|Instructor Heather Ward|
The fact of the matter, though, is that the term “belly dance” is a Western invention, and an unfortunate – though inescapable – misnomer. The name came about in the 19th century, when wider European and American audiences first saw the dance. To the eyes of these onlookers, the dance’s free (and un-corseted) movement of the torso led to it being dubbed “danse du ventre” – “dance of the belly,” or belly dance.
In Arabic, the name for the dance is much more poetic – it’s known as “raqs sharqi,” which literally translates as “dance of the East.” And in reality, while the dance uses the whole body, a great deal of the movement is centered in the hips, not the belly.
But what about the stereotypical open-navel belly dance costume? It certainly looks like this costume was meant to show off the belly! The open-navel costume (known in Arabic as the “bedleh”) has been a popular belly dance “uniform” since the 1920s. To some extent, this style of costuming was influenced by European and American expectations of what a belly dancer “should” look like. However, there are also clear precedents in the costuming styles of 19th century professional dancers in Cairo – costuming styles that were designed to highlight hip movements, not belly movements.
In my student recital on May 19th, you’ll also be able to see a broad range of costumes – from the belly-baring bedleh to tummy-obscuring dresses. I encourage my student performers to choose costuming that is appropriate to the dance, but that suits their comfort level.
In the classroom, bare bellies are definitely not a requirement – because belly dance is not really a “belly” dance! In fact, the best class attire consists of yoga pants, a fitted tee shirt or tank top, and a scarf tied around the hips. Bare belly or no, it’s the dancing that matters!