What is Oriental Dance?

What is Oriental Dance (Belly Dance)?

PENT4336reClick on the titles below to learn more about Oriental Dance (Belly Dance):

– What is Oriental Dance?

– History of Oriental Dance

– Dances that are Related to Oriental Dance (to be added soon)

Oriental Dance in Estonia

What is Oriental Dance?

Oriental dance (often also referred to as belly dance) is, in its essence, an improvised solo dance, the technique of which is predominantly based on torso movements. Oriental dance originates from the Middle East, and nowadays it has spread all across the world, and evolved into many different directions. Still, we can distinguish two main functions that oriental dance serves – as a social dance (Raqs Beledi) and as a performance art (Raqs Sharqi).

Raqs is the Arabic word for dance. Raqs Beledi, the “dance of the folk” or the “dance of the country” stands for a social dance form that people dance for their own enjoyment – at celebrations or just in their homes. By the way, in the Middle East both men and women dance. Due to cultural norms they may be separated, but both genders enjoy dancing. Raqs Sharqi or the “dance of the East” however is a stage dance, which nowadays is also performed by women and men.

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History of Oriental Dance

We can not pinpoint how and where exactly oriental dance came to be. Dancers and historians both have come up with many different theories, but unfortunately the sources available can not give us a univocal answer. What we can assume is that oriental dance as we know it today is based on certain folkloric social dances of the Middle East. 

The first time the West heard about the dances of the Middle East was probably in the 19th century, during the age of orientalism. Once again, we can not trust the stories and paintings of the orientalists fully, as we do not know how much they describe real impressions and how much are fantasies. But we do know, that at that time there were professional dance performers both in Egypt and in the Ottoman Empire.

Soon the Middle Eastern performers made it to the West – for example, to the World Fairs. The best-known case is the Chicago World Fair in 1893, which included dancers from Syria, Turkey, Algeria, and Egypt. It was the age of corsets, so of course a dance that used hips and torso caused a stir. It is claimed that this is the time when the term “belly dance” was coined.

At the same time the dance also made it to more formal stages in the Middle East. Clubs with live music and dancing started appearing, most famous of them being Casino Opera in Cairo, which was run by a Lebanese singer, dancer and actress Badia Masabni. Raqs baladi started developing into raqs sharqi – the social dance turned into a stage dance, the dancers became celebrities, the dance started including influences from outside the Middle East, and the costumes became more elaborate. From 1930ies-1950ies is considered the Golden Age of Oriental dance, when it played an important role in the entertainment scene, including in the movie industry.

As the immigrants from the Middle East travelled across the world, they took their culture and dances with them. Of course, among others Hollywood found inspiration in the Orient, and by adding its own touch, the two-piece belly dance costume was born. 

Nowadays Oriental Dance can be found almost everywhere in the world, and it is represented in many different styles and stylisations.

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Oriental Dance in Estonia

Oriental Dance reached Estonia in 1996, when Pille Roosi started teaching classes in Tallinn incorporating different oriental dance techniques. Over the time these classes became more and more belly dance oriented, and in 1998 some of Pille’s students started teaching their own classes in Tallinn and in Tartu. Pille and her students also started performing at different events, and even appeared on television. In 1999 the first oriental dance troupes were founded – Zahira, which is still active in the dance scene today, and Callista.

In the beginning of 2000s Oriental Dance became more and more popular. In 2003 the first International Oriental Dance Festival took place, which has now become a regular event taking place each autumn. The Festival is twinned by a spring showcase (called Raqsat Rabiya since 2013), which brings together dancers and studios across the country.

Estonia is a home to many different oriental dance troupes and studios, most notable of them being Zahira (founded in 1998), Sisters Shahrazad (2000), Nabaratoorium (2003), Alexandria (2004), Alima (2004), Türkübel (2004, later called InesDance), and Müstika Magical Theatre (2007). What is remarkable about the Estonian dance scene is that oriental dance is very popular also outside the cities – there are many dance groups in rural areas.

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