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A Review of

Bellydance: The Birth Magic Ritual from Cave to Cult to Cabaret



by Jamila Salimpour




This book by Jamila Salimpour published in 1979 explores anthropological sources and mythology in its quest to uncover the origins of belly dance. Cave to Cult to Cabaret



Fact Sheet


Bellydance: The Birth Magic Ritual from Cave to Cult to Cabaret


Jamila Salimpour




Self Published


Belly Dance History



Number of Pages


Published In





Jamila Salimpour explores anthropology and mythology in her quest to find information about the origins of belly dancing. Her primary theory is that belly dancing originated as a birth ritual, and she selects sources that support her fertility-oriented point of view. She self-published this book in 1979, which would have pre-dated the desktop publishing industry and the Internet.

The book never provides evidence to support the fertility origin theory, never proves it. It simply starts with that assumption, and then examines what anthropological sources have to say about fertility in general.

Much of the dance-related history in this book comes from a 1933 book by Curt Sachs, Eine Weltgeschichte des Tanzes, which was published in English in 1937 as World History of the Dance. That book was also the foundation for much of Wendy Buonaventura's 1989 book Serpent of the Nile. Already in the 1970's, scholars in the academic world were criticizing Sachs' original book and pointing out its flaws; flaws which have carried over into Salimpour's Cave to Cult to Cabaret.



Is It Right for You?


You Will Probably Enjoy This Book If...

  • You are looking for insights into the mind set of 1970's-era belly dancers in the San Francisco area.
  • You are fascinated by how the pop culture of the 1970's created intersections of hippies, feminist (goddess-oriented) spirituality, and the sexual revolution, and how belly dancing was a part of that.
  • You feel nostalgia for the 1970's San Francisco belly dance scene and the dancers who came out of it.
  • You're a big fan of the Salimpour legacy.


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

  • You're looking for research on the history of belly dancing that applies academic standards of quality.
  • You're looking for historical information about the history of belly dance in the countries it comes from (Egypt, the Levant, and Turkey).



What I Liked, What I Didn't


What I Liked:

  • Considering that this book was written before the dawn of desktop publishing, I'm very impressed by the effort that Salimpour put into hand-typing it, adding the font effects, and adding the illustrations. It would have been a massive effort, considering the tools available at the time.
  • It is clear that Salimpour invested many hours of time at the library, back in the era when the Internet and computerized card catalogs did not yet exist, looking for information about the origins of belly dance.
  • This book was clearly a labor of love.
  • The written narrative usually identifies Salimpour's sources, offering me a pointer to look for the source material in context.


What I Didn't Like:

  • The book's title insinuates that belly dance originated as a birth ritual, but the book itself never presents evidence to support that.
  • The book wanders off into a number of peculiar tangents that really don't have anything to do with raqs baladi as we know it. There are chapters on cowrie shells, sacred caves, snakes, vultures, and many other anthropological topics, usually fertility related, but the narrative never shows how they apply to belly dance. It fails to connect the dots.
  • A number of the illustrations included in the book do not identify the sources they came from. The captions usually say what the illustrations are depicting, but don't identify the book or journal where Salimpour found them. This makes it very difficult to follow the research, to look into what the original source had to say about the illustration.
  • The book talks in depth about the Ouled Nail of Algeria, but their dances are not the same thing as what the world recognizes as belly dance. The author doesn't explain what role she thinks Algerians played in shaping a dance form that's associated with Egypt, Turkey, and the Levant.
  • The book doesn't mention anything about the role of Egypt and the Levant in creating the performing art we recognize today as raqs sharqi or raqs baladi. There is no mention of the nightclubs of Cairo and Alexandria in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The mentions of Egypt are related to mythology, not to dance.
  • There is no index.
  • There is no bibliography.
  • The table of contents does not include page numbers.




If I had discovered this book when I was a beginning student in the 1980's, I would have devoured it repeatedly from cover to cover. However, considering what I have learned over the past 35 years, I realize that Cave to Cult to Cabaret is not a reliable source of information about the origins of belly dance.

Salimpour was clearly not academically trained in research. It shows. She demonstrated a passion for the topic, but lacked the analytical skill to make appropriate decisions about which facts to include, and how to tie them together to prove her birth ritual theory.

The book is interesting for archival purposes. It shows what many North American belly dancers believed about our art form's history as of the 1970's, even though academic sources of that time were already starting to discredit one of Salimpour's major sources, the book World History of the Dance by Curt Sachs. Reading Cave to Cult to Cabaret shows us where many of the modern day "wishtory" (wishful thinking about history) tales about belly dance history came from, such as priestesses using dance to honor the goddess, belly dance as birth ritual, and more.

We didn't have many resources in those pre-Internet days, and Salimpour did the best she could with what she could find. I can't recommend this book as a source for learning about the origins of belly dance, but I can recommend it as a collectible nostalgia item representing the 1970's San Francisco belly dance culture.




There is nothing to disclose. I have never had any contact with anyone associated with this book.


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