My first belly dance class was in the summer of 1978. Back then I was still a young teenager who had no idea what oriental dance was all about, and least of all, no concept that I would be doing this for the rest of my life as a full time career! That was 44 years ago…. OMG really? Time flies, especially when you love what you do! I have personally witnessed more than 4 decades of the history of belly dance, and there have been a lot of changes. For example, in the 60’s belly dance was very popular throughout America and this boom lasted declined for several reasons at the end of the 70’s. In the 80’s the infatuation for belly dance in general practically died out, with only the die-hards hanging on. Yet at the same time, it was fast becoming the latest craze in in Germany. While living and dancing in Vienna, Austria in the 90’s, I became a part of the boom of oriental dance all over Europe. By the first decade of the new millennium the belly dance craze returned to the U.S. but this time it only lasted about a dozen years. In the last decade, the tide is once again receding.
I have also bore witness to the oriental dance world before the dawn of the internet and before the creation of ATS. I saw how in the 70’s the popular belly dance style was basically what we would call the Turkish style, in the costuming, the music and the format of a dance routine. Then in the 80’s the focus turned to Egyptian style, where Souhair Zaki and Nagua Fouad created a huge impact on the scene, the music changed in rhythm and orchestration, and the hottest costuming were the heavily beaded, gorgeous Madame Abla’s. Even the format of a dance routine changed. Did you know, I met and danced with BOTH Souhair and Nagua? And I met and acquired several Abla costumes right there in her atelier in Cairo. What memorable experiences! But that is for another article.
Time marches on and change is inevitable. It is a healthy part of evolution and growth. Dance as art continues to evolve and change every day. But what difference does it make to you as an advocate of today’s Middle Eastern dance? How much does history matter to the new dancer? Why bother hearing about the changes in styles and famous dancers of the past? Many dancers who have discovered the beauty of belly dance within the last 20 years are busy living in the present, taking classes, performing dances, buying costumes, feeling good in their passion for this dance. Yet, I have noticed at workshops, online and in classes, many of the new generation are generally unaware of the history of belly dance and are not convinced that it is of much importance.
In my last blog article I offered a quiz to test your Middle Eastern dance IQ. Whether or not you are of the classical oriental/folkloric side of the fence or the Tribal/Fusion side of the fence, let’s talk about the reasons why it is important for you to know the history of your beloved art form.
A) Souhair Zaki used to say that every time she donned a costume she felt like a princess. Today, popular dancers in Cairo feel they need to wear skimpy costuming, ultra minis and even visible thongs to gain attention and create sensationalism rather than strive for quality performances and feminine grace.
B) Mahmoud Reda was called the Fred Astaire of Middle Eastern dance. He put the dance into theaters and provided a platform for every Middle Eastern person to fall in love with folkloric and classical oriental dance. Today in the Middle East, the popularity of the dance has fallen. There is no “Fred Astaire” equivalent. The dance steps are often without finesse. We see instead shimmies with legs wide apart, kicks that extend above the waist and movements that lean towards vulgar and brash. Does anyone value elegance?
C) Samia Gamal is still revered as one of the classiest pioneers of oriental dance, being one of the first to choreograph steps, wear glamorous costuming, and be held in such esteem that she was like a Hollywood movie star. Her simple feminine finery is rarely seen in the oriental dance world today.
What do you learn from looking back at these three examples of the past? When you take the time to learn about the dancers of the past, you can stop yourself from boarding the contemporary bandwagon and choose to fight to keep respect for yourself and your art. If you don’t know what people have done in the past and what standards they have successfully accomplished, you can’t even imagine what is possible now or that you are able to uphold and perhaps even surpass those standards.
History teaches us that a single individual with great convictions or a committed group can change the world. Robert F. Kennedy is quoted to have said, “Each time a person stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the life of others, or strikes out against injustice, he/she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” The pen is mightier than the sword, words can move mountains, and in each of us as dancers, we have the power to change the world, provided we have the knowledge and skill to respect our history, to learn from it, so that it evolves to its greatest potential. I hope you shimmy on with pride and blaze new trails.
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JASMIN JAHAL, Author
I've been dancing since I was 3 and a professional belly dancer for over 40 years. I've learned so much from personal belly dance experience and want to share with you advice, tips, suggestions and more. Anytime you have any questions and need sage advice, please reach out and let me hear from you!