Middle Eastern dance, Oriental dance and Raqs Sharqi – all these terms are used for what is popularly known as Belly Dance.
Believed to be the oldest form of dance, having survived for thousands of years, belly dance most likely evolved from the worship of the great mother goddess, and is associated with childbirth rituals.
Most evidence links belly dance to Middle East and Africa. Some quarters say it originated in Phoenicia. It is the common perception, however, that it originated in ancient Egypt, where dance was an expression of joy and was an integral part of magic and religious rituals. Studies of reliefs from temples of the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE; a period in Egyptian history covering the 18th to 20th dynasties of Egypt) shows evidence of the sensuous, snakelike movements similar to those performed by belly dancers today.
There is another theory that belly dance became popular during the Ottoman empire, when the women of the harem frequently performed the dance to entertain each other.
But wherever it originated from, the various forms of the belly dance that exist today grew out of ancient rituals and folk dances over the centuries, and have remained an important part of culture and tradition throughout Middle Eastern communities. It was and is a dance by women for women, one that teaches women about their bodies and prepares them for childbirth.
The early image of belly dance in the western world was that of an erotic, suggestive dance due to its vigorous, sensuous movements and the dancers’ exotic and often revealing costumes. Today, belly dance retains much of this stigma, and many dancers and instructors are working very hard to counter and overcome this image.
One more note: it is commonly thought that belly dance is exclusively a woman’s dance – especially due to its connection with childbirth rituals – but it is becoming clear that both men and women can, and do, belly dance (but separately, especially in the Middle East). Male belly dancers are not uncommon in the Middle East, and are steadily becoming more visible in the international belly dance scene.