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The dance form we call "belly dancing" is derived from traditional women's dances of the Middle East and North Africa. Women have always belly danced, at parties, at family gatherings, and during rites of passage. Although the history of belly dancing is murky prior to the late 1800s, many experts believe its roots go back to the temple rites of India. Probably the greatest misconception about belly dance is that it is intended to entertain men. Because segregation of the sexes was common in the part of the world that produced belly dancing, men often were not allowed to be present.
That belly dance developed from social dancing helps explain its long lasting popularity. Belly dancing offers women a community of friends that share and celebrate joy in music, and creates self-confidence through artistic self-expression, in an art form that embraces all body types.
Belly dance is natural to a woman's bone and muscle structure. The movements center on the torso rather than the legs and feet, as is common in Western dance. The belly dancer isolates parts of her body, to move each independently in a completely feminine interpretation of the music. The music seems to emanate from her body, as sometimes she emphasizes the rhythm, sometimes the melody of the song. Bellydance is often performed barefoot, now thought by many to signify the intimate and ancient physical connection between the dancer, the music, and Mother Earth, although historically, most dancers were barefoot because they could not afford shoes.
Veils are a popular part of the belly dance performance, as are finger cymbals - known as "zills" in Turkish and "sagat" in Arabic. Many belly dancers are also skilled at belly dancing while balancing swords, brass trays, or even candelabrum, complete with flaming candles (also known as "shamandan").