Oriental Dance

Category: Tânia
Published on Wednesday, 13 February 2013 22:34
Written by Tania
The dance that many people know as "Belly Dance" is known by the Arabs as "Raqs al-Sharq" (literally Dance of the Orient/East) or Raqs Sharqi (Oriental Dance) while the Turks call it Oryantal Dansı (Oriental Dance) or Göbek (Belly) Dansı.
Oriental Dance belongs to a family of dances that can be found in North Africa (Maghreb) and the Middle East which are characterized by strong pelvic and hip work including thrusts, rotations and “shimmies”. The torso, abdomen and shoulders are also used in the vocabulary of these dances.
Contemporary Oriental Dance has two main branches, Turkish and Egyptian although Lebanese style is sometimes considered as another main branch. Due to its immense popularity in the United Sates, American Style is becoming an internationally accepted style, including sub-branches like “Tribal” Belly Dance. (The majority of the Oriental Dance performance and instructional DVDs on the market are American which is imposing the American style world-wide)
Oriental Dance is a dance of extremes: simplicity and detail, naivety and eroticism, spirituality and earthiness. These do not contradict each other; rather they alternate and complement each other as a means of expressing the wholeness of womanhood. This dance has been a constant source of inspiration for the West in its quest for the exotic and mysterious East. However, it has also been deeply misunderstood. Its strong sensuous charge and expressiveness overlapped the concept of dance as a purely physical technique held by most Westerners, especially at the time when they first came in contact with this dance, the 1800's. The infatuation with the Orient lasted until the 1930's nevertheless, producing paintings, operas, ballets and theatre plays inspired by the Oriental theme, most of the time, unfortunately, with very little veracity.
It is not possible to know the exact place and time of the dance's origin but it is deeply connected to the countries we now know as: Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Mauritania, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Israel, Greece and Crete. In these countries there were both folkloric and religious dances, though the line between the two was sometimes difficult to draw. Basically dance at this time was used to “communicate” with the gods and goddesses, to insure the fertility of both women and fields, to celebrate the rites of passage, from birth to death. Some of these dances included those performed by priestesses whose lives were dedicated to the temple of a particular goddess. According to the region, the main Goddess (representative of one or more female principles such as Love, Wisdom or Nature) was known as Mylitta, Ashtoreth, Astarte, Isis, Cibele, Ishtar, Aphrodite, Venus, Ceres, or Devi. Many statues and relieves of the period show what appears to be women dancing and playing a small hand drum.
From the sacredness of the temple the dance passed to the common woman as a way of entertainment and celebration. However, it still continued to be used as a purifying and medicinal ritual on special occasions such as weddings, births and harvests. The Bedouin women of the Saudi Arabian desert still dance today with abdominal movements around the woman giving birth, while she sits in a hole dug in the floor. Actually, the modern birthing lessons as taught in the West use some of the movements of Oriental Dance. The relationship with fertility rituals is still seen today. In Egypt most weddings still have a dancer, and at the end of her performance the bride and groom will place their hands on the dancer's belly thus ensuring the future fertility of their union.

The Turkish Style of Oriental Dance:

Dancers performing what can be considered Oriental Dance have been documented in Turkey since the 16 th century. Turkish dance was influenced by the Ancient Greeks, Roman, Persians, Seljuks, Mongols, Central Asians and Egyptians. At its peak, the Ottoman Empire encompassed the Balkans, Hungary , Greece , Anatolia , Egypt , Syria , Palestine , Algeria and Cyprus , naturally absorbing influences from all these regions. The Roma (Gypsy) people were decisive in shaping Turkish Oriental Dance. “The conquering Ottoman armies were always followed by the Roma who were indispensable for their metalworking abilities, healing arts, animal training expertise, skills at trade and to provide entertainment diversions” (Mourat, 2001).
The slaves and servants of the harems, coming from different areas of the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Central Asia sought after, and a skilled slave reached very high prices at the slave market. With the abolishment of the harems in the early 20 th century, many of these skilled dancers became public performers. Soon after, in Turkey 's attempt of modernization, Oriental dance was discouraged, and Folk, Ballet and Ballroom dance were favored as the dance styles appropriate for the public viewing. Due to tourism and tourist's wish to see it, Oriental Dance has made a comeback since the 1960's.
Turkish style Oriental is characterized by:
-Aggressive hip articulations-
Extensive use of finger cymbals
-Extensive use of veil -9/8 Karshilama rhythm, though 4/4 rhythms are also used
-Fast pirouettes, often with the focus point on the ground
-Lifting of knee, to strike a pose, to turn, or to perform “hops”
-Very dynamic, improvisational, and at times extremely fast
-Use of the floor, acrobatic back bends, splits
- Obvious links to its Romani connections, reflected mainly in the passionate mood that often characterizes Turkish style performances and the use of hand gestures touching the body (arms, stomach, forehead and hips).
Example of excellent Turkish style Oriental, by Tülay Karaca from Turkey

The Egyptian style of Oriental dance: 

The Egyptian dance has strong connections with dances existing in ancient Egypt . The arrival of the Roma in the 14 th century may have lead latter on to the appearance of the Ghawazee (“invaders of the heart”), very popular street performers of the time. In 1834 however, Egyptian female dancers were forbidden to dance on the streets and were exiled from Cairo . Their place was then taken by the dancing boys of Istanbul in 1857, who had been banished from the city due to the fights they caused between powerful men seeking their attention. These boys dressed as women and were highly trained in dance.
Around 1930 Badia Masabni, a Syrian dancer, opened the "Casino Badia" in Cairo , Egypt , and developed the performing aspect of the dance, by copying the Western Cabaret concept of entertainment. The two most famous dancers of the time in Egypt , Samia Gamal and Tahia Carioca, were trained here. In the 40's, Samia Gamal studied Ballet in order to improve some aspects of her dance. The incorporation of Western Ballet elements into the dance is highly noticeable in contemporary Egyptian style. Prior to the opening of the "Casino", Hollywood had invented the "Bedleh", the ubiquitous "Bra-Skirt-Belt", which became the accepted dance costume at the Casino and is still the basic costume for Oriental Dance.
Egyptian Dance is characterized by: 
- Gliding traveling steps
- Extensive but soft hip work
- Extensive use of the “Arabesque” position of Classical ballet, which curiously was inspired by Oriental Dance
- Markedly theatrical facial expressions, expressing longing and introspection, during melodic solos. The mood is generally restrained and elegant, showing a demarcation from its Ghawazee links and an inclination towards European, mainly French and British, aesthetics
-No floor work (it's actually forbidden in Egypt )
- Limited use of the veil; usually only in the first part of the show, during the “Intro”
- Extensive use of 4/4 rhythms
- Practically no use of finger cymbals anymore, except for the Ghawazee dancers ( Romani dancers) in Upper Egypt.
Example of excellent Egyptian style Oriental, by Souhair Zaki, from Egypt

   Buonaventura, Wendy, Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World Interlink Publishing  Group; Reprint edition; 1998
   Mourat, Elizabeth Artemis, The origins of the ancient art of Belly Dancing. Self published: Washington, DC; 1994