Dance is a very fundamental human activity. It was practised in ancient cultures and is popular all over the world from the most primitive to the most sophisticated cultures. The word 'dance' derives from the Sanskrit 'tanha' meaning 'joy of life' and the Arabic word for dance 'raks' derives from the ancient Assyrian 'rakkase' meaning 'to celebrate'.
The art of ancient Egypt, from the earliest dynasties, shows dancers and musicians as part of normal life. There is also much evidence of dance in ancient Syria, Turkey and other countries. Some aspects of this dance was simply a form of entertainment, but it was also related to the worship of various fertility goddesses, such as Hathor in Egypt, Aphrodite in Greece and Ishtar in Babylon. Ancient writers record these dances as being based on movements of the hips, circling, swaying and shaking of the body. The female worshippers often danced themselves into an ecstatic frenzy where they felt they were linked to the power of the goddess.
Gradually the ancient goddess-worshipping cultures waned and more male dominated cultures took over in the Middle East. From the 4th Century AD when Christianity began to have an influence, and later with the rise of Islam, the old pagan rituals were vigorously suppressed. In particularly those rites associated with goddess-worship and the ecstatic sacred dances were forbidden by cultures that disapproved of such a celebration of female sexuality and fertility. However it is difficult to entirely repress something like dance, that is so much a natural part of human expression. Although the sacred dance was forbidden, a dance form as entertainment continued and incorporated many of the moves described by ancient writers which are still to be seen in modern Arabic dance.
In the early 20th Century dance was very influential art form. In Europe and the USA dance was being transformed by people such as Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis, who took their inspiration from the dances of ancient Greece and also from the Arabic styles (known at the time as "Oriental").
Two forms of Oriental dance existed. One was a refined, westernised version, consisting mainly of upper torso movements, dramatic poses and ritual mime. Explicit movements of the hips were taboo for these dancers who performed in respectable 'artistic' circles. At the other extreme were the hoochie koochie dances of the vauderville, the development of dances performed at the great exhibitions. These dancers made full use of their bodies and were generally considered to be not at all respectable.
In the 1920s the craze for Orientalism influenced artists in many fields in particular the Art Nouveau movement. It was also an influence in the new movie industry of the USA and Europe. Many early epics depicted scenes of ancient times - complete with ancient temples and dancing girls. At the same time the general relaxation in dress styles gave women a greater freedom of movement and this was expressed in dances such as the Charleston and the Shimmy - both of which incorporated movements long seen in Oriental dance. In Egypt music and dance blossomed, fuelled by a growing Arabic movie industry and night-clubs set up to serve the local and colonial population. The cabaret venues allowed dancers to develop the rather static baladi style that had been popular for centuries. They adopted and adapted moves from Western dance and made use of veils for the first time. There was also a move away from dancing bare-footed, the very fact that a dancer could afford shoes was a sign of her success. In the 1930s and 1940s many dancers achieved a high standing, particularly Samia Gamal and Tahia Carioca, whose performance styles are still influential today.
Dance today in the Arab world
If you go to the Middle East today you will dancers performing Belly-dance in tourist hotels and night-clubs in most liberal Arabic countries such as Egypt. However dance is under threat from Islamic fundamentalists and from general social pressure in a male-dominated culture where respectable women do not dance. As a consequence many of the dancers performing for tourist shows are not Arab women but come from Europe and the USA. Arab women who dance professionally still suffer from poor social status, even those few who have star status are often forced to stop their dance careers if they marry. Others flout tradition at the risk of incurring attack from fundamentalist terrorists.
Among ordinary people dance is still popular as a private entertainment and girls learn from their mothers in women-only gatherings as they have done since earliest times. At such gatherings women will dance for each other, accompanying themselves with drumming and singing. Everyone joins in, but each dancer comes forward to take a turn to entertain her friends, showing her favourite and best moves. There is little distinction in such a situation between performer and audience. Particularly skilful performances are generally acknowledged by the zhagareet a cry made by trilling the tongue against the roof of the mouth while making a high-pitched note. Such dance sessions can go on for a very long time, the whole event and the dances within it being entirely improvised.
Arabic Dance in the non-Arab world
Following on the interest in Orientalism in the early 20th Century Arabic styles of dance have been presented in many formats. Some Government-sponsored folk-dance groups have presented traditional forms of the dance to wide audiences and the night-club performance has always been found in Turkish and Arabic cafes in cities world-wide. Alongside the growing interest in World Music the interest in actually trying out the dance of other cultures has grown in the West. Arabic dancers living in Europe and the USA were able to teach their style to professional and amateur dancers - and found women ready and willing to take up this form. The dance, as it is generally taught in this country, is uniquely accessible to all and seems, if anything, to be more popular with older women. In their simplest form, most moves are relatively undemanding and gentle but, like any physical activity, the expert can push themselves to more spectacular performance.
Like any art form this dance has a life of its own. There are any number of variations in styles to choose from once you get the basics. There are some teachers with a westernised approach teaching bellydance as a cabaret style (or as portrayed in film) with little or no link to the true dance of the Middle East. There are others who restrict themselves to the modern styles performed by dancers in Egypt or Turkey. There are others who take an interest in folkloric styles or fusion styles like American Tribal. For the most part teachers are aware of other styles and fashions, many cover different styles in their classes and they should be able to help their students find a form of the dance that suits.
Locally the Arabic Dance 'scene' is very active with classes running in Leeds, Bradford, Keighley, Skipton and Halifax and many other towns. Nationally there are several organisations 'networking' dancers and teachers with magazines and web sites for the newcomer and experienced dancer alike. These often provide a venue for performance and help organise workshops with professional dancers from the UK and beyond.