Between fantasy and reality: a history of oriental dance

When we think of oriental dancing we imagine swaying, undulating, and sensual bodies. But where does this representation come from? Is there only one and unique Oriental dance?

Between fantasy and reality: a history of oriental dance
Mata Hari, © Getty / Heritage Images

"With half-closed eyes and quivering form, she caused mysterious undulations to flow downward over her whole body, like rippling waves, while her face remained impassive and her twinkling feet still moved in their intricate steps": thus described in 1877 Gustave Flaubert the dance of Salomé, oriental princess, in the story Hérodias

Since then, the everyday representation of the oriental dancer has barely changed, if at all: sensual, instinctive and seductive, the physical embodiment of charm and femininity. According to Mariem Guellouz, a lecturer at the Paris Descartes University, sociolinguist and dancer, these images are not necessarily false or stereotyped, "but the oriental dance evokes an imaginary that was built, constructed over the course of a very particular history."

La danseuse américaine Ruth Saint Denis, au début du XXe siècle.
La danseuse américaine Ruth Saint Denis, au début du XXe siècle. , © Getty / Bettmann

Not one, but several oriental dances

"Oriental dance in the singular is for me a generic term that refers to a plurality of genres. It is in this sense that occasionally, with a certain sense of provocation, I say that oriental dance does not exist", adds Mariem Guellouz. "Under the same name of "oriental dance ", we include for example all the dances from the Maghreb region. Although the Maghreb region [North Africa] and the Mashreq region [Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan] are part of this larger entity called the Arab world, they obviously include very different cultures and practices."

There are as many dances in the East as there are cultures, territories, and musical genres... Certain choreographic traditions are festive, linked for example to specific ceremonies (such as the Moroccan chaâbi), whilst others are reserved solely for the stage. Some dances are exclusively masculine, such as the rasq tahtib in Egypt, whereas others are performed by mixed groups: this is the case of the Berber Ahwash... 

It is difficult to number precisely the many different genres of oriental dance, especially since many of them have progressively changed, having evolved after generations of racial integration and encounters between tradition and modernity. Mariem Guellouz prefers to use the plural name "oriental dances", or that of "dances from Arab-Berber world", though one question still remains: "Why, with this diversity of practices, has the Western eye retained only the erotic and sensual female component?"

Dance and orientalism

Orientalism was a strong artistic current during the 18th and 19th centuries: during the Lumières and the Romantic period, countless European painters and writers (French, in particular) found their inspiration in the Orient, or at least in the fantasised representation of the Orient that was available to them. 

Certain artists, such as the writers Flaubert or Chateaubriand and the painters Delacroix or Gérôme, departed for the East, using the newly invented means of transport. Other artists, including Montesquieu and Victor Hugo to name but a few, imagined the Orient from the comfort of their Parisian apartments, creating some of French literature's finest works: Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes and Hugo's Les Orientales

« Almée, une danseuse Egyptienne » par le peintre finlandais Gunnar Berndtson (1854-1895).
« Almée, une danseuse Egyptienne » par le peintre finlandais Gunnar Berndtson (1854-1895)., © Getty

During the 19th century in particular, "the Orient, be it as an image or as an idea, became, as much intellectually as for the imagination, a kind of collective fascination" (Les Orientales, Preface, Victor Hugo, 1829), a fascination largely maintained by the military campaigns of Napoleon in Egypt, and by the Colonial Empire.

And yet, one of the principal figures of this artistic Oriental universe was the woman, the feminine figure: Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights (translated in 1717 by Antoine Galland), the Odalisque by Eugène Delacroix (1825), Salammbô by Flaubert (1862), and Dalila from Saint-Saëns's great opera... The oriental woman, an often deadly temptress, embodied a social fantasy. Carnal, nude, and the exact opposite of European bourgeois women. 

This fantasy soon became a physical reality during the World's Fair in Paris. In 1889, for example, visitors gathered by the thousands to witness not only the famous reconstituted Egyptian neighbourhood, Cairo Street with the so-called Arab styled houses, but also the beautiful belly dancers.

The belly dance

These belly dancers that fascinated so many visitors during the World's Fair eventually found their way onto the posters of various cabarets and other venues of nocturnal entertainment. Mata Hari (sun in Hindi, Margaretha Zelle her real name) danced and undressed at the Musée Guimet then at the Olympia; Ida Rubinstein performed the role of Scheherazade for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets RussesColette shocked her spectators as she danced half-naked (and kissing on-stage her lover Mathilde de Morny) in the show Rêve d’Egypte at the Moulin Rouge …  The Belle Epoque was hungry for eroticism and exoticism.

Mata Hari, égérie de la Belle Epoque qui s'est fait connaitre pour ses numéros de "danse orientale" et effeuillage.
Mata Hari, égérie de la Belle Epoque qui s'est fait connaitre pour ses numéros de "danse orientale" et effeuillage. , © Bibliothèque nationale de France.

However, this was not oriental dancing but specifically belly dancing: many of the early choreographies included a form of exhibitionism and partial nudity. 

"a strange amusement which consisted of swinging to right and left, her knees apart and her body swaying from the waist with the perpetual jogging, twitching movements peculiar to an oriental dancer in the 'danse du ventre'" (Emile Zola, Nana, 1880.)

During the same period, the term "almée" also entered circulation in Paris to designate a belly dancer, despite the fact that it was originally a reference in Egypt to a knowledgeable and learned women, having mastered art, music and dance. In reality, "a focus was placed upon a specific style of dancing, one reserved until that point for an entirely different context, in places where reigned an entirely different relationship to the body and modesty," says Mariem Guellouz. 

Deux affiches des Folies-Bergère : Les Almées (1874) et La Charmeuse de serpents (1875).
Deux affiches des Folies-Bergère : Les Almées (1874) et La Charmeuse de serpents (1875)., © Jules Chéret / Gallica Bnf

Glory and paradoxes

In Paris, the belly dance eventually encountered classical ballet, and its performers begin gradually incorporating arabesques and demi-pointes shoes to their choreographies. At the same time, this mix of cultures was also taking place in the East, in Egypt in particular, home of the oriental dance as it is performed today. In 1926, the Lebano-Syrian dancer Badia Masabni drew her inspiration from the Parisian cabarets and founded her own Casino Opera in Cairo. 

Madame Badia's shows eventually laid the path in Egypt for a new generation of female dancers: Tahia Carioca, Samia Gamal, Naima Akef… In the 1930s and 1940s, they each contributed to the international renown of Egyptian dance, in particular through cinema.

With over 120 films to her name and a slew of "femmes fatale" roles, Tahia Carioca was gradually known as the Marilyn Monroe of the Arab World by the international press, becoming one of the great ambassadors of Egyptian cinema's golden age. 

For Mariem Guellouz, this was a paradoxical stage in the history of dance: "This was in a way a standardisation of oriental dance based on the model of the dancer in a two-piece costume, performing for male spectators in cabarets or restaurants, but it is also a moment of glory for these dancers. "

An artistic recognition

Today, "it is in no way a question of judging", says Mariem Guellouz, "but rather of understanding the origin of this "oriental" dance, this imaginary idea that is now part of its history. Some enjoy performing the dance in this way, but others wish to bring a new status to the dance, to express an element of creativity."

With regards to creativity, the choreographer Saâdia Souyah chose for example to cover the bodies of her dancers (and the stomachs in particular) in favour of a meeting between tradition and modernity. The Lebanese dancer Alexandre Paulikevitch, opts instead for the unveiling of the body, and the mixture of genres and representations.

Alexandre Paulikevitch sur scène à Beyrouth (Liban) en décembre 2011.
Alexandre Paulikevitch sur scène à Beyrouth (Liban) en décembre 2011., © AFP / PATRICK BAZ

Though classes of so-called "oriental dance" are such a success, the artists criticise nonetheless a lack of representation on stage, in theatres and other venues of public performance. 

"There are many dancers struggling today to obtain an artistic status," says Mariem Guellouz, and many dancers are now even persecuted and threatened, in Egypt for example, where many have been accused of provocation and incitement to debauchery within a context of political instability and religious hardening.