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Written by: Astrid Lewis

Through my research I have learnt that it has been estimated that Belly Dance has been around since 5000 B. C.

Originally this art form was not intended for entertainment but as a form of exercise passed down from mother to daughter for the sole purpose of strengthening the womb for fertility, conception, pregnancy and childbirth. It is known that Arabic women begin teaching the movements of “Belly dance” to their daughters at a very young age.

Although dance was performed at festivities such as weddings, private gatherings and fertility rites it is not entirely known whether it was Belly Dance per say.

The catch fraise “Belly dance” was adapted by the west when in the 1800’s this eastern art form spread throughout Europe and the Americas. In 1893 at the world fair in Chicago, Mahzar Fahreda known as “little Egypt” performed this form of dance bringing much gossip and interest of approval and disapproval to the west.

The French called and call it Dans du Ventre meaning dance of the Belly, the Spanish called it La Danza Spermente, meaning dance of the serpent and the Germans Tans Oriental.

The Arabic term is Raks Al Sharki meaning the dance of the east or baladi (the dance of the people). The most common and wide spread term used today is Dance Oriental.


Personally I do not believe that anyone truly knows the origin of this dance form. However it is clear that it is a Middle Eastern oriental inheritance and that the Arabic women are the gate keepers.

It is also believed that the Gypsies had a lot of influence in the spread and fusion of various different styles of this art form. Styles that have influenced Belly Dance include: folkloric, Khaleegy, Egyptian baladi, Egyptian Cabaret, Lebanese Dabke, Lebanese cabaret, Turkish/Greek Ciftetelli, Turkish Cabaret, Gypsy Turkish, Persian, Moroccan and even Indian dance to name a few.

What proves to me that all I have mentioned above is part and parcel of Belly Dance is the use of props and where they came about.


Tea Tray Dance: stems from the “Tea ceremony” that originated in Morocco. It is a metallic tea pot surrounded by tea cups with candles placed in the cups which is placed in the center of the tray and is balanced on the dancers head whilst performing the “Tea ceremony” in a dance form.

The Shemadan: This is a metal candelabrum made from either bras or copper or both metals. It comprises of nine to thirteen candles and is believed to originate from Egypt, Turkey and France. The dancer balances the candelabrum on her head throughout her performance to show off her incredible skill of strength and balance. Shakira performed a drum solo with a shemadan on one of her world tours.


Stemmed from sword fighting between men from Egypt and Turkey.

There was a time when sword dancing was banned during the Ottoman rule as it was believed that dancers would take a sword from a soldier in a mock like manner and pretend to “kill” the soldier after the dance performance, the swords taken by the dancers were never returned to the soldiers by the performers, therefore the Sultan believed that the performers were collecting the swords to begin a resistance against the army.

The correct Arabic dance sword is specifically designed and made to balance upright on the dancer’s hips, head forehead and chin. Unlike the Chinese sword which is flat and cannot balance upright, usually a dancer performing with this type of sword would balance the sword flat on her head.


Zagat (finger cymbals)/ Egyptian and Turkish origin: these are tiny musical finger cymbals which are placed on each index fingers and thumbs of both hands. The dancer plays various time signatures either in accompiment with the music and Darabouka player (drum) or in stead of the music whilst she dances. This requires quite a lot of skill as usually the body moves in a different time than the zagat.


Stick dancing known as “Raks as Assaya” Egyptian and Saudi Arabia origin: Originally this stems from the “mock sword dance” performed by two men each using wooden sticks (sticks represent the sword). I have seen in Aswan Egypt a male dancer do an acrobatic dance performance using three sticks. When men perform the stick is plain strong and thick in diameter, much like the walking stick, however women adorn the stick with sequence beads and shinny fabric or ribbon. The traditional dress is a folkloric style full length completely covering the body with the long bell sleeves, however in Egyptian Cabaret the stomach is exposed and with slits in the skirt to expose the legs. The female version of the cane dance is genteel with hip pushes, shimmies, gentle alternating jump kicks and basic swinging of the stick. The male version is a lot more acrobatic and energetic and involves more kicks, lying on the floor arching the back into backbends and kicking the stick up off the floor.


Turkish/Persian/Indian and Egyptian origins
Originally the use of veil is from India, Persia and turkey however it has been incorporated into the Egyptian cabaret too.

In Egypt traditionally Arabic women wear a Malaya, this is a long shawl used to cover over an evening dress. And at weddings or private functions the female guests would dance together with their shawls wrapped around them. When westerners observed this they assumed this was a specific dance so by popular demand it became a dance known as the “Malaya”

In India, Persia and Turkish the veil is either swirled or thrown in the air as if drawing “S” patterns or figure 8 patterns showing a vibrant celebratory display of color and vigor. Today dancers perform with double veils showing off more of their creativity and ambiguity.

My Conclusion
This is only a summary and my view of the history and Origin of Belly Dance. I do not claim to know all the facts but what I have learnt through my frequent visits to Egypt and attendance of international workshops there is so much more to this art form that meets the eye and one can never stop learning and fortunately with this dance form I have become an eternal student.

My Dance Back round
With 35 years of dance training, I have studied and received training in ballet, modern, tap, contemporary dance, Jazz, Latin American, Ball room and Belly Dance. I qualified as a dance teacher with an international diploma in 1991 and have been teaching ever since. For the past 14 years I have been performing and teaching Belly Dancing nationally and internationally. I have and still continue to attend advanced workshops with international teachers and performers from America and Egypt. I frequently visit Egypt to attend private lessons and annual Belly Dance Festivals and Inshala (God Willing) I will continue to do so.

For more information contact:
Astrid Lewis - Oriental Fusion Belly Dance Studio
011 957 3820 or 083 335 8877




IMAGES: Carla Nel Photography



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