History of the dance

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.

A place to start on Persian dance is the entry for Dance-raqs on Encyclopædia Iranica.

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.

The biographical book The Dancer of Shamahka was written by Armen Ohanian in 1918 with some referrals to the history of the dance.

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!

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.
‘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.

10 comments on “History of the dance

  1. I think I have an insight into the ball dance. A guest at the court of Frederick II (of Sicily, “Stupor Mondi”) reported that some of the entertainment was done by two girls balancing on balls as they rolled around and sang in high, piping voices. A way to show off their balancing skills, to be sure! I’m trying to find the exact quote, it may have been in one of Karla Mallette’s essays, but the historian Lionel Allshorn (early 20th century) mentions these girls dancing on balls in his book about Frederick:


    • The only dancers talked about are-

      “Black musicians would play strange instruments, and Saracen dancing-girls w ould astonish the foreigner with their feats, pirouetting and swaying upon large balls which they would revolve the while with their feet.”

      I will see about chasing down Karla Mallette!

  2. I can’t give you a cite, but there is a book I’ve seen which describes some Turkish dancing in period. It’s not what we think of as middle-eastern dancing–more like a masque.

  3. I’m afraid I don’t remember the author–I came across it many years ago. It was, or contained, a translation of a period work.

  4. Tina Empol says:

    Where did you find the Al-Mas’udi Meadows of Gold quote?

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