Rightfully, Belly Dance should be known as Oriental Dance or Raks Sharqi, “Dance of the East”, a collection of similar dance styles that originated in the Near East, Middle East and/or Far East. There are actually more names that could be used depending on the individual styles such as “Baladi” meaning “dance from the country” or the Turkish and Greek name “Oryantal Dansi” meaning “Dance Oriental”.
So, where did the name “Belly Dance” come from?
This genre of dance was not properly introduced to the Western World until the 18th century and even then was rarely seen until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1893, Oriental Dancers performed at the World Exposition in Chicago and caused quite a stir due to cultural attitudes of the time. This was further exacerbated by burlesque performers, who took aspects of the dance and created their own titillating routines that bore no real resemblance to the traditional dances of the East but convinced Westerners that it was a sexual and immoral dance.
In a French review, a similar style of dance was labeled “Danse Du Ventre” or “Dance of the Stomach” which is believed to have quickly developed into the name Belly Dance. Even today that name causes dismay among lovers of Oriental Dance who see it as tainting the origins of the ancient art form.
Belly Dance is not even a good description. Belly Dancing does require movement of the abdominal muscles but is a dance of the whole body, incorporating upper and lower body muscle isolations, graceful arm movements, hip rolls and pelvic tilts.
However unsuitable the name might be, Belly Dance is known and recognised the world over. Instructors may prefer to label their classes “Oriental Dance” or “Raks Sharqi” but the recognition that the name Belly Dance brings will continue to ensure its use, at least in the West, for many years to come.