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Postcard, 19th C. Egyptian dancer. From Casablanca to Chicago

Middle Eastern dance has existed since prehistoric times, although we aren’t sure what form it took. Anthropologists believe that it was surely linked to religious worship. The Romans enjoyed this dance, as did the sultans of the Ottoman empire. Later, in the 19th century, the French Foreign Legion made it popular (but not at all respectable) during the colonization of Algeria. Pierre Auguste Renoir and Gustave Flaubert recorded their experiences with the Ouled Nail, the “tribe of the dancing sandals,” in Algeria.

Middle Eastern dance was present on the American frontier, and at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where the famous tune that’s now nearly a nursery rhyme was coined. The “Egyptian Dancers” there--notably Little Egypt--were so popular that burlesque dancers picked up the idea and the name in order to add Eastern glamour to their shows.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, dance was performed in the villages and in the cabarets. Women danced in their homes, but not while men were present, and not before strangers. Even today, a woman who dances in public in the Middle East may have a hard time persuading people that she’s decent.

Postcard, 1906: Danse du foulard. Tunisian scarf dance. Bringing art to life

Many artists have worked hard to both elevate and record this dance form. The most significant is Mahmoud Reda, who in 1959 formed the Reda Company. This group performed Middle Eastern dance theatre. Reda says that he wished to present this art form “in a place where people go to watch dance, not to eat and drink.” His troupe became a diplomatic arm of the Egyptian government and toured 52 countries. He now tours the U.S. every two years, and offers classes to students like ourselves.

Also of great note is Ibrahim Farrah, who in New York formed the Near East Dance Group, which performed in many groundbreaking venues including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and Town Hall. Farrah, before his death in 1998, emphasized authenticity and the study of Middle Eastern dance as a serious art form.

Postcard, early 20th C. France: gypsy. From the theater to the Nile

If you went to Egypt today, you’d see Danse Orientale performed in the nightclubs and Folkloric Dance in theatrical productions like Reda’s. You might see a ghawazee (Egyptian gypsy) in the bazaar, or at a festival, or on a boat in the Nile. You might glimpse movement behind a window. If you’re female, you could be invited into a women-only party in which the guests feel free to let go and have fun. And best of all, families who are hosting a wedding, which always include an Oriental dancer, string colored lights to invite in both strangers and guests.

Contemp. photo recreates hand design of Moroccan Guedra dancer. Read more about Middle Eastern dance

Here are three excellent sources to get you started:

  • Buonaventura, Wendy. Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World. New York: Interlink Books, 1994.
  • Carlton, Donna. Looking for Little Egypt. Bloomington, IN: IDD Books, 1994.
  • Habibi Magazine: A Journal for Lovers of Middle Eastern Dance and Arts.

Images of Egyptian and Tunisian dancers courtesy of The Museum of Middle Eastern Dance