Belly's Beginnings: A Flash Course in Arabic Danceby April Greene
Has any dance in history been so bastardized as belly? The western translation of what is known in the Middle East as raqs sharqi (literally “Oriental dance”), belly dancing was introduced to American popular culture in several late 1800s world’s fairs, where it instantly gained celebrity–though its midriff-baring and hip-swiveling elements just as quickly made it misunderstood as a scandalous act of exhibitionism rather than a social dance performed for fun and celebration by men and women of all ages.
Zikrayat, a Long Island City-based Arabic music and dance ensemble, presented a tribute to the “Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema” (the 1950s) at Galapagos Art Space in June, and showed—through live performance, film footage, and narration—how far afield our current concept of the dance is from its origins in the cradle of civilization. In the films, belly dancing is presented as a skillful, festive endeavor, practiced by people of different social strata and only occasionally plied for its sensual flavor. The performances, by three dancers all trained in the Egyptian style, employed more footwork, a broader range of motion, and more interaction with the accompanying music and musicians than would likely be seen at the Trump Taj Mahal.
Dance, like every art form, is a living language. With that in mind, it should not be upsetting to see different translations of any type of dance, even when some might appear to misinterpret the original point. But regardless of how it’s changed in its foster home the United States, it is a treat to see snippets of raqs sharqi as Zikrayat does it, closer to its roots.
April Greene, the Rail's dance editor, lives, writes, and bikes in Brooklyn.