A Little About Belly Dancing: History of the Dance

By Ami Julieanna Orto

One of my favorite activities, belly dancing refers to a traditional Middle Eastern dance established many centuries ago. Often characterized by sharp hip movements and elaborate, shimmering outfits, belly dancing today exists worldwide as a cultural expression, a form of entertainment, and a physical exercise.

One of the earliest forms of belly dancing was practiced by the ghawazee, a group of traveling female dancers active in Egypt during the 1700s and 1800s. In the 19th century, the dance caught on in Europe and by the latter half of the 1800s, belly dancers performed at World’s Fairs around the globe, including in the United States. The activity sparked national attention in the U.S. at the 1893 World’s Fair, held in Chicago. The dress and movements of these dancers, who came from Middle Eastern and North African countries, shocked members of the United States’ genteel Victorian society.

The 1893 World’s Fair performance spawned numerous belly dancing troupes in the United States. The belly dance received the nickname the “Hootchy-Kootchy” because of its perceived provocative nature at the time, and dancers were occasionally arrested or fined for performing it. During those early days, belly dancers most often appeared in burlesque theaters and at carnivals, attracting men. The belly dance inspired artists, writers, and filmmakers of the time as well, including inventor Thomas Edison who made films featuring the dancers in the 1890s.

During the revival of belly dancing in the United States in the 1960s and 70s, instructors and practitioners of the activity established theories behind the dance emphasizing women empowerment while attempting to discredit its tradition as erotic entertainment. Today in the Western world, belly dancing classes recognize the activity as a physical exercise and promote its fitness and health virtues.

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