (Al-Rawi, 2003:43.) Islam disapproves of mixed dancing. It acknowledges the power of the feminine but believed that it should be controlled within religious structure. Women danced among themselves for entertainment and a bride would dance solely for her groom. From the 17th to 19th century poor women would often dance in public to earn a living and often engaged in prostitution as well. This time also saw the start of professional dancing. The fame of a professional dancer depended on the status of her audience. Even today the dancing in public is still quite taboo except if you dance for the elite. In this regard the best dancers are regarded as national icons.

In modern times Bellydance has survived as an art form and still holds the power and benefits which it did a few thousand years ago. It develops and transforms in different ways over the modern world. One such development is Tribal Bellydance which originated in North Africa in the desert. These are often slow trancelike movements which are highly isolated, snake-like and grounded. Today different forms keep on developing into new fusions.

Benefits of Bellydancing

Apart from the ritualistic, spiritual and artistic benefits of Bellydance there are some more direct benefits.

It brings relaxation through movement and breathing. As many eastern forms of meditation it integrates body, mind and soul.

Physiologically it helps to develop and maintain a healthy balance. It keeps the body fit, supple and well-toned. It helps with postural alignment and the natural flow of energy.
It re-gains the feminine self and helps to find confidence and comfort in the feminine body.

Many dances over the world played an important role during pregnancy for example the Hawaiian Hula, Polynesian dances, African dances and the Brazilian Samba. The percussion represented the heartbeat of the mother which formed a synchronized rhythm with that of the baby. The dancing movements strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, relax the mother-to-be, keep muscles well-toned and help to regain strength again after the birth. Furthermore the dance-move termed ‘the rib-cage isolation slide’ helps to relieve back-ache during pregnancy which can be performed up to the 7th month. Bedouin women from North Africa do a birth dance in a tent with only other women being present playing drums. Supported by two women the baby is then brought into the world while dancing by gently swaying their hips and doing belly rolls.

The art of Bellydance

Bellydance is the isolation of various parts of the body which moves indepently from each other but still forms a unity as a dance. It creates a multi dimensional body awareness as one uses senses, feelings, thinking and intuition as whole. Strength comes from the belly and it is also here where you find balance and your center just below the navel. Symbolically in many creation myths the navel is the point of creation and origin of life.

The movements come from the joints with the trunk following with slow circular movements as opposed to many western dances where the trunk is often more passive than the limbs.

Different parts of the body also represent different natural elements in their expression. Movements in the base and pelvic areas represent earth and grounding. Movements in the belly represent the flow of water. Movements in the upper parts of the body represent fire.  The hand movements represent air. Different instruments often acompany these different parts of the body.

Facial expression forms part of connecting with the audience. Your eyes are the mirrors of the soul. By letting them talk they allow your moods and feelings to show. They don’t look at the ground while dancing but rather trust your feet to form the connection with the ground. The head is kept high not out of arrogance but to show courage. The ears are the gateway to the soul. Whenever you are sad or tired put on your favourite music, listen and let the sound direct and integrate your soul towards your belly from where creativity and all new things start.


Through the wave-like movements of bellydance we can come into harmony with the natural rhythm of the earth. It can teach us courage to overcome our own limitations and barriers.

So dance little sister dance, for as long as you dance the ancient women’s dance will be passed on from women to women. “…whoever ignores the force of life also avoids the joys of life…” (Al-Rawi R, 2003:60)





- Al-Rawi R. Grandmother’s Secrets: The ancient rituals and healing power of bellydancing. (2003) Interlink Books

- Sharif K. Bellydance. (2004) Allen & Unwin, NSW