The breath of life: a brief history of belly dancing in the Middle East

Before you read this article, let’s first agree on something. Let’s agree that the art of belly dancing is an incredible and mesmerizing performance art form. Let’s also agree that anyone who denies its beauty or poignancy must not have seen it performed well and correctly. Now, with this out of the way, let us explore the origins of this art form in greater depth. Let us begin by saying that belly dancing exists in almost all cultures around the world. There are several variations—some are more provocative than others but all are equally beautiful and stimulating for a spectator. However, one of the best-known varieties is the Arabic Belly Dance. This article explores everything you need to know about it.

What is Arabic Belly Dance?

Arabic Belly Dance is also known as Raqs Sharqi. This form of dance originated in Egypt in the 19th century and spread across the Middle East. It is a very sensual form of dance, performed by women in public spaces such as cabarets, parties, and festivals. The dancer’s clothing is very minimal, usually just a bra and a loincloth made of silk. The dancer sways her hips to the rhythm of the music and often uses an ornate fan made of feathers to enhance her movements. The dancer moves her body in a figure eight pattern with her hips swaying from side to side and her arms moving up and down. The movements are meant to be suggestive and provocative. A dancer’s skill level is determined by her ability to move her hips in a circular motion that is said to represent the cycle of life. Her hands, feet, and breasts are often adorned with bells that jingle as she moves. Arabic Belly Dance is a very dynamic form of dance that combines elements of acrobatics and oriental dance.

The Origins of Arabic Belly Dancing

Arabic Belly Dancing is believed to have first emerged around the 19th century in Egypt. The first dancers were Egyptian prostitutes who used this form of dance to attract customers to their brothels. Eventually, the dance spread beyond these establishments and became a celebrated art form. The rise of Arabic dance was linked to the decline of an older style of dance known as Syrian or Levantine Dance. The Levantine Dance was also a form of Oriental dance but it had a darker, more melancholic tone. The two dances coexisted for a while before the more sensual, ornate, and vibrant Arabic style overtook its predecessor. Arabic dance has undergone many changes since it first emerged. One of the earliest forms featured a woman dressed in a male costume with a sword in hand, symbolizing her strength. Later, the dance was associated with the rise of Hejaz, a Sufi order that placed great importance on the arts. This new style of dance was heavily influenced by Sufi poetry and had a much more religious flavour than its predecessors.

How is Arabic Dance Different from Other Forms of Belly Dance?

Belly dancers all over the world use different techniques and styles. Some begin their dance on the floor, and others stand during the whole performance. Each style has its own merits and can be exciting to watch. But the most common type of Oriental dance is Egyptian Dance, which has a more rapid and elaborate rhythm. Syrian Dance, on the other hand, is more dignified and restrained, with more emphasis on footwork. As for Arabic Belly Dance, its purpose is almost purely aesthetic. It is a slower, more relaxed form of dance that is very rhythmic.

Why does this art form hold such importance in the Middle East?

Belly dancing has long been a part of Middle Eastern culture, with dancers often performing at parties, festivals, and weddings to celebrate life and its pleasures. Belly dancers were particularly popular in the harem of a wealthy men, where they would entertain guests and make the evenings more festive. Belly dancers were often slaves or women of low social standing and were under the direct supervision of their master or the harem’s eunuch. They were free to practice their art and earn money but were not allowed to interact with members of the opposite sex. This strict regulation of the dancers’ lives is said to have contributed to the mystique and popularity of their art. A woman who was allowed to dance before an audience was most often a slave who was not permitted to refuse the attentions of her master. The restrictions on her life, combined with her sensual movements, made the dance an even more alluring and provocative art form.


Belly dancers have long been an important part of Middle Eastern culture. The art form has evolved over time from its origins as a way for brothel workers to attract clients to a popular and celebrated form of entertainment. Belly dancers were often slaves who were expected to entertain guests in the harem. Now, they are free to perform wherever they like, and their art form has become even more popular.

Image Credit: Simon Hurry on Unsplash