Belly Dance, Its History and Movements


The culture of dance has been in existence since time immemorial where different cultures have performed the art for several reasons for instance as a way of celebrating the birth of a new child, giving thanks to and worshipping the gods, celebrating much harvest after a harvesting season as well as for entertainment purposes. Perhaps one of the most fascinating of dances has been the belly dancing. Belly dancing is a dance that tends to honor the goddess within every individual while celebrating the female body of all shapes and sizes.

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It is not quite clear as to the origins of belly dancing but this form of art can be traced to the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Middle East where it was perceived as an exotic dance. The dance is specifically choreographed for the female body where it emphasizes abdominal muscles, chest and hip movements.

History of Belly dance

Perhaps the earliest forms of belly dance originated from the Egyptian Ghawazi dance in the 19th Century. The first of the belly dancers were called the Ghawazee who were traveling women previously believed to be gypsies in Egypt in the 18th Century but were chased away from Cairo in the 1830s. These women went on to perform in different parts of Egypt as well as the Middle East and parts of Europe.

Belly dancing was at that time referred to as oriental dancing where the women gained popularity in Europe. There was a lack of information as to the ghawazee due to such dancing being considered as indecent or not important enough for any author to write about it. Earlier Egyptian cultural history shows that there were dancers who were professional as the dance was part of everyday living. However, there is no record as to what such dancers wore or the names they possessed.

Egyptian gypsies lived along the lower Nile and parts of Cairo were in the course of a short time they came across a new and quick resource of capital in form of the French soldiers. The French were later to set up licensed brothels in Cairo where the gypsies would perform. Unfortunately, western culture possessed stereotypic attitudes towards any tribal or Eastern society which is still evident in modern-day. On the other hand, Egyptians did not have any problem with or attitude towards the Ghawazee. They were even mortified at the thought of these women consorting with foreign infidels especially keeping in mind that there existed several levels of respectability and skills amongst dancers.

Originally belly dancing was performed by women and was meant for women only. It was meant for celebratory occasions. As aforementioned, belly dance is a term used in western nations to describe the traditional Middle Eastern dance and specifically the Egyptian Ghawazi dance.

Comparison between Ghawazi and Modern-day Belly Dance

Belly dancing has evolved from what it was originally to something more accommodating. In Egypt, oriental dance was introduced in cabarets and night clubs in the early 20th Century where it is currently being embraced as a classical form of Ghawazi dance. Unlike in the olden days where Ghawazi was performed by women specifically for women, the dance is currently being performed by men and women of all ages for men and women of all ages for instance at festive occasions including weddings.

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At the start of the 20th Century the urban Egyptian belly dance evolved having been founded on Ghawazi and other folk styles and molded by western influences for instance the Russian ballet, Latin dance, and marching bands. Once belly dance had gained popularity in America during the 1960s and 1970s choreographers sought to separate the dance from the corrupted reputation it had developed in burlesque and vaudeville through the establishment of ancient origin theories for belly dance. In these theories, a woman-centered background was emphasized where it was ideally related to Goddess worship which was common in feminism at that time or childbirth while de-emphasizing traditions related to prostitution and erotic entertainment. Costumes worn in today’s belly dance are lighter as compared to those worn originally and tend to allow more movement of the body.

As aforementioned the Ghawazi or belly dance is currently being performed by individuals of all ages and both sexes during social gatherings and other festive occasions. Presently, sex segregation is not as strict as it used to be in the past and it is common to find both sexes getting up and dancing socially in a function where males and females are present. Belly dance classes are also being incorporated in everyday activities where skilled dancers have a chance of sharing their knowledge of the belly dance. The costume accompanied by the dance is currently known as bedlah in Arabic which means uniform and owes its origins to the harem fantasy production of Burlesque, Hollywood and Vaudville.

Given the current economical and social state of most parts of Egypt, Ghawazi has almost become extinct as the majority of the gypsies have been forced to retire or engage in marriages of convenience where chances of returning to this form of art are limited. Even though most of the basic movements of the oriental dance have remained unchanged over time, the belly dance form is still being transformed. The West has borrowed a few elements from ballet and incorporated them into modern-day belly dance where their influence is evident in the Egyptian dancers who travel in a circle or figure 8.

It is believed that Greek and Turkish belly dance presently may have been impacted by the Arabs. Unlike in the case with Egyptian law, Turkish law does not enforce any restrictions as to how the dancers should dress or perform thus making the dance appear more playful. With time, Turkish style belly dancing has also greatly evolved developing a unique taste of its own even though Egypt is still considered as the original trendsetter of presentation and costuming in as far as oriental dance is concerned.


The Ghawazi were not only famed for their dances but also for their unique costumes which have unfortunately evolved into something other than what it was originally. These gypsies were known to wear garments that were almost transparent or at times wore no garments at all. They also wore ribcage length yeleks and undershorts. Generally, a Ghawazi dancer put on a shalwar or a skirt with a hip wrap, a sheer top that had a tight vest-like garment covering her breasts. Early foreigners found the Ghawazi costumes to be rather offensive as these women wore fitted tunics with a low cut bodice, bulky scarfs around their hips, and large full skirts.

The costumes consisted of distinct features for instance the elbow-length sleeves which had a decorative piece of material off the elbow where the sleeves could be removed from the main clothing and were so long as to be purely for decorative purposes. Fitted jackets were also worn which go halfway down over their hips. Modern-day belly dance costumes are however slightly different from those of the Ghawazi as one may observe that these costumes have luxurious hip scarves and handmade suit hip scarf. The costumes also come with shimmy skirts and harem pants in addition to finger zills or finger cymbals which were not common among the original Ghawazi belly dance.

In Egypt, there exists some diversity within ethnic origins of some Ghawazi thus leading to some distinctions in their belly dance styles. Today, Egypt’s most famous family of Ghawazi known as the Newari Mazin possess their own unique Ghawazi dance style which has gained popularity through their dance legacy. The Nawar which was their tribe was originally from Kurdistan but were driven out due to their being perceived as troublemakers. The Mazin daughters started dancing when they were still young where their father was their choreographer. They are currently making a living by dancing at weddings, hotels, and other private events.

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Movements of the Belly dance

It is quite natural for one individual to be quick in learning than another the same case applies when it comes to learning belly dance movements. Learning how to dance cannot be compared to taking a credit course and achieving a certificate by the end of it all. The key to belly dancing well to music is to pay close attention to the melody, tempo, and rhythm and respond to it from one’s heart and soul.

Belly dance techniques often take advantage of the inherent curves of a woman’s body and modern-day belly dance choreographers prefer seeing their dancers with flat stomachs which was not the case in the original Ghawazi dance. The main movements of belly dance are circular in motion that is parallel to the floor and connected to the shoulders or hips. In the course of the belly dance there are inclusions of locks and accented pops whereby the dancer makes a shimmy or strikes a motion in her hips or shoulders. Such is considered to be feats of flexibility whereby a dancer is expected to roll the belly muscles and at the same time make an effort of trying to balance swords, canes, or baskets.

In general belly dance techniques may require the belly dancer to perform hip rotations, serpentine arms accompany with snake-like head movements, several abdominal undulations as well as hip shimmies. Body expressions incorporated in belly dance are perceived as poetic and encased in ancient and splendid movements comprising a symphonic movement of pictures in addition to framed poses revealing the human soul. This revelation is brought about through sensitized female art forms while celebrating womanhood as this particular form of dance is by a woman for women.

Annotated bibliography

Ghawazi dance has had a huge influence on the western belly dance as it is from this Egyptian dance that the latter borrows majority of its styles and costume theme from. Due to this fact, the use of Ghawazi during special occasions is slowly dying out particularly in Egyptian villages from whence it was widely practiced. Materials from this research were obtained from libraries and interviews where the relevant sources have been appropriately cited. Ghawazi dance was common until the Islamic religion became popular and widespread thus banning all dance and music in Egypt and other Islamic parts of the world. Somehow, in over 5 centuries Arabic dance and music have found a way to survive history, and even though such has evolved due to globalization and technological advances, belly dance remains the most appreciated and preferred dance in the history of this form of art.

Anthony, Shay, and Barbara Sellers-Young. “Belly Dance: Orientalism-Exoticism-Self-Exoticism.” Dance Research Journal. Vol. 35, No. 1. 2003. 13 – 37.

In this particular article, the authors have traced the origins of belly dancing as well as the culture spread through a wide area that extends from the Atlantic Ocean in North Africa to the Balkans in the west in addition to the eastern areas of China. The authors have also regarded belly dance as a means of expressing oneself artistically and its increased popularity exhibits the growing thoughts of the society in as far as self-expression is concerned. Belly dance tends to serve the underlying role of seeking one’s sexuality, self-confidence, and splendor by showing it through the dance. According to the authors, belly dancing has become a representation of the Middle East in the West and this more often than not leads to protests, outrage, and resentment among Arabs. However, those involved in belly dance try educating the public of the importance of the dance as these orientalist performances are considered to be historically part of a post Renaissance expansion of communication and travel brought about by technological advances.

Karayanni, Stavrou. Dancing Fear & Desire: Race, Sexuality, and Imperial Politics in Middle Eastern Dance. Waterloo, ON Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004.

Karayanni (2004) has investigated the Middle Eastern belly dance by extending to modern belly dance. He uses historical investigations, personal perceptions, and academic analysis to explore how to belly dance actively takes on sexuality, nationalism, and race. For the past years of European colonial rule, Middle Eastern dancers moved seductively and lavishly across western literature where they have called to mind feelings of contempt and desire, allure and revulsion, admiration and disdain. Close literature of colonial travel, analysis of theses concerning Greece dance, and analysis of Oscar Wildes’ Salome has been utilized showing the complex ways in which this controversial belly dance has been molded by Eurocentric perceptions which characterize as well as organize character performance. Karayanni (2004) takes a look at the cultural politics relating to Middle Eastern dance in the 19th, 20th, and early 21st Centuries through the implementation of historic descriptions and images put together with a narrative of his individual experience in regards to the dance.

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Left-Kennedy, Virginia. Representing the Belly-Dancing Body: Feminism, Orientalism, and the Grotesque. University of Wollongong Thesis Collections, 2005.

In this particular paper, the author recounts the genealogy of the discursive construction of belly dance in culture and text in the Western world beginning from the late 19th Century. It draws notional perceptions from cultural studies, dance studies, and literary studies to illustrate an inter-disciplinary approach to the study of the expression of belly dance. Virginia (2005) also explores how this dance has been shaped by important sociocultural transformations in beliefs on sexuality, race, and personification. In studying the politics of gender and race in regards to belly dancing, three formations have been brought to light by the author namely orientalism, grotesque, and feminism. It also pays close attention to the composite ways in which belly dance has been mythologized, represented, and constructed in numerous literature. Additionally, the author discusses the connection between neo (colonialism), commoditization, gender, consumer culture, and ideas of female personification in representations of belly dance. Even though belly dance is a highly recognizable as well as strikingly pervasive form of dance in western popular culture, the subject matter has remained under analyzed in majority of academic areas.

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