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A Review of

Serpent of the Nile

by Wendy Buonaventura


This review refers to the original edition of this book, which was published in 1989. A new, updated version with a different cover image was released in 2010. If you are looking for information about the original edition before buying it used, then you may find this review helpful. However, if you are seeking information on the second edition, this review would probably not apply.




This book explores the history of Middle Eastern dance, from ancient times through the evolution the dance we know as raqs sharqi today. It examines the role of dance in the tribes of the Sahara, the Ghawazee, the Orientalists' perception of Middle Eastern dance, the role of Oriental dance in inspiring the early leaders of modern dance, and the rise of the nightclub industry in Egypt that reshaped the dance as we know it today.



Fact Sheet


Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World


Wendy Buonaventura




Interlink Pub Group in the U.S., Saqi Books in the U.K.


Non-Fiction: Dance History



Number of Pages


Published In





This is the second book that Wendy Buonaventura wrote about the history of Oriental dance (belly dance). Her first one, Belly Dance: The Serpent and the Sphinx, was released in 1983. Serpent of the Nile was released in 1989 to serve as a replacement for it.

Serpent of the Nile explores the history of Oriental dance centered around the pervasive theme of women using dance as a tool of sexual power.

The book sets the stage with a 15-page introduction, which summarizes much of the direction the rest of the book will take. It presents the use of the dance in a social setting, the Orientalist fascination with dancers of the 19th century, and the evolution of the dance into its current use as a nightclub stage show.

Chapter 1, "Ancient Echoes", discusses theories regarding dance of the ancient world. Although it's an interesting tour of theories about ancient dance that were accepted at the time the book was written, I am skeptical about some of the assertions it makes about ancient dance. For example, "All dance was once part of religious ritual." Most of the focus of this chapter centers around the theory of dance in general being used as a fertility rite.

Although Chapter 2, "The Gypsy Trail", begins with a discussion of the Gypsies, it also covers some aspects of dance history unrelated to them. It talks about court dancers in Persia, slaves as entertainers in ancient Rome, 19th-century Awalim in Cairo, and schikhatt dancers of Morocco. It's a surprising group of topics to consolidate under such a chapter title.

Chapter 3, "A Charm Beyond Beauty", covers the beginnings of Europeans' fascination with dancers in the Near East in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and Chapter 4, "The Artist's Muse", discusses the rise of the Orientalist movement in the visual arts. Continuing the theme of European and North American exposure to the dance, Chapter 5, "Dancers from the East", discusses dancers who traveled from the Near East to perform abroad, including at the famous Columbia Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.

Chapter 6, "The Obsessive Image", explores the Oriental fad that swept the arts of Europe and North America in the early 20th century, fueled by Oscar Wilde's play Salomé, Richard Strauss' opera of the same name, Isadora Duncan, Ruth S. Denis, and the early movie industry. This is probably my favorite chapter of this book.

Chapter 7, "Cabarets and Clubs", takes a disapproving look at the style of raqs sharqi (belly dance) that arose in the nightclubs of Egypt in the 20th century. Although this chapter mentions legendary figures in our dance form such as Badia Masabni, Tahia Carioca, and Samia Gamal, the mention is only cursory and quickly moves on to describe what Buonaventura calls the "cabaret" dance. She seems to miss the point that in Egypt there was a significant differences between the high-end nightclubs frequented by the wealthy and the low-end dives known as cabarets, incorrectly lumping it all under the term "cabaret". This chapter is disappointingly weak, filled with large amounts of disapproving editorializing by Buonaventura, who clearly does not value the modern-day Oriental dance. Oddly, this chapter ends with a photo of Mae West from the movie I'm No Angel.

Chapter 8, "Enduring Traditions", Buonaventura talks a bit about the zar ritual and the continuing use of raqs baladi (traditional belly dance) as a social dance.

Chapter 9, "A Mosaic of Music", offers a brief overview of Middle Eastern music from a historical perspecrtive.

Chapter 10, "New Directions," explores taking this traditional dance form in front of a Western audience in a staged environment.

Chapter 11, "The Essential Woman," is the final chapter of the book. It contains musings on the notion of femininity and how it relates to raqs baladi.

The book ends with a footnotes section, a bibliography, and an index.



Is It Right for You?


You Will Probably Enjoy This Book If...

  • You would enjoy a book that contains many full-color photographs of Orientalist art.
  • You would be interested in seeing Oriental dance through the perspective of a feminist writer.
  • You would like to learn more about the European and North American obsession with the Middle East in the early 20th century.
  • You're looking for a coffee table book related to belly dancing.


This Book Probably Isn't Right for You If...

  • You're looking for a reliable source of information on belly dance history.



What I Liked, What I Didn't


What I Liked:

  • The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs and historical paintings, many of them in color, making it a feast for the eyes.
  • The highlight of this book for me is the description of how Oriental dance influenced the evolution of modern dance in the hands of such leaders as Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan. The chapter "The Obsessive Image" is well-researched and offers insights into the foundation of attitudes that persist toward our dance form in Europe and North America even today.
  • Buonaventura has clearly accomplished a major feat in collecting and presenting both the illustrations and the accompanying information.


What I Didn't Like:

  • There are many areas where I have concerns about the accuracy of some of Buonaventura's assertions, particularly in the chapter on ancient dance. For example, on page 35 she describes the myth of Ishtar's journey to the underworld. I've done extensive reading on this myth, and the telling of it in Serpent of the Nile is incorrect in several ways. To double-check myself, I contacted an acquaintance who has expertise in the field of Near Eastern mythology, and he concurred that the sections I questioned were errors. I could cite a number of other examples.
  • Buonaventura fails to identify the sources of much of the history she relates. Although there are some footnotes, they are few and far between, and many bold statements (such as her assertion that the tale of Salomé is somehow related to the descent of Ishtar) are left without attribution of the source.
  • The index is rather incomplete. There have been many times I've tried to use it to find a particular section I remember reading in the book, only to find that the item isn't listed in the index. For example, I was not able to find an entry in the index relating to the hierodules even though I looked for "hierodule", "priestess", "prostitute", and "temple".
  • The captions for the illustrations usually don't provide context to help understand what the image is showing. Sometimes they match information in the text next to them, but sometimes they don't.
  • The information on important influences of the 20th century in shaping Arab dance is quite cursory. The information about the rise of the nightclub industry in Egypt is minimal, and the mention of Badia Masabni, Tahia Carioca, and Samia Gamal is brief. Nothing is said about Lebanese and Turkish dancers.




I wouldn't recommend this book as a source of factual knowledge about the history of belly dance. Although it contains a lot of well-researched information, there are too many statements that are at odds with things I have discovered from my own research. In addition, the text fails to identify the sources of many of these claims, which raises questions about the scholarship. Buonaventura's emphasis on the dance as an expression of woman's sexual power gives a one-dimensional view of the subject, and sometimes intrudes on the narrative. Topics that are pivotal in the development of this dance form as it is known today such as the role of Badia Masabni, Tahia Carioca, and Samia Gamal receive superficial treatment rather than the focus they deserve.

However, I greatly admire the effort Buonaventura has made to compile so many wonderful paintings, photographs, and drawings of dancers in one place, and I very much enjoy looking at these illustrations. She has also done some fine work in describing the European and North American fascination with all things Oriental in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At a time when most books about belly dancing were focused on how-to's, Buonaventura set herself apart by dedicating her book solely to the topic of Oriental dance history.

If you enjoy collecting books about belly dancing, this one is worth acquiring because of the visual feast of the illustrations, but please be aware that other books offer better descriptions of the history of belly dance.




At the time I originally read the book, formed my opinions of it, and wrote the original review, I had never had any contact with either the author or the publisher.

In 2008, I had the pleasure of meeting the author in person and seeing her perform an interpretive dance about Salomé, which I very much enjoyed watching. I would enjoy getting to know her better.



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