Egyptian and Turkish belly dancing - between stigma and artistic expression

Lamiaa ElKholy

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Oriental dancing did not emerge from an open culture that advocates getting comfortable with our bodies as per Latin American cultures where dancing is an integral part of living life to the fullest, not just behind closed doors or for special occasions.

Thanks to Egypt and Turkey, dancing in the Middle East is mostly attributed to a long history of entertaining performances mostly known as Raqs Baladi in Egypt and Oryantal Dans in Turkey.

Both the Egyptian and Turkish cultures were not likely to produce such artistic expression with their well-known mainstream conservatism.

However, dancing somehow found its way into modernity, perhaps through its religious and ritualistic origins that can be traced back in ancient history as so many engravings representing dancers have been found in ancient regional civilizations, particularly Egyptian.

Thanks to Egypt and Turkey, dancing in the Middle East is mostly attributed to a long history of entertaining performances. (Shutterstock)
Thanks to Egypt and Turkey, dancing in the Middle East is mostly attributed to a long history of entertaining performances. (Shutterstock)

The stigma that accompanied the art of belly dancing can also be related to the times of the Ottomans, recalling the harem pants era and Burqa period that accompanied the gender oppression of women who had to be creative and experimental in domestic confinement to please their men.

Ever since, belly dancing was thought to be “haram” or “sinful”. This view has gradually changed with the bloom of the entertainment business - film and TV productions of the 20th century.

Men and women

In Turkey, strangely enough, men as well as women have performed belly dances as the sultans used to employ male and female dancers who became extremely popular. Exchanging roles was a dominant part of the art that has eventually evolved to mimic modernization according to Western standards and taste, especially after the rise of the American entertainment film industry.

With the focus on women and as an expression of allure and seduction, the art of belly dancing, the moves and the costumes also experienced innovation. Some features were maintained such as the extravagant “Badla” (costume) with its glittering needle work and the use of the loud metallic “Sagat” (zils or finger cymbals) that is present in both the Egyptian and the Turkish lines.

In the start, no naked belly was exposed. However now belly dancing costumes in Turkey and Egypt are more revealing and high heeled shoes are essential for Turkish dancers as opposed to dancing barefoot as per the Egyptian school.

Each country has developed its unique trend of belly dancing. When it comes to the Egyptian school, audiences are taken on an emotional journey with soft and lean moves, while the Turkish school employs “fast and furious spins and shimmies, sharp isolations, and evocative floorwork,” according to bellydanceu.net. The Turkish style comes across as more lively and spirited, in contrast to the more controlled Egyptian belly dancing style.

In modern times, the stigma professional performers suffered from in the past has eased, although it did not disappear. Many well-known Egyptian dancers and performers were revered for their talent, including names such as Taheya Karyoka, Samya Gamal and Naema Akef.

However, no modern dancers were able to claim their status of refined artistry that was documented in many celebrated Egyptian films.

When it comes to male belly dancers, male Turkish and Egyptian belly dancers are bouncing back and becoming increasingly popular in touristic places and nightclubs but still struggle to express themselves as freely as their female counterparts.

Global outreach

Latin American singer and performer Shakira rose to fame and reinvented belly dancing, blending her Colombian and Lebanese heritage into her highly trending line of Latino music.

She is often seen in her concerts in belly dance outfits and her signature oriental moves are at the center of her routine that brought her to global fame.

Belly dancing is considered one of the most wonderful forms of dance that will remain unique to the Orient. It is still difficult for dancers from other ethnicities to mimic the flexible moves that seem to be designed solely for the genealogy of Middle Eastern dancers.