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A Name, a Notion

by Salome

In Turkey it is known as Oryantal Dans and in Arab countries as Raqs Sharqi - translation, Oriental Dance. The French called it "la danse du ventre", meaning "dance of the stomach" during its occupation of Egypt (1798 - 1801). This label filtered back to Europe and went on to circulate in America.

The incontrovertible truth of how and exactly when the label "belly dance" came into circulation as the preferred English language term is, at this point, evasive.

Some think that American promoter Sol Bloom had a hand in translating danse du ventre to the, then, scandalous slang "belly dance".

Sol was the Entertainment Director of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. And some believe he used the term as an advertising hook to draw visitors to an exhibit called "The Streets of Cairo" that featured snake charmers, camel rides and dancers.

At the time, society considered any description of the body to be socially unacceptable, vulgar, and Sol would have know the term "Belly dance" would sensationalize, interest and ultimately increase his business (which it did).

In print, Sol did identify the dance as "danse du ventre". But barkers at the exhibit hyped the dance show by calling out outrageous lines like "every fiber and tissue in her entire anatomy shakes like a jar of jelly from your grandmother's thanksgiving dinner..." etc. They even went so far as to prohibit women from viewing the show, to further shock and titillate the public. Considering this, I would conject that it is very possible that the term "belly dance" was put into action here, at least by spoken word if not print.

There is a very stimulating discussion taking place on the BellyDanceForums.net regarding this topic. For a variety of fact and opinion visit - From "danse du ventre" to "belly dance" to read or participate!

Today, in the Near and Middle East, the dance continues to be referred to as Oriental dance. However, outside of those regions you will find different labels attached to the art form. It is called, among other things, Middle Eastern, Mid Eastern, Mid Eastern Oriental, Near Eastern, Oryantal dans, Raqs sharqi, Oriental, Belly and Belly dance.

Legitimate points exist in support of, or opposition to, a particular label. Some positions I've come across include but are not exclusive to:

  • The desire to create a positive connotation with the term Belly dance by "honoring the abdomen as the center from which new life emerges".

  • The term Belly Dance perpetuates a promoter's description founded in "racism, colonialism, and mid-Victorian Orientalist misconception".

  • Society has a preconceived notion of the term Belly Dance, a notion not based in knowledge but in media stereotyping, imagination, or misinformation.

  • Middle Eastern Dance designates a cultural and geographical area the general public can readily identify.

  • Oriental dance is a performance art belonging to specific cultural groups. It is the artist's obligation to label the dance as those from the culture do.

    Belly dance, Oriental dance, Raqs Sharqi... these are umbrella terms. Sometimes a teacher or performer will simply use one of these but more often a specified genre will be named; ATS (American Tribal Style), Tribal fusion, Gothic, AmCab, Egyptian, cabaret, Urban Tribal Style, Turkish, Lebanese and so on - to denote which exact style.

    There are a LOT of different views on whether or not some of the above mentioned genre's have even a glimmer of Oriental dance in them at all, but that is a whole 'nother article!