In my travels through North Africa, Turkey, and the Middle East, I spoke with women about the origins of belly dance. The question of “why was it created?” always resulted in the same answer: for birth. The question of “when was it created?” also had a unanimous answer: no one knew! Women agreed that the dance is so ancient, no one could say for sure how long it has been around. Some say that belly dance began in Egypt around 6000 years ago. However, there are cave paintings in southern Europe depicting women belly dancing that date back 30,000 years!

As for “where did it originate?,” women agree that no one can truly answer that. Belly dance has been influenced by so many different cultures. A great multitude of tribes from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, India and the Mediterranean shared their dances with each other over thousands of years ~ teaching each other moves, borrowing moves, blending moves. Belly dance, influenced by so many cultures, evolved and transformed over time. (This is the very reason that I refer to the dance as “belly dance” instead of attributing it to one culture alone.)

Belly dance held a prominent place in ceremony for thousands of years. In the Middle East and North Africa, community life centered around the temples. The temples were different than our modern, Western idea of a church or synagogue. The temples were open and accessible throughout the entire week, not just one day. They were a place to pray, to receive healing, to give birth. The temples of old also served as the community’s storehouse of surplus food. People donated their extra food to the temple, and in turn, the temple distributed food to people in need or in times of famine.

The ancient temples were run by both women and men alike, priestesses and priests, who were trained in ceremony and healing. Dance was one of the art forms they learned and practiced to pray and heal. There usually were more priestesses than priests. Women were considered to have a more natural leaning toward ceremony and healing due to the fact that they gave birth. In giving birth, women were already initiated into being bridges between the physical and spiritual realms. The experience of giving birth helped prepare them naturally for bridging the physical and spiritual realms in ceremony and healing.

In ancient days, the priests and priestesses held ceremony together in the temples with the community. There was music, drums, dancing, sacred theater and all people were welcome to pray together. The priests and priestesses did not view themselves as “higher than” their community. The role of serving the temple was considered a job equal to any other.

However, things began to change a few thousand years ago, and changed dramatically just over 2000 years ago. For reasons only the Divine can fully understand (perhaps the temple world became too female-oriented and the pendulum swung to the other side?) the male priests began to take over the temples. In doing so, the priests closed their ceremonies to the public. Temple ceremonies became private acts for male priests alone. The priests no longer maintained the birthing rooms nor the storehouses of food. The priests also declared that only men could serve in the role of temple servant. They ousted the priestesses from the temples altogether.

Besides their role as priestesses, these women were also just mothers with families to feed. They were now suddenly out of a job. They were no longer allowed to use the skills they had trained for, many since childhood.

Meanwhile, the rise of patriarchy also created a clearer, more dramatic, distinction of classes. Wealthy members of the community decided to start hiring former priestesses to dance at their parties. Needing to provide for their children, the former priestesses were forced to turn their sacred dances into entertainment for the wealthy in order to survive. From a sacred dance to a performance art.

Women continued to belly dance among themselves in their own ceremonies and celebrations for the next several hundred years. However, with the rise of Islam in the Middle East, dancing became forbidden as part of prayer. Islam also began separating the genders in ceremony ~ men and women had to pray separately. Ironically, this religious law turned out to be fortunate for the survival of belly dance. With no men there to forbid the dancing, many women simply flouted the law and continued to dance in their own ceremonies!

The Islamic law of separating the genders in ceremony also contributed to certain tribes in North Africa receding into the desert. These tribes did not want to be a part of a culture that separated the genders and forbade sacred dance. It is largely because of these tribes, and the women who continued to dance among themselves, that belly dance survived as a sacred dance. Belly dance turning into a performance art also helped the dance survive the centuries. Thankfully, many, many movements continued to be passed down from generation to generation ~ preserving a complex dance of incredible diversity.

Al-Rawi, Rosina Fawzia B., Grandmother’s Secrets: The Ancient Rituals and Healing Power of Belly Dancing, 1999, Vienna, Promedia Publishing.