Belly Dance

Belly dance is a very broad term. Today it refers to dances from across North Africa, the Middle East, and even parts of Asia that include undulation of the stomach, arms and hands. The English term "belly dance" originated from the literal translation of the French danse du ventre (Shay and Sellers-Young, 2005).  

This term "dance du ventre" was made popular in Europe at the Paris 1889 Exposition, where the peoples inhabiting areas of colonial French territories were showcased in anthropological exhibitions. Elements of North African culture and North African dance practices (termed danse du ventre)  were consumed for public interest/amusement (Jarmakani, 2008). The story of "dance du ventre"- or belly dance - and its movement into the West is thus tied to a history of violence and colonial exploitation.

Certain dancers and scholars do not like to use this term, "belly dance," because of its vagueness and its tie to this colonial past. Others feel that the term accurately describes the movement of the related dance forms it refers to (which focus on the movement of the belly), and thus feel the term has merit.

Many prefer to use the terms raqs sharqi, or oriental dance, as these terms are not perceived as carrying the same colonial baggage that "belly dance" does. The English term "oriental," however, also has a problematic colonial history. Thus, the question of terminology is quite problematic- and reflects the elements of colonialism and orientalism that have shaped perceptions and practice of this dance form in the West.


Raqs Sharqi/Oriental Dance

Raqs sharqi is the Arabic term for what English speakers generally call belly dance. Literally translated, it means "eastern dance" or "oriental dance." 

Author: Anne Vermeyden, 2014.

Works Cited

Shay, Anthony and Barbara Sellers-Young, eds. Belly Dance: Orientalism, Transnationalism & Harem Fantasy. Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 2005.

Jarmakani, Amira.  Imagining Arab Womanhood: The Cultural Mythology of Veils, Harems, and Belly Dancers in the U.S. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.