Oriental dance has multiple origins, made up of paintings, stories, legends and anecdotes. There is general agreement on the birth of oriental dance in ancient Egypt. This period, marked by matriarchy and its social system in which family responsibility is attributed to women, conferred a certain power and legitimacy on women.Some beliefs associated the ability of women to procreate with a deity. As in many polytheistic societies, various rites have thus emerged, making Women sacred as the guarantor of humanity. Man had only a minor role in giving birth, and it was a way for him to reach God, with woman playing the role of vector.
Oriental dance then takes on its full meaning, as it was the essential component of the rites worshiping the goddess of love, fertility and the arts, called HATHOR.
Subsequently, during the sumptuous feasts organized in honor of Pharaoh, steps and figures were taken from the sacred dances. Matriarchy, over the centuries, gradually gave way to the enhancement of the man who would establish himself durably until our current societies.
Despite the emergence of the new “Religions of the Book” – monotheistic – which will abolish sacred pagan rituals, oriental dance has nevertheless continued to be transmitted in female circles. It is believed to have spread throughout the Arab world thanks to nomadic foreigners passing through Egypt, and later, with the Ottoman Empire. The new religious precepts therefore established will curb oriental dance, artistic expression that passes through body and soul.
These movements, transmitted from generation to generation, subsequently gave rise to a certain professionalization of oriental dance, with two types of dancers:
The ghawazi (foreigners in Arabic)
They were nomadic mixed dancers of gypsy origin from around India who danced freely in the streets for the people. These dancers were not very well regarded because they were considered prostitutes. In the branch of the ghawazi, one could also meet the hawanem, who were also professional dancers but performed only for women without financial compensation.
This was then called:
Les almées (âlmet = scholar in Arabic)
They were extremely respected women, they were girls from good families.
Very refined dancers who mastered the art of poetry, music, song and dance at the same time. They performed in noble circles at court and in the harems of wealthy personalities.
The beginnings of oriental dance in France
In France, the first writings on oriental dance date from the 18th century, during the Egyptian campaign of Napoleon Bonaparte and his troops. As early as 1798, the French discovered oriental dance, which for them was at the time considered extremely exotic because still unknown.
In a short time, they become familiar with a distant and original culture and customs that represent the Other and Elsewhere. The French have a real infatuation with regard to Orientalism, even going so far as to fall into stereotypical beliefs about the condition of women, harems and hammams, as well as the daily life of Arabs.
Many painters seized on this fashion effect, and in Parisian salons, oriental decoration was in vogue: orientalist paintings, Egyptian furniture, photos of the masters of the house posing wearing the traditional burnous. Some men even grow mustaches in Turkish fashion.
Oriental dance interests and fascinates just like all Arab folklore. As early as 1930, she made her mark in cabarets, even completing the two-piece costume with rhinestones and sequins, to the delight of spectators. Although these languid and sensual swaying hips shocked the then puritanical and conservative French society, which saw oriental dance as an invitation to debauchery, it was no less fascinating and made the heyday of these cabarets.
The image of this folklore, linked to the imagined and fantasized vision of the oriental woman and her activities revolving around pleasure, acted on Westerners like an aphrodisiac. The oriental dance was confronted besides with religious customs which saw in it a diabolical invitation leading inevitably to lust.
It takes us back to the 1880s, when oriental dancing was banned in Egypt due to excessive nudity. This simplistic representation then obscured a completely different reality of oriental dance. It is very likely that the dance was transformed under the impulse of this different gaze. Before, it was by no means indecent to the natives but will become so under European influence. Traditionally reserved for women and transmitted to each other, oriental dance comes in as many styles as in Arab countries, even regions.