What is Belly Dance?

The Portand Bellydance Guild defines belly dance as ‘dance being rooted in, or inspired by, the Middle Eastern diaspora’.

We do not regulate what belly dance looks like, we rather encourage ongoing discussion within our community on topics such as the various styles of belly dance, the pros and cons of labels, and ethical fusion in dance. Around the world, belly dance is practiced by people of all types- men, women, genderfluid, all ages and body types imaginable, alter-abled folks, and people from a huge spectrum of cultural backgrounds. It is a wonderfully inclusive dance form. Officially, in the Guild,  if you define yourself as a Belly Dancer, you are one!

'Belly Dance' itself is an umbrella term coined in the US, to describe hundreds of separate dance styles. 'Belly Dance' comes from the french 'Danse du Ventre', which was the original term used by the showrunners of the Midway Plaisance at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair to describe the Middle Eastern and North African dances showcased there. For more info on the dancers, dealings, and sometimes culturally insensitive and exploitative practices  at the 1893 Worlds Fair, please see Looking for Little Egypt by Donna Carlton.

Where might one see belly dance?

-Belly dance may be seen in a variety of venues, as well as in homes and at gatherings. Middle-Eastern, North African and Mediterranean restaurants often feature belly dance performance as entertainment for diners. Belly dancers are often the featured entertainment at birthday parties or other celebrations, weddings, childrens parties, cultural events, faires and parades, and corporate events. Dance shows at sit-down venues often include a variety of dancers in one evening of entertainment, perhaps live music, or other variety acts. In cultures of origin, what Americans might consider to be 'belly dance' is performed by men, women and children in their homes, at parties, anywhere dance might happen!
-Most belly dance professionals won't hire for bachelor or other male-only parties, because belly dance is often not compatible with the vibe that is requested for those events. We suggest looking into the fantastic Portland burlesque community instead, you can find more info on the BurlesquePDX page.

What might it look like? Are there different styles?

There are many, many styles of belly dance, and they can look vastly different from eachother.

In very general terms, the four basic styles are Folkloric/Traditional, Orientale/Cabaret (also called 'Classic'), Tribal Improv, and Theatrical/Fusion.
Props that belly dancers of all styles might use include veil, sword, finger cymbals, fans, assaya or 'cane', baskets, shamadan, fire props, fan-veil, isis wings, scarves, etc.

Folkloric/Traditional includes dances from specific regions of the Middle East, Balkans, India and North Africa. These dances are region and culture-specific, were not necessarily developed for performance or public viewing, and often include folk-dances that are still danced today. Arabic Dabke, Egyptian Raqs Baladi, and Persian Khaleegy are all examples of folkloric dances. They have deep regional/cultural roots and histories, and are considered to be cultural dances as opposed to stage-performance dances (though they can of course be performed on a stage.)

Orientale, also called 'Classic' or 'Cabaret',
is what most North Americans tend to think of when they hear the term 'belly dance.' It solidified as a style in the '50s and '60s, with the primary stylistic elements coming from Egypt, Turkey, and cinematic film from both the Middle East and America. A few styles that fall under the Orientale banner are Turkish, Raqs Sharqi, and American Cabaret. Performers typically wear either performance dresses or bedlah, the beaded bra-and-belt set worn with a light skirt or panels.
There is a strong focus on the more Middle-Eastern ideals of becoming a conduit for the music, as opposed to creating a narrative or character onstage. In other words, a primary goal for performers tends to be to personify the feelings portrayed in the music being played. Props of choice include finger cymbals, veil, isis wings, shamadan, and assaya.

Tribal Improv is an American dance form, which originated in the CA Bay Area in the 1970s. It is a performance dance, typified by troupes or duos who share a set movement vocabulary, which is strung together in the moment using vocal and movement cues. The 'mother' form is called American Tribal Style®, and many other vocabularies have been developed from it. Costumes can vary considerably, but Indian choli-inspired tops, full skirts over pantaloons, and lots of chunky silver accents are typical costuming choices.  With Tribal Improv, the focus in performance tends to be portraying strong personal/troupe presence and connection. Props of choice are generally finger cymbals, swords, and occasionally veils, baskets or fans.  

Theatrical/Fusion belly dance is a relatively new, internationally developed style. It was developed for stages as opposed to as a community dance, and may include elements of any other type of dance or performance art imaginable--in technique as well as costuming. Theatrical/Fusion dance tends to lean more towards the Western concept of creating a narrative or character onstage, as opposed to becoming a conduit for the emotions of the music.

Theatrical/Fusion belly dance performers might fuse one or more different styles with belly dance including butoh, contemporary, jazz, opera, pop culture, vaudeville, samba, modern, hip-hop, and more.

Additional Resources
Check out these books and links to learn more about the history and styles of belly dance!
See something missing? Please email us your suggestions, this is entirely a group effort!


Looking for Little Egypt  

by Donna Carlton

Belly dance: orientalism, transnationalism, and harem fantasy

by Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers-Young

Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab


by Wendy Buonaventura

The Tribal Bible, Exploring The Phenomenon That Is American Tribal Style Bellydance 

by Kajira Djoumahna

Tribal Vision: A Celebration of Life Through Tribal Belly Dance 

by Paulette Rees-Denis


by Edward Said

The Portland Bellydance Guild is fiscally sponsored by the Marissa Mission, a  subset of the Present Time Dream Factory, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization supporting the arts in Portland, OR.

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