How America Created The Belly Dance Costume

What we know today as the typical belly dance costume is influenced by the glamour of Hollywood on the folkloric ethnic outfits of the Middle East. The beginning of the use of a decorated bra, embellished hip belt and bare midriff, originated from the influence of vaudeville performers such as Mata Hari – who created her costume from Victorian Orientalist pictures of «harem girls». The artworks of the Orientalists were more glamorous and scantily clad interpretations of the traditional folkloric outfits worn by traditional Middle Eastern dancers.

The traditional Middle Eastern dance costume and folkloric dress was more like a long kaftan like dress, (which both men and women wore) and the hip belt was a simple piece of cloth that is typical of what Hollywood and popular art would show gypsy dancers wearing. The bare midriff was first publicly exposed when the first nite club and cabaret venues appeared, which resulted in an outfit that was more revealing for the excitement of vaudeville and nite club audiences.

Early Hollywood films representing «harem dancers» used the glittery bra and hip belt set with chiffon and see through fabrics, which was then picked up by Egypt who started their own style of the «cabaret» dance costume. What we now typically see as the belly dance costume is actually called «cabaret» style that is promoted and worn by performers in the nightspots of Egypt.

Today, modern belly dancers are often expected to wear the cabaret style of costume. However, the dance is also a folkloric dance that encourages lovers of the dance to give homage to the roots and traditions that created a diverse style of costuming influenced by the coming together of many folkloric cultures.

The development of belly dance is influenced by many cultures and this has created a variety of styles of costuming. The influence of the Gypsies, or Roma, brings full circle skirts that have formed the flamenco dance costume. The East-Indian influence brings the gold and silver jewelry and coins, vibrant colors and use of silks to the dance. The Middle Eastern cultures bring the influence of the full dress outfit, which has roots in ancient cultures like Egypt where long robes of natural fibers were worn.

With the influence of Hollywood, Mata Hari and the new club look of 19th Century Egypt, the popularity for more scantily clad dancers resulted in a lower «hip» belt that exposed more of the belly. The cabaret costume as influenced by Mata Hari’s seductive outfits to this day tends to give the impression that Middle Eastern and belly dance is primarily an erotic dance. In America and the Middle East the dance is recognized as an art form, which requires a high skill level, yet the presentation is still highly suggestive.

Both Middle-eastern and American cultures are still coming to terms with the intoxication of the bare belly! In Egypt, there are moves to cover the belly back up and reduce the amount of public exposure of the body in the belly dance costume. It is traditional for the Egyptian cabaret style belly dancer to cover the belly with gauze so as not to expose bare flesh.

While in America, the belly dance costume is becoming a fashion statement of women’s return to their sensual self. American Tribal Belly Dance has brought a new twist to costume combinations. The American Tribal style uses a combination of both folkloric and modern costuming influences that move away from the typical glittery cabaret style and emphasize a more ritualistic way of adorning your own interpretation of what belly dance evokes for you.

Go figure 8! Women are still coming to terms with the magic of their bellies and the combination of both the erotic and the sacred that create the mystique of a woman’s body through out all times and cultures. The revival of «tribal» ways of adorning the belly dance costume in America reiterates the importance of the sacred roots of women dancing to express their personal beauty and power.

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