From kharding@lamar.ColoState.EDU Mon Nov 8 15:05:13 1993

For dance archives..sorry this is not too neat, but my VIediting is still a bit crude. This was a wordperfect document. It mentions illustrations which are mostly available as tif files if desired. Feel to excerpt, as long as I get credit for research. Note from ecb@world. No edits were done to this file other than removing most of header and this note. May reformat file at some point, don't know when. The Archive does not take any responsibility for the accuracy of this document.

The Origins of Oriental Dance
By Karol Henderson Harding a.k.a. Me'ira (p.k.a. Cala of Savatthi)

This FAQ researches the various times and places throughout history where eastern dance, especially any form of eastern dance which influenced what was to become "belly dance" occurred. The printed version is available from the society for Creative Anachronism (Order as Creative Anachronist #70) The illustrations mentioned are available in the printed version. The author of this publication also has a large number of black and white drawings scanned as tif files of various oriental dancers and motifs. These are available from; contact for more info.

"Cala" has been an oriental dancer for over 8 years, and has written for several ethnic dance magazines, including: Habibi, Jareeda, Mideast Dancer, and Shimmy Chronicles. She is also active in the Society for Creative Anachronism. She also conducts various artistic and costuming endeavors under the name "Joyful Dancer".

METHODOLOGY: By documenting the many places and times when professional entertainers were an integral part of eastern societies, as well as places where music and dance are used as therapeutic devices, I hope to show that Eastern dance has an ancient and complex history, with many possibilities for re-creation in the Society of Creative Anachronism. In fact, part of the problem in researching any type of eastern performance art or persona is that it involves so many different cultures, and has developed in so many different forms. But, in spite of all this, there is still something that can be readily identified as "belly dance". Research also reveals that it is impossible to completely separate the history of "belly dance" from Gypsies, Spanish dance, Indian dance and Persian dance--- hence, the comprehensive view of this report.


The dance which Americans know as "belly dance" has gone by many names. The French who found the dance named it "dance du ventre", or dance of the stomach. It is known in Greece as the cifte telli (also the name of a Turkish rhythm), in Turkey as rakkase and in Egypt as Raks Sharki. Middle Easterners also call it "danse orientale" to distinguish it from the "balady", or country, dance. It developed through the influence of many different areas and continues its long process of development today. After its appearance at the Chicago Exposition at the turn of the century, Americans discovered it, and the French name, danse du ventre, was translated into the "belly dance". In this report, "oriental dance" and "belly dance" will be used interchangeably. "Eastern dance" as used here can include belly dance, Indian dance, or Persian dance.

This improvisational, and uncodified form of dance is, nonetheless, a form of dance distinctly different from the many forms of "folk dance" which developed in the same areas. Across borders and cultures, "belly dance" is recognized as a dance style of its own. There are several points that make oriental dance different from other dance forms and reveal its diverse heritage:

1. It has traditional associations with both religious and erotic elements. This ambiguity has caused belly dance to be disdained, scorned, and loved by many. Its apparent origins are the fertility cults of the ancient world.

People have always endowed their gods with human frailties, and thus these deities had to be appeased with the best of their possessions: the fruits of the field, the fatted calf, and even human beings. The fertility cult in particular existed in all ancient civilizations. The great Mother Goddess appears under different names such as Mylitta, Isis, Ashtoreth, Astarte, Ishtar, Aphrodite, Venus, Bhagvati, Parvati and Ceres. The function of these goddesses was reproductive, not just in the limited sense of human beings, but in the greater sense of the planet itself. They ensured the cycle of the seasons which regulated the growth of crops. They were responsible for the increase of livestock and the perpetuation of the race. The well being of the city and the countryside depended upon the goodwill of the regional mother goddess. None of these goddesses were celibate because it ran counter to their function. Neither were her priestesses necessarily expected to be celibate. Since the reproductive functions of the goddess were symbolized in the human female's reproductive organs, it must have seemed very natural to give the goddess the gift of a girl's service and virginity.

Thus began the practice of temple prostitutes, who were honored citizens in their day and time. There is ample evidence in the writings of Socrates, Apollodorus, Plautus, Arnobius, Justin and Eusebius of sacred prostitution in the Middle East, West Asia, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and North Africa. Girls might be sent to the temple as the result of a pious vow; sometimes it had a double aim, namely that of serving the deity while earning their marriage portions. Sacred dancing would also have been an integral part of their duties, particularly a type of dance which featured the abdomen, source of the Goddesses' fertility.

In Egypt today, it is still the custom for the bride and groom to hire a belly dancer for their wedding, and to take a picture with their hands on the belly dancer's stomach. This is an obvious reference to the dance's relation to ancient fertility cults. As if there were any doubt on this score, the dancer scholar and performer, Morocco, reports making the acquaintance of a Saudi Arabian woman who arranged for her to take part in a Berber tribal birthing ceremony, reminiscent of ancient times. (Morocco had to pretend to be the unfortunate mute serving girl of her benefactor in order to pass inspection.) The women gathered in a tent, while the men waited outdoors. A hollow was dug in the ground, where the mother-to-be sat. She was surrounded by concentric circles of women who danced with repeated abdominal movements while the woman gave birth.

The same Saudi woman found it highly amusing that the LaMaze "birthing classes" taught the same movements to be found in the timeless art of belly dance. The dance itself was considered by these women to be sacred, and not intended to be seen by men at all. Armen Ohanian, a persian dancer of the nineteenth century, who was a Christian Armenian, wrote of her horror at seeing the debased form of the dance for the first time: "In the true Orient, the most depraved man venerates instinctively in every woman the image of her who gave him birth.... In this olden Asia which has kept the dance in its primitive purity, it represents maternity, the mysterious conception of life, the suffering and the joy with which a new soul is brought into the world."

2. It is traditionally danced barefoot. There are other forms of dance which are done barefoot, but most do not meet all of the criteria which will be mentioned+€elevant form is Spanish dance in the Moorish style. Most Flamenco dance is done with shoes on, but the long history of domination by the Moors, an Eastern conqueror, left a dance form was performed barefoot. In modern times, some famous Egyptian dancers perform in high heels as a way of showing their audiences in a very poor culture that they can afford to wear shoes. This does not affect the traditional reason that dancers danced barefoot: namely, because it connects one directly to Mother Earth.

3. Belly dance grew out the traditions of eastern music. Although modern belly dancers use music which is western-influenced to varying degrees, the rhythmic influences of near and middle eastern music created a music form that is fundamentally different from that which developed in the west. As musician Ishaq ibn Ibrahim (767-850 A.D.) said, "He who makes a mistake is still our friend; he who adds to, or shortens a melody is still our friend; but he who violates a rhythm unawares can no longer be our friend." Curt Sachs explains that the difference lies in the total absence of harmony in eastern music.

Western music came to depend upon the natural sense of tension and relaxation, a regular rhythm of in and out, and melodies which built upon a progression of chords. Eastern music, however, relies on the rhythms which lead the melody and lend variety to the patterns. Whereas the even flow of western music relies on changes in tempo for variety, the eastern musician hardly mentions standard tempos of music. In addition, eastern music typically begins with an arrhythmic, or free rhythm introduction known as "taqsim" (or division). Vocal music in the east is allowed complete freedom from standard tempo or rhythm when not accompanied by a rhythm instrument. Moreover, Sachs adds, western rhythms are multiplicative or divisive whereas eastern rhythms are additive. This means simply that western rhythms break down evenly into so that a 4/4 is twice as long as a 2/4. By contrast, Eastern rhythms are a series of smaller patterns strung together and cannot be evenly divided as in the following examples: 3+2+2=7, 2+2+2+3=9, 4+3+3=10.

4. The dancers often use some type of rhythm instrument to aid the musicians, or as the sole accompaniment to their dance. Spanish dancers also do this, but there is evidence of a common heritage for these dance forms through association with Gypsies and early Phoenician traders. The earliest dancer's finger cymbals made of metal are those found in the area of Thebes (c.200 BC) with a large central boss and upturned rim, measuring 2-7/16" in diameter. A slightly larger pair was also attributed to Thebes (c.200 BC) with a diameter of 3-3/8". These are more correctly called "crotales", (or krotala) meaning a small bronze cymbal. They were also mounted in sets on stick handles as clappers. However, one of the Thebes sets, as well as a set found in Pompeii (50 AD) are connected with a cord or chain approximately 2 and 1/2 cymbal's diameter in length. This is a critical measurement because this short a cord is awkward to play with two hands. In modern cultures such as Thailand, where the cymbals (ching chang) are still the major rhythm instrument, it is played by a seated musician with two hands and a much longer cord. With shorter cord a dancer could wrap it about one or more fingers and have a pair on each hand. There is, however, a form of pair cymbals with the shorter string still in use in folk dance in India, where they are called manjira.

Scholars have tried to say that all of these ancient crotales were mounted on a stick if they were not of the type which had a raised portion for holding them on top (to be struck with two hands). However, by actually connecting a pair of cymbals in this manner it is apparent to any dancer that by placing the string over the middle finger, or middle two fingers, one can shake them rhythmically. I have found no surviving ancient pictures to support this theory, but it is known that castanets, with references to metal castanets, were used in ancient Greece. Some pictures are available of Roman style dancers with a type of rhythm instrument worn in pairs on the fingers, as in fig. 1.

Whatever these instruments might have been, according to the Greek poets, they were no tinkling delicate instruments. A hymn to the goddess Diana says, "My comrade strikes with nimble hand the well-gilt, brazen sounding castanet". Euripides uses castanets as the epitome of noise when he has Silenus rebuke his companions, "What's the uproar? Why this Bacchus hubbub? There's no Bacchus here, no bronze clackers or rattling castanets?"

It is said that Spanish Gypsies, who are traditionally associated with the spread of eastern dance, did not originally use castanets, moving with "easy, undulating 'filigranos' (soft movements of the arms and hands), reflecting his eastern ethnic heritage. The early gypsies felt no need for devices beyond their own innate, rhythmic hand clapping (palmadas), finger snapping (pitos), clicking of the tongue, and often tapping of a stick (b culo). These sounds were further embellished by the shouts (gritos) and expressions of animation that conjured the magic (duende) of the moment." However, even though gypsies have taken up the use of castanets, many still play them in the primitive manner, on the middle finger instead of the thumb. Thus, references to "metal castanets" are more logical than it might appear at first; and they leave serious confusion as to exactly what these instruments were and how they were played. Modern finger cymbals are played with a cymbal on each middle finger and thumb, as in fig. 8.

5. Oriental dance is uniquely designed for the female body, with an emphasis on abdominal muscles, hip moves, and chest moves. It is firm and earthy, with bare feet connected to the ground. It is a dance characterized by smooth, flowing, complex, and sensual movements of the torso, alternated with shaking and shimmy type moves. Eastern dances are considered to be different because they are "muscle dances", as opposed to the European "step" dances. In traditional belly dancing the knee is never lifted higher than the hip, (not including ancient "phyrric" or leaping dances which were also considered fertility dances). Level changes do allow for dancing while sitting on the floor.

The first century Roman writer Martial and his contemporary Isidore of Seville mention a dancer performing moves characteristic of eastern dance, and using a rhythmic instrument. Martial refers to the skill of the women of Gades (Cadiz) in Baetica (Andaluc!a) in his lines on Telethusa, who was so bewitching that the man who acquired her as a slave bought her back as a wife. He had seen her in the marketplace "performing wanton gestures to the accompaniment of Baetic castanets, which she had been taught to play in the manner of the Gaditanian women." These dancers of Cadiz are thought by Esther Van Loo to be Phoenician or Cretan in origin. This is a reasonable assumption because there were Phoenician traders in Spain as early as the eleventh century B.C., and Cadiz, one of the oldest towns in Europe, was founded by the Phoenicians. Loo further concludes that castanets themselves were first known to Spain in connection with a Syrian fertility rite in honor of Isis or Cybele. Other scholars have concurred with this idea.

In Virgil's "Copa", the tavern hostess dances in front of her inn to lure a passerby: "A Syrian tavern-hostess, her head tied in a Greek scarf, trained in moving her quivering sides to the Crotalum, springs gaily drunken from her smoky inn shaking her rattling reeds against her elbow...". Whatever type of rhythm instrument she is playing, be it a pair of clappers or metal or wooden castanet, her dance sounds distinctively like a belly dance.

If we follow this idea back to its roots, it is easy to see how the sensual dances which originated with Greek mystery rites and comedy dances, where the dancer might have also played a type of cymbal or clapper, travelled to Spain where it became what is today Flamenco, and that another form of this dance developed throughout the Middle and Near East as what we call belly dance. Both types of dance are also associated with the Gypsies, who came out of India, through Persia, and spread by the Middle Ages throughout Europe.

6. The use of various other props in the dance such as snakes, swords, veils, and candles. These items have magical, protective functions for primitive peoples that can still be found in the folk dances of these countries. Snakes clearly relate to the ancient mystery cults. The snake is a complex symbol which represented both male and female principles, and also immortality in the form of the snake eating its tail.

7. The spectators pay the dancer directly in the form of coins or cash thrown on the floor or placed on the dancer's body. There is no other dance form in which this occurs. In classical Greece, a woman from a poor family tied a sash around her hips and went to dance for her dowry in the marketplace. Spectators threw small gold coins at her, money which she then sewed into her bodice and hip-belt as decoration, since she had no where else quite as safe to keep them. Today, dancers still wear costumes decorated with "dowry" coins. In Egypt at the time of the fourth dynasty (approx. 2680-2560 BC), dancers were presented with gold necklaces in payment. By the 19th century, when the custom of tipping was known as "nukoot", a dancer would go into a backbend to receive the money, which would be moistened and placed on the dancer's upturned face. It is still the custom `a belly dancer money while she dances, and there is no other kind of professional dancer who receives money directly from her audience.

8. Although belly dance developed from the dances of the people, or folk dance, belly dance tends to evolve into a dance for professional dancers and trained soloists. In cn with folk dances, which tend to be simpler moves for large groups of people, Oriental dance evolved toward more sophisticated moves requiring some training, and to its performance by solo dancers in a totally improvisational style or ensembles of 2-3 dancers with choreography. This report will show the progression in several cultures of a dance which began in temples, passed on to the secular in an erotic form, and evolved into a class of professional dancers. Thus, as historians would say, it progresses from the religious sphere to the realm of dance as spectacle or entertainment. And, at the same time, various forms of eastern dance continue to be used in a medicinal or religious sense in the various trance dances found throughout the middle east today.