Belly dance is an expressive dance which emphasizes complex movements of the torso. Originally a Middle Eastern folk dance, it has evolved to take many different forms depending on the country and region, both in costume and dance style. New styles have evolved in the West as its popularity has spread globally.
Names and terminology
The term “belly dance” is a translation of the French term “danse du ventre”, which was applied to the dance in the Victorian era, and probably originally referred to dancers from the Ouled Nail tribes of Algeria. It is something of a misnomer, as their dance used more abdominal movements than the dances described today as “belly dance”.
In Arabic, the dance is known as Raqs Sharqi (“Eastern Dance”) or Raqs Beledi(“Country Dance” or “Folk Dance”).
Belly dance is primarily a torso-driven dance, with an emphasis on articulations of the hips. Unlike many Western dance forms, the focus of the dance is on isolations of the torso muscles, rather than on movements of the limbs through space. Although some of these isolations appear similar to the isolations used in jazz ballet, they are sometimes driven differently and have a different feeling or emphasis.
In common with most folk dances, there is no universal naming scheme for belly dance movements. Some dancers and dance schools have developed their own naming schemes, but none of these is universally recognised.
Movements found in belly dance
Many of the movements characteristic of belly dance can be grouped into the following categories:
- Percussive movements – Staccato movements, most commonly of the hips, used to punctuate the music or accent a beat. Typical movements in this group include hip drops, vertical hip rocks, outwards hip hits, hip lifts and hip twists. Percussive movements using other parts of the body can include lifts or drops of the ribcage and shoulder accents.
- Fluid movements – Flowing, sinuous movements in which the body is in continuous motion, used to interpret melodic lines and lyrical sections in the music, or modulated to express complex instrumental improvisations. These movements require a great deal of abdominal muscle control. Typical movements include horizontal and vertical figures of 8 or infinity loops with the hips, horizontal or tilting hip circles, and undulations of the hips and abdomen. These basic shapes may be varied, combined and embellished to create an infinite variety of complex, textured movements.
- Shimmies, shivers and vibrations – Small, fast, continuous movements of the hips or ribcage, which create an impression of texture and depth of movement. Shimmies are commonly layered over other movements, and are often used to interpret rolls on the or riq or fast strumming of the oud or qanun (instrument). There are many types of shimmy, varying in size and method of generation. Some common shimmies include relaxed, up and down hip shimmies, straight-legged knee-driven shimmies, fast, tiny hip vibrations, twisting hip shimmies, bouncing ‘earthquake’ shimmies, and relaxed shoulder or ribcage shimmies.
In addition to these torso movements, dancers in many styles will use level changes, travelling steps, turns and spins. The arms are used to frame and accentuate movements of the hips, for dramatic gestures, and to create beautiful lines and shapes with the body, particularly in the more balletic, Westernised styles. Other movements may be used as occasional accents, such as low kicks and arabesques, backbends, and head tosses.
Belly dancing in popular culture
Belly dancing became part of pop culture in the early 2000s due to Latin American superstar Shakira. Her Colombian and Lebanese heritage has influenced her dance style, and her dance routines often combine some belly dance movements with other dance styles.
The titular character of the Shantae series of video games developed by Wayforward Technologies is a belly dancing “half-genie”, who uses magical belly dances to transform into various animals.
Mayte Garcia who is best known for her marriage to Prince (musician) first appeared on the TV series That’s Incredible! as the world’s youngest professional belly dancers. She can be seen in music videos by Prince such as 7 (song), 3 Chains o’ Gold,& The One (song). She also trained Britney Spears for the video for the song I’m A Slave 4 U has taught her co-stars how to belly dance on the TV show Hollywood Exes.
The Brazilian telenovela O Clone (also known as El Clon in Spanish-speaking countries and the United States) is set in Brazil and Morocco and featured belly dancing in many episodes. The lead character, Jade (Giovanna Antonelli), used it to entice her lover Lucas (Murilo Benício) and to soothe and seduce her husband Said (Dalton Vigh).
Several James Bond films (including From Russia with Love) and music videos have featured belly dancers. In The Man with the Golden Gun, the belly dancer Saida wears a spent bullet in her navel, which Bond accidentally swallows while trying to retrieve it.
Documentaries about belly dance include American Bellydancer, Journey of Desire: A Foreign Dancer in Cairo, Belly, Sensual… Scarred… Sacred, and Bellydancers of Cairo.
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