The roots of bellydance in the Middle East run so deep that the origins of this dance are speculative. Styles of bellydance are historically associated with Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon, as well as ancient Greece and Rome. There is little reliable evidence about the exact beginnings of bellydance but it’s believed to have been associated with birthing, religious rituals, and social occasions. These were ordinary men, women, and children wearing ordinary clothes, passing down tribal or cultural dances through generations.
But that’s not the way we see bellydance today. The dancers performing on stages, in restaurants, and at ren-faires have carefully choreographed and practiced their dances. They give special attention to spacing, stage presence, music selection, costuming and makeup. Clearly bellydance has evolved from its hazy origins to a polished patchwork of styles, techniques, and esthetics. And it’s in this melting pot of bellydance that you can carve out your niche, a reflection of you; as daring and unique or traditional as you are.
While much of historical bellydance is believed to be ritualistic and social, danced by everyone, it is possible, likely in some circumstances, performers at social occasions, for royalty for instance, were slaves or even prostitutes. Indeed there is still a social stigma in Egypt today that public performers are of a lower social class. Then Salome danced for the head of John the Baptist in 28AD.
Using her beauty and talent for dance to ask for his execution, Salome showed that dance could be powerful. There was a shift. No longer relegated only to lowly traditions or slave girls, dance could have influence. And in 527AD, Thedora, an oriental dancer and actress living in Constantinople, became the Byzantine Empress when she married Justinian who reportedly repealed a Roman law preventing government officials from marrying actresses just so they could wed. This showed that dancers were more than mere prostitutes, but could influence politics as well, which laid the ground work for Margaretha Geertrudia Zelle, professionally known as Mata Hari.
In 1905 Mata Hari debuted her act as an alluring temple dancer. Her exotic dance style and flirtatious nature made her popular. She socialized with the wealthy and was the mistress to high-ranking military officers and politicians in several countries. While her claims to be a Hindu princess, who studied the art of sacred dance since childhood were fictitious, her innovative style and popularity elevated dance to a more respectable status. And her theatrics and colorful stories of her childhood opened the door for even greater poetic license in bellydance. Enter Hollywood.
As soon as there were movies there were movies with bellydancers. Hollywood’s fascination with the Orient began in the era of silent films with Cleopatra starring Theda Bara and DW Griffith’s Intolerance. Later glamorous stars like Yvonne De Carlo and Rita Hayworth danced in roles such as Scheherazade and Salome. The silver screen created a sparkly and lots of skin Americanized image of a bellydancer, the gateway for a style of bellydance that would come to be known as American Cabaret. And beautiful Egyptian dancer and actress, Samia Gamal became a star in the US.
Samia Gamal starred in dozens of movies using her own style that incorporated ballet and Latin dance with bellydance. Fusion bellydance was born. She came to the US in the 1950’s and danced her signature style wearing high heels. Some say she did so to prove she could afford such extravagances as elegant shoes, but regardless of the reason, dancing in heels changes the dancer’s center of gravity as well as adding to the sophistication of the glitzy American Cabaret style.
No longer learned by doing during rituals, Jamila Salimpour pioneered her method of teaching bellydance in 1954. She created detailed breakdowns and standardized terms for movements. She added structure to a dance that seemed mysterious and almost too exotic to learn for the average woman. She opened the door many have stepped through.
In 1987 Fat Chance Belly Dance director, Carolina Nericcio, developed the melting pot of techniques called American Tribal Style. Not the glittery glam of American Cabaret, American Tribal Style is a group dance and the movements and costumes are inspired by a variety of cultural dances.
Tempest shimmied her hips in 2003 and became the “Goth Mother” when she fused bellydance with Goth moves and aesthetics. Later, she would blend bellydance with Steampunk developing another unique subculture fusion.
Developing her own tribal fusion style, Rachel Brice, meshed American Tribal and American Cabaret bellydance styles with other contemporary and ethnic dance forms, and yoga.
Now it’s your turn. After getting a strong foundation in bellydance and honing your technique, combine your dance with another talent or interest. And the fusion doesn’t necessarily have to be with another dance form. Yasaman Vrd’dhi mixes bellydance with Native American dance and martial arts. Aepril Schalie has created her own theatrical bellydance style infused with mysticism. There are pirate bellydance troupes. Burlesque, fire spinning, juggling, and hooping bellydancers are mixing their forms. Gymnastics, twirling, fire-eating, whatever; if it’s performable, it can be fused with bellydance.
What will your bellydance niche be?