Origins of Belly Dance
Belly dance is believed to have had a long history in the Middle East, but reliable evidence about its origins is scarce, and accounts of its history are often highly speculative. Several Greek and Roman sources including Juvenal and Martial describe dancers from Asia Minor and Spain using undulating movements, playing castanets, and sinking to the floor with "quivering thighs", descriptions that are certainly suggestive of the movements that we today associate with belly dance.
Later, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, European travellers in the Middle East such as Edward Lane and Flaubert wrote extensively of the dancers they saw there, including the Awalim and Ghawazi of Egypt. In the Ottoman Empire belly dance was performed by both boys and women in the Sultan's palace.
The ghawazi (also ghawazee) dancers of Egypt were a group of female traveling dancers of the Dom people (also known as Nawar or Romani - not to be confused with Romanian). They immigrated to the territory of the present day Egypt from South Asia, particularly from India, in Byzantine times. Dom people self-segregated themselves for centuries from the dominant culture of Egypt, who view Romani as dishonorable. Historically, Dom people in Egypt have provided musical entertainment at weddings and other celebrations.
The ghawazi style gave rise to the Egyptian raqs sharqi by the first half of the 20th century. While the performative raqs sharqi in urban Egypt was heavily influenced by Western styles such as classical ballet or Latin American dance, the term ghawazi in Egypt refers to the dancers in rural Egypt who have preserved the traditional 18th to 19th-century style. The Maazin sisters may have been the last authentic performers of ghawazi dance in Egypt, with Khayreyya Maazin still teaching and performing as of 2009.
The Arabic غوازي ghawāzī (singular غازية ghāziya) means "conqueror", as the ghaziya is said to "conquer" the hearts of her audience. They were also known as awālim (singular alma, transliterated almeh in French as almée). Both terms are 19th-century euphemisms for "erotic dancer"; almeh literally means "learned woman" and came to be used as a replacement for ghaziya after the ghawazi were legally banned in 1834.
The term "ghawazi" is inherited from the Northern Indian term "Gowaar" meaning singer. The term "Gaon" is equal to the verb "sing" and the term "Gana" means song. This explains the inheritance of Nawari or Dom people from the group of performing artists known as "Bazigar" in Punjab.
An almeh in origin was a courtesan in Arab tradition, a woman educated to sing and recite classical poetry and to discourse. After the ghawazi were banned, they were forced to pretend that they were in fact awalim. The term almeh was introduced in French Orientalism as almée and used synonymously with "belly dancer".
In 1834, the ghawazi were banished from Cairo to Upper Egypt by Muhammad Ali. Typically, the Ghawazi are represented as Dom with a particular attention to their music and dance styles, featuring mizmars and heavy bass lines.
Beginning in the first half of the 19th century, descriptions and depictions of ghawazi dancers became famous in European Orientalism, and the style was described as danse de ventre or belly dance from the 1860s.
The Ghawazi performed unveiled in the streets. Rapid hip movement and use of brass finger cymbals/hand castanets characterized their dance. Musicians of their tribe usually accompanied them in their dance. They usually wore kohl around their eyes and henna on their fingers, palms, toes and feet. According to Lane these women were "the most abandoned of the courtesans of Egypt". He describes them as being very beautiful and richly dressed.
The Ghawazi performed in the court of a house, or in the street, before the door, on certain occasions of festivity in the harem. They were never admitted into a respectable harem, but were frequently hired to entertain a party of men in the house of some rake. Both women and men enjoyed their entertainment. However, many people who were more religious, or of the higher classes, disapproved of them.
Many people liked the dancing of the Ghawazi, but felt it was improper because of its being danced by women who should not expose themselves in this manner. Because of this, there was a small number of young male performers called Khawals. The Khawals were Egyptians who impersonated the women of the Ghawazi and their dance. They were known to impersonate every aspect of the women including their dance and use of castanets.
Many professional dancers and musicians in Turkey continue to be of Romani heritage, and the Roma people of Turkey have had a strong influence on the Turkish style.
Below, the film Latcho Drom (rom for "safe journey") describes the travels, singing and dancing of Romani groups from Rajahstan (India), Egypt, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France, and Spain. Some scenes are acted, but there is no dialogue or narration--only partial translation of some songs. The film illustrates the variety of conditions in which the Romany people live--earthbound nomads in the hot deserts of Asia, ironsmiths and abjectly poor tree-dwellers in the frozen plains of Eastern Europe, and craftspeople and traders in the hills and seasides of north Africa and western Europe. It also illustrates the similarities in travel habits, musical tones (spoons, open drums, and string-based rhythms) and song themes(celebration of travel and perceived rejection by sedentary locals).
To be continued ...
Origins of Belly Dance: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belly_dance
The Ghawazi: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghawazi
Romani People in Egypt: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romani_people_in_Egypt
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