I think I remember a certain amount of the usual debate when this came out.
For what it's worth, I started my masters thesis on artificially created sex roles, and used the image and history of bellydancers as a prominent subject, both in the west and in the east. I can give you my bibliography (to this point) if you're interested.
So, let me state first that there are no GREAT books on the history of Middle Eastern dance in its own culture. Some that come close are:
Turkish Dance by Metin And A Trade like Any Other by Newkirk Looking for Little Egypt by Donna (Barbrick) Carlton
and there are several books of essays that cover different aspects of Middle Eastern and north African dance by resident experts.
Pop culture books like "Grandmother's Secrets" and the awful yet beautiful "Serpent of the Nile" ALWAYS have some social or political agenda. Grandmother's Secrets is GREAT when it comes to talking about the social role of the woman in Arabian culture, but her "history" and analysis of the dance is poetic but largely non-academic.
You will not find a thoroughly academic approach to the history of Middle Eastern dance (although there are some good works out there in Turkish and Farsi about historical Turkish and Persian dance, if you're lucky enough to have access to translations.) American, German and British historians have been working on something of the sort for a few decades, but there is nothing terribly definitive, and we're talking about an oral tradition that didn't get written down or written about until about Napoleon's time.
Many dancers feel that bellydance originated in prehistory, as a way of worship. If you want to believe that, you're happy to, but it's not an academic approach, because all we can say about prehistory is something like "Here's a painting that may depict such-and-such" or "here's an artifact that might have been used as a blah-blah."
While it's certainly very probably that humans have been dancing ever since we could walk upright, the big question is did ancient dance look like modern bellydance? And the answer is there is just no way to know. Sculptures from the Levant seem to show a dancer lifting her hip while draped in a veil. That's one interpretation, sure, but there are many others, and art historians are quick to point out that what we in the 21st century see in this art is NOT necessarily what its creators saw.
All we can say with any degree of certainty is that bellydance as we know it was popularized in Egypt during the 20's, 30's and 40's and spread to Europe and America by way of immigrants and movie musicals. AND that Turkish and Armenian musicians and dancers had a deep influence on the bellydance as it would be done in America (as opposed to the dance that would develop in Germany and in the UK).
I love talking history, and I especially love talking about how the dance is/was viewed by westerners visiting Egypt and the Ottoman Empire -- and how observations made during those times (plus our own attitudes about the "exotic" east) contributed to both imperialistic attitudes and politics of the British and French, AND our own American foreign policy post world-war II.
BTW if you want a fun read about the modern subculture of bellydancers, read Snake Hips by Anne Soffee. It's hysterical and oh so true!
(edited to add: There's also a huge debate about the contributions of the so-called "Gypsies" (Sinti, Romani, and Nawari peoples) to modern bellydance. This debate is even more heated because it's heavily politicized on BOTH sides by researchers with opposing axes to grind. Romani politics is a HOT topic among European historians, mostly for their own political reasons.)
Does anyone have the book, "The Secret Language of Belly Dancing"? I'm thinking of buying it so if anyone wants to rant/rave/share about it, I'd appreciate it! Or if you'd like to recommend another book about belly dancing...I'm looking for learning the history/philosophy, not for a book of moves so much. Thanks! Smurfi
"You are more than a pair of thighs. You are more than a belly. You are a heart and a mind and a spirit." ~Kacy Duke
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