A Brief History
Middle Eastern Dance (MED) has been practiced throughout the world since the dawn of civilization. In pre-Christian societies MED was a sacred dance offered to the moon goddesses. Women danced together to mark all significant events in their life and in the lives of their family and tribe. These might include the birth of a child, a death, the start of a new season or the hope of a good harvest.
East vs West
Religious men in both the Muslim and Christian worlds became concerned that women’s dance had a powerful effect on men’s ability to achieve ultimate spiritual fulfilment. But each doctrine found different solutions to their problem.
Under the influence of Christianity, women’s dance in Europe started to become very formalised and restricted. It was no longer to be used in worship and women were expected to behave in a “courtly” way. Throughout the centuries that followed, the style of western women’s dress also became more and more restrictive. The most obvious example of this is of course, the corset.
In the Muslim world, religious men decreed that women would socialise and worship separately. In this way women’s dance flourished and each village/tribe developed individual dances and styles. Women worshiped at the mosque but in a separate area and lived apart from men in the harem.
The word harem is a concept of protection and sanctuary, rather than a place. This idea has been greatly misunderstood and misrepresented. The idea of women dancing for men in the harem is a misconception. In the harems women danced for each other and mothers passed on their dance to their daughters. They still do. MED has never been a dance of seduction for men – despite the ‘Carry On’ film stereotype!
Fusion with western dance
The dance evolved as populations migrated and this style of dance spread from India, throughout the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and Southern Spain. When the Moor invaders from North Africa arrived in Spain, they brought many new ideas to Europe, including gardens, irrigation, music, cuisine and dance. Gypsies fused these Arabic styles with the traditional sounds and rhythms of medieval Andalucía – and from this flamenco was born.
Is it belly dance?
In the late 19th Century French Legionnaires who saw Algerian women dancing coined the term ‘danse du ventre’ (belly dance). The Legionnaires must have noticed one particular movement, as this dance involves moving the whole body. It’s not just a dance of the belly. An American entrepreneur named Sol Bloom also used the name to attract visitors to his Egyptian Street Scene tableau at the Great Exhibition of 1893 in Chicago. At a time when a woman was considered cheap if she showed her ankles, showing the belly was a shocking prospect! His scandalous marketing ploy worked, and the name stuck. In the late 19th Century European music and dance also began to influence MED. Egyptian dancers began to incorporate ballet moves, European instruments were played, and some dancers began performing in shoes. The dance became more theatrical.
The Golden Age
With the advent of cinema, Egypt experienced a ‘Golden Age’ of dance and hundreds of films were made. A small number of dancers, Samia Gamal one of the best known, achieved cult status. Their western counterparts emulated them in movies like ‘Salome’. Rudolf Valentino’s famous sultry exotic look had western women swooning!
People all over the world are rediscovering this beautiful art form. See classes and workshops here