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The History of Belly Dance, Part I


Early History of Persian Dance

The Greek historian, Herodotus, documented Persian dance as far back as 478 BC. Pre-Islamic Persian culture included and embraced a multitude of world-cultures in their dances including Indian to the East and Egyptian and Greek to the West. It’s own indigenous culture included folk dances from a variety of ethnic minorities including Kurds and Lors in the West with their line dances; Azeri Turks and Armenians in the north which included acrobatic men’s dances as well as slow, graceful women’s dance; Gilanis of the North Caspian area with their colorful group dances; Khorasani’s in the east with their Afghan-type circle dances; Baluchi’s with their tribal dances; the Qashgai Turks of the Shiraz area with their handkerchief group dance and Bandari dances of the Gulf area in the south. Drawing on all these folk styles as well as the miniature paintings, dancers forged a complex and beautiful style of classical dance, which is at once sublime and eternal.

Islam and Dance

Prior to the Arab invasion in 644, dancers, musicians and poets performed at coronations, marriages and Narouz (New Year) celebrations. Dancers were also comedians and were so sought after that they became a powerful group within society. They formed a corporation in which they registered and were directed under a Superior. They had tremendous freedom and wealth. However, with the advent of institutionalized Islam, this era of artistic freedom and growth developed into an apartheid, separating artists from society.

By the eighteenth-century, under the rule of Agha Mohamed Khan, music and dance were abolished. Persian dancers were considered courtesans, and were often sold as prostitutes. Women were no longer allowed in public.

Music was outlawed and the arts became, in general, a private and secret world. To this day, music and dance are stigmatized in Muslims societies, where "good" women still do not dance publicly. In fact, today in Iran, dance and music are illegal.

The Qajar Dynasty

Ironically, despite this abolition of art, a great family helped to preserve and foster the arts. The Qajar dynasty housed and nurtured artists throughout their reign. The incubation of Persia's artists spanned a period of 130 years, where, within the Qajar Royal Harem, dancers, musicians and poets were protected and supported, allowing the arts to flourish and prosper. By the end of the nineteenth-century, dance, music and theater had reached a sublime state, which continues to this day, as Persian art - music, dance and poetry - are considered the premiere arts of the Middle East.

The Invasion of the West

In the nineteenth century, European travelers to North Africa and the Middle East spurred a passion for all-things Middle Eastern, giving birth to the “Age of Orientalism” in Western art. It also created a craze for Orientalism in the every-day lives of Westerners. Early Hollywood films fed the fantasies of about the exotic east by creating the idea of “Harem Dancing” with naked women sexily undulating around a lascivious sultan, while naked Odalisques languished naked beside him. This added to the already stigmatized image of Persian dance, because it made no distinction between “belly dancing” and other women’s dances of the Middle East. Today, Persian dance still suffers the misconceptions of this false portrayal of the art.

Comparison with Other Classical Styles


Persian Classical dance is like other classical forms;

  • It is born of the aristocracy

  • It is intended for the spectator as form of art rather than entertainment.

  • It is not recreational or social but rather theatrical.

  • It aspires towards idealism of expression and the attainment of perfection in movement and stillness.

  • It requires talent and technical excellence, athletic prowess, musical aptitude and dramatic skills.

  • It adheres to a codified body of standard positions and movements that are the foundation of its technique, (i.e. the center floor positions of ballet or the Adavu’s of classical Indian dance).

The context of all classical dance is theater and it’s content is story line. Because dramatic content is an integral part of classical dance pantomime is used in all classical styles to express story line.


While Western dance tells stories of princes, princesses and romance between men and women, Persian classical dance tells religious stories of God and Diva’s through metaphor, mythology and mysticism. Western classical dance is strictly choreographed and presented in large and grandiose stage settings. Persian classical dance is performed with small ensembles of musicians and poets who each take turns interpreting the different GUSHE (melodic sequences) while the ensemble performs in total during the RENG (final sequence) or, occasionally during the TASTIF (rhythmic song compositions). Each soloist interprets the melody in his or her own way, much like jazz. The dancer, in turn, interprets the inner meaning of the music through gesture, movement, pantomime and expression.

The system of classical Persian dance uses facial expressions (*Naz), gestures (use hands or the veil, for example) and pantomime (Bazek or the make-up ritual). In this way Persian dance is much like East Indian Classical dance, which uses religion and myth as motivation for the dance.

From Persia to the West; From Classical Persian to Classical Belly Dance

From this period and place in history, dance migrated [with the Persian dancers - the Rom/Gypsies] to the Levant Turkey and North Africa. It is a tradition for Gypsies to assimilate local culture, so, they added local folkloric music and dance into their own bringing new "fusion styles" into Persian and therefore making it the dance we now call, La Danse du Ventre, or belly dance.

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