The History

The legacy of women bellydancing for women continued well into the more recent history of bellydance. In the harems of Constantinople in the mid-1400s, female gypsy bellydancers were hired to entertain the women, not the Sultan. They danced the Turkish style of bellydance, with finger cymbals and earthy movements performed on the floor.

Some gypsy tribes traveled to Egypt and developed the very popular, ghawazee folk-style of dance that incorporated many showy props such as veils, candles, and swords that are still used today. By the beginning of the nineteenth century men were catching their first glimpses of bellydance, since ghawazee dancing was the gypsies laid their carpets. In 1834, Cairo's religious restrictions forced bellydance underground, although it re-emerged in the 1850s.

As Europeans began to travel more, their fascination with North Africa and the Middle East began to grow. Artists such as Renoir, Matisse, and Ingres all painted harem women, and in 1893 Oscar Wilde staged Salome in London, which featured the seductive "Dance of the Seven Veils." A cultural phenomenon known as "Salomania" began to spread through Europe.

Salomania reached American in 1893 when a dancer named Little Egypt [thought to be Algerian] performed at the Chicago World's Fair. Her exotic movements were considered outrageous for the times, but audiences were entranced, and bellydancers made appearances in many of Hollywood's early silent films.

By the turn of the century, nightclubs were beginning to open in North Africa and the Middle East to meet the demands of the colonial rulers and Western tourists. Audiences paid to watch glamorous bellydancers dressed in ornate costumes. They danced on their toes, performing subtle hip movements and graceful arm and hand gestures, very like modern Egyptian-style bellydance.

Before being accused of being a German spy during World War One, Mata Hari was renowned in Europe for her exotic dance routines. Society's attitudes were changing, and exotic dancing was becoming a form of liberation and glamorous empowerment for women.

Bellydance influences reached far and wide and even inspired the greats of modern dance, including Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, and Martha Graham.

During the Women's Liberation movement of the 1970s, bellydance experienced another revival. This was largely due to the release of an album by Turkish bellydancer, Ozel Turkbas, which also included an instructional booklet on how to bellydance. During the sexual revolution, bellydance was embraced by a generation of women who were captivated by liberating movements, belly-exposing costumes, and camaraderie with other women. Classes sprung up at YWCAs across America, "hip-huggers" and "bikinis" celebrated women's bare bellies for the first time in fashion history, and bellydance was featured in Life magazine. As the dance gained in popularity, it became a way for women everywhere to affirm their individual magnificence and power.

Today, bellydance is more popular than ever, as women begin to realize its fitness potential. Many women now enjoy this ancient dance as their regular form of exercise. Past and present, bellydance encourages each woman to celebrate her personal inner beauty.

The most astonishing and beautiful aspect of bellydance's colorful and rich history is that the dance not only endured but that it also evolved and adapted to suit the current social and political situation. To this day it continues its legacy as a source of female empowerment.