A history of belly dancing: from risqué to religious and back

As a child, I remember sitting on the floor at a family party as an uncle walked in and turned on the stereo. Traditional Iranian music blasted out and a belly dancer sashayed into the room. Decked in red, her dark hair fell to her hips. She shimmied this way and that, twirling a scarf, the coins on her belt and bra jangling.

I was immediately sold – she reminded me of Disney’s Esmeralda. From then on, I proudly assumed belly dancing was a part of Iranian culture, right up there with cracking pistachios and reciting poetry. A few years later, an aunt told me what I’d seen that day was actually Arabic belly dancing and that my Esmeralda lived up the road – not quite the free-footed traveller I’d hoped for. Noticing my disappointment, she introduced me to Iranian Bandari dancing instead. It was joyous and included the same movements I’d seen in films, albeit with less glitz. Dancing garb covered the body and a simple belt accentuated movement.

The belly dancing we see in popular culture today (here’s looking at you, Shakira) comes from a mix of styles: North African, Middle Eastern, and Spanish. It’s believed belly dancing originated in India 5,000 years ago before spreading with travelling tribes. Some say it was a fertility ritual, aiding women with childbirth. Others point to ancient Greece’s sacred prostitutes who lived in temples as heralded members of society. Their dance often focused on the belly: the site of the Mother Goddess’ fertility.

By 1893, belly dancing reached North America at the Chicago World Fair. “The theme of the girl’s dance was love,” wrote critic of the time Joseph Smith, “but it was the hot, voluptuous passion of the East, not the cool, chaste sentiment of our land.”

Raquel SavitriImage of Raquel Savitri, by Estela Naïad, used with permission

In the same decade, Thomas Edison made films starring belly dancers. A group of 19-century painters and writers – the Orientalists – became enchanted with the East, which inspired much painting and poetry. However, belly dancing was still seen as risqué, confined to vaudeville and burlesque shows.

These days, belly dancing isn’t shackled to the after-hours. Plenty of restaurants hire dancers who will do floor work as patrons eat (one of my favourite photos is of a family member, mid-spoonful, averting his gaze from the oncoming bosom of a belly dancer).

But how did belly dancing go from religious to risqué, to something your mum does at your local community hall on a Tuesday evening?

In her book Belly Dancing: Arab Face, Orientalist Feminism and U.S. Empire, Sunaina Maira said that belly dancing was popularised in the US during the 70s. Second wave feminism was in full swing and belly dancing was seen as empowering: “[People] connected belly dance to… female sisterhood, sensuality, and New Age spirituality.”

By the 1990s, belly dancing had become fashionable. However, as Maira wrote, that didn’t necessarily mean people were learning about other cultures. She argues that belly dancing today – particularly within the U.S. – is an “Orientalist spectacle”, with some even calling it “Arab drag”. As you’ll recall, childhood me was disappointed that all belly dancers weren’t mysterious nomads with goats named Djali – and that desire came out of Hollywood. My concept of belly dancing was far from sophisticated for years, and then one day, I met Raquel Savitri.

Raquel SavitriImage of Raquel Savitri, by Estela Naïad, used with permission

Born in Spain, Raquel is a woman enamoured with belly dancing and with culture behind it. We met in a café one sunny winter. With henna-stained fingers, Raquel put down her coffee and told me her story.

“I was twelve when I started dancing belly dancing,” Raquel started. “I’d always loved dancing, but hadn’t yet found the dance for me. I admit, as much as I liked belly dancing, I did need some maternal persuasion to sign up for regular classes. So, mesmerised by my new coin belt, I agreed to go to class. I had great luck with my teacher, Paula Rambya. She not only taught me the movements – she taught me to discover myself through belly dancing.”

Ten years later, Raquel has become a belly dancing teacher herself. “It’s an honour for me to teach other women to enjoy their bodies and to express their emotions through music. We’re not aware of the power of the belly until it’s put into practice.”

What does belly dancing mean to Raquel?

It is meditation, and it is joy. It breaks complex and social stereotypes about women. It allows you to feel your body, and embrace true femininity. Thanks to belly dancing, I know who I am. It has integrated into me in such a natural way, that sometimes I don’t know where it ends, and where I begin

Belly dancing brings such happiness to Raquel, who in turn brings happiness to her students and audiences. It’s a beautiful art form, with a rich history. In other words, auntie joon* – bring on the Bandari.

*The Farsi word for dear, commonly used for friends and family.
Featured image Raquel Savitri, by Estela Naïad, used with artist permission. Image has been cropped slightly to fit.


Raised in Copenhagen, Nickie Shobeiry is a London-based writer and editor.