Where Did Belly Dancing Come From? Belly Dance History up to the 1900s – ALLAF 019

Belly Dance Podcast belly dance history up to the 1900s

Travel back in time to belly dance like Ghawazee and Awalim dancers from Egypt, Ouled Nail dancers from Algeria, and Rom dancers who developed the art of belly dance centuries before us.

A glimpse of what a pre-1900s Ghawazi performance might have looked something like…

While teaching some saidi stick dance feeling and moves the other day, one of my students expressed that she would like to know more about other dance styles within belly dance. I wanted to hand her a simple and comprehensive infographic on the history of belly dance that everyone agrees on or just hand her THE universal belly dance style book…but those two things don’t exist to my knowledge. There are definitely great books and diagrams out there that help us paint this picture, but there is no one picture. Which is wonderful. And this complexity can be confusing to dancers who just want a better idea of what they are watching, what they are trying, and what kind of dancer they want to be.


This inspired a three part podcast series! In this episode we’ll talk about belly dance up to the 1900s. The next two shows in the series will cover the 1900s to the 1960s, and then from the 1970s until now. Sounds like fun right? Doing this in 3 parts will help us understand our belly dance world now and will bring us closer to the lineages of dancers whose ghosts may be dancing with us in our most precious moments dancing.


We know that just reproducing dance moves without considering where they come from is like doing a dull aerobic exercise routine. Uninspired obligation to move. If you are listening to this podcast, you are way beyond treating dance like that.


And knowing more about dance styles and history helps us enjoy watching others dance even more, and it will make us better dancers who genuinely want to learn more and more.



Countless bodies in the universe have been spinning simultaneously long before human history. It’s wild to think that right now we are all spinning together with the same axis, circling the sun together. It puts time into perspective to think about it, especially when time feels too slow. Minutes spent waiting in line, waiting for a real person to get on the phone and help you, waiting for the arrival of a loved one, or trying hard to fall asleep.


Where ever you are now, look at the sky or above where the sky always is. High above it probably looks quite peaceful compared to the universe of chaos happening beyond what we can see. Take a deep breath and stand up. Feel your feet in full contact with the ground below. Close your eyes if it helps you feel nice and grounded. Connected to earth. Keep breathing, feeling the ground in the bottom of your feet more and more with each breath.


Many beings have walked in that very coordinate where you are now between the earth and sun. Some may even have danced there. Let yourself smile softly as you breath.


Now begin to rotate slowly on your own axis, stepping around the same point on the ground directly below your core, toe to toe, and then heel to heel, until you are spinning on your own axis, just like earth. It is comforting. Pause if you feel dizzy or fix your eyes on your shoulder or hand at eye level. Our spin is slow and small within the giant spin of the planet. Just like this moment will disappear with all of the others.


Encircle your head with beautifully bent arms, palms pressed together as if in prayer directly hovering above the crown of your head like an axis. pause. Look up. Imagine how many humans have stood in this very pose. Imagine how long the earth has been spinning.


Any time it feels like something is taking forever, you can spin slowly like this uber-ancient planet and acknowledge that we are only alive for a flashing moment of human existence, at least in this incarnation. The Dalai Lama has said something like, “100 years, all new people.” All the more reason to dance and appreciate every moment. Even the moments we wish were different.


The Ghawazee will be some of the featured dancers in this show, so let’s celebrate a song off of Aisha Ali’s field recordings album “Music of the Ghawazee”. It’s a song called Raqs al Salameya by the Thebes Ensemble. I’m probably not saying that right. T-h-e-b-e-s.


https://aishaali.com/product/music-of-the-ghawazee/ (Buy the whole album here! Aisha doesn’t get royalties through Spotify or iTunes, so to support her work go right to her site.)


I wish that I had asked Aisha about this song when I spoke with her on the phone just now! Hopefully Aisha will come on the show and grace us with an interview soon. And then maybe she’ll share information on the Thebes Ensemble and let us know if Salameya is a person’s name or something else. And of course share more of her immense research, experience, perspective and wisdom.


This song features a rebab (a bowed spike fiddle) and some kind of flute. It’s a folk version of the ney called a Salameya, which is a flute with a different number of holes. There is clapping throughout, which always makes a recorded song feel like there’s a built in audience to me.


The song goes through several rhythms, beginning with Maqsum Dt tD t, with some double doums of Saidi sprinkled in, Dt DD t. It sounds like there’s a lead doubek embellishing, a bass doumbek holding down the rhythm, and a riq.


It sounds like the flute player samples the melody from the song Uskadar in a couple places in the song, which is fun. Uskadar was the featured song in the very first episode of “A Little Lighter”. Great song.


The the clapping speeds up and changes and the drums go into ayub. D kD k. And then there’s a little repetitive call and response singing. The song speeds up for a big climactic finish. It’s a very organic song. I bet it is played differently every time, and it most likely has elements of songs that predate this recording hundreds of years.


So it is the perfect song to dance to and to feature in this episode where we will imagine an encounter with Ghawazee dancers in the 19th century. I’ll tell you when to get your imaginary time travel costume on.


Because this show covers the era of belly dance from a mostly undocumented time.  Movement and music have only been recorded since the late 1800s, and many of the moments that have shaped our belly dance ancestry happened behind closed doors. Much of what I’m going to share is disputed and unclear.


Here’s the disclaimer: This belly dance history series will not be from an academic approach. Many dancers have done the research for us and written fantastic articles and books, like the super-helpful Abigail Keyes for example. Some of the information in these podcasts will come from actual traceable sources, and some will be words dancers have said to me, and some will be observations from my experience.


I have been dancing all over the world with amazing teachers since the year 2000. I have traveled to Egypt, Morocco, Southern Spain and India and have danced and played music with Turks, Greeks, Roma from various places, Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans, Iraqis, Iranians, Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese and amazing Americans, so I’m including those experiences with what I have heard and seen.


You don’t need to believe anything I say. Just consider it, and do your own research and see what helps us all contribute to the incredible world of dance we all live in.


After this pre-1900s belly dance dreams show, we’ll taste the flavor of all of the dance styles that have influenced belly dance in the past 100 years. We’ll get a mental image of how belly dancers from different styles might move, what music belly dancers might dance to, and what dancers might wear for different styles of belly dance.


Sorry about kind of repeating these points, but this needs to be clear:

  1. This is in no way meant to be a taxonomy of cultures or over simplification of a very rich and mostly undocumented history of belly dance. I will just paint an image that may help you feel more connected and in awe of the richness of our belly dance history.
  2. This is in no way an academic or deeply researched report. Just an overview of the way things appear from where I stand. This is all my interpretation of belly dance styles I have seen, and I hope it will be helpful for you to hear as you paint your own picture.
  3. What is referred to as “Belly Dance” is also very open to interpretation. If you are looking very specifically at the ways people who call ourselves “belly dancers” dance now compared to the ways dancers from the Middle East may have moved hundreds of years ago, of course it’s going to be different. I’m going big picture here opening up a huge umbrella of dance styles and regions that have cross pollinated and continue to influence each other today.


Additional perspectives and info are welcome, because I’m sure I’ve missed a ton and also see things differently from other dancers. If you have something to add or question, please post on the A Little Lighter Facebook Group page and we’ll keep painting this picture together.


Much of this information I heard from teachers over the years. When I opened the “The Salimpour School of Belly Dance Compendium,” I realized much of what I was taught may have come from that book. It’s a great resource and you can buy and download it instantly on salimpourstore.com


Let’s start farther back than “The Salimpour School of Belly Dance Compendium” goes. Let’s start at the disputed roots of what we now call belly dance: Dancers documented in the Roman Empire and undocumented Rom or “gypsy” lineages that traveled from the North Western region of India (think Rajasthan) to Southern Spain.


The Roman Empire was vast, and included parts of around 46 countries now known as the Balkans, Turkey, Middle East and the whole northern coast of Africa. The Empire was a big ring of coast around that Italian boot in the Mediterranean. And people wrote things down and preserved the information! So there are written accounts of how dancers were moving, even though we cannot be sure what that looked like. And the Roman Empire lasted for centuries and started around the time of Cleopatra in case that’s helpful.


The Roma however, have a malleable unwritten history that can be modified and leveraged continuously. And because of frequent travel, they have been pollinators. Many Romany have brought moves and concepts to people they danced for as they picked up more ideas and innovations in their travels.


It is less disputed that belly dance was part of life in the Ottoman Empire centuries later. The Ottoman Empire included much of the North African and more eastern part of the Roman Empire. There’s more documentation from European travelers as early as the 18th century writing about dancers they saw while visiting the Middle East.


We’ve all heard that belly dance was part of ancient birthing rituals, and I’ve always liked that idea. But researchers like Aisha Ali and others have written that there is no evidence of this.


This brings up the point that most travelers throughout history have been men. Therefore we have a much smaller number of travel accounts written by women who might have gained access to exclusively women-only places. Even if travelers did get to see dancing in the women’s quarters, they might have been asked not to share it with others. So there’s a whole world of women dancing for and with each other behind closed doors that has not been documented.


Just think about women before the 1900s living together in their own part of a giant house owned by a wealthy family for a moment. They probably do not have the regular household duties of a wife with less means. They may be quite educated and able to focus on specific talents like dance and music. They may have more time and money to dress up.


And they may have the resources to invite well-known dancers to dance for them with an audience entirely of women. The Awalim, which were women who were educated in the arts, were invited to entertain in the women’s quarters. Maybe some of the dancers they invited in were Rom who had been dancing with their families in camps in several countries since they were babies. Maybe some were Ghawazi, or Egyptians who were known for performing dance in public and may be decedents of Rom.


Side note, I don’t know if any Ghawazee people consider themselves gypsy or Rom, or if they identify as something else. Forgive me! Correct me! Let’s keep rolling with this imaginary scenario.


This part of the house we are thinking about can also referred to as a harem, the space reserved for women in a wealthy Islamic home. Where women could live unveiled. A forbidden place for most men to enter.


For many of us in the west, the word “harem” has a negative connotation. Very young women kept indoors, enslaved, multiple wives of one man living in a hierarchy, etc. Some harems could also be seen as protected spaces where women were able to live together without men watching them most of the time. Don’t get me wrong, I bet there were some harems where life was hard just like other homes where life is hard. And I bet there were harems where the arts blossomed. Let’s consider that there could have been some pretty amazing dancing done in these spaces.


Like the Ghawazi who danced in public, there were more dancers who were documented as dancers in the 1800s. Like the Ouled Nail “waled nah-eel” tribes of Algeria. French travelers noticed their dancing and their style. The way the Ouled Nail used layers of scarves and coins and big necklaces and silver chains around their waists has either directly or indirectly inspired many of our belly dance costumes.

“The Salimpour School of Belly Dance Compendium” states that “Contemporary writers on Oriental dance claim it was probably their (the Ouled Nail) practice of dancing for “dowries” and wearing their earnings on their clothing that contributed to the use of coins in the Westernized belly dance bra and belt. They practiced this custom until the 1930s.75 “

So interesting. I hope that was helpful and I didn’t enrage any historians listening. As I stated before, it would be very helpful to for all of us if you share your thoughts on our A Little Lighter Facebook group page.

Now it’s time to get your time travel costume ready.

Let’s imagine we are the wealthy matriarchs of a household in Cairo in the 1800s, and we love dance and paying dancers to dance for us and teach us. After months of searching, we have brought 4 dancers into our home: a well-respected Almah from Cairo, a pair of popular Ghawazi (singular: Ghaziya) performers from a village outside of the city, an Ouled Nahil performer friends told us about who is visiting from Algeria, and a striking Romany woman who does not call herself Ghaziya that we met in the market. We are celebrating the birth of a child in the family. All of the women of the house and friends we invited have been looking forward to this, and now it is time.


We have the best women musicians in Cairo here with their frame drums, goblet drums, a couple rebab or bowed spike fiddles, a ney (aka flute) and voices. There may be a mizmar there.


We ask each dancer to perform for us, and we have asked that we can dance with them as well.


We will pay them in coins, bracelets and necklaces we have chosen for them.


First the Alma steps up. She is comfortable in this house. She is wearing white pantaloons made of so much fabric, and a choli which leaves her belly exposed. She asks the musicians to play a dance song that is popular now with her wealthy benefactors, and the musicians know it well. Maybe it is Lamma Bada or another beautiful muwasha. She opens her arms at a diagonal, one hand reaching for a high corner of the sky, the other for the earth below. She spins slowly like the earth. She is graceful and stunning.


Next the Ghawazi women rises up in their long, open front coats over knee length skirts and pantaloons. One Ghaziya reties her hip scarf so it’s tighter as she asks the musicians for a faster rhythm. Some of the musicians are also Ghawazi, and they agree on a song that will impress the hosts. They want to shimmy, and they shimmy side to side rather than mostly up and down as the Alma did. It is beautiful, and the audience loves it. https://youtu.be/kAbUd3b-dIU?t=48


After the song ends in a dancing frenzy, we all cheer. The Ghawazi women loosen some of layers of clothing as they return to their cushion where cups of water wait for them.


Coins clink together as the Ouled Nail dancer rises. Even far from home, she has a bold smile on her lightly tattooed face.  She sings a simple melody to the spike fiddle player a few times, and they pick it up quickly. Then the dancer claps out a rhythm popular in Algeria, and the drummers follow playing that rhythm in their own style. Her moves are sharp, more focused on power than grace like the Alma and Ghawazi pair. She punctuates the with some hops when the music breaks, which is something neither the Almah or Ghawazi dancers did (p.67 Salimpour).


Again, the women of the household and our friends love the performance and showcasing another beautiful way to move and shine. When the song is over, the Ouled Nail dancers keeps smiling and returns to her cushion.


Now it is time for the Romany woman to dance. She is hesitant. No one knows where she is from, or anything about her really. It seems like she has never been in a house like this, and we consider that she might rarely spend time in the homes of people who are not Rom. She has brought 2 women from her family who are also musicians so they can lead the band while she dances. She is the only dancer wearing a skirt and vest.


The musicians get together and decide what they will play while the dancer nervously adjusts her skirt and jewelry. She is relieved when it is clear that the music is about to start and she can finally dance.


One of the Rom musicians start by playing a taksim, changing the air in the entire room. Inviting the dancer to share a glimpse of her secrets. Invoking dance. The room is silent except for the music and the sound of clinking jewelry. Everyone is enthralled by the dancer and musician who are so closely connected. They may have been doing this together for most of their lives. We are being transported to a place we have never been just by watching them.


The other musicians are lounging, mesmerized by the show just like the rest of us. Near the end of their beautiful taksim, the soloist gives a signal to the other musicians that it is almost time for them to play. The spell is broken as the musicians rustle back into position. The rhythm returns as fingers touch the animal skin and strings, and the dancer responds with movements we have never seen. Gestures from another place. Footwork and facial expressions very unlike the other dancers as well as a few movements mirroring the dance of the Alma, Ghawazi pair and Ouled Nail dancer.


Now that she is warmed up and the room is smiling, the dancer wants to raise the energy. She dances to a more delicate wooden a chair in the back of the room, and she dances to it and around it. I have never seen it before. The dancer references for two of the younger women to carry the chair back to where she was dancing, and they do. It is easy to lift. What is she going to do? Does she need to sit down?


After the chair is placed in the middle of the room and she has danced around it a bit, the Rom woman bows over the chair as if she has finished dancing, and grabs a top corner of the chair with her teeth. All of the sudden the chair is flipped upside down in the air and she is dancing beneath it, balancing the chair above her face, clenching it in her teeth. The musicians and audience lean forward in shock. This was totally unexpected. She continues to dance with the chair in her teeth, everyone dreading that the chair will fall on top of her or someone else. Without touching it with anything but her teeth, the chair drops to her shoulder level and we can see her face behind the chair now as she spinning. The audience gasps and protects the children sitting near them. Concentration shapes the dancer’s face. She slows the spin and lowers the chair to the ground, finally touching it with her hand to stop the spinning and set it down. The musicians end the song dramatically, and she bows and steps out of the center. What just happened? The audience is stunned and happy.





All of the dancers are invited up to be appreciated and the musicians keep playing. Now it is time for all of us to rise up off of the carpets and cushions and dance. Each of us gravitate toward the dancer we liked best and try to dance like them. They simplify what they are doing now, repeating movements and making them smaller so we can follow. The whole room is dancing.



So yes, this whole imaginary scene was made up and is not a recreation of a documented event. But something like this may have happened, and the Awalim, Ouled Nail, Ghawazi and other Rom were known to dance. And the point here is to have us imagine an unknown history behind this dance that we love. To remember that it has been transferred from person to person in unknown infinite incarnations.




Brief history of belly dance: https://www.convergencedbc.com/belly-info/



Did you catch the Damn Sexy Dance Moves and Make You Shine Costume Tips in that visualization? Let’s highlight a dance move from each of our imaginary dancers. These are loosely based on historical paintings and written accounts.


We’ll begin with a dance pose seen in paintings of the Awalim, or Alma if we are referring to a single dancer. These painting often show pairs of dancers. Open your arms soft but straight on a diagonal, one arm about a 45 degree from shoulder level, and the other about 45 degrees below. As if you were starting a barrel turn. Let’s call these Alma Arms for fun.

Alger, danse des Almees (ca. 1890)

Now it’s time for a Ghawazee shimmy:  according to “The Salimpour School of Belly Dance Compendium”, “Traveler Edward W. Lane said the ghawazi performed “unveiled in the public streets,” and their dancing had “little of elegance,” with its “chief peculiarity being
a very rapid vibrating motion of the hips from side to side.”54

So let’s try a side to side Ghawazi shimmy, where we very rapidly vibrate our hips from side to side. Yeah! So do a couple hip slides first. They can be small hip slides, just moving horizontally from side to side. Now add a little shimmy, and you may be dancing similar to the way the dancers were when Edward Lane wrote his account.

Now for some Ouled Nail accents. It was written that at least some of these dancers did sharp moves, and that they danced for coins. So try some sharp accents with your hips. Some chest pops and hip pops. Maybe some pop and lock. I don’t know! What do you think would have motivated people in the market to add coins to the dancers’ collections?

And finally in honor of Rom dancers everywhere, a travel step. Some steps that take us to a new place, and then circle back around to where we were before, and then take us to another place.



Fava beans

Broad beans I’ve loved popping out of their shell wings and snacking on in Thailand. They are a loved breakfast in Egypt, and one of my go-to Middle Eastern restaurant favorites called ful medammes. The beans are cooked on low heat for hours and mashed and seasoned with salt, pepper, cumin and oil. Sometimes they add lemon juice, chilies, onions, and serve them with arugula on the side. It is a favorite stew base in several Middle Eastern countries, as well as a loved bean all over the world. We just don’t eat it very much in the US.

Creamy Fava Bean Salad with Zatar and Lemon

Potato Salad with Fava Bean Cream and Avocado

I cooked some fava beans at home for the first time the other day, and they turned creamy and delightful without even being mashed. There’s a simple recipe on my site with just cooked fava beans and a zaatar spice blend. Yum! You can dip pita in it or eat this on a green salad with lots of parsley and with a grain like couscous or quinoa. Throw some olives in there. It’s easy to make delicious fava beans gluten-free, vegan, oil-free, and it’s even nice to eat them chilled.


I love big soft beans. Fava bean salad is always in the deli case of a historic country store where our band performs. To me, the size of these big makes them more of an entrée than a side dish.


And fava beans are also used to make falafel. I thought chickpeas made up falafel, but why not use any bean that works?


There’s not just one costume tip in this episode, but 3! These costume tips are coming directly from paintings and photographs of the historical dancers we just featured.

Ghawazi Costume tip: get yourself a Ghawazi coat. You can find them online or sew one. I brought a tiny print out of a classic painting of Ottoman Empire dancers to a sweet tailor in Rajasthan, picked out some hand printed cotton, and had a Ghawazi coat made. I think it cost me $30. Awesome. I’m looking for a form fitting shin-length stretchy cotton dress I can slit open on the lower sides and cut an extreme scoop neckline and wear over harem pants and a dance bra. It will kind of be a ghawazi coat situation.

Awalim costume tip: use lots of fabric when you make harem pants or pantaloons. It looks like the difference between pantaloons and harem pants is in the shape of the crotch and style of the waist band. I personally like my harem pants to be as little fabric as possible because I have tripped on the really full ones, but harem pants that use a lot of fabric look really nice. If you know the trick to not tripping on them let me know and I’ll share it.


Ouled Nail costume tip: wear coins, especially around your face. Whether it’s a headband with coins or a string of coins draped under your chin, real coins are heavy but they can add so much to your costume. I have a bunch of kuchi coins in my sewing stuff that may need to be made into an Ouled Nail inspired headpiece. Hmmm….



Image: A Dance of the Almas at Cairo, Egypt, from the Illustrated Home Book of the World’s Great Nations, edited by Thomas Powell (1898).



As stated earlier in this episode, I am not a historian, and there may be errors in this show. Please call me out on our facebook group page and let me know and I’ll share corrections in future episodes. I refuse to let perfect be the enemy of the good, and there was tons of great info in this episode right? Thanks for listening.


(photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Types_de_danseuses_indig%C3%A8nes_(1889)_-_TIMEA.jpg)