A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How Old is Egyptian "Belly-Dance," Anyway?

During the Muslim Brotherhood year in control of Egypt, I frequently reported on the decline of the art of raqs sharqi or "Eastern dance," what Westerners call the belly-dance, in Egypt, and promised a series on the history of that fine art. I still hope to find the time to do that.

Egypt is often considered one of the true roots of the dance, for reasons we'll consider in detail eventually. That can be documented from the 19th century onward with some confidence. But just how far back does it go?

This is not meant as a serious scholarly post by any means, but I want to present two photographs. The one on the left is one of the earliest human figurines found in Egypt, a terracotta figure of a woman now in the Brooklyn Museum and usually called "Dancer" or "Bird Lady." It dates from the Pre-Dynastic Naqada IIA Period, about 3500 BC or 5500 years before the present. At that antiquity one expects earth mother goddesses, but they would not be covered below the waist. Is she a dancer?

The photo on the right is of Dina, sometimes called "the last Egyptian belly-dancer" due to the influx of foreigners. It's a screencap from one of her performances. She is obviously wearing (though only slightly) more above the waist than her 5500 year-old predecessor, but I was struck by the resemblance. Anybody looking for a dissertation topic?

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