04 Aug Reclaiming Belly Dance as a woman’s ritual
The image of belly dance in the west is one of male gaze and seduction
In the west we know it as Belly Dance and it has a somewhat seedy sexy connotation, but I would like to address that image of the belly dance in today’s post. In the Middle East, Belly Dance is called Raqs Beledi (and other variations) meaning folk/regional dance with the word Raqs also translating to celebration or joy. There are a number of modern western dancers who would like to revert the name back to Oriental Dance to move away from the western legacy of the name Belly as a dance to display a woman’s sexuality.
The entertainment version of the dance is a westernisation of a private dance done by and for women and did not originate in the harem as is widely assumed. It is a celebration of the different stages of womanhood done as ritual and religious ceremony throughout the Middle East and Africa. Variations include dances to prepare women for pregnancy and at the birth to assist with the delivery.
Ritual dancing has a place at all of lifes most profound stages
Birth and the creation of life is the basis of all mysteries throughout humanity’s history and the womb is the ultimate sanctuary. Birth is a spiritual journey for the mother and the women’s dance was done as a way to honour this most profound experience and the incredible power of a woman to produce life from her own body. The Woman’s Dance, with it’s emphasis on the control of the breath and the movements around the pelvis is perfect to prepare the female body for the act of childbirth, strengthening the muscles but also providing a way for the mother-to-be to focus inward and allow her body to take over and perform it’s natural, wonderous act. When women come together at the birth of a new life and dance together, they create an atmosphere of power and support. There are accounts of the birthing mother entering a trance like state during the delivery as a result of this group rhythmic movement and as a result, experience the pure ecstatic joy of childbirth which trumps all feelings of pain. My own experience of childbirth attests to this, by being very aware of the exact motions of the muscles in my body during the surges of the birthing of my children, I was able to experience the feelings in my belly as a wonder of creation, not something unknown and out of my control. I was an active part of bringing my children into the world, the priestess at their first ceremony.
Support from modern science for the benefits of belly dance on the experience of birth and motherhood
These ideas have slowly begun to find their way back into the birthing of western babies and modern scientists have now “proven” (what women have known for millennia) that when a woman is active and moving throughout pregnancy and birth, both she and baby will have a much better experience than if the woman is supine and passive. Even the breath control technique made famous by Lamaze is derived from Women’s Dance.
We only have a few well-preserved examples of women’s dance available for us to learn from; Ghawazi, a group of Indo-Persian Gypsies and Algerian Ouled-Nail people. Both groups have remained separate from the culture in which they now reside, and have as a result preserved much of their original culture, practices and language. The women’s dances of both these people are characterised by rhythmic rolling and revolving of the abdomen and shimmies of the hips. The pelvic control and abdominal swaying movements are a common theme across all continents and cultures, one of the most well-known is the Hula, a traditional birth dance of the Maori. The Maori also have a more specific dance for the preparation of the female body for birthing which is performed lying down and concentrates specifically on the muscles of the uterus and vagina.
Dance as a way to reclaim feminine power of creation
There is much evidence in wall art and pottery of women dancers in attendance at all the major ceremonies of life; birth, marriage and death dating back thousands of years. Women clearly taking the role of priestesses facilitating worship of the immense power of creation that originates in the woman’s belly. However, changes in the religious practice worldwide saw a retreat of women’s involvement in ceremony and only a diluted, male gaze focused version of Women’s Dance remains in popular culture.
Many modern women are drawn to Belly Dance to “feel more sexy” however they discover a way to tap in to their own immense creative power and find a sense of beauty in themselves and what it means to be “Woman”
Further reading on Women’s Dance:
Iris J Stewart Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance (to which book I owe much of this text)
Wendy Buonaventura BellyDancing, The Serpent and the Sphinx
Karen Andes, A Woman’s Book of Power: Using Dance to Cultivate Energy and Health in Mind, Body and Spirit
Monica Soo and Barbera Mor, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth