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Belly-Dance-art - 12/25/07


"Re-Creating a "Belly Dance" Persona in the SCA" by Rebba (Lady) Esther bat Baruch.


NOTE: See also the files: ME-dance-msg, Maypole-Dance-art, Gypsies-art, Turkey-msg, Moghul-India-msg, India-lnks, ME-feasts-msg, ME-revel-fds-art.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



Re-Creating a "Belly Dance" Persona in the SCA

by Rebba (Lady) Esther bat Baruch


Our SCA period covers roughly 600-1600 C.E. and a huge geographical area referred to as "The Known World".  When talking about Belly Dance in the SCA, we must first define the term; a solo improvisational dance style rooted in Middle Eastern social dance, characterized by isolations and rhythmic shaking of the torso and hips which visually interprets Middle Eastern music.  The majority of dance styles in the Middle East are not Belly Dance and Middle Easterners do not use the term.  The term Belly Dance comes from "Dans du Ventre" (Dance of the Belly) and was brought by the Parisian Orientalists to Sol Bloom's 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair (Carlton 93).  Middle Easterners use a specific name to describe the style of  dance i.e., Oryantal Dansõ, Raqs Sharqi, Raqs Baladi, Changi, Tsifteli, Karshilima, Ghawazee, Raqs Shamadan, Saiidi, Shikhatt, Zeffa, Bamboutaya, Shaabi, Melaya Leff, etc.  Belly Dance has an extended family of cousins: Debke, Classical Persian, Rahajastani, Khaleggy, Guedra, Zaar, Romani, American Tribal, and other emerging Ethnic Fusion dances.


It's very hard to sort through all the Oriental fantasy, folklore, and fakelore that surrounds our art. Traditional, authentic, tribal, and folkloric are vague terms that are not synonymous with "SCA period".  In reconstructing the most accurate way the dance might have looked is to approach it from three directions: the ancient roots, your persona's period, and the modern day.   For all three angles to be accurate, you must use a reliable source for the specific information you are looking for!  We will never know how the dance looked in period. We can only make educated deductions.        


Perhaps the most difficult part of research is to sift through the legends of the dance in the ancient Middle East.  It is best to approach information on the ancient dances with a very scholarly mind set.  Question everyone's research.  Does the author have a scholastic background or do they have an artistic, nationalistic, or religious agenda?  What is their thesis?  Will they take information out of context to try and support it?  When you find information that seems suspect, check the original source and draw your own conclusions based on facts, not opinions. Just because the information came from a dancer, or a person of Middle Eastern descent, does not mean they are an infallible historical source!


Defining your dance persona:



Accurate information about the culture that your persona lived in:


This is the hardest part, and will continue to develop as new information becomes available.  The most reliable information on the dance will be written accounts of eye-witnesses.  Remember that the writer is human and will put their own interpretation on what they saw.  Knowing the observer's background and culture will give you insight into their perceptions of the dance.  Miniature paintings and other visual representations showing dancers can be helpful for costume, musical instruments, and situations, but not reconstructing the dance itself.  Many SCA period and post-period miniatures show dancers in a pose with one knee raised and with an arm raised and the other lowered.  This is the artist's way to convey that that person is a dancer.  These miniature paintings are not depicting scenes from life, but rather studies of typical stock characters. Get a date the art was originally made.  During the Victorian era anything "Oriental" was very popular.  Paintings of Middle Eastern subjects in the Orientalist genre were not necessarily authentic- even for their time period and many were fantasy pieces done by artists who never went to the Middle East (Thornton).  Know as much about the piece of art and the artist as possible.  And be aware that dancers that look female might in fact be boys in women's clothing!  


Common Misconceptions about SCA dance:


All Middle Eastern personas were Muslim.  The Near and Middle East is very religiously and ethnically diverse.  In fact, most dancers were not Muslim but Christians, Romani, and Jews.


A Gawazee coat is a period garment.  Sadly, every belly dancers standby, Atira's Gawazee coat pattern is not SCA period.  It is based on an entari worn in the late 18C. through the 19C.  The period neckline was not cut below the bust and armpits were not cut out.  The Atira's sleeves also are a very modern idea.  


All women past puberty were required to veil their faces in public.  As stated above, not everyone was Muslim.  Interestingly, Tuaregs of Morocco have the men veil and not the women.


Women wore turbans and men wore Keffaya.  Most women in period wore an arrangement of veils and hats.  Keffaya are out of SCA period.


Dancers wore coin bras and belts from money collected for their dowries. Bras are not period and we have no evidence yet that coined belts were ever worn in period.  North African peoples such as the Ouled Nail wore head dresses and necklaces with coins.


Dancers use big swirling veils when dancing.  Wrapping and unwrapping with extended, large swirling veil work is very modern.


All dances of the Near and Middle East look like belly dance.  Most dances did not.


Kuchi jewelry is period.  Most Kuchi jewelry marketed for dancers is about 50 years old.  It is also not representative of jewelry styles throughout the Near and Middle East in period.


Dancers wear large yarn tassels on their hips to accentuate movement.  This is a look that came in from American Tribal Style.


Circle skirts were worn under the Gawazee coat with harem pants underneath for gypsy skirt work.  The Gawazee coat is mentioned above.  Pants were not gathered at the ankle during SCA period.  Wearing pants under a skirt is a modern belly dance invention.  The correct name for the Gypsies is Rom/ Roma/Romani and they never did big skirt work in period.  Nor is big skirt work Turkish.


Styles of dance and clothing were very slow to change, therefore; all Near East, Middle East, and North African dance, culture, and clothing is generic.   Nothing is further from the truth!


They only wore black, earth-tones, and sometimes stripes which were only worn up and down.  The more bright colors the better, some extant garments even bordered on neon.  Earth-tones were for the poorest of the poor. Stripes were worn horizontally frequently and in the Ottoman Empire, several patterns like three dot groupings, horizontal animal stripes, etc. were layered in a profusion of colors for a rich effect.


They wore only silk and cotton.  There were many fabrics available in many different forms.  Linen, wool, and several types of velvet; some with gold and silver thread were all worn.


Indian people belly danced and wore choli tops.  Indian people have their own traditional dances.  Choli tops are Indian.  We currently have no documentation to support bare-bellied Middle Eastern dancers in SCA period.




The best information on the garments is the garments themselves.  Even in the same town, people dressed differently based on sex, religion & sect, class, occupation, occasion, and even political party.  Few of us have access to the actual period clothing, but there are many fantastic color photos of extant garments.  Make sure they are dated and they tell you who was wearing them, why, and what they wore it with. Again, get as much information as you can.  




What was it like?  What instruments were used?  Are there any recordings of music from surviving manuscripts?  Is the music what would have been used for your persona's dance? Read liner notes inside the CDs and check to make sure there are no obvious modern instruments like synthesizers.  


Research Example - Metin And's book, "A Pictorial History of Turkish Dancing", has been one of the most useful sources for my persona's Ottoman dance. It contains information on hundreds of Turkish dances (with pictures) and the occasions when the specific dances were performed and by whom.  He says:


  1. "The      early Turkish sources offer little information with regard to dancing boys      and dancing girls.  This is because dancing was regarded by many writers      of the past as an improper and wicked sport, especially when indulged in      by professional women and boys.  On the other hand, foreign travelers gave      much attention to this topic in their books and, although they emphasized      the slack morality and obscene character of the dancing, they could not      hide in their descriptions that breathless interest that they took in      these performances" (And 138).


  1. Professional      dancers, known as "Changi" were commonly Rom, Jews, Greeks, and      Armenians.  Kochek is another name for the dancing boys who were also      female impersonators (And 139).  "Dr. John Covel's Diary"      1670-1679: "It consists most in wriggling the body (a confounded      wanton posture, and speaks as much of the Eastern treachery as dumb signs      can), slipping their steps round gently; setting and turning.  Never is      there arming, or any figure, or handlingÉ" In 1560 Guillaume Postel      describes the Changi's flirtatious dance using a small silk scarf      sometimes held in front of the face and compares it to a "pantomime      on amorous relationsÉ"  (both qtd. in And 140).      


Concept of retrograde research:


Because most of us are trained as dancers under a modern discipline, our dance is in a modern form.  It's time to sort out what's modern and what's not!  By the process of eliminating modern elements, and retaining and adding the known period style elements, we will re-create our dance as it might have been.  One of the most important things to remember is that no dance is static.  All dance is fusion; it evolves and grows with the tastes, laws, times, and other dances of societies it comes in contact with; in the SCA it is necessary to pin it down to where and when our persona lived.


Analyzing dance presentations:



You will see a pattern begin to emerge.  Does one dancer use a unique combination or move that they are known for?


The first recorded silent videos of dancers were taken by Thomas Edison.


The next group of importance is the "Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema".  Many of these ladies were dancers in Syrian born Badia Masabni's Casino Opera in Cairo, the birthplace of modern belly dance. They were trained in Ballet, and to please European audiences, the two piece bedleh became the standard costume.  It is important to gain a working knowledge of other dance forms in order to recognize influences that began to be incorporated post period.  The most common is ballet.  Look for choreography, veil work , chaines, strong arm and leg extensions, large use of dance space, and dancing demi pointe.  Also look for strong Latin influence during this period (Luscher/Aischa).


Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema Style Dancers:


Early to mid 20th C. Egyptian Style Dancers:


When watching late 20th – early 21st century dancers it's important to watch for not only the ballet and Latin influences of the Golden Age dancers, but also Jazz, Pop & Lock, and Bollywood influences.  It takes time to develop an understanding of different styles.  If you have a Belly Dance teacher, ask her to help you.


Late 20th – early 21st century Style Dancers:


Three people have influenced how most belly dance looks today: Badia Masabni, Jamila Salimpour, and Mahmoud Reda.


In 1959 Mahmoud Reda founded the "Reda Troupe" of Egypt and was the first to adapt Egyptian style folkdances to the stage.  Many of his stylizations (co-ed dancing, staging, and choreography) are easily mistaken for authentic dance elements (Reda).


Late 20th – early 21st century Folkloric Dancers:


Jamila Salimpour is the most influential of the teachers of American style belly dance.  Terms like Maya, choo-choo, and walking 3/4 shimmy are her terminology.  Jamila Salimpour and her 1969 California based troupe "Bal Anat" originated "American Tribal Style" belly dance for use at Renaissance Pleasure Fairs (Flood). SCA dancers who also enjoy Renaissance Fairs have helped popularize this non-historical, but beloved, part of SCA culture.  Kajira Djoumahna interviewed Carolena Nericcio, Instructor & Director of FatChanceBellyDance in January of 1996.  Carolena Nericcio talked about her teacher, Masha Archer, who was a student of Jamila Salimpour:  


"I've never met Jamila, & I've never studied with her, but from everything that I can see from people who've studied in the Jamila School, it's definitely the same base. I didn't see exactly what happened, but I feel Masha was an artist who studied with Jamila, saw what Jamila was doing, & put her own signature on top of it. I saw what Masha was doing & I put my signature on top of that. I can still see the clear connections. I've read interviews with Jamila, and I've listened to how she put things together, & it all makes sense. She (Jamila) came from a circus background, and was really into presenting a show. Masha was an artist who was really into presenting a design, so I can see where I got my theory of presentation, & I would definitely credit it to Jamila."


FatChanceBellyDance's proud, unique style is characterized by a group improvisational lead and follow technique to 4/4 music.  Carolena says, "So what we've done is to dilute the cabaret movement to make it broader & a lot more repetitive." FatChanceBellyDance's signature costumes evolved organically into their eclectic ethnic mix of skirts with pantaloons underneath, choli tops with coin bras, and belts with colorful yarn tassels and the famous turban headpieces. Carolena Nericcio's former students and troupe members have formed their own offshoots and traveled all over the world teaching their own personal adaptations of "American Tribal Style" (Djoumahna).          


Researching SCA period belly dance can seem overwhelming.  There is both too much information and too little.  Keep things in perspective and enjoy the gradual process of your persona's growth.  They have their whole life ahead of them!


This article is the information I have in November 2007.  I will update and correct it as new information becomes available to me.  If you would like to contribute your research, I'm always open to learning more.  Please do not reproduce this without my permission.  If this research helps you with a project, SCA or mundane, I'd greatly appreciate being credited. Quotes from "Ignorance Is Bliss", interview conducted by Kajira Djoumahna, author of  "The Tribal Bible", and is used with her permission.  Please see the Works Cited section for more information.  Feel free to contact me, Arwen Cochran or Rebba Esther bat Baruch <reuben_arwen at yahoo.com>



File written by Adobe Photoshop¨ 4.0

Codex Vindobonensis 8626
Believed painted between 1586 and 1591
by an unknown south German artist in the entourage of Bartolemeo di Pezzana, Ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II to the Sublime Porte.
Now in the Austrian National Library, Vienna.  Taken from Dar Anahia's website.

Works Cited


Carlton, Donna.  Looking For Little Egypt.  Bloomington:  IDD Books, 1994.


Thornton, Lynne.  Women as Portrayed in Orientalist Painting.  France:  Mame Imprimeurs, 1994.  


And, Metin. A Pictorial History of Turkish Dancing.  Ankara, Turkey:  Dost Yayinlari, 1976.


Edison, Thomas.  Silent Movie Clips: Princess Ali. 1895:  Ella Lola. 1898: Princess Raja. 1904.


Luscher/Aischa, Barbara.  "The Golden Age of Egyptian Oriental Dance."  The Belly Dance Book.  Ed. Tazz Richards.  Concord: Backbeat Press, 2000.  18-23.


Reda, Mahmoud.  http://www.safticraft.com/mreda.asp">http://www.safticraft.com/mreda.asp


Flood, Betsey.  "A Dancer for All Seasons."  Habibi  Spring 2004: 18+.


Djoumahna, Kajira.  "Ignorance is Bliss."  Crescent Moon Magazine March-April 1996.


Works Consulted


Van Nieuwkerk, Karin.  "A Trade Like Any Other" Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt.  Austin:  University of Texas Press, 1995.


Mara, Thalia.  The Language of Ballet:  A Dictionary.  Cleveland and New York: Princeton Book Company, 1987.


Harding, Karol Henderson.  "The World's Oldest Dance: The Origins of Belly Dancing."  Compleat Anachronist #70 Nov 1993.  Ed. Anthony J. Bryant.


El Safy, Shareen.  Ed. Habibi Vol 18 No 3 March, 2001:  Vol 19 No 1 January 2002:  Vol 19 No 3 July 2003.


Atil, Esin. Suleymanname: The Illustrated History of Suleyman the Magnificent.  New York:  Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,  1986.


Scarce, Jennifer.  Women's Costume of the Near and Middle East.  New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.


Buonaventura, Wendy.  Serpent of the Nile.  New York:  Interlink Books, 1998.


Cangokce, Hadiye, and Bahadir Taskin.  Style & Status:  Imperial Costumes of Ottoman Turkey.  United Kingdom, Azimuth Editions Limited, 2005.


Haywood, John, et al., eds.  Historical Atlas of the Medieval World.  Oxforshire, England:  Barns & Noble Books, 2001.


Mourat, Elizabeth Artemis.  http://www.serpentine.org/artemis/turkishdance.html">http://www.serpentine.org/artemis/turkishdance.html


Dar Anahia http://www.geocities.com/anahita_whitehorse/ottofemcloth.html



Copyright 2007 by Arwen Cochran. Please do not reproduce this without Arwen's permission.  If this research helps you with a project, SCA or mundane, she would greatly appreciate being credited. Quotes from "Ignorance Is Bliss", interview conducted by Kajira Djoumahna, author of  "The Tribal Bible", and is used with her permission.  Please see the Works Cited section for more information.  Feel free to contact her, Arwen Cochran or Rebba Esther bat Baruch <reuben_arwen at yahoo.com>.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org