Here at the View from Fez we occasionally take a look at what is happening outside Morocco - and today we decided to find out why belly dancing and Morocco have become so linked in people's minds.
According to Dental hygenist and belly dancer Llinas, (pictured above) from Stamford in the USA, “The term belly dancing was coined by an event promoter trying to attract attention to a World’s Fair exhibit in 1893,” she said. “The French have a dance called the Ouled Nail that utilizes abdominal control called le danse du ventre, which translates to belly dancing. This is how the promoter came up with the term.”
Others tell a different story. According to another "expert", the correct name for belly dancing is actually "Oriental Dance". The Arabic name for it is raqs sharqi, which means "dance of the East/Orient", and the Turkish name is Oryantal
After the Greek and Roman period, there seems to be no documentation of veil dancing in the Middle East or North Africa in literature or in art. At the end of the 1800's and the beginning of the 1900's, there were numerous photographs taken of women dancing with what looked like shawls and kerchiefs. Many of these photographs were posed pictures which were more reflective of the photographers' prurient taste than the culture which they presumed to document. There was a salacious appetite to be quenched for the English and European buyers of these provocative and sometimes seminude photographs. There was money to be made. The photographs depicted the Orientalists' racist, sexist fantasy of how the forbidden women of the harems were supposed to appear.
These women were clearly exploited. It is most likely that they were very poor women, prostitutes, dancers, and/or slaves. The families of respectable women did not permit them to be photographed. Hence, the people represented in the photographs were not representative of the population at large.
It is difficult and sometimes impossible to discern whether the subjects were posed women, dancing women, or women who were posing in dance postures. Many women were told to take their head scarves or outer modesty coverings off and frame themselves with them. The photographers were exploiting the romanticized and eroticized images of veiled women who uncovered their charms for the onlooker (Artemis Mourat's manuscript, The Illusive Veil.)
Llinas said that too many people believe the Hollywood portrayal of the young, sexy, perfect-bodied woman gyrating to the melodies of Middle Eastern music. Because they don’t think they look anything like these women, they never consider learning the dances.
“People are intrigued, yet intimidated, by the idea of belly dancing,” Llinas said. “But all the women in my classes are supportive and encouraging. Students range from 13 to 65, and not everyone is thin. These dances are fun, and if a woman is avoiding them because she doesn’t think her stomach is flat enough, she’s making a big mistake.”
The fact that belly dancing was created by Muslim women for each other’s entertainment has been lost.
“The word harem comes from ‘haram,’ which means forbidden,” she said. “This is where men and other immediate family members were not allowed to enter the female quarters of the home, which were separate from the male quarters. When women socialized, they found ways to entertain themselves. One way was by dancing.”
This dance is to Middle Easterners what the waltz is to Americans - so says Llinas.
So where does she perform?
A local French restaurant held a Moroccan theme night and invited Llinas’s troupe to perform.
“I had only taken 10 classes when I was invited to dance with the group,” she said. “The staff wore fez hats and the place was transformed into a Moroccan nightspot. I didn’t know what to wear, so my teacher took a circular tablecloth and turned it into an elasticized-waist skirt. I added the shirt and scarves. We danced among the tables on our tiptoes, slowing down every so often at a table but never stopping.”
So, a word of advice - if you are in Morocco and are invited to a traditional Moroccan belly dance performance - let your appreciation be tempered with a wiff of skepticism about its origins. Then sit back and enjoy.
Tags: Morocco Fes, Maghreb news