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The Significance of Belly Dance
The art of music and dance have been used for centuries and remain an integral part in our culture. Over the past years they were used for various purposes including healing, religious, spiritual or for entertainments. Certain traditional musical instruments were used to soothe the mind and the spirit whereas, the dance was a medium to connect with the universe.
Interestingly, some dancers became story tellers and started to apply make ups to depict the scenes of stories in their dances.Just like in Kerala in the South of India, dancers wear dramatic make ups to relate mythologies. Certain gypsy dancers wear facial tattoos so as to express themselves. Terri Saunders claims that,’ the word “history” is derived from the word “histor”, the ancient Roman term for dance. It is believed that ancient people preserved their traditions and cultures through dance from generation to generation.
Throughout history we observed that, when we speak of certain spiritual, religious or folk dances many tend to associate them with stereotypical views due to lack of understanding; not many understand the meaning of going into a trance or connecting with divine spirit, therefore, all they see are misunderstood and misinterpreted. Just like, Susan Rueppel in her insightful work ‘The Healing Power of Dance’, states that ‘the incredible power of dance as a sacred ritual has often been interpreted as a threat throughout history.'
What is belly dancing?
Belly dance is known by the French as ‘danse du ventre’(dance of the stomach), by the Greeks as Ciftetelli’, by the Turks as ‘rakkase’ and by the Egyptians as ‘raks sharki’. It is among one of the greatest art form that has been characterized as the ‘divine feminine power’ associating with the cult of fertility in the ancient times.
Karol Henderson Harding in her work ‘The Origins of Oriental Dance’ states that, ‘it is impossible to completely separate the history of belly dance from Gypsies, Spanish dance, Indian dance, and Persian dance. She also adds that, ‘it is easy to see how the sensual dances which originated with Greek mystery rites and comedy dances, where the dancer might have also played a type of cymbal or clapper, travelled to Spain where it became what is today Flamenco, and that another form of this dance developed throughout the Middle and Near East as what we call belly dance. Both types of dance are also associated with the Gypsies, who came out of India, through Persia, and spread, by the Middle Ages throughout Europe.
Not many people can really understand the true meaning that lies behind oriental dance since the real story of belly dance and its symbolic significances are unknown. Belly dance has primordially been the symbol of feminine divinity in its essence;the fact that women have the ability to give birth became a ritual of celebrating and honoring the fertility cult in the name of goddesses like Aphrodite, Artemis, Isis, Ishtar, Hathor, Salabhanjika(ancient tree deity of fertility), Venus and the list goes on.
Today, many pregnant women practice belly dance under the supervision of the experts due to its beneficiary factors. Belly dance was itself considered sacred by women who practiced the ‘birthing ritual’ and it was not intended to be seen by men at all. Furthermore, Karol Henderson mentioned that, dancers are invited in Berber tribal birthing ceremonies whereby women are gathered in a tent while the men waited outdoors and the mother is surrounded by concentric circles of women who danced with repeated abdominal movements while the she gave birth. It is still believed to be auspicious for newly wedded couples to hire a belly dancer for their wedding and to take a picture with their hands on the belly dancer’s stomach.
Generally, eastern dance is called the ‘muscle dance’. Oriental dance has its focus on the abdominal muscle, hip moves and chest moves. It is firm and earthy, with bare feet connected to the ground therefore, connecting the dancer to mother earth. It is a dance characterised by smooth, flowing, complex and sensual movements of the torso alternated with shaking and shimmy types movements.
The beginning of Belly Dance
Women who have the ability to give birth to a child, were indeed regarded very pious. Girls practiced sacred dancing which featured the abdomen the source of goddesses’ fertility at temples. They were sent to the temple as the result of pious vow and practiced sacred rituals to the extent that they were ‘married’ to the temple deity.
Karol Henderson Harding states that, ‘in Sparta, girls and young women came to the shrine of Artemis and performed unrestrained, ecstatic dances to the goddess wearing "only one chiton", that is what was normally their underdress. There were also maiden priestesses in Asia Minor, engaged in ‘ecstatic dance’ in honour of Artemis and goddess Athena as well. There were also mysteries celebrated in honour of Aphrodite, goddess of human love and fertility on the island of Cyprus. ‘
In some instances, music and dance were used as a form of healing the spirit and body; this was basically practiced by the ‘trance dance cults’which still exist in many parts of Middle East. The cults practice healing dance in Greece, Thrace, Syria, Phrygia and Asia Minor in general. They were characterised by the stirring accompaniment of shrill flutes, tympana, metal cymbals, and castanets of wood, earthenware or metal. They also used snake for prophesying.
The use of props in the dance such as snakes, swords, veils, and candles were believed to have magical protective functions for primitive people that can still be found in the folk dances of these countries basically in the Middle East. The snake is a symbolic animal which represented both male and female principles and also immortality.
It was also noted that in ancient India around 9th and 10th century, there was the practice of temple dance, virgin girls also known as devadasies married to the temple deity and offer their services to the temple. Even during the Mughal era, the institution of dancing girls maintained. There were the non-temple dances that were known as ‘tavaifs’ who were considered as sophisticated courtesans and repositories of culture and refinement. They were, however,’ married’ to the trees and flowers just like the devadasies who were married to temple deity. Eventually, these dancers were to be known as ‘Bayaderes’ which would be sent to Egypt and its neighbouring countries. We have also observed a link between Northern Indian dance and Persian dance. It is yet important to highlight that with time these sacred ritual practices were degraded by the upper class of the ancient society. There were many who took advantages of the dancers.
Likewise, Egypt had its own legacy of the temple dance. It is believed that it was the goddess Isis who introduced dance to Egypt. Susan Rueppel pointed out that ‘Hathor of Egypt, Goddess of the moon and mistress of the dance, played a sistrum(ancient percussion instrument) and was goddess of music and dancing, leading the priestesses in temple rituals of music and dance. Some of these dances were rituals as a prayer for fruitfulness. Hathor was the protector of pregnant women and childbirth. The sistrum frequencies were thought to be a focussing tool for transcendence.’
Historically, the eastern civilisations were much sophisticated and organised. They were not only exchanging goods but cultures also. The Indian temple dancers the Bayaderes were sent to Egypt for certain occasions to present their dance. Ancient Egypt were said to be influenced by many cultures like those of the Phoenicians, Persians, Assyrians, Syrians, Nubian, the Sudanese, Ethiopian and that of the Bedouins. Foreign customs and wealth poured into Egypt. It is mentioned in ancient documents that the dances were becoming less like marches and more elegant- 'the line flow softly and pleasantly, nowhere do they bend sharply or break; and even where the mood is impetuous and impassioned, the movement remain close.’
While coming to an understanding of belly dance, it is important to discern that the ancient societies were mostly partriarchal. Along with the time, belly dance was suppressed on purpose just to marginalise the cult of fertility along with the ‘feminine power’. If we analyse critically we shall observe that when men came into power as to prevail their supremacy, the only thing left was to subordinate and marginalise the ‘feminine power’. Some went to call the ‘fertility cult’ to be some sort of witchcraft. Or honouring plants or female deities (which represent woman attributes like compassion, affection, motherly love, and ‘feminine power’ as a whole) have been considered as ‘magic’ in a negative sense.
Belly dance as we know has much more than we think. The true meaning of belly dance is certainly understood when one dance with his or her whole entity; when one is able to feel the ambiance of the ancient time and come into the level of mysticism and spiritualism. It had its major role in the fertility cult whereby feminine power were honored and celebrated. Today, many belly dancers around the world are sharing and spreading their love for this art form.