A disclaimer before I start!!!- I have taken much of the following information from other dancer's websites… and also history based websites, and from various history and bellydance books I have read. Shira's Morocco's sites were of particular help in piecing all this together- especially the info re flamenco (thank you guys!)!
I wrote all this up as a way to introduce my Bellydance Banquet show in Edinburgh last month, and it is not meant to be a complete history of the dance- just to give some snippets of info. I hadn't even intended to put it into my blog- but many people have asked for it- so here you go!!! Comments and corrections welcome (I do not profess to know it all- or even half of it!!!!!!!!)
Part 1- Folk dance, Spiritual dance and Turkish influence in Bellydance
How has 'bellydance' come into being? Lets start at the grass roots (or desert roots in this case!!) Folk dance. This is a term to describe solo and group dances which the 'common folk' would participate in. It wasn't organized or taught in a structured way and traditionally would pass down through generations, growing and changing on the way….. much in the same way as dance performed in a nightclub in UK by people out on a night out (the 'normal people') has changed drastically from say 1940 to modern day! Folk dance is designed by the people who perform it to be a dynamic, exciting, socially bonding experience. It's what people did to have fun!
Bellydance, also known as 'raqs sharqi' is a 'folk dance' too- which has since been developed for performance. Men and women dance- but it’s the women who have a more traditional role as performers in Egypt. This is an ancient role, with tomb painting depicting early dancers back as far as 5000bc. In the temples of Isis, in pharonics times, it was the women who were priestesses- and just as we have singing to praise god in churches today, they would make music, song and dance to please and appease the great Isis. Dance was seen as spiritual.
So in this way folk dance already started to change from purely a social dance to a performance art. In fact, bellydance today in Egypt, and therefore around the world, has been very influenced by these traditional folk dances. As the dance became more of a performance dance, the skills involved became more refined and the music more complex to best show off the performer's abilities.
Egypt is the only country in the world which had been ruled continually by foreign powers for 2000 years. Because of this there have been a lot of influences on the Egyptian culture, musically, politically- and of course with regards the dance.
The Ottoman Empire took control of Egypt for a long time and the people of Egypt, and Cairo in particular had to adapt many of their own local traditions in order to find favour with their new bosses. Turkish rhythms (often complex with 7 or 10 beats in a bar) were incorporated into their own music (which was often simpler with most rhythms having 2, 4, or 8 beats to a bar) and of course, dance styles too had to adapt to fit the new music. During this period- i.e. 1500-1600- Turkish ladies were brought into palaces to entertain the harem ladies. So the long running argument as to where 'bellydance comes from- Egypt or Turkey has to be a very definite both- what we know today as bellydance is a very intoxicating blend of the 2.
The Turkish influence aside for a second, Another way in which folk dance is still reflected in modern dance can be seen in specific dance styles- for example the 'asaya' or stick dance, the 'melaya' or Alexandrian dance. Folk dances from other Arabic cultures have been incorporated too- with the Lebanese debka still a hit at any Egyptian wedding, and the gulf Khaleegy rhythms and movements routinely found in the repertoire of many dancers in nightclubs (especially ones where visitors from the gulf make up a great percentage of the cliental) So you can see- even today, dancers in Egypt are adapting the dance to suit their audience- just as Egyptians did with the Turks!