Bellydance is a Western name for an Arabic style of dance developed in the Middle East. Some refer to it as "Middle Eastern Dance", others call it "Oriental Dance".
In the Arabic language it is known as raqs sharqi (which translates to "eastern dance") or raqs baladi (which means"national" or "folk" dance).
The term bellydance is a creation of Orientalism, and is first attested in English in 1899, translating French danse du ventre.

Oriental Dance is based on one of the oldest social dances in world history. There are many forms of dance within the Oriental Dance genre, some of them are presented on the next page. What the general public refer to as bellydance, and the Arabic people call raqs sharqi, is a style that has been created througt a variety of different dances and brougth to an audience. This style has an entertaining purpose, as opposed to the sosial roots which is the basic origin of the dances this style is based upon.
The other side of the dance is the social dance performed by people of all ages and by both sexes, during festive occasions, such as weddings- and other social gatherings for fun and celebration. As this dance is a social dance, children learn and engage in it early. Children learn it informally, by observing and joining their family during celebrations such as weddings and circumcisions, as well as during more informal gatherings. As the popularity and facination of the dance has spread around the world, these ancient dances are taught in classes offered throughout the world. Bellydance has become a big industry in Egypt, and Egypt's 12000 registered bellydancers paid $264 million in income taxes in 1995, making the dance the fifth largest income group in the country. It has now advanced to third place.

The exact origin of this dance form is actively debated among dance enthusiasts, especially given the limited academic research on the topic. Much of the research in this area has been done by dancers attempting to understand their dance's origins. The fact is that most dancing in the Middle East occurs in the social context rather than the more visible and glamorous context of the professional nightclub and hotel dancers. The stageperformances seen today have their roots in a variety of dances, many of them ethnic folkdances. The dance is a fusion of many dancestyles and has evolved over the years, as it's popularity has spread around the world and been influences by dancers with different cultural background. The lack of documentation further back than the Orientalism has led to a variety of conflicting theories about its basic origins. Some of these theories are that the dance form:
- descended from indigenous dances of ancient Upper Egypt
- descended from a religious dance Temple Priestesses once practiced
- had been a part of traditional birthing practices in the region(s) of origin
- had spread from the migrations of the Romani people (also called "gypsies") and related groups, descended from the Banjara of Rajasthan in northwestern India.
- originated in Uzbekistan, traveling to India through the slave trade.

One of the most well-known theory is that it descended from a religious dance. Among the dances with a religious background performed to an audience today is the Egyptian tanoura and the Turkish Sema (both with a link to the whirling sufi dance). This theory was also popularized in works such as Earth Dancing and Grandmother's Secrets.
The "birthing practices" theory compares movements used in todays raqs sharqi with movements thought to be used in ancient rituals to ease childbirth. This theory has numerous oral historical references and specific movements are used by midwives and other health personel even today.

Wherever it began, the dance has a long history in Africa, Turkey and the Middle East. Many feel strongly that the dance does not descend from Turkey, but the country has traditions linked to this dance at least 500 years back. Today Turkey has a style of oriental dance that is strongly influenced by the arab countries, but one shouldn`t eliminate the possibility that their own dance traditions have influenced the developent of the dance. Despite the restrictions in Islam regarding portraying humans in paintings, there are several depictions of dancers throughout the pre-Islamic and Islamic world. Books such as The Art and Architecture of Islam 650-1250 show images of dancers on palace walls, as do Persian miniature paintings from the 12th and 13th centuries.

Outside of the Middle East, raqs sharqi dancing was popularized during the Romantic movement in the 18th and 19th centuries as Orientalist artists depicted their interpretations of harem life in the Ottoman Empire. Around this time, dancers from different Middle Eastern countries began to exhibit such dances at various World's Fairs; they often drew crowds that rivaled the technological exhibits. In Egypt, around 1920, big dinner shows were put on in order to draw crowds, as the competition for costomers grew among restaurants and night clubs. The dancer would perform with a large orchestra, and return in a different costume. The show would last an hour or three. This dance culture is still alive, and an orchestra with a dancer are found in many restaurants and night clubs all over Cairo.

Some Western women began to learn from and imitate the dances of the Middle East, which at this time was subject to colonization by European countries. Mata Hari exemplifies the issues surrounding these activities; despite posing as a Javanese dancer, her mystique is linked not to Indonesian dance but to the Middle Eastern dance forms. In the early 1900s, it was a common social assumption in America and Europe that dancers were women of loose morals.
Historically, most of the dances associated with belly dance were performed with the sexes separated; men with men and women with women. Few depictions of mixed dancing exist. This practice ensured that a "good" woman would not be seen dancing by anyone but her husband, her close family, or her female friends. Sometimes a professional dancer would go to a women's gathering with several musicians and get the women up and dancing. Today, sex segregation is not as strictly practiced in many urban areas, and men and women often get up and dance socially among close friends in a mixed function. However, while social dancing during acceptable circumstances such as family functions is accepted and even encouraged, there are many people in Middle Eastern and North African societies who regard the performances of professional dancers in revealing costumes, for mixed audiences as morally objectionable. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that such performances should be banned.

Among the Middle Easterners, Egyptian Dancers are seen as the top stars. Oriental Dance can be held in the same esteem as is ballet and opera to the Americans and Europeans. The music is so soulful, so heartfelt and passionate that it is not uncommon to bring a Middle Easterner to tears. The singers are held in a very high esteem, and this love for dance and music is part of the very core of the Egyptian culture. The dancers performance is judged not only by techniqual ability but more of his/her ability to portray the emotions of the music.
Many famous bellydancers became moviestars. Tahia Carioca, Samia Gamal, Mona El Said and Nagua Fauod not only danced, but sang and acted their way to the hearts of Middle Easterners.

Turkey has quite a different view of their dancers. As the rules have not been as strict in Turkey as they have been in the Arabic world, the turkish dancers have been more free in their expression, dressing and dancing more provocative. Also the Turkish dancers became great moviestars, you can read more about these dancers ahead.

America and all the European countries have their own dance history. The Turkish and Lebanese style both have a long history in America and the Eyptian style has a reputation of being a more "stuck up" genre. For most Scandinavian dancers the Egyptian style is mainstream, and the Turkish and Lebanse style is not common knowledge.
Oriental Dance has a short history in Norway, starting with baby steps around 15-20 years ago. With this, the first generation Norwegian dancers are still among the leading dancers and performers in the country, and the first overlap of new dancers are now entering the stage. Among the first Norwegian dancers who have influenced the deleveopment of the dance in Norway are Siw Øksnes, Hilde Lund, Lee Figenschow, Helene Skaugen, Michelle Galdo and Majken Wærdahl.

All text is written by Helene Skaugen. Most of the text above is taken from Wikipedia, other material is written from my own experience and perception as well as direct knowledge through conversations with other dancers. As there is great disagreement about most topics within the dance history, and different terminology is used omong different dance societies, I cannot guarntee that all text is fact. What is written here does however have support both academically and among many dancers. Apart from my own personal experience I have also uses sourses such as Earth Dancing, Grandmother's Secrets, Egyptian and Turkish media.

Studio Orient - Visiting adress: Arbeidergata 4, 0159 Oslo - Phone: +47 934 02 184 - -