Bellydance – Naming the Moves

Unlike other established dance forms, bellydance doesn’t have a standard language for the names of its dance moves. In America, bellydance has been around for over a century. It began with the 1893 World’s Faire in Chicago, when dance performers from the Middle East started a craze for Middle Eastern ‘bellydance’. Their performances were so popular and publicized that American entertainers copied them and the American style of bellydance was born.

We don’t know where or when the basic movements of bellydance originated (most likely many thousands of years ago), but the Near and Middle East preserved these movements through the Middle Ages and into modern times. Curiously, in the Middle East there are virtually no records of names for the movements. Middle Eastern women didn’t have dance schools to learn the dance – they simply learned as children by watching their families and neighbors dance at social gatherings.

Because most American bellydancers learn from dance schools and instructors, Americans have had to invent their own names for belly dance movements. Since the terminology of bellydance can vary widely from one instructor to the next, this can cause some confusion for students who study with a variety of belly dance teachers.

Personally, I like to make the name as descriptive as possible for each belly dance move that I teach, and then mention other popular names that are used. An example is the ‘camel’ move. The name is very confusing to a beginning student (am I supposed to move like a camel?). The ‘camel’ name has been in common usage for decades and it is actually a torso undulation. So when I teach the ‘camel’ move, I’ll call it a torso undulation (or more specifically, an upper torso undulation), but will also mention that it’s often called a ‘camel’.

It’s also confusing when a basic belly dance movement is referred to as Egyptian, Turkish, Lebanese, or some other ethnic name. For example, calling a basic hip shimmy an ‘Egyptian shimmy’ is misleading because the Turks, Syrians, Moroccans, and many others do it too, and have done it since time immemorial. So when I teach a hip shimmy, I’ll call it a horizontal hip twist shimmy (or, depending on the variation, an up & down hip shimmy) and also will mention that some people like to call it ‘such and such’.

When a teacher gives a belly dance movement a name that is as visually descriptive as possible, it makes it easier for the student to remember the technique and master the dance. For a student, a non-descriptive name doesn’t help to describe how the movement is done, but these names can sound exotic and are fun to use.

Most of us teachers are continuously evolving our teaching methods and it’s always great when someone comes up with an improved way of describing a belly dance move. Perhaps in another generation or two, bellydancers will finally settle on a universal language. Maybe it will be similar to the language of flowers: an ‘official’ name, along with other popular names (example: primrose (popular name) or Primula vulgaris (official Latin name).

We’ll see if a standardization of ‘official’ names evolves for bellydancing. A belly dance move by any other name would be as sweet, but could be more confusing.

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