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Will the real ‘belly dance’ please stand up?

Nrityakosh, a Bengaluru-based dance troupe, attempts to take 'belly dancing' to its roots

Photo: Rakesh Ayilliath
Photo: Rakesh Ayilliath

Belly dancing has an image problem. Its mention today conjures up more “belly", than “dancing". But the wildly erotic gyrations of a dancer wouldn’t chime with the complex vocabulary of folk dances that emerged in and around Egypt. Their origins are lost to prehistory.

The current form is essentially a bawdy Orientalist fantasy; a product of the Western imagination. Debapriya Das, a Bengaluru-based dancer, wants perceptions to change. On 21 January, her troupe Nrityakosh will present Safar-e-raqs (journey of dance, in Arabic), a “belly dancing" performance that will chart its evolution from the late-18th century to the present day, showing how it was adapted to different cultures and audiences.

“It wasn’t sensual at all—it has folkloric background," says Das on phone. “In the Middle East, the women would dance with each other during festivals and weddings." But, then, the colonial Europeans arrived. They took it to Europe where it was influenced by ballet; it reached fin de siècle Paris (think cabarets in Moulin Rouge); then made a transatlantic jump to American “burlesques" (used, then, as a euphemism for strip shows). It was performed in restaurants, bars and, finally, picked up by the exhibitionist Hollywood.

“It became sexualized due to commerce," says Das. Its perception isn’t helped by the term “belly dancing" either: a consequence of the colonial gaze which brazenly equated the exotic with the erotic. Its ludicrousness becomes apparent if one, for comparison, describes classical ballet as merely “leg twisting" or “arm spinning": Dance reduced to its bare mechanics.

Does Das find the constant sniggers infuriating? “Oh, not at all," she says. “People need to be educated as I once was."

In the celebrated book Serpent On The Nile: Women And Dance In The Arab World, the writer and choreographer Wendy Buonaventura warns us not to confuse the historical dance form with the “cabaret act" it has become. We may, then, snigger all we want at “belly dancing", but its rich history means the only thing we’d be laughing at, ultimately, is ourselves.

Safar-e-raqs will be performed on 21 January at Alliance Francaise, Bengaluru. For details, visit

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