Belly Dance History Part 2

Belly Dance History Part 2
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Belly Dance History Part 2 by Mellilah: There are lots of articles on belly dance history. You can read them and still find yourself confused. Additionally, we need to edit our previous beliefs on the origins of belly dance, especially those that began with opinion and speculation, as researchers begin to find more pieces to the puzzle. The purpose of my article is to answer the most common questions that most people ask, as simply as possible.

Badia Masabni

Badia Masabni بديعة مصابني

What is the history of the term “belly dance?” The European Orientalists (a group of 19th century European, mostly French, writers and painters) first labeled the female dances of the Orient “dance du ventre”, or dance of the stomach. Additionally, at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, there were many exhibits featuring Middle Eastern dancing. It is said that the term “bellydance” was first used/heard at the fair . Whether the name was made up or taken from the French name “dance du ventre” is unknown. It can also be said that the name “belly dance” is a generic term to label the fluid movements of the hips, torso and body as seen throughout the Middle East. However, just looking at the dances of Egypt, the dances are far from “generic.” There are many different regions in Egypt, each with its own dance style.

Where did the iconic style of belly dance “Raqs Sharqi” originate? The stereotypical style of belly dance that most people are familiar with is “Raqs Sharqi.” The term “Raqs Sharqi” literally means “dance of the East” or “oriental dance.”* Raqs Sharqi developed over time, so first let’s look at the original “night club” dancers in Cairo: According to researcher Heather D. Ward, by the 1910s, awalem, female professional entertainers, could be found performing in the French inspired variety shows called salat or “cafés chantants” within Cairo. Prior to these Egyptian entertainment venues, the awalem had no defined performance setting and danced for social occasions, while the sala transformed dancing into a theatrical dance by the end of the 19th century. The audience is thought to have been primarily Egyptian with no tourists. There is evidence of these dancers wearing elements of the bedlah (belly dance bra and belt) with bare mid-drift. (Ward, 2013)

In 1926, Badia Masabni opened “Casino Badia,” a variety show modeled after European nightclubs with a clientele of foreigners and upper-class Egyptians. It would seem that Badia fused the styles of the awalem and Egyptian ghawazee (known as the gypsies in Cairo), “beledi” (the social dance of Cairo at the time), as well as many other dance styles, including strong influences from ballet and Hollywood. According to Jalilah, Badia hired Western choreographers, who helped add elements of other dance forms, including ballet and ballroom dance. Choreographer Ibrahim Akif also worked with Masabny. He told Jalilah that although the group dances were choreographed, the soloists were improvised. (Jalilah, 2009) The dancing at Badia’s club seemed to have been more sophisticated then the dancing seen at the sala, with additional arm positions and footwork, and for the first time, including choreography and dance ensembles backing up the soloist; closely resembling what belly dancers do today. Most belly dancers refer to the opening of “Casino Badia” as the beginning of the “Golden Age of Belly Dance.” It is widely seen as the key period in “Egyptian” dance history, in which the cabaret style of belly dance or “Raqs Sharqi,” performed on a stage with a sparkly, two piece beaded bra and belt, began to evolve in Egypt, beginning as a fusion art form. However, with so many influences, including some not noted here, it would be impossible to pinpoint its exact origins.  Heather D. Ward states, “Badia did not set out to create a new dance form; rather, quite successfully, she attempted to out-do her competitors in an already proven format for variety entertainment that included dance. The stage for raqs sharqi had already been set within the walls of the salat of Ezbekiya” (Ward, 2013). Badia went on to train and influence many of the Egyptian legends and first stars of the Egyptian film industry.

*There is evidence that the term “Raqs Sharqi” was being used as early as March 5, 1926, months before Badia opened Casino Badia. It can be found in an Al ahram advertisement for an Oum Kulthoum concert in which dancers were to perform during the intermission.  Prior to that, the term “Raqs Arabi” was used, according to another publication from Al ahram dated July 2, 1889,  

People often use many interchangeable names for Raqs Sharqi, including Egyptian Oriental or Dance Oriental. Furthermore, Raqs Sharki can be subdivided into more specific styles based on how the dancer interprets and expresses the music with movement: Classical Egyptian, Modern Egyptian, etc…

I’ve heard belly dance is an ancient dance form. Is this true?  Belly dance is a broad and generic term that simply refers to many expressive dances that involve intricate movements of the torso, seen in various folk dances throughout time. So, this is an impossible question to answer. According to Andrea Deagon, “It is important to realize that the movements of this dance are done all over the Middle East, North Africa, Southern Europe and India, and that this has apparently been the case for a very long time” (Deagon, 1998). Therefore, when asking questions about the origins of belly dance, you must look at each style and/or region seperately, and even then, it’s difficult to pinpoint the origins. People want to believe that belly dance is an ancient dance form, a birthing ritual, originally a dance performed for women by women only, etc… but we must educate ourselves and move beyond these myths.

Here are a couple of facts that are true regarding the origins of a couple of styles of belly dance:

According to Sahra Saeeda, “Tahtib is a martial arts fight popular in the Sa’idi region for well over 3300 years” (Saeeda, 2014). In her article referenced below, she shows ancient pictures of what appears to be Tahtib. The folkloric Saidi dance style (danced by men and women) comes from the Tahtib.

Raqs Sharqi, the most common style that most people think of when referring to belly dance, described above, began as a fusion dance form, evolving in the late 19th century if not before.

Ancient temple engravings that seem to depict dancers (not belly dancers) can be found in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece. These images seem to show dances that more closely resemble gymnastics. Did these ancient dances influence the various regions of the Orient? How? Did Ancient Egypt have social dances, too? It would be very difficult to pinpoint the origins of each movement resembling “belly dance” used throughout time.

Traditionally, belly dance was performed for other women, not men. Is this true? This is a myth or huge generalization because the question itself is too vague to answer. If we refer to the many folkloric dances of Egypt, in many cases, the women danced only in their homes or at private family gatherings, as well as for each other.* The local professional entertainers performed for men and women. What most belly dancers do, Raqs Sharqi, as noted above, is linked to the the salat (public variety shows) and “Casino Badia.” Raqs Sharki went on to play a huge role in Egyptian films, too, with the very first stars linked to Badia and the Casino Badia.

*Note that men play a huge role in the dances of Egypt, too, dancing socially, publicly, and professionally throughout Egyptian history.

*I did read in Jalila’s article listed below that there was a matinée show just for women at the original Casino Badia in 1926, in addition to the evening show. (Jalilah, 2009)

For more info about the author, visit

Ward. (2013, January 10). From Café Chantant to Casino Opera.
Retrieved from

Jalilah. (2009, February 16). Badia Masabny Star Maker of Cairo
Retrieved from

Deagon, Andrea. “In Search of the Origins of Dance: Real History or Fragments of Ourselves,” Habibi 17.1 (Spring 1998) 20-21, 35-36.
Retrieved from, accessed May 15, 2014.

Sahra Saeeda. (2014). What is the Sa’idi “Tahtib”.
Retrieved from

Other Resources:
At the Crossroads by Heather D. Ward, posted in the Gilded Serpent

“The Oldest Dance”? Really??? by Shira

The Life of Badia Masabni Parts 1-9, written by Tarek Hashem and translated by Priscilla Adum

Badia Masabni: The Lady and Her Clubs by Priscilla Adum

Princton Alumni Weekly, Volume 62 – Use the search feature on the left, and search for “Morroe Berger” to find his article “The Oriental Danse.” In this article, Morroe states that the Ivanova Dance School in Cairo was a school of ballet run by Sonia Ivanova, who some believe taught Taheya Carioca and many other legendary dancers of the Golden Era of Belly Dance.

The Different Regions of Egypt  The Different Regions of Egypt by Sahra Saeeda

The Different Dances of Egypt The Different Dances of Egypt by Sahra Saeeda

Belly Dance Styles by Mellilah.

About Mellilah Jamal

Mellilah teaches belly dance classes in Redmond and Bothell and performs for private parties and restaurants throughout Seattle.


  1. Christen says:

    This is so interesting! I had no idea there were so many cultural dances that formed together into what we call belly dancing today.

  2. Just a quick note on the beginning of Melilah’s article, (as I have to run off to do some treatments). The term ‘dance du ventre” was indeed derived from the European (primarily French) Orientalists. However, since they were exploring North Africa long before what we call “oriental dance” was born, and because they spent most of their time in the Maghreb, i.e. Morocco, Algeria and Tunsia, as these countries were colonies of France, the dances that they witnessed were primarily folkloric/chaabi forms, which had almost no relationship with our contemporary “Oriental Dance” aka Raqs Sharqi. Particularily notable are the dancers of the Algerian Ouled Nail and the Moroccan Shikhat dancers. Both of these groups were professional dancers and both styles focus the movements on pelvic thrusts and drops – hence “dance du ventre” or stomach “belly” dance. Will read and comment more shortly…. Hadia

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