Belly dance is an expressive and complex movement centered around the midsection or torso. It is one of the most popular styles of dancing, thanks to its sensual techniques. Mere pronunciation of the words calls to mind women twisting and twirling their bodies sinuously to the sound of music.

Belly dancing was used to entertain guests at wedding receptions, private celebrations of parties in the Middle East. Most times, the men join in the dance just to liven things up for fun. But lately, belly dancing has begun to garner lots of interest in Europe and other parts of the world. Women and in some rare cases men as well now attend belly dance classes, participate in dance competitions and perform this dance genre on various events.

Belly dance is very advantageous for health reasons since anyone can use it as a medium to burn excess calories, which probably also contributed to its popularity. Of course, there are a lot more to this ancient dance style, so let’s take a closer look at this beautiful and seductive dance form.

History of Belly Dance

Where, when and how it was created?

Belly dance is also known as Oriental Dance (or Dance of the Orient), or Raks Sharki and is believed to have originated from the Middle East, though the origin of this style of dancing is hard to come by. Most of the accounts about the history of belly dance are pure speculation. Sources from Rome and Greek were known to describe dancers from Spain and Asia Minor who used rippling movements, and with quivering thighs, sink to the floor all while playing the cabaret. These movements are reminiscent of what we know today a belly dancing. But later on, around the 18th and 19th centuries, Flaubert and Edward Lane, both European travelers who visited the Middle East put in writing the type of dancing that was prevalent there and the dancers as well, including the Ghawazee and Awalim of Egypt. Belly dance was performed by both sexes in the Sultan’s palace in the Ottoman Empire.

Main theories about its origin

The origin of belly dance is fuzzy, but here are a few theories that have become popular lately about the origin of belly dance:

  • It was coined out of the dance that was linked to childbirth. It helped to prepare pregnant girls for labor and was imbibed as part of the ritual associated with delivery.
  • It originated from a sacred dance which was usually performed during fertility rituals conducted by temple priestesses. As far back as 1000BC, temple engravings that depicted belly dancing have been discovered in Egypt, Greece, and Mesopotamia.
  • It originated from ancient Egypt and was part of the social dances of the times.
  • It originated from India more than 5,000 years ago and was spread throughout the Middle East when gypsy tribes migrated to Europe, Egypt, and India. The Gypsies were said to arrive Europe and created one of the most famous Gypsy dance styles in the world known as Flamenco. A lot of the movements used in Flamenco are similar to belly dancing.

Why is it called Belly Dance?

The expression “belly dance” was translated from a French term “danse du ventre” which was coined during the Victorian era. It was believed that that French term was used to refer to dancers from the Ouled Nail tribes of Algeria. But belly dance as it is currently used seems to be misleading name since the Ouled Nail focused more on abdominal movements than what is known in the modern world today as “belly dance.”

In Arabic, the belly dance is called “Raqs Sharqi” or Eastern Dance or “Raqs Baladi” (Folk Dance or Country Dance).

Belly dance focuses more on movements of the torso with a strong emphasis on the articulation of the hips. It is not like most western dances that use more of limb movements through space. Belly dancing is about isolating the torso muscles, and these isolations look somewhat similar to the ones used in jazz ballet. The difference is that they portray different emphasis and feeling.

Most folk dances don’t have a general naming scheme when it comes to belly dance movements. Although many dance schools and dancers have created their unique naming schemes, none of them are recognized globally.

Best Belly Dance Video

This is one of the most popular videos on YouTube in this genre. It has got almost 31 Million views since 2013, which is a quite a lot. Here you’ll also see an example of the traditional outfit women wear for stage performances:

YouTube video

Most Famous Dancers

Famous male belly dancers

One important question that is often asked is “Can men belly dance?” The answer to that question is yes. Men can belly dance. Although belly dancing is considered to be an art form that is peculiar to the female folk (due to its sinuous, circular lines and emphasis on the belly) males can also partake of this art form. There are masculine styles of belly dancing as well as an appropriate costume for men.

Here is a list of the most famous male belly dancers:

  1. Ibrahim Akef – He was an Egyptian and a famous belly dance choreographer who died in the year 2007. Akef taught a lot of famous dancers, and his style greatly influenced other dancers like Khaled Mahmoud, Dina and much more.
  2. Khaled Mahmoud – He hails from Cairo, Egypt but is based in the United Kingdom, London to be precise. His style of belly dance is reminiscent of the Egyptian folk style and Raqs Sharqi. His dance style is graceful, yet energetic at the same time. He participated in the International Belly Dance Congress in the United Kingdom, and because he is in demand, he teaches and performs in different festivals around the world.
  3. Jim Boz – Jim Boz is a male belly dancer that is based in California. His style is earthy and was also a participant at the International Belly Dance Congress in the United Kingdom
  4. Mahmoud Reda and Dr. Mo Geddawi – Both men are part of the Egyptian Reda Troupe that founded Egyptian folk dance and made it famous. They are choreographers and soloists and still teach in belly dancing workshops around the world.
  5. Ahmet Ogren – Ahmet Ogren is a famed Turkish style belly dancer who hails from Istanbul.

Now you’ll see a video proving that men actually are amazing at this:

YouTube video

Famous female belly dancers

This list contains some of the most female belly dancers who continue to mesmerize the world with their styles of belly dance:

  1. Alla Kushnir – She is one of the greatest belly dancers who, with a happy disposition, seemingly goes crazy when she starts performing. She is the most resourceful of all modern belly dancers and was taught this art by Tarik Sultan. Her flexible nature has made her a darling of the crowd. She was nominated and was awarded Miss Belly Dance of Europe in 2008 in Berlin. Alla Kushnir emerged as the champion in Ukraine in 32007 and 2008 respectively.
  2. Amelia Zidane – Amelia Zidane was born in France and joined theater and dance despite oppositions from her family. Although she is a children psychologist, her passion for belly dancing took everyone b surprise. During one of her performances, she was noticed by Jacques Boni and thus, her career moved to the next level. After a comprehensive lesson on belly dancing, hip hop and other forms of oriental dances, she was able to fuse all these types of dances much to the delight of spectators and admirers alike. She takes her troupe all over the world and composes her own numbers.
  3. Rachel Brice – Rachel Brice is one lady that will never cease to wow her audience with her bell dance skills. Her ability to fuse tribal and oriental dance forms make her endearing to her audience. She participates in the Tribal Fusion Style Belly Dance in Portland and numerous belly-dancing competitions around the world. She has her own belly dancing institution where she teaches this art of dancing in Studio Datura. She is a graceful belly dancer and goes on tours across the world.
  4. Amani – Amelia hails from Lebanon, and though it seemed she wasn’t particularly fond of her origins, she continued with her schooling. Amani is a born dancer, though this was not readily known. She kept fanning the flames of this skill by practicing for several hours in her room. It was as if the oriental dance form was inborn as she continually practiced this style in front of her mirror. This paid off eventually, and her dream got fulfilled when she went on stage to charm her admirers and fans with her unique belly dancing styles. She is now in the acting field and making waves there as well.

Belly Dance Music

When it comes to belly dancing, there is no ‘best’ music for it. This is because it is subjective. Every belly dancer must be inspired by the music they are dancing to and which will arouse the emotional feeling that needs to be expressed through the dance. Nevertheless, the flavors of  Middle Eastern music which belly dancers dance to are categorized in the following way:

  • Modern Egyptian classical music
  • Pop music
  • Art music (Muwashahat)
  • Folk music

Traditional music may be referred to as classical or folk music and depends on the context. However, it has nothing to do with modern pop music.

Music instruments

A lot of peculiar instruments are used in the Middle East to create music that belly dancers dance to. The instruments include win, percussion and strings instruments.

Percussion – This includes the Dumbek – or dumbec, doumbec – which is a drum shaped like a goblet and gives distinct rhythms to belly dance and Middle Eastern music. It is referred to as tablah in Egypt and darbuka in Turkey.  Under percussion instruments, there is the riqq, which is a small tambourine, and the tar which looks like a large tambourine. Finger cymbals called the Sagat in Arabic and Zils in Turkish are played by the belly dancers themselves when performing. String instruments consist of the Kanoun, Rababa, the Saz, and Oud. The wind instruments consist of the Kawala, the Ney, Zumara, and the Mizmar. The Zurna is also another wind instrument.

Most famous musicians and songs

Several songs are very popular whith belly dancers. Here is a list of some of the famous songs and the famed artists that created them:

  • Dyati Mali (or Binti Beida) sung by famed Metqal Qenawi and Musicians of the Nile
  • Tfarrak al-Halawa (performed and produced by the same band above)
  • Al Nadda (composed by the Rahbani Brothers but conducted by Sabah)
  • Haddouni (composed by the Rahbani Brothers and performed by Nasri Shamseddine)


The costume that is associated with belly dancing is known as the bedlah (which is Arabic for ‘suit’). This ensemble includes a bra or fitted top, a fitted hip belt and harem pants or full-length skirt. Most times, the bra and the belt are elaborately decorated with sequins, beads, coins, crystals, embroidery and beaded fringes. The belt can be sewn into the skirt or come as a separate accessory.

The modern style of belly dance costume was said to have been created by Badia Masabni who is a cabaret owner in Cairo in the early 20th century. It was said to have been inspired by Hollywood costuming to appeal to western audiences. Older forms of belly dance costumes comprised a light chemise, full skirt and fitted cropped vest with big jewelry and embellishments.

Basics of Belly Dancing

Basic moves

Teachers of belly dancing have their unique ways of imparting the knowledge to their students. But here are the basics that most of them will cover sooner or later: Lifts and drops, Shimmy, Slides, Twists, Figure 8’s, Circles and Undulations. Each of these movements is used in separate parts of the body and form the core of belly dancing.

Beginners are always advised to attend classes, follow the basic instruction given by the teacher, and to always practice hard at home or in class.

Want to learn some basics? Here is a video playlist with beginner lessons to help you start the jorney 😉

YouTube video

Main categories of movement

There are different movement types in this genre which have been grouped into 3 main categories:

  • Fluid movements – This form of belly dancing employs sinuous and flowing movements with the body always in constant motion and is usually used to interpret lyrical sections and melodic lines of music. It is also sometimes moderated to articulate complicated instrumental improvisations. The fluid movement calls for a significant amount of control of the abdominal muscles. Typical movements associated with this style of belly dance include vertical and horizontal figures of eight or loops of infinity with the hips, undulations of the abdomen and hips, and tilting or horizontal hip circles. These rudimentary shapes are varied, embellished and combined to create an unlimited variety of textured and complex movements.
  • Percussive movements – This style of belly dance employ clipped or faltering movements, mostly around the hips and are used to interpose the music or draw attention to a beat. The typical movements associated with this style include hip lifts, vertical hip rocks, hip twists, outwards hip hits and hip drops. Other parts of the body can as well be employed for percussive movements, and this includes drops or lifts of the rib cage as well as shoulder accents.
  • Shimmies, shivers, and vibrations – This style of belly dance focuses more on fast, small and continuous movements of the hips or rib cage. Such movements create a notion of depth and texture of movement. When it comes to movements, shimmies are more pronounced compared to other movements and are mostly used to ascribe meaning to rolls on the “riq” or fast strumming of the “quanun” or “oud” instrument. Although several types of shimmies exist (which depends mainly on the method of generation and varying sizes), the most common ones include fast and tiny hip vibrations, relaxed up and down hip shimmies, twisting hip shimmies, straight-legged knee-driven shimmies, rib cage or relaxed shoulder shimmies and bouncing earthquake shimmies.

Besides these torso movements, dancers also employ many styles and use traveling steps, level changes, turns and spins. The arms are used to accentuate vivid gestures and frame the movements of the hips. The arms are also used to create shapes and beautiful lines with the body, mostly in the more westernized and balletic styles. Other movements may be brought into play as random accents such as arabesques and low kicks, head tosses and backbends.

Styles of Belly Dance

There are several styles of belly dancing in existence today. The following are a list of the main ones :

  • American cabaret
  • Gypsy
  • Persian
  • Tribal Fusion
  • Egyptian Folkloric and Ethnic

However, the most popular belly dance styles in the United States today are: American Cabaret or American Restaurant, U.S. Tribal and Egyptian Oriental. Here is an example of tribal fusion belly dance for you to check it out:

YouTube video

Famous Festivals & Competitions

Some of the famous belly dance festivals and competitions are:

  • Belly Dance Masters 2017
  • World Belly Dance Festival
  • Orient el Hob (International Belly Dance Festival, Varna 2017)
  • International Summer Belly Dance Festival Contest 2017

Belly Dance as an art form has come to stay, and as it continues to gain more popularity, other parts of the world have begun to learn everything about this ancient style of dance.