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Cultural Context of Belly dance

by Salome

If you are in the western hemisphere and involved in Belly dance, chances are, you've heard all the run-of-the-mill stereotypes; Belly dance is a dance of seduction, it was used by concubines to win the sultans favor, it's the eastern equivalent of strip tease. Perhaps these views are even held by your friends, significant other, or parents.

Before Belly dance was promoted into a performance art, it was, and continues to be an activity enjoyed by ordinary people of both genders and all ages.

Just for the sake of 'relating' contextually (depending on your era or region) think; disco, country line dance, fox trot, hip hop... When your uncle bob got up and did the boot scootin' boogie at the family reunion it was no more about seduction than uncle Amir getting up to do a little raks baladi at his nieces wedding reception.

To address the harem fantasy. Traditionally in Muslim society men and women live in separate quarters of the house. The section where the women and children live is referred to as the harem. We, in the West, often have an image of a harem being young, semi nude concubines, fanning themselves while lolling on pillows waiting to 'please' the master of the house. This concept was surely formed by fantasy paintings and written works from the Orientalist period and perpetuated in contemporary media. However our fantasy and the reality couldn't be farther apart.

As stated earlier, a harem is the women and children's quarters of a domicile. The word itself means forbidden. That is because males, who are not immediate relatives, are not allowed to enter the harem. It is forbidden. In Muslim society, women are shielded from unknown men and this is one way that is carried out.

While many Muslim women work outside of the home or attend school, many also occupy the role of home maker. As home maker, women cook, clean, care for their children and may also visit with girlfriends and female relatives. This is one context where dance may play a part in a woman's life.

For women whose movement is traditionally structured, going to the cinema, joining a health club or any activity outside of the home where a male relative is not chaperoning may be unfeasible. But woman can and do socialize with each other in their homes. And dance is a diversion that can be enjoyed by and for each other in the harem.

Outside of the home dance was and is commonplace during festive occasions. In gender segregated celebrations, dance was done by both sexes spontaneously and was not seen as performance but as a social/celebratory activity. For centuries the dance has also been used in these gender separate/social contexts.

Today celebrations may or may not be gender separate. Often a band and a professional dancer are hired for festivities. After the professional dancer has retired the musicians continue to play and this is the time for party goers to dance. The spirit of the social form of Belly dance is one of celebration, socializing and informal entertainment.

Tarik Sultan, a professional Oriental dancer from New York shot this video of social belly dancing in Giza, Egypt. Nothing beats seeing it with your own eye's, so without further ado...