Belly Dancing 101: The Basics of “Danse Du Ventre”


Belly Dancer

The History. Though the exact origin is debated among historians, prevailing theory posits that belly dancing began in the Middle East or North Africa, and likely originated as a religious dance. The technique was gradually introduced to European culture through centuries of Western invasion and conquest, and in 1893, belly dancing came to America as an exhibition during the Chicago World’s Fair. (The term “belly dancing” is largely credited to the Entertainment Director of the World’s Fair, Sol Bloom, who is quoted as saying, “when the public learned of danse du ventre,” – which literally translates to dance of the belly – “I knew I had a gold mine.”) Through the turn of the century, the popularity of belly dancing – which was then categorized as “immodest” and “shocking” – grew among men, and male audiences flocked in droves to watch “exotic” dancers perform in burlesque theaters and carnivals. By the late 1960’s, belly dancing began to enjoy cultural acceptance in America, and bands often took Eastern-style dancers on tour with them to energize the crowds. Most recently, latin singer Shakira brought belly dancing back into the cultural spotlight during the early 2000’s with hip-shaking performances during concerts and awards shows.

The Significance: Belly Dancing can be performed as both a social dance or a performance dance, depending on the context. The social version of belly dancing – also called Raks Baladi or Raqs Shaabi – is practiced by Middle Eastern cultures at celebrations, weddings, and other social gatherings, and participants, who can be any age or sex, do not wear costumes. In contrast, a belly dancing performance usually features a woman dressed in a costume that accentuates the hips, belly, and chest, and the dance is more polished and choreographed; because of its sensual nature, belly dancing performances, especially ones that display the female body, are considered “harem” (forbidden) in Middle-Eastern countries.

Pop Sensation Shakira

The Technique. Belly Dancing is characterized by relaxed, smooth-flowing movements of the hips and torso, though faster “shimmy” techniques may also be incorporated throughout the dance, especially to punctuate percussive elements in the accompanying music. Because of their focus on the abdominal and torso muscles, Eastern dances like the belly dance are often called “muscle” dances, and the sensual nature of the technique makes these types of dances well-suited for female bodies with strong core muscles. Belly dance practitioners usually perform with bare feet, and in traditional belly dancing, the knee is never lifted higher than the hip.