In the Middle East, dance is a way of life. It is not something reserved only for parties or shows; it is an integral part of everyday activity. Many in the Middle East dance from the time they can walk, or even earlier since many mothers dance while their babies are in their wombs. We don’t start dancing; we stop dancing to do other things!
In order to understand Belly Dance, one must first understand its roots: Raqs Beledi and Raqs Sharqi (rahks BELL uh dee and rahks SHARK ee.) Raqs or raks translates from Arabic to “dance” and is followed by a descriptive such as beledi or sharqi. Beledi translates to “my country” or “my hometown.” Sharqi translates to “of the east.”
Raqs Beledi refers to the solo folk dance of Egyptian women, with variations native to many regions of the Middle East. It is a social and celebratory dance that begins slowly, rises to a frenzy focused on the hips, and gradually slows down to end. It is done by women for women or in mixed gender celebrations depending on the culture.
Raqs Sharqi refers to the performance art version of Raqs Beledi and its variants. Sometimes seen as a “conversation without words” between a dancer and musicians, it is typically improvised to live music as the dancer interprets the music with her movements. It is very popular in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey both on stage and at nightclubs. Like Raqs Beledi, Raqs Sharqi is an ancient art. It has its roots in religious ceremony and birthing, and is a celebration of women and life in all stages. It is a proud and powerful dance form also referred to as Danse Orientale (French), Oryantal Tansi (Turkish), Middle Eastern Dance and Belly Dance (US).
Unfortunately, “belly dance” was poorly introduced to the United States by westerners who did not understand its rich traditions and so it was misrepresented as something irreverent and tawdry. This misrepresentation was so disrespectful that some Middle Eastern people dismissed the form altogether. Thankfully today, Raqs Sharqi or Belly Dance is experiencing a resurgence of its truth — that of an ancient, proud and joyful art.