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Social Traditions & Ritualistic Uses of Belly Dancing in the Middle East


I find it important to clarify to my Western students some cultural aspects of Belly Dance in the Middle East. “Belly dancing is for men’s entertainment” is a Western misconception that I like to dispel from the first class of their Beginners course, to allow them to feel the fullness of what they are learning, and sink into a more self-nurturing space with learning their craft.

Social Traditions

In traditional Arabia, women dance when they are together with other women, for the fun of it, for the expression of joy. It is totally approved of when women are amongst themselves. Grabbing a scarf and wrapping it around her hips, the Arabic woman will start dancing naturally to music on the radio or TV or to singing and clapping from her female family and friends.

In this tradition girls learn from their mothers and grandmothers, which puts them in good stead to grow into women as their bellies and pelvic areas have been well tuned for motherhood and general feminine health. After leaving a gathering, women feel uplifted physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. It is a natural way of releasing stress and staying healthy on all levels.

Dancing for men’s entertainment is not the origins of Belly Dance. Dancing in front of men is considered shameful in some sectors of Middle Eastern society. Professional dancers are usually looked down upon, unless they are famous, in which case they are idolised; a double standard but true nonetheless.

Ritualistic Uses

In Arabia (Arabic countries of the Middle East and North Africa), Belly Dance has been used throughout generations for marking the ceremonies of life and celebrating community.

Weddings:
Belly Dance features in every wedding. Not only does a professional belly dancer entertain the guests, but also the women and men of the two families would enjoy a dance together as well.

Births:
It was used as a tool in aiding natural child birth – in the Bedouins (nomads of the desert)the mother-to-be is surrounded by the women of the tribe all standing in a circle around her, with two women standing by her side holding her up and helping her. All the women would chant and sing, and undulate and use gentle circular movements to encourage the birthing mother to do the same. These movements help ease the pain and go naturally with the movement of the child down and out into the world. For more information on how to use Belly Dance in natural birth read Belly Dance for Birth by Maha Al-Musa.

Trance & Spirituality:
Arabic Dance has many forms, and one is the Trance Dance (The Zaar), used to connect with the Devine or heal a person on a spiritual or psychological level.

Rite of Passage:
Traditional families will celebrate the flow of blood of a newly menstruating young woman, and will get her to dance her first dance as a woman. This happens in the gatherings of the women of the tribe only; the men do not belong in such celebrations.

You will not see Belly Dancing done in the Middle East without women making a loud shrill joyous sound with their mouths called a “zaghroota”, plural “zaghareet”. An Arabic word for the high-pitched sound made by moving the tongue quickly up and down inside the mouth. It is a sound made by the women on the Middle East when celebrating. It is heard commonly at weddings, birthdays, announcements of good news and simply a joyful moment in gatherings. In Belly Dancing it is used to express joy at a sister dancer’s beauty when dancing or the dancer herself will do a “zaghroota” to let out the fun and joy she is feeling in the moment.

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This article is an extract from Shemiran Ibrahim's "Belly Dance Student Guide". To read more and download click here.