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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

"The Oldest Dance"? Really???

by Shira

 

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Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

The Internet is full of web sites boldly claiming that Oriental dance (belly dance) is "the oldest dance", "an ancient birth ritual", "a goddess dance", and "thousands of years old". There have also been a number of books published and videos released over the years that make similar claims. I refer to these claims as WISHful hisTORY, or "wishtory".

It's easy to understand why this belief in "the oldest dance" is so popular. From a feminist point of view, it's very appealing to imagine a time when the things women did were honored and respected by men, rather than being trivialized as they often are today. It's appealing to daydream of a time shrouded in the mists of history where women dance with hip drops and undulations all day, every day. It's appealing to imagine the idea of women being worshiped as goddesses, enthroned as queens who ruled in their own right, and empowered as decision-makers.

Ever since the rise of the three Abraham-based patriarchal religions, women in many cultures have been treated as "unclean", inferior to men, and subject to male-imposed rules about their sexuality. The concept of women being able to make their own decisions about their bodies, rather than being controlled by what men want them to do, fits very well with the feminist agenda of empowerment for women. I'm a feminist too. I get it.

However, it's time for us to grow up and realize that women of today can be empowered without making fanciful claims about the past that we are unable to confirm. Instead of repeating creative tales about the distant past spun by someone with more imagination than knowledge, we should be focusing on the factual knowledge on the real-life people who shaped the dance into what we know today.

Ghawazee

 

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How Can We "Know" That?

Think about it - how can we truly know which style of dance is indeed the "oldest dance"? What is the evidence? How can we be sure that the very first human being to dance did so by shimmying the hips? Why isn't it equally plausible to imagine that the world's very first dance contained running steps and leaps?

Archeologists have never discovered any sort of journal or other tangible record left by the very first person to move her or his body in time to music. Realistically, such a discovery seems very unlikely. There have been no discoveries announced in archeology journals to proclaim the finding of a million-year-old video showing someone dancing.

Without any evidence, how can we claim we know what the "oldest dance" looked like? And why do we feel we need to make these claims? Why can't we accept that the earliest origins of Oriental dance are lost in time?

How can we claim that belly dance originated as a birth ritual? It's not as if the first women who ever did a hip drop left a journal for us to find that stated her reasons for doing it.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.

Shira

 

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Why Is "Wishtory" Bad?

It's so easy to find dancers on the Internet, in books, and in videos that proclaim this concept of "the oldest dance". So why not simply embrace it? After all, it could have been true - couldn't it? Well, maybe, but Oriental dance still struggles to gain the kind of credibility needed to obtain arts council grants, listings in college for-credit course catalogs, recognition at academic conferences, and performance opportunities at museums. Claims of our dance form being "the oldest dance", "the original birth ritual", and "thousands of years old" immediately alienate the people who control these opportunities.

Here's why we need to move forward beyond our wishful thinking:

  • Many organizations seek artists with respectable academic credentials. People who are perceived as being too uneducated, undisciplined, or lazy to work with standard research and analysis methodology need not apply.
  • Projecting our own wishes onto the dance form of another culture creates a distorted view of that culture.
  • "Wishtory" distracts people away from the provable facts about the history of the dance form. This is grossly disrespectful to the people who actually shaped the dance into the beautiful art form we love today.
  • "Wishtory" deceives people into thinking they "know" something about Oriental dance, when in fact all it really reveals is the fantasy life of the person who made these claims.
  • People with education in the social sciences recognize these tales for what they are - wishful thinking - and lose respect for our dance form when we repeat such stories as if they were fact.
  • Oriental dance teachers who repeat such "wishtory" lose the respect of students who recognize this imaginative storytelling for what it is.
  • Dancers who repeat "wishtory" consume other people's brain cells and time that could otherwise be spent on learning accurate information.
  • People with an interest in Oriental dance history have limited amounts of money to spend. When that money is spent on books and classes spinning romantic tales about the past rather than on works containing factual research, it diverts funding away from supporting the work of those conducting and documenting the meaningful research.
Dancers

In short, when we repeat wishful thinking as though it were fact, it shows disrespect to the real-life dancers whose culture created our dance, harms our own credibility, and allows damaging stereotypes to continue harming our dance form.

 

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About Sources

Researchers consider some sources to be more credible than others. When reading about Oriental dance history, it can be useful to keep this in mind, and consider which types of sources were used to produce a certain book or article.

  • A primary source consists of original material. Examples of primary sources related to dance include historical statues, paintings, and written text. A primary source may be interpreted different ways by different people, so it is always useful to seek out the primary sources that were used to create a specific piece of research and draw one's own conclusions.
  • A secondary source consists of a description or analysis of a primary source. For example, a secondary source might be an article written about the historical accuracy of the paintings of dancers by Orientalist artist Jean-Léon Gerôme. A secondary source's credibility depends greatly on the skills and knowledge of the person who created it. Some secondary sources are valuable because they represent work by knowledgeable people, while others are useless because they represent guesses by people who have little to no actual knowledge in the field.
  • A tertiary source summarizes and collects an assortment of primary and secondary sources. This would be true of most articles on belly dancer web sites that talk about the history of Oriental dance. Tertiary sources are the least reliable in general, because many of the people who write these lack the ability to distinguish which primary / secondary sources are credible versus which are not.

 

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How To Tell Which "History" Is Well-Researched?

There are certain warning signs which identify the poorly-researched claims about belly dance history, and there are certain clues which identify credible researchers. Here are some guidelines to discern which is which.

 

Identifying Sources

Clue

Does it identify the source for each "fact" given?

Identifying the source helps the reader learn to trust the author's conclusions. It also points the reader to where she can go to learn more. If an author is providing her own conjecture, she should say that is what she is doing.

Example

A researcher wishes to talk about ancient dance.

Bad

Good

A book or web site states, "Belly dancing was done by priestesses to honor the goddess Isis."

It does not identify where this claim came from.

Page 21 of Sacred Woman Sacred Dance by Iris J. Stewart says, "The Homeric 'Hymn to Artemis' (c. 700 B.C.E.) spoke not of dances to Artemis but of Artemis as the dancer herself. 'And the sound of the lyre and dancing and joyful cries... there she arranges the lovely dance of the Muses and Graces.... adorned in elegant raiment, she takes command and leads in the dance."

[A footnote identifies the source of this quote as The Myth of the Goddess by Baring and Cashford.]

 

Thought Process

Clue

Does it identify the thought process that led the writer to his / her conclusions?

It should. Historical research always involves a certain amount of theorizing and interpretation. By sharing how she reached her conclusions, the author helps readers determine whether they would have interpreted the same evidence the same way.

Example

A circular indentation in the rock surrounding a pile of ashes in an ancient cave dwelling might lead a researcher to conclude that ancient people did a circle dance around a fire. The author of the book decides to mention this research in a discussion of ancient dance.

Bad

Good

Ancient people danced in circles around the fires. In the ancient city of ___, a spot was found with traces of ashes that led researchers to believe it had been used as a firepit. Around this is a slightly indented section of stone, which some researchers have interpreted to be evidence that people danced in a circle around the fire.

 

Avoid Leaps of Faith

Clue

Does the author refrain from making leaps of faith that are not supported by the evidence?

Does the author present the evidence that led to the conclusions? Is there a clear, logical, easy-to-understand link that shows how that conclusion could be reached from that evidence?

Example

Bad

Good

There are ancient depictions of movement on the walls of tombs at Saqqara, Egypt which scholars have identified as representing dance.

This is proof that belly dance is thousands of years old. [Without showing a copy of the image.]

There are ancient depictions of movement on the walls of tombs at Saqqara, Egypt which scholars have identified as representing dance. Because of the age of the Saqqara necropolis, these are considered to be the world's oldest images depicting dance known so far.

This is an example of one of those images. It appears in the tomb of Mehu, which is believed to date back to 3,000 B.C.E.:

Mehu

As this illustration shows, the oldest images of dance that we have been able to discover so far are frequently quite acrobatic in nature, and do not resemble Oriental dance as we know it.

 

The Document Sticks to the Subject at Hand

Clue

Do all the "facts" presented by the researcher indeed seem to provide insight into the subject at hand?

The researcher should clearly explain how the information presented relates to the subject at hand. She should show why the "facts" that she presents are relevant.

Example #1

Bad

Good

A book states, "The Hopi for example perform dances to the Corn Goddess as corn is their staple food."

Considering that the Hopi are in North America and that Oriental dance originated in Africa and the Middle East, it seems peculiar and unfocused to be talking about the Hopi in a document about the history of belly dance.

The book offers no explanation of why a reference to the Hopi, who live on an entirely different continent and have no tradition of dance movement resembling belly dance, would be relevant to Middle Eastern dance history.

The researcher begins with a definition of "belly dancing" as "a torso-focused women's solo dance", perhaps quoting Andrea Deagon's SITA (solo improvised torso articulated).

The writer then proceeds to present evidence which suggests specific historical times and places in which such a dance was done.

Example #2

Bad

Good

A dancer who performs with snakes writes a book about the history of belly dance. She includes a chapter with extensive information about the "snake goddess" figurines found among Minoan ruins at archeological sites in Crete.

The book provides no explanation of why statues found among Minoan ruins would be relevant to belly dance.

If there actually was reason to believe Minoan snake figurines were linked to the ancient torso-focused women's dance found in the Levant and Africa, then this book should have explained the link. It should have presented evidence demonstrating cultural exchange, such as the discovery of Minoan artifacts in the Levant or Africa.

In the absence of any such evidence, the book should omit the chapter on snake-oriented religious cults.

 

Multiple Possible Interpretations

Clue

Does the author suggest multiple possible interpretations of the evidence?

Good research considers that there may be more than one way to interpret a source, and mentions the options. After acknowledging other options, the researcher may state, "I believe that the correct one is ___ because..." The reader can then decide for herself whether to agree with the researcher or whether to interpret the data another way.

Example

This ancient statue of a woman was found in Austria. It is known as the Venus of Willendorf.

Many such statues have been found throughout Europe.

Venus

Bad

Good

This statue, with its exaggerated depictions of a female body, is an artifact once used in the worship of a great fertility goddess.

No one knows for certain why these statues were originally created.

The most widely accepted theory is that they may have been used in worship of a mother goddess figure, in a fertility cult.

Other possibilities could be that people carved them to honor loved ones who had died, or perhaps for use as an ancient type of pornography.

In my own research, I have come to believe the most likely reason people created these statues is ___ because ___.

 

Historical & Cultural Context Included in Analysis

Clue

Does it analyze evidence based on historical and cultural context?

Anybody can collect photos or quotes, but knowledgeable researchers will explain historical and cultural information about these items which helps readers gain insight into what the photo truly represents.

Example

Consider this photo that Shira took when attending a show at a nightclub in Egypt in 2004.

Parisiana

Bad

Good

This photo shows a nightclub performer in Egypt.

This photo was taken of a performance that opened the show at the Parisiana nightclub on Pyramid Street in Giza, Egypt in July 2004.

At the time this photo was taken, there was a trend in Egypt for performers from Eastern Europe to present ensemble dances as part of a nightclub's evening entertainment wearing costumes that covered as little as legally permitted. Their purpose was to titillate the mostly-male patrons. This style of dance show is known in Egypt as "a Russian show".

This particular performance, dubbed "The Golden Show", was intended to evoke a 19th-century French burlesque flavor of dancing, in keeping with the theme suggested by the name of the club. This was not an "Oriental dance" show, and the Arab tourists who represented the primary customers of this club would have understood this.

 

Informative Captions on Illustrations

Clue

Are the captions for illustrations informative?

Well-written research books include captions for photos that provide details about the context of the image.

Example

A book or article references this famous French painting. Gerome

Bad

Good

The only information provided by the caption and/or accompanying text is this:

Jean-Léon Gerôme. Dance of the Almeh. Oil painting. Dayton Art Institute, Ohio.

Jean-Léon Gerôme, the artist who created this painting, was a leader in the 19th-century art movement known as Orientalism. He personally spent some time in Egypt, and built a reputation of realistically portraying what he actually saw, although some art historians dispute these claims of realism.

This oil painting, "Dance of the Almeh", is believed to have been created around 1875. The dancer's garments resemble what women of the time wore in the privacy of the women's quarters of their homes, but the transparency of the blouse over the breasts and belly was probably added by the artist to make his painting more titillating and attract buyers. Orientalist paintings frequently served as the pornography of their day.

 

Types of Opinions Expressed by the Writer

Clue

What kinds of opinions are expressed by the writer?

Well-written research avoids mentioning personal opinion unless the opinion is specifically related to interpretation of the available evidence.

Example

Bad

Good

A writer states, "Sadly, this beautiful dance was corrupted by nightclub owners who dressed the performers in skimpy costumes and paraded them on a cabaret stage for the pleasure of men."

In her book When the Drummers Were Women, Layne Redmond refers to an ancient drawing in which a circular object is being held on its edge. According to Redmond, archeologists captioned that picture as "woman holding a cake".

Redmond then states an opinion whose purpose is to show her differing interpretation:

"Most people know you wouldn't hold a cake that way, so it's more reasonable to conclude that the round object is a frame drum."

 

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Recommended Sources

These books are ones Shira has read in their entirety and recommends as containing sensible, well-researched perspectives on the history of belly dancing, meeting the criteria described above. More will be added to this list over time, as she has time to discover and read them. Click on the book title to read Shira's review:

  • A Trade Like Any Other. By Karin Van Nieuwkerk. Presents the evolution of Egyptian Oriental dance over the course of the 20th century.
  • Looking for Little Egypt. By Donna Carlton. Explores the history of Oriental dance i in the United States by examining dancers at the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago and the decades that followed.
  • Before they Were Belly Dancers. By Kathleen Fraser. Explores reports of dancers from 19th-century European tourists.

Books that do not meet the tests described above include the original edition (version published in 2001) of Serpent of the Nile by Wendy Buonaventura, Grandmother's Secrets by Rosina-Fawzia Al-Rawi, Bellydance: The Birth Magic Ritual: From Cave to Cult to Cabaret by Jamila Salimpour, and Earth Dancing: Mother Nature's Oldest Rite by Daniela Gioseffi.

 

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