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

The Term "Belly Dancing"

By Arabella


The term "belly dancing" bothers me. Would it bother me less, I wondered, if I could figure out why? It was worth a shot.

Since the word "dance" did not offend me in any way, I considered "belly". This word, for me, conjures up an image of a huge and distended stomach, a "beer belly" - hardly the toned abdominals we expect in an accomplished dancer. Although in French, the term used to refer to what we call "belly dancing" is la danse orientale, that is, Oriental dance, I knew that the name "belly dance" came from the French danse du ventre. This term that was actually used to refer to an entirely different dance from Algeria performed by the Ouled Nail tribe, yet the French word ventre has no such vulgar associations. It simply refers to the frontal region just below the stomach, but makes no reference to the sexual region. One might speak of the ventre of a violin without any fear of offending someone.

Yet, I cannot think of a more flattering term for this part of the body, save for "abdominal", which to my ears sounds rather clinical and sterile.

What is the dance called in the parts of the world where it originated? The word "dance" itself comes from the Sanskrit tanha meaning "joy of life". Similarly, the Turkish rakkase and Arabic raks originate in Assyrian (and possibly Aramaic, the language of Jesus, since Assyrian is modernized Aramaic) - in Assyrian rakadu means "to rejoice". In the West, we might call it Middle Eastern dance, or Arabian dance, or Oriental dance.

In any case, none of these terms refer to parts of the body! Nor do the names for any other type of dance that I can think of. I began to think about this, and why other types of dance have the names they do. Some are named for their place of origin; for example, Spanish dance, or Highland dance. Tap dancing is named for the kind of sound the dancer makes. In French, the word ballet refers to any kind of choreographed dance, but what we think of as "ballet" is known in French as la danse classique.

Then I realized exactly why the term "belly dancing" offended me so much. Not only did the term bring to mind an ugly picture, but it told me absolutely nothing about its origin, or its nature! But much worse, it reminded me of the term "lap dancing". This is an "entertainment" found in cheap and sleazy bars. A man pays for a scantily-clad woman to take him into a tiny booth, where she sits on his lap and ... I hesitate to say "dances", and will instead say "writhe". I don't know what the rules are regarding touching, nor do I want to know.

Having considered all this, at last I understood my aversion to this term. And does it bother me any less now? Absolutely not! In fact, I would say it bothers me even more!


About the Author

Arabella, the author of this article, has contributed many informative pieces to this web site on a variety of topics, including:

  • Analysis of technique for doing certain dance moves
  • Costume ideas
  • Essays and opinion pieces
  • Understanding Middle Eastern music
  • Helpful how-to's, such as remembering choreography

Please visit Arabella's home page on this web site for a full list of articles she has contributed.

Arabella began her dance studies with Russian Ballet classes. Frustrated by ballet's impossible ideals, and curious about more ethnic dance disciplines, she moved on to study various other dance forms. Moving further east each time, these included Spanish flamenco, Escuela Bolera, Middle Eastern, and East Indian Odissi.

Arabella, based in Toronto, Canada, is also a certified Mastercraftsman in crewel embroidery, with a special passion for metal thread and ethnic embroidery. Currently she particularly focuses on Palestinian and East Indian embroidery.

Photo of Arabella



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