Contrary to what many Westerners believe, Oriental dance (the correct name for belly dancing) did not originate as a dance of seduction done by concubines to titillate the Sultan.
For centuries, the role of Oriental dance in Middle Eastern society has been that of a folk dance that people would do at joyous occasions such as weddings, the birth of a child, community festivals, and other events that bring people together to party. It was a dance that men, women, and children did for fun, not a "performance" done to entertain an audience. Just as Americans at a modern-day wedding reception might do waltzes, two-steps, or even the chicken dance, so people in the Middle East would get up with their friends to shimmy to their favorite music.
Following the rise of Islam, people lived in segregated households. The men lived on one side of the house, and the women lived with the children on the other side. The word "harem" does not refer to some exotic seduction chamber filled with naked women lolling on pillows awaiting their turn to seduce the Sultan. Instead, it simply refers to the section of the home where women carried about their everyday business of cooking, sewing, gossiping with friends, and minding the children. The word "harem" comes from the word "haram", which means "forbidden": men who were not part of the immediate family were forbidden to enter the women's quarters when they visited their friends. The intent was to protect the women of the household from strangers.
When festive occasions would arise, the women would celebrate with other women, and the men would have a separate party with other men. Historically, the two genders did not mix. In some Muslim countries, that is still true today.
In the afternoons, after feeding their men the big meal of the day at noon, women would sometimes gather at the homes of their sisters, aunts, cousins, friends, or grandmothers to enjoy some time together. In these informal get-togethers, they might take turns getting up and dancing for each other. This was one way that the mothers of marriageable young men could get to know the eligible young women of the community.
There was generally no special dance "costume" to wear--people simply danced in their party clothes, just as we might dress up a little for our own friends' weddings. Dance was not seen as something to be "performed" by a professional--it was just something people got up and spontaneously did.
Times change, and people change with them. The twentieth century brought several changes that reshaped the role of the dance in Middle Eastern society:
In January 1999, I went to Cairo for 2 weeks with my friend Morocco and 3 other women. Following her advice, we dressed conservatively. Late one night, we heard very loud drumming in the alley behind our hotel and went to investigate. A wedding party was in progress. Seeing us peering around the corner, they hospitably invited us to join them.
The professional dancers were a troupe of young men, dressed in traditional garb and performing folkloric men's dances.
After their show, the dancers retired and the musicians continued to play. One of the women urged me to get up and dance with her. The mother of the bride didn't dance, but smiled brightly and treated us to zaghareet as we danced. Even though I spoke no Arabic and they spoke no English, we had great fun together.
|Dancers who writhe seductively on stage during their performances clearly either don't understand the cultural backdrop of the dance, or don't care. It's a social dance, created for families and friends to celebrate the joy of spending time together.
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