Belly dance is not the world’s oldest dance.
There. I said it. I’m glad I got that off my chest.
Seriously, though. It’s time we stopped perpetuating this impossible myth.
Belly dance is not the world’s oldest dance. It’s not ancient.
It’s hardly even 100 years old. And it’s changing all the time.
So why do so many dancers keep insisting that this dance form is so damn old?
Why Do We Say It?
It makes good marketing.
I mean… it does sound good. “Belly dance… the world’s oldest dance.” It adds a sense of mystery and intrigue, particularly to our marketing copy. For potential dance students seeking to get in touch with their “inner selves” or feel in touch with a sense of something grand and timeless, an “ancient” dance form might seem very attractive. Yoga marketing uses similar tropes, and it’s an issue in that community as well.
It makes us and our dance form feel important.
When we remark at how old a painting is, how how many years a building has been standing, or even when we talk about humans who have lived a really long time… well, older things and people are important. If only because they have stood the test of time. But should we be relying on imagined age to make our dance feel more legitimate?
It roots us.
The belly dance scene, particularly in the United States, is constantly in conflict between roots and innovation. For at least the past four decades, dancers have been arguing with each other about authenticity and tradition. When we say that this dance is “ancient,” it gives a sense of gravitas to the dance itself… even if it’s not true.
But… Being the Oldest Dance Is Not Possible
Dance is living. It changes on the bodies who do it. Unlike the visual arts, like sculpture or painting, dance cannot be preserved except in the doing, and in the doing, it is ephemeral and dynamic.
We can look at, say, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or Tutankhamen’s gold funerary mask and have a sense of the values, style, and intentions of those who created them. We can date their creation to a specific period or year. It’s there, in front of our eyes. An archaeologist can touch the monoliths of Stonehenge. A curator can place a pre-Raphaelite painting in a gallery.
But we cannot place a choreography in a space without a living, breathing, aging, dancing body.
Belly Dance is Actually Quite Young
Belly dance as we know it today is hardly even 100 years old. We can trace it back to the innovations of Badia Masabni.
But it’s more complex than that. If we look at how the dancers in the Casino Opera moved compared to how contemporary dancers in Cairo are moving, there are distinct differences, including effort-shape of movements themselves (the most important element, of course), costuming, musical choices, venues, and audiences.
One distinct movement difference is the textural quality of hip work. Early raqs sharqi hipwork is primarily sustained, tracing shapes of circles, figure 8s, and waves. Contemporary Egyptian dancers employ more on sharp, direct, and quick hip movements, emphasizing percussion, reverberating through the body. These movements are then set in contrast to bound flow shapes in waves, figure 8s, and circles.
There are several fantastic studies about the development of raqs sharqi, including “A Trade like Any Other”: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt (Van Nieuwkerk, 1995), and Egyptian Belly Dance In Transition: The Raqs Sharqi Revolution, 1890-1930 (Ward, 2018).
We can even say this of ballet. The classical ballet that we know today, with its 5 foot and arm positions, codified French language, and tradition of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker is only about 150 years old. At the turn of the century, dancers hardly even performed en pointe. And at its inception, there were several degrees of being on the ball of the foot—quarter rise, half-rise, 3/4-rise, and full pointe—in contrast to the flat, releve, and pointe of today.
The Royal Opera House in London has a fantastic series of the history of ballet, with a whole collection of videos demonstrating how the form has evolved over time. When you watch this series, you’ll see that even ballet, which has a reputation in the belly dance scene for being rigid and static, is as fluid and changing as any other dance form.
While we can trace a tradition of a dance form back through the decades, we must recognize that the dance itself is ever-changing, and changes on the bodies who perform it.
Saying Belly Dance is Ancient is a Problem
While it was quite popular for dancers to say that belly dance is “old” or “ancient” in the mid 00s, we should take more care today.
Why? Well, for one, it’s Orientalist.
One of the key elements of Orientalism, as posited by Edward Said in 1978, is the perception and belief that the Middle East is static, unchanging, and timeless. Viewed through Western European (male) eyes, the ancientness of the Orient keeps it inferior to the “West.” Of course, for a wealthy Western European white male, that would mean that the land and its people were ripe for the colonizing. (I do hope you’ll read this section with a hefty dose of snark.)
However, this theory is turned on its head when it comes to belly dance.
Instead of the backwards Orient being a place of savages to be tamed by the technological, social, and political advances of the West, the Orient becomes a location for ancient, lost, hidden (read: feminine) wisdom. Donnalee Dox deftly explains how belly dancers have taken the trope of the ancient Orient and used it to enact fantasies of a lost time of women’s wisdom and sisterhood. She notes, “Western belly dancing transforms these same images into testaments to corporeality, the persistence of ancient wisdom in the modern world, and the uncontested value of open self-expression” (2006).
Before the advent of film, we just do not know how solo, improvised dance in the Middle East was performed. We can read accounts, extrapolate from images, but there will always be that embodied gap in our knowledge.
While of course there are threads and similarities, these are not the “same” dance. The dance has changed. The articulations, the arms, the sentiment… even in these two limited examples, we can see that belly dance is not at all timeless. It is shaped by its time.
Dancing, in general—of course—is as old as humanity itself. We even see animals engaging in actions that could be classified or viewed as “dancing,” but that doesn’t mean that belly dance as we know it today is “the world’s oldest dance.”
For me, that essential, ephemeral quality of dance is what makes it so special and valuable. Not an imagined petrified past.
Resources on Belly Dance History
As scholarship on belly dance expands and deepens, there are far more resources on the history and development of this dance than there were even 10 years ago. Here are some books to get you started.
- Abigail Keyes, The Salimpour Compendium, Vol. 1, 2014.
- Karen Van Nieuwkerk, “A Trade like Any Other”: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt, 1995.
- Heather D. Ward, Egyptian Belly Dance In Transition: The Raqs Sharqi Revolution, 1890-1930, 2018.
- Barbara Sellers-Young, Belly Dance, Pilgrimage, and Identity, 2016
- Anthony Shay, The Dangerous Lives of Public Performers: Dancing, Sex, and Entertainment in the Islamic World, 2014.
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