Dance of the enchantress: Arabia's ancient and complex art of female freedom

Feature With its swaying hips and undulating grace, Arabic dance is a sophisticated form of self-expression, refined over a thousand years.

9-slide E
Powered by automated translation

Abba and Kenny Rogers were topping the charts, The Clash had just released their debut album and Elvis Presley was not much longer for this world. But as the American visitor rose to her feet, it was an entirely different beat that had her dancing at one of London's chic gatherings in 1977. Oblivious to the stares around her and drifting into a trance-like state, she swayed her hips this way and that to the music, her spine undulating with a loose-limbed grace.

The background hum of conversation faded out as dozens of pairs of eyes fixed on her movements and some of those present clumsily tried to emulate her. Among those unable to tear their eyes away was Wendy Buonaventura, an administration assistant from London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, who had never been to the Middle East but was captivated by this dance symbolising the region. "It was the first time I had seen such a dance and I was absolutely fascinated by it," she says.

"I loved the look of it, the softness, the humour with which she danced. We were all a part of it because it was as if she were having a conversation with us." It sowed the seeds of a lifelong passion for Buonaventura to find out more about Arabic dance, and took her on numerous adventures across the Middle East and North Africa to discover its history and origins. Along the way, she came across dancers practising in public, in their own homes, or sometimes simply for themselves in a rhythm that told an unwritten story about the region and unified common factors between neighbouring countries.

It is a dance that has changed little in more than 1,000 years and is still characterised by intricate hip movements and a supple torso. Women who travelled with invading colonial armies were responsible for taking it from one country to another. What became apparent to Buonaventura was that the ancient and complex art had long been misunderstood by the West, which at best, saw it as exotic and titillating and at worst during the stuffy Victorian era, as a sign of women of il repute.

In its most recognisable form, it is known as belly dancing, but Buonaventura says while the movements might be similar, such a lascivious cabaret act has no bearing on Arabic dance at its purest. Her research culminated in a lavishly illustrated book called Serpent Of The Nile, which is regarded as a classic tome on the dance and has just been reprinted more than 20 years after it was first written.

Buonaventura now teaches the art form and incorporates it in theatre work to re-educate audiences and restore the dance to its rightful place as a sensual expression of life. "It is essentially a women's solo dance and there are various versions all over the Middle East," she says. "It is the way women enjoy themselves and entertain themselves, especially if they cannot meet men. It seems to be a wonderful form of self-expression for them and reinforces each other's social development and confidence in themselves and their sensuality, unlike the cabaret aspect which emphasises the titillatory.

"It is a dance which expresses lots of different things that other dances do not. It can be very lyrical, meditative, raucous, earthy and poetic. "In Iran, the classical version borrows a lot from the Indians and involves the hips and torso. The Lebanese have a very similar dance. I concentrated on Egypt and Tunisia because it is more deeply rooted there. In cultures where women do not appear in public as much, they find ways to express themselves to let off steam.

"In Iran, women get together in private and they have a particular dance where they mock male behaviour. "It is a way of poking fun at the restrictions in their society and they are able to have fun using their bodies with each other." Buonaventura, who was born in Britain but has Sicilian-English heritage, began her exploration of Arabic dance soon after that party in the 1970s. She started learning how to dance with her hips in a class with the American woman who entranced the party crowd and when she returned to the US six months later, Buonaventura decided to teach it herself.

"I originally called the class belly dancing because I did not know much about the different types of dance at the time," she says. "In fact, that is an old colonial term, as is the 19th century danse du ventre, or dance of the belly. I later changed the name of the class to Arabic dance. "Belly dancing is the cabaret version. It takes various elements of the dance but is also influenced by western dance and is taking the dance out of context."

She says that while belly dancers might employ the same movements, concentrated in the hips and rippling spine, the difference was in the intention: "It is different in the mind and if you are trying to be sexy and titillating, you will do moves in a certain way. If you are presented with someone shaking their bottom and winking at you, it has everything to do with what they are trying to convey."

Yet for centuries, the erotic cabaret version was all the West knew of an elaborate and highly sophisticated art form. Buonaventura says in her book: "From the middle of the 19th century onwards, dancers from the Arab world began arriving in the West to appear at the great trade fairs which were designed to display the new technological achievements of the era, as well as to exhibit different aspects of world culture.

"From the public's point of view, the entertainment was the biggest attraction of these exhibitions. Mock-ups of Algerian coffeehouses, Egyptian theatres and Persian palaces with their indigenous entertainers attracted a good deal of press comment, which tended to highlight what delicate Victorian sensibilities considered the 'shocking' aspect of the dance. The result was that people flocked to see it, thus confirming its notoriety.

"Stage design, fashion, theatre, book illustration and the decorative arts were all influenced by the western perception of the Arab-Islamic world. The many 'exotic interpreters' and 'shimmy specialists', as they were called, did little more than move about in a vaguely undulatory fashion, clad in multi-coloured veils which they later proceeded to discard.  "It was a fantasy of the East, a fantasy of 'Oriental' dance. Even serious performers found no technical inspiration in Arabic dance, though they none the less presented their offerings as authentic dances of the East.

"The nightclub act which resulted can, when performed by dancers of skill and artistic integrity, be appreciated on its own terms.  "Performed, as it often is today, by unskilled dancers of all nationalities who have little or no expertise, this 'belly dance' is now treated with derision in the West. It is a far cry from the dance which still lives on in the Middle East and North Africa, performed by women in the privacy of the home. Yet it is still the best-known manifestation of Arabic dance in the West."

Part of the problem is the ambivalent attitude of Islamic society towards its dancers. While they are seen as an integral part of life and no celebration is complete without hired dancers, they are equally perceived as lowly and common. It has meant historically, that the only portrayal of Arabic dancers has been their somewhat two-dimensional Orientalist depiction in art and literature as exotic glorified courtesans.

Mata Hari encapsulated both the mystique and the preconception of the exotic dancers who drew western travellers to witness their shocking but thrilling displays. The Egyptian Kutchuk Hanem was another dancer with a reputation which crossed continents, drawing the likes of Gustave Flaubert, the French author, into her web in the mid-19th century. Her performance of The Bee, a dance in which she pretended she was being stung and divested herself of her clothes one by one, found its way into his short stories.

His own mistress Louise Colet found the description shocking but it only served to compound the western perception of Eastern exoticism. "Women were the most popular subject of Orientalist art," says Buonaventura. "The dancers were the main attraction for travellers who, even though their reasons for visiting the Arab world were many and varied, never refused the opportunity of going to see the famous dancing girls. Indeed, many travellers actively, even obsessively, sought them out. The result was that they became the symbol of a sensuality which, in the eyes of the outside world, characterised Oriental life.

"They were also a forbidden attraction and thus had a particular allure. In former times the most skilled among the dancers had enjoyed great prestige and been respected for their knowledge and artistry. But by the 19th century their status had dropped and they were widely regarded as disreputable.  "In the Arab world, it was not considered an art and dancers were considered prostitutes because going out in public in a revealing costume and entertaining is un-Islamic.

"They were considered to be very low. No woman of a good background would dream of becoming a dancer.  "A basic tenet of Islam is that women should not display their bodies in the presence of strangers. Dancers were the only women who transgressed this law and appeared unveiled in public, which in the Islamic world is the men's domain." Yet paradoxically, dancers are still "part of every sort of celebration, with hired dancers brought in to entertain guests.

"At weddings, it is considered good luck. In Egypt the bride is brought in by drumming or a dancer. It is very much part of the culture and you would never dream of having a celebration without them. "In the last few years, there have been quite a few moves against dancing by Islamic fundamentalists and attempts to move them behind closed doors. "Some women have been threatened and very well-known and wealthy dancers have stopped dancing. But equally, there is much more interest now in the West in championing Arabic dance as an art form."

Arabic dance has also been misunderstood because there is no official name for it, she says. In Egypt, which has the most skilled dancers, it is commonly known as raqs al baladi, or dance of the people. Raqs al sharqi, or dance of the East, is frequently used in other regions. "At Middle Eastern parties during the late 20th century, people danced to western pop music and at a certain point in the evening, someone would be sure to say: 'Let's have some sharqi now,' meaning 'let's have some of our own music and dance,'" says Buonaventura.

"Historically, the women's dance was never called raqs sharqi in its own culture but as it became increasingly popular in the West, a search began for a generally recognised name for it. "Today raqs sharqi is basically a modern form of dance which has absorbed influences from all over the Middle East as well as the West." A recent development has been elevating Arabic dance to performance art in theatre shows. Buonaventura took her love of the dance to the Edinburgh festival in Scotland with the Myth Of Salmoe And The Baptist and around Europe with her show Dancing Girls.

"Dance is essential for any celebration in life," she says. "In western society, it is not part of everyday life. People often have to get drunk to dance. "In the Middle East, it is endemic in the culture - dancing is just something you do."