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The Roots and Branches of Belly Dance

All styles of performance art dance have their roots in a simple social version of the style prior to it becoming a performance version. Ballet was originally a minuet performed as a social dance in the courts of France. Ballroom was just that – social dance performed for in ballroom settings. Flamenco was a style of dance performed by the social outcasts of Spain’s inquisition – the Gypsies (Gitano), Moors and Jews, in the caves and prisons of Spain, before evolving into a complex and sophisticated style of theatrical dance. Polynesian dance was originally a religious style performed by people as a sacred ritual. And the same is true for the three primary styles of belly dance; Turkish, Egyptian and American belly dance.

All Belly Dance has its roots in the Middle and far East. That is to say, the style originated in the India and the Middle East but migrated to the Middle East and eventually to the US in the late 1800’s. From then on, it evolved into a world-class dance art on three continents: Africa, Europe/Asia and North America.


Turkey is part European and part western Asia. It is culturally connected to ancient Greek, Persian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. From the beginning of the Silk Road (circa 1453) the cultures of the Far East have made their way to the Near East and beyond through trade and cultural exchanges. The Gypsies/Rom people traveled along this route and brought the dances of India with them to Persia and Anatolia.

The first Turkish [belly] dancers were Chengi’s (street dancers – mostly Rom/Gypsies) and Kocheks (men dressed as women). Women were not allowed to dance in public, so dance as entertainment was left to the Gypsies and Kocheks. Kocheks still perform today.


The Qajar dynasty was an Iranian royal dynasty of Turkic origin, specifically from the Qajar tribe, ruling over Iran from 1789 to 1925. The Qajar family took full control of Iran in 1794, deposing Lotf 'Ali Khan, the last Shah of the Zand dynasty, and re-asserted Iranian sovereignty over large parts of the Caucasus.

The Qajar dynasty, like the Gupta dynasty of India, supported these arts. They invited the artists to live in the palace where they could safely to do their work, thus nurturing and developing Persian classical dance, the roots of belly dance as we know to today. The arts of music and dance expanded to Anatolia through the Cengis who assimilated the local folk dances and music (Karsilama + Persian classical) creating the indigenous style of Turkish belly dance we know today as “Oriental Belly Dance”.

In the early part of the twentieth century, with the advent of globalism, dance and music became forms of entertainment for visitors who enjoyed the arts in cabaret settings, hence the term, “Cabaret Style Belly dance”.


The same is true of the historical lineage of Egyptian style belly dance. However, the roots of this style are the folk dances of Egypt- Saidi, Hagalla and Melaya Leff, to name a few. At the same time as Turkish belly dance took the spotlight as a performance art, in the late 19th and early 20th century, Belly Dance became a theatricalized art in Cairo, moving in to cabarets and clubs where tourism existed.


The first belly dancer recorded on American territory was Fatima Djemille at The World's Columbian Exposition, which came to be known as the Chicago Worlds Fair. Fatima Djamile was one of two dancers who performed as “Fatima,” and the first of three dancers who performed the belly dance under the name “Little Egypt.” The sight of a half-naked woman gyrating on stage was shocking to the visitors during the Victorian period, which was precisely the effect Sol Bloom wanted.

The World's Columbian Exposition was the first world's fair with an area for amusements that was strictly separated from the exhibition halls. This area, developed by a young music promoter, Sol Bloom, concentrated on the Midway Pleasance and introduced the term "midway" to American English to describe the area of a carnival or fair where sideshows are located.

From this startling beginning, entertainment in urban settings like NYC, Chicago and Los Angles began bringing in “Hoochee-Choochee” and burlesque dancers to Vaudville, who mimicked the original belly dancers. Adding to this parade of Middle Eastern entertainment were authentic Arab, Greek and Turkish immigrants who created diasporas in the major cities. These groups had their own quarters in cities where they enjoyed their own music and dance. In the mid-twentieth century, Maharajans (Arabic picnics) and taverns gave way to cafes and restaurants where Americans went to see “belly dance” as a cabaret style of dance.

Globalism Brings New Cultural Art

It was not just Turko-Arabic-Greco music and dance that made its way to the US, but many other cultures arrived here in the early twentieth century bringing new and exciting forms of dance and music to the melting pot that is the United States. Since then, the art of belly dance has morphed into styles of “tribal” belly dance fusing American music and dance into the arts and making its own peculiar style, as is the way of all artistic growth and variation. To some, the new Tribal styles are not authentic or real. However, it is most likely true that if the pre- 19th century Chengis and Kockek’s say the original “cabaret” styles of belly dance in the clubs and restaurants of Turkey, Egypt they would be horrified! As art migrates through time and space, it changes and – usually - becomes more complex and exciting. Whether people like ti is another storyJ

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