THE HISTORY, MYSTERY AND HEALING POWER OF BELLY DANCING
Dance historians have traced the origins of dance the Egypt over 5000 years ago. Due to it's geography, Egypt was isolated for thousands of years from the influence of other civilizations. Hence, Egypt's unique art forms remained pure, and were nurtured extensively by a culture that viewed art and life as inseparable. One of the art forms of ancient Egypt was its dance. Little if anything is known for certain about the actual movements of the ancient dance. The linear representations found in temples of Ancient Egypt are typical of the drawing style of the times, but may have actually been, as well, the predecessors of the flowing form no known as Raks Sharki, Dans Orientale, or Dance Du Venture.
Raks Sharki is the Arabic title for belly dancing. The more familiar name, "Belly Dancing," is a colloquial title, and was coined when the dance was first introduced to Western audiences at the Columbian exposition at the beginning of the 19th century. The setting was an elaborate Egyptian village set up at the expo in Chicago, Illinois. "Little Egypt," a dancer from the Ghawazee tradition, mesmerized the Victorian audiences with her intricate, precise hip isolations and her liquid abdominal and body undulations.
Historically, the Egyptian dance appeared at nearly the same time as the flourishing of earth mother matriarchal goddess cultures. According to dance historian Curt Sachs in his History of World Dance, the first historical recordings of dance were in Egypt around 5500 BC. Egypt, the birthplace of civilization aptly gave birth to the world's most ancient dance. Dance was inseparable from religion in those ancient times. Veestiges of the rituals and sacred ceremonies are still in the dance today imparting a mystical quality to this dance from. The overtones of the matriarchal goddess cults and the majic of nature infuse the Dans Orientale. These nature images are found throughout its signature movements. The intricate hip articulations, the downward hip drops, hip shimmies, rib cage circles, body, hand and arm undulations, and hip figure 8's or "snake hips" are signature movements that remind one of the flowing and staccato movements seen in animal and plant movement. The serpentine motions of the dance seem to be patterned after cyclic undulating forms found in nature - e.g., the wavelike motion of water, plants, and animals. The vibrational movements remind one of the action of the wind on plant life, as well as the natural shivering response of the body on cool desert nights. The shaking movements could be also traced to ancient trance healing dances. One speculation on the dance's origins is that it has roots in the dances of trance and exorcism that still exist in Egypt and Morocco. The hip and shoulder shimmies done in today's dance, as well as the head release movements are trance inducing and do invoke an altered state of consciousness. One can also see sacred symbols embodied in the movements of today's dance. These symbols, found throughout nature (infinity signs, circles, and spirals,) are woven into the turns and body isolations- like swaying archetypes of the divine feminine. The embodiment of nature elements in the dance could have been derived from early animistic religious practices.
The movement impluse of the dance emanates from deep in the center of the body and returns to the center in a hypnotic birth and rebirth of continuous energetic flow. Because of the birth-like pelvic undulating motions, some writers have postulated that the dance has connections to fertility rites, and was used as birth support. In addition, the tomb and temple pictorals as well as the hieroglyphs provide substantial evidence that the dance was used in temple rituals and as entertainment in community celebrations and in the Pharohs' courts. The dance, as seen today, has fragments which resemble the ancient temple poses. It also has vestiges of the trance dances (which are still practiced today in the Near East), and movements from the gypsy migration originating in India, e.g. head slides. All of the above historical ponderings, though fascinating, are in face, merely speculations; this mystical dance's origins and meanings remain a mystery, buried in time.
Regardless of its origin, this dance truly expresses the energy of all life. The wave like movements of the dance are transforming and have a hypnotic effect on both dancer and audience. The movements reach deeply into the collective unconscious, merging with the personal psyche, and free the dancer to soar on the winds of timeless rhythms. Body tensions melt, thoughts fuse with pleasurable body sensations and a joy and ecstasy ensues, creating a natural body high. The dance can be so intimate that the dancer may appear to be telling her personal story and yet it is so archtypal that it merges with the universal sacred, bringing a deeply satisfying flow of life force in a most exquisite way to dancer and audience alike.
All of us afficionados and armchair historians love to speculate on the origins of this ancient dance but the fact remains that the dance has survived the ravages of time, including at present; religious suppression, widespread misunderstanding and a lack of support in its own culture. Today Belly Dancing happily survives it all and sprouts its seed of antiquity in every soil of the world. Belly Dancing is now a worldwide phenomena that knows no age, size or culture. Though most who study the dance never intend to perform, some dancers love the performance venues and perform it as an art, and entertainment, or both. Regardless of culture, history, or intent, the dance stand on its own as a lifetime satisfaction, evoking ecstatic pleasure to mover and witness alike and bringing hours of enjoyable fantasy to a work worn world. Belly Dancing nourishes the body, mind, and spirit of millions of devotees, a timeless and most enduring art. This is the greatest mystery of all!
The Healing Benefits of Belly Dancing
Belly dancing has the distinction of being a dance that has significant healing benefits that are available to even the novice dancer. In over 30 years of teaching the dance, I have repeatedly witnessed the following benefits. They include: enhanced physical conditioning, an increased body awareness, a release of chronic body tensions and body armoring, a lifting of depressed moods, a redistribution of weight, an improvement in posture, improved self esteem, a relaxation of inhibitions, a sense of grace, arthritis pain relief, a greater freedom in the body, a connection with a tribal element, an increased love for, and acceptance of one's body, an experience of emotional well being, a connection with spiritual feelings, an artistic and personal expression, an improvement of breath capacity, enhanced body image, a sense of deep inexplicable mystery, a psychological integration that cannot be explained, and an improved sex life, to name only a few.
My passion for this dance and the significant healing benefits that I have personally witnessed in my students and myself, led me to become a registered Dance-Movement Therapist, a profession I have taught and practiced for over 20 years. The healings I have seen take place in my students, especially when improvising of dancing in a group, stimulated many years of study to find out why and how that happens. (See the article on Dance-Movement Therapy and Belly Dance.)
The Dance today
The emergence of the dance in modern Western culture has added new dimensions. The cabaret and theater stage brought new sophistication and refined technique, as well as new styles. The emergence of rock and roll and Jazz brought new instrumentation and musical influences. Since the movement ideally grows out of the rhythm, the melodies and the mood of the music, dancers today enjoy a variety of styles that match the varying styles of music. Musicians like Hossam Ramsy have done a huge service by preserving the old music and dance via video and audio recordings, and experimenting as well with Western world's musical influences.
Being beloved by so many fans in the entire world may be actually an evolutionary protection, as, the dance is currently being suppressed by the religious extremism in its native lands. The people from its countries of origin, especially the men, harbor an ambivalent and even hostile attitude toward the dance. They hold a widespread attitude that only prostitutes world perform Raks Sharki. Certainly, they would never allow their wives, daughters or sisters to perform it. Dancers in the Middle East clubs, even in America, have had these bias projected on them constantly. But be reminded, this dance must be a most powerful phenomena to be able to evoke these extremes!
So, the dance today has the unusual distinction of being fed, nourished and preserved by non-natives all over the world. Looking back from having been an active participant in the explosion of the phenomenal belly dance revolution in the 1970s in America, I see that as the dance swept the country and entered every wholesome YMCA and park district, the public sang its praises and yet we teachers still had to continuously fight the stripper image, not only with Arab audiences but also with our fellow Americans! The attraction, revulsion, and confused attitudes that this earth dance can evoke is mind bending!
In the 1970's and 80's, while dancing with live music in Middle Eastern nightclubs several nights a week, I absorbed the healing benefits of the music, food and culture, and, was also bombarded simultaneously (from audiences of mostly Arab men) with the darker images of their judgements. Some say this aggressive desdain is due to a deep fear of women's power left over from the excesses of some Goddess practices long ago, the emergence of masculine religions such as Islam, and a patriarchal desire to suppress female sexuality. In my personal experience with the projections that I received in the clubs, I found that when the bad vides were pouring across the stage toward me that, through the majic of the dance, I could create a trance state in the audience that altered their perceptions, evoking such a strong boundary around me that I felt embraced in the arms of the goddess. This phenomenal energetic magnitude of the dance is another fathomless mystery!
I have been a teacher and performer of Middle Eastern Dance since 1971. My beginnings were in Chicago, the city where Belly Dancing was first revealed to the Western world. Now here in Boulder County, Colorado, I am enjoying the wave of its new re-emergence. Having been a part of the pioneering of it, teaching it to thousands of professional dancers and bringing my dance and dancers to the premiere professional theater stages, as well as directly to the people- on their lawns and streets and in their personal homes, I can say belly dancing is still alive and well. The dance in America went through its growth pangs, and the arguments over styles and authenticity, and still, in essence it is even more widespread and tenacious. Like the fierce roots of the ancient papyrus plant, it stubbornly survives and continues to thrive for 5000 plus years. I have see the art of the dance of late re-emerge stronger than ever, with dedicated teachers and choreographers bringing it to the most auspicious stages and creating a new image of an ancient art revitalized. I believe we are in a new renaissance of the world's most ancient dance at this time. Belly dancing is indeed, the most accessible and inexpensive way to bring transformation and joy to people's lives, and is an art that all types and cultures of people can enjoy. It is available to people who have never thought they could dance. I personally cannot imagine my life without it. It is my passionate intention to continue to nurture its growth and well being on the planet as long as I can. And my promise to myself as I enter the golden years of my dance, is to vow that the only cane I will ever use will be twirled in my tribal cane dance.