Oriental Dance: A Dance For The Whole Family

by Shira

Contrary to what many Westerners believe, Oriental dance (the correct name for belly dancing) did not originate as a dance of seduction done by concubines to titillate the Sultan.

For centuries, the role of Oriental dance in Middle Eastern society has been that of a folk dance that people would do at joyous occasions such as weddings, the birth of a child, community festivals, and other events that bring people together to party. It was a dance that men, women, and children did for fun, not a "performance" done to entertain an audience. Just as Americans at a modern-day wedding reception might do waltzes, two-steps, or even the chicken dance, so people in the Middle East would get up with their friends to shimmy to their favorite music.

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The Dance In Muslim Society

Following the rise of Islam, people lived in segregated households. The men lived on one side of the house, and the women lived with the children on the other side. The word "harem" does not refer to some exotic seduction chamber filled with naked women lolling on pillows awaiting their turn to seduce the Sultan. Instead, it simply refers to the section of the home where women carried about their everyday business of cooking, sewing, gossiping with friends, and minding the children. The word "harem" comes from the word "haram", which means "forbidden": men who were not part of the immediate family were forbidden to enter the women's quarters when they visited their friends. The intent was to protect the women of the household from strangers.

When festive occasions would arise, the women would celebrate with other women, and the men would have a separate party with other men. Historically, the two genders did not mix. In some Muslim countries, that is still true today.

In the afternoons, after feeding their men the big meal of the day at noon, women would sometimes gather at the homes of their sisters, aunts, cousins, friends, or grandmothers to enjoy some time together. In these informal get-togethers, they might take turns getting up and dancing for each other. This was one way that the mothers of marriageable young men could get to know the eligible young women of the community.

There was generally no special dance "costume" to wear--people simply danced in their party clothes, just as we might dress up a little for our own friends' weddings. Dance was not seen as something to be "performed" by a professional--it was just something people got up and spontaneously did.

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The Twentieth Century

Times change, and people change with them. The twentieth century brought several changes that reshaped the role of the dance in Middle Eastern society:

  • Colonialists from Europe brought their Westernizing influence to the Middle East, which in some countries broke down the traditional barriers to men and women socializing in mixed company.
  • Nightclubs arose as a place where people could go for entertainment.
  • Composers like Mohammed Abdel Wahab created a new style of music heavily influenced by the Western orchestral sound.
  • Cairo and Beirut emerged as important cultural centers in the Arabic world.
  • The early days of the Egyptian film industry turned Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca, and other dancers into international stars, and the Hollywood-inspired sequinned bra/belt costume made its first appearance.
  • An entire "entertainment industry" swept the world to take advantage of rapidly-advancing recording, film, radio, and television technology.

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Today

  • Today, although there are still some exceptions, in most Middle Eastern countries men and women are no longer segregated. They no longer hold separate parties for men and women at wedding receptions and other special occasions. It's still likely that women will dance with other women, and men will dance with other men, but this now generally occurs with everyone in the same large room.
  • More conservative Muslim women still hesitate to dance in settings where men other than their husbands can see them, even at these social occasions. Such women may go to the mixed-company events, but do not take a turn at dancing.
  • Professional dancers still perform at nightclubs, and are often hired to perform at weddings and other special occasions.
  • Undoubtedly, there have probably been many individuals over the years who have used the dance in private as a tool for seduction. But that is not how Middle Eastern people think of Oriental dance, and that is not the role they see it having in their society. For them, the dance remains firmly in the realm of something that people of all ages do for fun when they get together with friends and family.

Two Women At An Egyptian Wedding

In January 1999, I went to Cairo for 2 weeks with my friend Morocco and 3 other women. Following her advice, we dressed in long, flowing dresses and wore head scarves the whole time to show our respect for the local culture. Late one night, we heard very loud drumming in the alley behind our hotel and went to investigate. A wedding party was in progress. Seeing us peering around the corner, they hospitably invited us to join them.

The professional dancers were a troupe of young men, dressed in traditional garb and performing folkloric men's dances.

After their show, the dancers retired and the musicians continued to play. The woman who is standing in the photo to the left urged me to get up and dance with her. The mother of the bride (seated, in the photo to the left) didn't dance, but smiled brightly and treated us to zaghareet as we danced. Even though I spoke no Arabic and they spoke no English, we had great fun together. I have very fond memories of the Egyptian people.


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In Conclusion...

Dancers who writhe seductively on stage during their performances clearly either don't understand the cultural backdrop of the dance, or don't care. It's a social dance, created for families and friends to celebrate the joy of spending time together.

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Acknowledgements

This article originally appeared on the Suite101 web site, in the Middle Eastern Dance category, on June 23, 2000.

I'd very much like to thank Morocco, for making research into our dance form her life's work and sharing her knowledge so freely with the dance community. I also am deeply grateful to her for inviting me to accompany her to Egypt in 1999. I couldn't have written this article without her!

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