Mark Twain, the American writer, was rarely at a loss for words. But the sight of a belly dancer named Little Egypt in full flow at the World’s Fair in 1893 did not just render him speechless, it led to a suspected heart attack. Thankfully for both of them, he made a rapid recovery and stuck around long enough to make one of the world’s first motion pictures, with the dancer as the star.
Others have been equally smitten by the exotic spectacle; the spy and femme fatale Mata Hari became a fan, as did Colette, the French writer, who earned a living dancing in the cafes of Paris before she became a celebrated author. In fact, it is from France that the name comes: the French called it the Danse de Ventre, which the Americans translated to belly dancing.
Its origins are shrouded in mystery. Some say it began in Egypt; there are depictions of dancers on tomb paintings as far back as the 14th century BC. Others claim it for ancient Greece or Uzbekistan, from where it travelled through India to the rest of Asia and the Middle East, or believe it spread with the Romany people, or gypsies, who picked it up as they travelled.
But wherever it originated, belly dancing is under threat in one of the countries where it first flourished. In Egypt there are reports of increasing harassment by fundamentalists who disrupt restaurants and nightclubs where dancers perform and of weddings being stormed and the women chased from the stage.
Most of Egypt’s star dancers have either retired or moved abroad. During Ramadan this year, there were reports that many Egyptians had stayed away from iftar feasts traditionally hosted by belly dancers even though, of course, there was no question of dancing at these events. Shaikh Farahat Al Muniji of Al Azhar, a leading Islamic institution, condemned the feasts as un-Islamic because they were paid for with “sinful money”.
“Belly dancing in Egypt is going underground,” says Elina, a Finnish national who teaches belly dancing in Abu Dhabi. “It is such a paradox, because it is such a long-standing tradition there, from tribal dancers to the great Egyptian dancers of the Fifties and Sixties.”
The effect the tribal dancers had on their public is well documented. Although Napoleon’s troops were initially horrified by the make-up and dress worn by the Ghawazees, Egypt’s most famous dancing tribe, when they first landed in the country in 1798, according to the French writer Auriant they were eventually seduced by their movements.
He also recounts how it did not end well for the women. For creating unrest among the troops, about 400 of them were beheaded and their bodies thrown into the Nile.
According to Wendy Buonaventura, the author of Serpent of the Nile – Women and Dance in the Arab World, it was the Ghawazee who first transformed belly dancing from a private pleasure of Muslim women to a public entertainment. Regarded as outsiders, the tribe’s members had the freedom to display more flesh than your average Egyptian, as they were already socially ostracised.
But rather than being a way to entertain French troops, belly dancing began as a ritual to allow women to celebrate fertility and honour female gods.
Women in Egypt, for example, would dance in honour of a god known as “She who makes the universe spin”. These were religious rites relating to the cycles of nature and procreation, celebrating the mystery of fertility and life. Societies were often matriarchal and Mother Earth was worshipped. In an obvious throwback to ancient fertility rites, at Egyptian weddings couples have been traditionally photographed with their hands on a belly dancer’s tummy,
Another theory holds that the moves of the dance echo those of childbirth and serve to prepare a woman for the event. According to a survey carried out by the Middle Eastern Dance Magazine, women who dance deliver their first child with shorter periods of labour than those who do not.
“For me, belly dancing is about empowering and uniting women,” says Elina. “Originally belly dancing was never a dance for men, it was about femininity and fertility and connecting our minds with our bodies and Mother Earth. It is a truly feminist dance.”
Elina maintains it was the Romans who sullied the name of belly dancing, bringing it to Rome as a form of entertainment, and that it was further degraded by the British and other soldiers stationed in Egypt during the Second World War, who behaved as badly as Napoleon’s troops had one and a half centuries before.
“They would pay local girls to dance,” she says, “and so it turned from something empowering to women to a form of amusement for men and its reputation became one of sleaziness, which is so far away from its roots.”
It is this sleaziness that is causing fundamentalists to brand belly dancing “anti-Islamic”, resulting in a dramatic reduction in dancing in countries where it was once a tradition handed down from mother to daughter.
According to one source, most belly dancers in Egypt now are imported from Russia, as the locals are turning away from the dance. Perhaps they fear the worst, as portrayed in Cabaret, an Egyptian film released this summer, in which a suicide bomber is sent to blow up a nightclub. It ends happily: instead of blowing up the place, he is entranced by the dancers.
Many Middle East countries have gone a step further and banned the dance. In fact, it was declared illegal in Egypt in the 1950s, but there was a popular uprising. As a result, the government agreed to repeal the ban on condition that the dancers did not show their stomachs, a law which remains in force today. Here in the United Arab Emirates it is not illegal to belly dance in public, but you do need a licence to do so.
In Egypt you also need a licence and when you apply for it you have to prove you can dance. But tread carefully; if your movements are considered too lewd you will not be granted a licence. In 1957 there were more than 5,000 registered dancers in Egypt, and by 2000 there were only 357. There are no available figures for today.
Tamalyl Dallal, a professional Middle Eastern dancer based in Florida, fears the dance is in danger of becoming extinct. “The anti-belly dancing sentiment and reactionary religious extremism was beginning when I visited Cairo,” she says.
“The belly dance shows were not decadent in any way, but the dancers had such charisma and strength that the audience was compelled to silence by the lift of a dancer’s arm and driven to a frenzy by a dancer’s union with the drumbeats. I think the Arab men are afraid of the tremendous power in the hands of women when they perform this dance.”
Maybe belly dancing will once more become the dance of the outsiders.