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Written by: Vanessa

There are several points that make oriental dance different from other dance forms and reveal its diverse heritage:

It associates with both religious and erotic elements. This ambiguity has caused it to be disdained, scorned and loved by many.

It is traditionally dances barefoot.

Belly dance grew out of the traditions of eastern music. Although modern belly dancers use music, which is western-influenced to varying degrees, the rhythmic influences of near and Middle Eastern music created a music form that is fundamentally different from that which developed in the west. As musician Ishaq ibn Ibrahim (767-850 A.D.) said, "He who makes a mistake is still our friend; he who adds to, or shortens a melody is still our friend; but he who violates a rhythm unawares can no longer be our friend."

Western music came to depend upon the natural sense of tension and relaxation, a regular rhythm of in and out, and melodies, which built upon a progression of chords. Eastern music, however, relies on the rhythms, which lead the melody and lend variety to the patterns. Whereas the even flow of western music relies on changes in tempo for variety, the eastern musician hardly mentions standard tempos of music. In addition, eastern music typically begins with an arrhythmic, or free rhythm introduction known as "taqsim" (or division). Vocal music in the east is allowed complete freedom from standard tempo or rhythm when not accompanied by a rhythm instrument. Moreover, Sachs adds, western rhythms are multiplicative or divisive whereas eastern rhythms are additive. This means simply that western rhythms break down evenly into so that a 4/4 is twice as long as a 2/4. By contrast, Eastern rhythms are a series of smaller patterns strung together and cannot be evenly divided as in the following examples: 3+2+2=7, 2+2+2+3=9, 4+3+3=10.

The dancers often use some type of rhythm instrument to aid the musicians, or as the sole accompaniment to their dance. Spanish dancers also do this, but there is evidence of a common heritage for these dance forms through association with Gypsies and early Phoenician traders. The earliest dancer's finger cymbals made of metal are those found in the area of Thebes (c.200 BC) with a large central boss and upturned rim, measuring 2-7/16" in diameter. A slightly larger pair was also attributed to Thebes (c.200 BC) with a diameter of 3-3/8". These are more correctly called "crotales", (or krotala) meaning a small bronze cymbal. They were also mounted in sets on stick handles as clappers. However, one of the Thebes sets, as well as a set found in Pompeii (50 AD) are connected with a cord or chain approximately 2 and 1/2 cymbal's diameter in length. This is a critical measurement because this short a cord is awkward to play with two hands. In modern cultures such as Thailand, where the cymbals (ching chang) are still the major rhythm instruments, it is played by a seated musician with two hands and a much longer cord. With shorter cord a dancer could wrap it about one or more fingers and have a pair on each hand. There is, however, a form of pair cymbals with the shorter string still in use in folk dance in India, where they are called manjira. Whatever these instruments might have been, according to the Greek poets, they were no tinkling delicate instruments. A hymn to the goddess Diana says, "My comrade strikes with nimble hand the well-gilt, brazen sounding castanet". Euripides uses castanets as the epitome of noise when he has Silenus rebuke his companions, "What's the uproar? Why this Bacchus hubbub? There's no Bacchus here, no bronze clackers or rattling castanets?"

Oriental dance is uniquely designed for the female body, with an emphasis on abdominal muscles, hip moves, and chest moves. It is firm and earthy, with bare feet connected to the ground. It is a dance characterized by smooth, flowing, complex, and sensual movements of the torso, alternated with shaking and shimmy type moves. Eastern dances are considered to be different because they are "muscle dances", as opposed to the European "step" dances. In traditional belly dancing the knee is never lifted higher than the hip, (not including ancient "phyrric" or leaping dances which were also considered fertility dances). If we follow this idea back to its roots, it is easy to see how the sensual dances which originated with Greek mystery rites and comedy dances, where the dancer might have also played a type of cymbal or clapper, travelled to Spain where it became what is today Flamenco, and that another form of this dance developed throughout the Middle and Near East as what we call belly dance. Both types of dance are also associated with the Gypsies, who came out of India, through Persia, and spread by the Middle Ages throughout Europe.

The use of various other props in the dance such as snakes, swords, veils, and candles. These items have magical, protective functions for primitive peoples that can still be found in the folk dances of these countries. Snakes clearly relate to the ancient mystery cults. The snake is a complex symbol, which represented both male and female principles, and also immortality in the form of the snake eating its tail.

The spectators pay the dancer directly in the form of coins or cash thrown on the floor or placed on the dancer's body. There is no other dance form in which this occurs. In classical Greece, a woman from a poor family tied a sash around her hips and went to dance for her dowry in the marketplace. Spectators threw small gold coins at her, money that she then sewed into her bodice and hip-belt as decoration, since she had nowhere else quite as safe to keep them. Today, dancers still wear costumes decorated with "dowry" coins. In Egypt at the time of the fourth dynasty (approx. 2680-2560 BC), dancers were presented with gold necklaces in payment. By the 19th century, when the custom of tipping was known as "nukoot", a dancer would go into a backbend to receive the money, which would be moistened and placed on the dancer's upturned face. It is still the custom `a belly dancer money while she dances, and there is no other kind of professional dancer who receives money directly from her audience.

Although belly dance developed from the dances of the people, or folk dance, belly dance tends to evolve into a dance for professional dancers and trained soloists.

Vanessa van Rensburg


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