Belly Dancing:  An Ancient Art

Dance Alive!
Dance Alive member Naomi Cheyenne in Bellydance Extravaganza at Chamizal National Memorial in September 2010.

Terry Hammons


It's been referred to as Egyptian dance, Oriental dance, Middle Eastern dance, Arabic dance, and in Arabic, it's Raqs Sharqi. Whatever you prefer to call it, belly dancing has several common misconceptions. Historically, was belly dancing really all about women entertaining men? And is belly dancing solely about the belly? Read below and discover the answers to these questions, and more!

History of Belly Dancing

Considered the oldest known dance by some experts, the roots of belly dancing were planted in the Middle East, Mediterranean, and northeastern Africa; some sources claim that the pyramid builders in ancient Egypt were belly dancers. Regardless of when it began, belly dancing was traditionally performed for other women, usually during formal events like fertility rites or pre-marriage ceremonies. African women performed in marketplaces, earning coins for their dowries. These coins were sewn into their costumes for safe-keeping. It wasn't until the early 20th century that belly dancing began to appear worldwide at public events such as carnivals and fairs. This brought with it coed audiences and mass appeal.


Since belly dancing started and remains popular in the Middle East, Mediterranean, and northeastern Africa, belly dancing music involves the diverse music of these three areas. This includes Egyptian and Middle Eastern pop, traditional Saidi rhythms, and Hindi music, among others.


In general, belly dancing costumes are colorful and consist of various pieces of clothing, scarves, coins, and veils. Types of costumes include the bedleh (Pronounced "BED luh"), a common cabaret-style suite consisting of a beaded skirt, body stocking, belt, and bra. Another costume is the beledi dress (Pronounced "BELL uh dee"), consisting of a long, floor length dress made of natural fibers. Finally, the gallabiya (Pronounced gal uh BEE yuh) is a full-length cotton robe worn commonly by both men and women throughout the Middle East and Africa.


Common instruments used to enhance belly dancing performances include the kanun, a 4-string instrument; the harmonium, or free-standing keyboard; the dumbek, a goblet-shaped drum; and the ney flute.

Dance Topics

When I dance I am really meditating rather than performing for an audience. I am completely absorbed by the music and the steps I choose to respond to the music.

-Khedaoudj Megateli, a belly dancer residing in Austin, Texas.

Traditional belly dancing is essentially spiritual movement. For instance, in Morocco, the Guedra is performed as a blessing ritual. The Guedra begins by the dancer acknowledging the four points of the compass and also earth, wind, fire, and water. The bulk of the dance involves the belly dancer sending out good wishes and blessings to the audience, through her finger motions. Eventually, the dancer sinks to her knees. In many cultures, belly dancing was not seen as a form of expression but as a form of exercise. The intricate pelvic moves helped to tone the abdominal muscles aiding in pregnancy and childbirth.

Regional Differences

Specific regions of the Middle East and North Africa highlight specific belly dancing styles. For instance, in Egypt, the zar is a dramatic belly dance style while over on the Arabian Peninsula, a more soft and delicate style of belly dancing known as the khaleegy is popular.

Modern Form

Modern and traditional belly dancing is often performed barefoot. The most important body part in belly dancing is the torso. Suzy Evans of the International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance says this about this modern art form:

Belly dance is natural to a woman's bone and muscle structure. The movements center on the torso rather than the legs and feet, as is common in Western dance. The belly dancer isolates parts of her body, to move each independently in a completely feminine interpretation of the music. The music seems to emanate from her body, as sometimes she emphasizes the rhythm, sometimes the melody of the song.

Today belly dancing is used as a form of expression and as a celebration of heritage, but is more commonly practiced in the United States as a form of exercise, linking modern women with their ancient sisters.

When Can I See Belly Dancing at Chamizal National Memorial?

An international cultural center, Chamizal National Memorial hosts belly dancing performances by Dance Alive Inc., a group from El Paso. Dance Alive performs "belly dancing extravaganzas" annually at Chamizal in either January or February. Check the Calendar of Events to see specific belly dancing dates.


To return to the Cultural Performances home page, click here.

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