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General / Introduction



Orientalist dance.


Paintings and travellers' accounts. 




   This book is intended for those who can never have enough of seeing Middle-Eastern dance and of learning more about it. It is a gesture of sharing with them the products of a frantic 30-year quest in the libraries and antiquaries' shops of Europe. It is a first instalment, as the material amassed can fill several books.

   After watching performances again and again, the urge arises to learn more about this dance form - but a sharp shock is awaiting. One passes abruptly from intense aesthetic indulgence to deep intellectual frustration. These readings are the superficial inventions of amateurs, suitable only for the impromptu satisfaction of the curiosity of children.

   Scientific historical research has a long way to go. There may be serious studies, scattered and lost to the general reader, which need to be found and brought forward if they are to take their place as the foundations for the edifice to be built. The history of dance in the Middle East will have to be written on the basis of reliable sources of past periods, irrespective of the need to nourish the fantasies of present-day spectators.

   We contend that the correct term for this is Orientalist, rather than Oriental or Middle-Eastern, or the most unbefitting ‘Belly Dance’, as it is most often called. We would be prepared to accept the term Mediterranean dance, even if it includes the Catholic countries of the Northwestern coast of the Our Sea. The term Orientalist denotes the dance of the Orient seen through the eyes of Europeans and modified to suit their needs. It is borrowed from painting, where it successfully defines a school based not on the technique used (such as in Impressionist) but on the subjects chosen. The painter illustrates a certain Orient, more or less faithful to reality, but certainly close to the vision that people want to have of it. Orientalist painting and literature started around 1800, flowered at the end of the 19th century and withered after the beginning of the 20th. On the other hand, the pioneers of Orientalist dance were situated around 1900; there was a decline later, then an upsurge at the end of the 20th century, which continues until now. We observe a very similar pattern of demand one century before. Is this enough to make us foresee that orientalist dance will fade after 2015?

   The reader who is not eager to proceed to texts and pictures from past centuries, or who will land on the present by returning to the beginning of the book, will find below some clarifications, resembling those in a tourist guidebook. It is a matter of taste: some people do not like to travel without reading a guide and some others enjoy discovering foreign lands unprepared! These travel guidelines will provide the opportunity to dispel several misconceptions and to overturn some taboos. This can only be for the better: the charms of orientalist dance will not disappear if we stop believing the innocent fairy-tales circulating widely on its behalf.


   What Europeans called the Orient at that time was basically the Ottoman Empire, which included practically all the countries around the Mediterranean from the Balkans to Morocco. This obviously does not correspond with geography, since the entire southern coast of the Mediterranean lies not to the East but to the South of Europe. Moreover, the term Oriental is very relative: to an Egyptian his own dance is not Oriental, while to an American all of Europe is in the East. It is certainly a conventional appellation, not to be taken literally.


   It would be wrong to associate this form of dance with Moslems, simply because the corresponding countries were Moslem. In the cities, especially in ports but often in villages, a considerable number of the inhabitants - and the most dynamic part of the population - were not Moslems. Apart from Greece and the Balkans - where the great majority of the population were Christians - one could find everywhere Jews, Greeks (that is Orthodox Christians), Levantines (European Catholics) and of course Gypsies. All these communities were permanently settled for several generations and had their own particular dance habits, which included Orientalist dance.

   As a general rule, Moslems of the cities never danced (at least in public), those of the villages rarely did, while women had their face and body permanently covered. Exceptionally we find some small populations known for their dance, such as the Zeibeks in Anatolia, the Ouled-Nail in Algeria or the Almées in Egypt.

Professional or amateur

   In every country of the world, in every time period, dance is of two main kinds: professional and amateur. This fact is ignored by even the most serious dance history books. In the countries we are referring to, this distinction is radical: those who dance to entertain others are always professionals, bearing a clearly inferior social mark. The others, amateurs, do not "perform" but dance either in a group or when their turn comes at a family occasion, a party revel or their village's festival.

Women or men

   Then, as now, orientalist dance was done by women: the very few exceptions confirm the rule. In painting there are not even exceptions - no painter would risk provoking the prudery of his time to such a degree - while in literature the European traveller turns his eyes away with indignation or adds condemning comments to justify his presence at a spectacle of masculine sensual dance, except in cases of a "men's" dance with swords, or some vigorous dance which he hastens to call a war dance. It should be noted that in painting women are always shown dancing solo, while written descriptions show that group dances were fairly common.


   We arrive now at the greatest taboo of orientalist dance. Even today no one is prepared to admit that professional dance in the Middle East was more for boys than for women. A person who had only studied paintings would never have suspected it, but by systematically reading travellers he would confirm it. We are preparing a monograph on this, with detailed data, notwithstanding the fact that no one seems disposed to delve this subject, professionals as well as amateurs.


   There is one point where the totality of travellers agrees: the music of the Orientals is unbearable. It could not be otherwise since European music, promoted by the Catholic church, is based on the tempered scale, which is fundamentally different to the natural scales used in the Orient (and everywhere else outside Europe). European music would seem equally appalling to Oriental musicians at that time - but not today. Within the past century, mass media have managed to impose music made on the tempered scale and to wipe out all other musical systems.

One would think that painters are left out of the European-Oriental debate on music, but they betray themselves when depicting musical instruments. Since a painting or engraving is a static picture, to denote harmonious movement of the body they suggest the presence of accompanying music by showing musicians. Knowing that the viewer's attention will be focused on dance, the painter pays little attention to faithfully reproducing instruments, therefore their form or the way they are held by the musician is rarely correct.


   Eastern clothes and fabrics were already familiar to Europeans for centuries, if not through turquerie performances at the opera and exotic disguises at bourgeois masked balls. What is more, many of the best fabrics draping harem women were imported from Europe. The painter could easily find oriental costumes, borrowed from wardrobes or featured in fashion magazines, to dress his characters. The problem lay elsewhere: in different attitudes concerning the body and its attire. To a European, semi-nudity is sensual and provocative, while to an Oriental it is clearly immodest and tasteless. The painter uncovers the hands, the bosom and everything else he can on the dancer, probably knowing well that he is thus distancing it from reality and betrays it. Were he to sell his painting to rich Turkish or Egyptian patrons, he would have draped her with many light πτυχωτά veils and loaded her with quantities of cheap jewellery.

Body and sexuality

   Painters want to suggest the unbridled sexuality supposedly contained in "belly" dances, as opposed to the dances one could watch in Europe at that time - that is to say ballet in big cities, couple dances in salons and traditional dancing in villages. If it was difficult then, today it is almost impossible to understand that the way we see the body is but a construct of our own society. For example, to us the breasts of a woman are charged with sexuality, while to an Oriental of that time they were indifferent: women wore no bras and breast fed their frequent babies openly. On the other hand, a woman's hair is constantly exposed nowadays and can even remain unnoticed, while to a Moslem it is probably the most shocking sight. The ankle or the neck of a woman draw his attention, much as a fine waist or long fingers seduce a Christian. Snow-white skin thrilled the pashas, who for this reason prized Georgian girls for their harems, while they scorned the rosy skin that would enrapture an Englishman, and despised the sun-tanned skin in fashion today because it was associated with work in the fields.

   Differences in taste become more obvious when considering other factors relating to the perceived beauty of the woman. One of them is status: one thinks only of girls, not of married women, when dealing with questions of beauty or of dancing. At that time, marriage was a radical change, involving departure from social life and abandoning oneself to concentrate on repeated childbirths, rearing children and keeping the household. Another factor is embonpoint: models chosen by painters as beautiful dancers would be rejected by Orientals as bony. Being well-fed was something everyone aspired to and only the rich could afford, so the more opulent a woman was, the more she was considered beautiful. The celebrated hen's walk is unknown today, though it enflamed the imagination of poets then.

   Were the painter to follow Middle-Eastern aesthetics he would not only make his dancers fatter but also shorter, something Europeans would certainly not appreciate. He would have to paint some ‘beauty spots’ here and there, as well as abundant down on the upper lip and the body, both signs of pronounced sexuality.

   If European travellers had visited the countryside of their own countries they would be better prepared to understand the customs of the Orient. Rural life in 19th century Europe still retained many of the ancient features that would disappear at the course of the 20th. Oriental countries have simply preserved the same features much longer.

Rewriting history

   As in every historical approach, here too the major problem is reliability of sources. To write (anew !) the history of orientalist dance, or even of dance in Mediterranean countries, one should turn to the witnesses. Since accounts by local authors are scarce, it is inevitably necessary to rely on foreigners, mainly travellers. The sources to look for are literary and iconographic. Their credibility varies enormously. There are those who, although they never went on location, managed to gather information so that their descriptions are particularly useful. On the other hand, one finds others who, in spite of being on the spot, give vague or incorrect information. A careful evaluation of each source is indispensable, mainly by examining the entire work of the author or painter, in order to see whether he pays attention to detail and whether the data supplied is confirmed by other sources.

The texts

   Concerning the arrangement of texts, chronological order was selected as the least confusing. Descriptions are never so detailed as to enable reconstruction of the dance, but they supply a wealth of other facts, probably more important than the movements of the dancers. When the date is uncertain it is followed by a question mark. Names of countries or regions as well as borders separating them have been changing often - we opted for appellation most familiar to the reader of today. The text has been copied faithfully, and even typographical errors have been retained. Most travellers' books are very rare, so finding them and reading them to extract passages on dance is time-consuming. Copying presents technical obstacles as they must not be opened to more than a right angle, lest the binding cracks. Sometimes the author does not even mention where the scene took place (painters never do) or relies for its interpretation on information supplied offhand by his guide.

The pictures

   Paintings have been put in order according to the name of the artist. It is obvious that there is no connection between texts and pictures - the only reason they are put together is to create a variety and make reading more pleasant. Priority was given to paintings (as more impressive), leaving prints (which are more reliable) for subsequent volumes. There has been no intervention, but we could not avoid repeating alterations made in our sources: album designers have the bad habit of cropping pictures, while printers until recently failed to reproduce the colors faithfully.

   A book on dance is nothing more than a complement to the act of dancing. It is so much more important to live dance by executing it, and if we cannot, then we get a smaller part of the enjoyment by watching others dance. Only when we cannot even watch dance, is it advisable to read about dance, in order to enrich our knowledge and cultivate our appreciation of it. Thus we will become better dancers or better spectators.


Alkis Raftis