The sound of swirling silk crackles softly as I spin, my veil catching the air like a sail from Cleopatra’s ancient barge. The scent of my jasmine perfume evokes feminine mysteries, an aroma associated with a timeless dance that has fascinated people since the age of the Pharaohs.
Belly dancing grabs hold of your imagination and links modern times with earth’s ancient past. This dance evokes timeless archetypal images and movements inspired by animals such as camels, snakes and birds; totem animals for a dancer. Belly dancing expresses all those feelings inside us that we can’t put words to, and tells stories of love and life with mystic movements.
For many dancers, fascination with belly dancing begins with the exotic costuming. The heavy coins and elaborate silver bracelets and earrings of the folkloric belly dancer appeal to the earthy, sensual goddess archetype inside a woman. The sophisticated cabaret glamour of beaded bras and wide belts, with their sparkling fringe, silky skirts and veils, transform a dancer into a mystic princess.
My earthy hips tell timeless stories with their sinuous curving movements. Like ancient dancers of the past, my hips twirl and circle in mysterious geometry.
Although historical details of ancient dances are obscure, dresses worn for dancing have survived. An Egyptian dress I saw in a museum exhibit consists of beads linked in a fishnet mesh. Five thousand years later, modern belly dancers wear this same style of fishnet dress, now made with crocheted yarn and tiny glass beads, and paired with a colorful bra, wide hip belt, and skirt or pants.
Cabaret costumes (the familiar embellished bra, hip belt and skirt) are a more recent innovation, made popular by Hollywood movies in the early 1900’s. Although fabrics have changed, the basic cabaret style remains popular today. Many of these costumes are surprisingly heavy, embellished with shiny sequins and glass beads lovingly sewn by hand. Fringe adorning the hip belt vibrates with the dancer’s movements and shows her dexterity.
My knees are bent and my feet are grounded; my Roman-style sandals lace up my ankles.
This dance is so old that no one is sure where it originated, but it is certain that belly dancing evolved from a variety of influences. Traveling nomadic tribes of antiquity danced across the Near East and Asia Minor, working as entertainers at banquets and celebrations.
Modern belly dancing includes movements and costume elements from around the world: elegant beaded dresses and jingling coin costumes from Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon; scarves, choli tops and colorful skirts from India; embellished bracelets and rings from Morocco.
American dancers popularized dancing with colorful veils and set worldwide trends with new costume designs. Belly dancing is linked with many countries, and the music for the dance varies widely according to region. Rhythmic steps and dance movements vary with the music, but some steps in belly dancing are universal.
Belly dancing is grounded in the second and third chakras: the pelvis and belly. Some legends say that belly dancing evolved from the childbirth preparation rituals of our ancestors. In ancient Egyptian paintings, dancers are depicted with tattoos of the demi-god Bes on the thigh. Bes was believed to ease childbirth and to protect women and children.
Many modern belly dancers adorn their bodies with colorful tattoos, and their motifs are more recent themes: meaningful words, symbols, totem animals and floral designs. Vibrantly colored cosmetics and henna for temporary body art are also timeless icons of the dancer.
Heavy drumbeats accent the arcing movements of my hair and torso as I sway from side to side. Pieces of an ancient trance dance find their way into my modern bellydance.
Some people think of belly dancing as a mysterious erotic art with the power to seduce. In truth, the dance is a womanly expression of love, empowerment and sensuality, rather than an erotic expression. Belly dancing is rooted in wedding celebrations and birth celebrations, which express the power of love: romantic love and love for a new baby.
From ancient times and into the present day, having a belly dancer perform at a wedding reception is seen as a good luck charm for fertility, like the custom of throwing rice. The belly dancer at a wedding also inspires a romantic mood for the newly married couple. At the same time, she invites party guests to dance with her in celebration of the happy event, an innocent expression of healthy sensuality and joy. An old tradition of belly dancing around a laboring woman also expresses love and support from the community.
I push and pull my belly out and in, my torso mirroring the rhythm of an ocean wave as I breathe deeply.
Many steps in belly dancing are reminiscent of images and movements found in nature. Movements which are performed standing in place are especially fascinating, because they require fine muscle control. It is hypnotic to watch a dancer move her belly while the rest of her body remains silent.
Basic movements are not codified; belly dancers in different regions call movements by different names. Many movements are described as geometric shapes or images from nature. Basic movements include hip circles (also called the “full moon”), the undulation (camel), the hip shimmy (shaking the hips), snake arms (undulating arms), and traveling steps moving forward, backward, and from side to side.
Challenging movements such as diaphragm flutters and belly rolls speak to us in mysterious ways; these movements come from muscles deep within the body and express emotions that we usually hide from others.
Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”
Belly dancing, that timeless art of hypnotic movement, exotic music and costuming, recalls mysteries of the ancient world, creates a link to our primordial rhythms, and explores the sensual movements of our totem animals.