The World’s Oldest Dance?

We’ve all heard the stories:

  • “Bellydance is the world’s oldest dance.”
  • “Bellydance is an ancient art form.”
  • “The roots of this dance form go back to time immemorial.”

We hold up our heads with pride, thinking about our ancient dance lineage, passed from mother to daughter. We’ve discussed and experienced the sisterhood of the dance. Perhaps we heard our teacher, or even Jamilla Salimpour talking about the origins of the dance form in exercises for childbirth.

But there are a couple of problems with this “history”. To start with, we can’t prove any of it. While these stories make up a lovely origin myth, that’s exactly what they are. The earliest documentation of the women’s solo performance dance known as raqs sharqi date to the 1920s. The dance form does descend from older folkloric and performance dances, much like modern ballet descends from French courtly dances. But the notes that we have from before this time depict a very different dance.

And then there is the problem of the myth’s colonizing and racist roots. While these stories may seem innocent enough, they reflect 19th century European and Western views on the development of culture. Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1859. This yielded not only scientific theories of evolution, but also sociological theories of Social Darwinism. Westerners began to view themselves as better not because of their religion, but rather because they believed their culture to have developed later, making it “the fittest” and other cultures “lesser”`. These other cultures were also viewed as unchanging. These became justification for forcing Western culture and values on other, generally non-white people.

When some of the precursors to raqs sharqi were displayed at the 1893 Worlds Fair in Chicago, Illinois, the dances were derided for focusing on the torso. This was a clear indication to the contemporary Western viewers that the dance form was older, and therefore inferior. Victorian-era Western audiences also had no proof of the age of the dance. But in their purview, torso=older, not as advanced, limbs=developed.

So the problem in blindly perpetuating these myths is that we continue a racist tradition of demeaning and belittling the cultures that originated the dance forms collectively termed “belly dance”. It keeps us from seeing these cultures as valuable and equal to our own. While I don’t think it is most dancers’ intent in passing on these myths to demean these cultures, it is continuing a racist and imperialist stereotype.

Collectively, we need to care enough about our art form to learn more and do better.

Jean-Léon Gérome. Dance of the Almeh. 1863. Oil painting. Dayton Art Institute, Ohio.