This subject is incredibly subjective. I have heard some tales of bellydancers in other regions being reduced to tears due to demands for proof of their dance existing as they know it. I have researched so many books and sites but there are few solid facts about. Most of the knowledge available about belly dance was written from the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. It is really only recently that there has been some research into the national dances of Lebanon, Syria, Iran and the UAE but unfortunately has been hitting the cultural wall. However, if anything is published, I will do my best to get my hands on it. Medieval Muslim law had it that while there were dancers, they could not write about the dance itself. I have absolutely no doubt that there was dancing in the Middle East in Medieval times, but I do doubt that it remained unchanged for such a long period of time over different cultures.
Dancing in the Middle East in the Middle Ages
There are many illuminations with dancers as well as bowls, candle sticks and other items decorated with dancing figures. What they danced is harder to describe. Naturally, it would vary from region to region, Empire to Empire. I love this quote from the tenth century-
“Speak to me of Dance and describe the various kinds that be. Describe as well the desirable qualities a dancer should manifest.”
The person so invoked replied: “Oh Prince of the Faithful, the peoples of various regions and countries differ in the manner of dancing as much as the people of Khorasan differ from other peoples. The rhythmic modes of dancing are eight in kind: al-khafif, al-hazaj, al-ramal, khafif al-ramal, khafif al-thaqil al-thani, thaqil al-thakil al-thani, khafif al-thaqil al-awwal and thaqil al-thaqil al-awwal. The dancer must possess qualities of temperament, qualities of physique and qualities which are acquired by practice. The qualities of temperament are: vivacity of spirit, sense of rhythm, and cheerfulness in the performance of the art. The qualities of physique are: a long neck, side locks, expressiveness, a natural sway, a slim and graceful waist, vivaciousness, a well-proportioned figure, accomplishment in the art of swirling the hem of the robe, control of breathing and rests, patience in endurance, agile feet and flexible toes to perform the harmonious movements of the different dances, from the camel dance to the ball dance, flexible limbs, speed in whirling and soft curves. The qualities acquired by practice are: the ability to perform a variety of dances, to swing the body with grace while the feet remain firm about their turning point and while equal balance is maintained between right and left. Dance steps can take two forms: one on the beat and the other off the beat. The dancer must keep to the movement in which the dancer excels and let it rise when on the beat, and drop when not. The best is that which comes naturally and harmonizes with love and beauty.”
Excerpt from: Muruj al-dhahab (Golden Meadows) by Al-Mas’udi (d. ca. 957)
Very little is mentioned of steps, except camel dance and the ball dance (which I can find no reference for).
The legalities of dancing is worth looking at, since it brings into question whether it was done at all. A good place to start is by looking at The “Dancing” of the Sufis (via Google Docs), and Shari’a Law: Music, Song and Dance, which gives quotes from the Qur’an showing that it was done and accepted.
I found a book on Project Gutenberg called The Dance: Historic Illustrations of Dancing from 3300BC to 1911AD. It covers Ancient Egyptian and Greek dance then straight into medieval European.
This book, called The dances of the processions of Seville in Spain’s golden age by Lynn Matluck Brooks is available to read through Google books (preview). This covers late period Spain, specifically 1556-1681.
Robyn Friend (Phd) has written some articles on Persian dance but look through the site for the publications and bibliography.
The Habiba Studios have articles written by Habiba about the history of the Ghawazi, Tunisian dance and many other topics. You will need Adobe to open the articles.
Moving history / dancing cultures: a dance history reader by Ann Dils, Ann Cooper Albright is available to read on Google, but is limited.
This article, written by Jalilah Lorraine Chamas, covers Oriental Dance: Myth and Reality, the Harem Slaves but has no bibliography or easy to find references.
I have posted pictures of period items with dancers on them, from various times and places. If interested, hit on the “history of the dance” tag on the right of the homepage.
I have found these web pages particularly helpful. They do give a bibliography!
- Pre-17th Century Middle Eastern Dance by Kimberley A. Minardi (AKA Narah). While she has many references, she quotes Wendy Buonoventura, who passes many theories off as fact.
- The Ottoman Lady by Fanny Davis. It covers 1718 to 1918 but any information is good. Available at Google books.
- This a page by Karol J. Harding who wrote the Compleat Anachronist about belly dance.
- The other page from Karol Harding, Origins of Oriental Dance.
- This site is the Belly Dance Museum, but doesn’t have much medieval history.
- Morocco’s Meanderings, written by the dancer and anthropologist Morocco.
- This about Ottoman Court Dance.
- This is a blog from Peyman Nasehpour, persian musician.
- This is an SCA article from Mistress Sindokht Bayat al-Herati, Meridies about Persian dance.
- This is a different SCA article about Persian dance written by Milesent Vibert.
- This is a page by Nima Kiann, dance historian.
- This is a thesis by Hanaa M. Adly about decorative dancing figures.
- This is a pdf The role of women in musical life by Suzanne Meyers Sawa. Through Medievalists.net.
- The site for the works & biography of Lady Mary Wortly Montagu (1690-1762) who spent a few years in Turkey with her husband the diplomat.
- An article on the Origins of the Dance, written by Andrea Deagon, Ph.D.
- Master Asim (Woodrow Jarvis Hill) wrote an article about the origins of the dance.
- There are articles on the history of Persian, Afghani & Central Asian dance on the Eastern Arts website.
I have found some Jstor articles to be of interest. They are-
Dance and Non-Dance: Patterned Movement in Iran and Islam by Anthony Shay.
Sensibility and Synaesthesia: Ibn al-Rūmī’s Singing Slave-Girl by Akiko Motoyoshi.
Dance in Ancient Egypt by Patricia Spencer.
Parallel Traditions: State Folk Dance Ensembles and Folk Dance in “The Field” by Anthony Shay.
Belly Dance: Orientalism: Exoticism: Self-Exoticism by Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers-Young.
Dance as an Expression of Islamic Culture by Lois Ibsen al Faruqi.
Danse du Ventre: A Fresh Appraisal by Leona Wood and Anthony Shay.
Women and the Dance in Seville’s Processions during the Golden Age by Lynn Matluck Brooks.
‘Oh Boy, You Salt of the Earth’: Outwitting Patriarchy in Raqs Baladi by Cassandra Lorius.
Modern Dance “Alla Turca:” Transforming Ottoman Dance in Early Republican Turkey by Arzu Öztürkmen.
Zarraf, a Tuareg Women’s Wedding Dance by Susan Rasmussen.
The Tuareg: Their Music and Dances by James A. Standifer.
Women Singers in Darfur, Sudan Republic by Roxane Connick Carlisle.