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A Brief History of Oriental Dance

From social dance to performance art
By Salome


In Arabic, the folk dance that mothered Oriental dance came to be identified as Raks Baladi. Raks meaning dance and Baladi roughly meaning of the country. A distinction between native and foreign dance became necessary after European occupation. Before this it was simply referred to as Raks (derived from the word rejoice).

For centuries, Raks Baladi was enjoyed at festive occasions and in the home by men, women and children. In gender separate parties/living quarter's people would dance for each other for fun in their party or regular clothes. Raks Baladi continued in this vein until the influx of European tourists in the 1800's. The Europeans created a demand for public performance and this sparked a segue into performance art.

Raks Baladi (in its various forms) is indigenous to North Africa, the Middle East, and as far east as Iran. However, the public performance aspect was predominately influenced by Egypt. Some general factors why:

  • In the 1920ís Turkey was experiencing a cultural revolution and transition in government that all but eliminated their participation in native arts.
  • Until the 1960ís Lebanonís industry flourished. But unfortunately Lebanon was swept into civil war and their attention turned to survival.
  • Other North African and Middle Eastern countries never developed the dance as a performing art.

    In the transition from social dance to staged performance Raks Baladi emerged in an altered state becoming what we identify as Raks Sharki (Oriental dance). This metamorphosis most notable occurred in the 1930's at the Casino Opera in Cairo, Egypt.

    A singer, dancer, actress named Badia Masnby, of Lebanese heritage, opened a nightclub called Casino Opera. It was fashioned after European cabarets and host to Middle Eastern and European entertainments.

    Raks Baladi was typically done stationary and used in small spaces, the nature of movement earthy with a predominant focus on the hips. Badia personally trained her dancers but also brought in western choreographers. The dance adapted to utilize stage space and the movements were refined using not only hip but arm and chest movements as well.

    Costuming also underwent a major change at this time. Up to that point dancers wore a long dress or skirt/shirt/vest with a scarf accentuating the hips. Influenced by Hollywood movies and European cabarets the beaded two piece sequin costume made its first appearance.

    Egypt had a booming entertainment industry with Egyptian film dominating cinema in the Arab world. Many of the films made were musicals featuring dance artists. Raks Sharki was catapulted to a level previously impossible and stars created that remain legendary today.

    Outside of the film industry and clubs, Raks Sharki was an integral part of the culture and any festive celebration. But after the revolution of 1952, by order of Dr. Rageb, Raks Sharki was banned on religious grounds and dancers in Cairo exiled.

    Under pressure from the people (and desire for tourist dollars) it was allowed to resume in 1954 but under certain restrictions. The torso had to be covered, floorwork was prohibited and no "quivering" a particular style of hip shimmy.

    Through the 70's and 80's Egypt saw a wave of American and European women clamoring to learn Egyptian Raks Sharki first hand. Lessons and video were consumed en mass. The Egyptian Raks Sharki scene was reportedly at its peak, with superstar dance productions in the swankest clubs of Cairo with 40 piece orchestras.

    Egypt enjoyed alpha status until the 1990's. Over the decade public performance notably petered out. Identifiable reasons include: a decline in wealthy tourists from the Persian Gulf; the younger generation turning to other forms of entertainment; and religious extremists threatening violence to any event where women perform Raks Sharki in front of men.

    Currently, due to the economic, political, and religious climate the Egyptian Raks Sharki scene is sparse in contrast to yesteryears. Aside from the decline of nightclub performances, I have heard tell of its occasional exclusion from wedding parties for fear violent retaliation. A law passed in 2003 prohibiting foreign dancers from being granted work permits, causing a deeper decline in public performance. Though the ban was reversed after approximately a year.

    Oriental dance is flourishing elsewhere however; Lebanon and Turkey are most notable for their burgeoning dance scenes. Outside of the Middle East, in the U.S. and Europe, a wealth of performance can be found in grand auditoriums to small town cafes.