There are A LOT of origin myths about where bellydance came from, the writer I mentioned in class, Andrea Deagon, has a very interesting article about that topic. It's a bit long, but something you might want to save and look over as you have time.
For today let's start with what we know. Bellydance is both a social dance in Egypt (raqs beledi) and the Levantine region, as Shira explains quite succinctly, and as you can see in this video (although the music choice is a little odd ^_^), and a performance style for stage (raqs sharqi)
Moving back from there we come to the Awalim, who were female entertainers for the upper class, performing in private homes. They sang, made music, poetry, conversation, as well as danced, they had a similar profession to Geisha. In the old days, if entertaining for men they could be behind a screen and recite poetry, or make up verses off the cuff about the clients whom she could see, but who couldn't see her; or they might dance in the room with the men's group of the party in a place where the women could also see. The profession came from the Qaina tradition, when it was considered ideal for a girl of Moroccan origin to receive 16 years of training between Mecca, Medina, and finally getting their arts training in Baghdad: where the music of Persia, Turkey, Greece, and the Arab world were already mixing (for more information like this, check out Before They Were Belly Dancers). Their roll was filled by Awalim as the Arab world moved away from slavery and the profession became controlled by the women providing the entertainment. Even today the dancer hires her musicians and back-up dancers, a continuation of this female run profession.
Between 900 and 1100ce the Drom tribes (commonly referred to by the slur "gypsies") left Northern India/Southern Pakistan. In the early 1300s they arrived in both Turkey and the Arab world. In Turkey and Europe they go by Rom, in Iraq they're called Kawliya. Tn Egypt there are a varieties of families of this descent, and many think the term Ghawazee applies to them. Historically it is more accurately just the term for outdoor entertainers. They would contribute to the dance's evolution as we'll see in the coming posts (and each group has their own folkloric styles that will be gone over in the folk dance category).
Some centuries after their migration the Ottoman empire expanded to areas where "proto-bellydance" was happening, between 1512 and 1522ce. They brought entertainers such as the Awalim back to Istanbul. It wasn't until the early 1800s that the Ottoman empire lost this region to European powers.
In the early 1800s European Orientalism began, they began visiting Turkey and the Arab world. As defined by Edward Said orientalism is “the romanticization of the Other as primitive, exotic and even barbaric in order to justify the Western desire to expand colonial empire and hold power”. This had an influence on the dance because racist or not these European industrialists, colonizers, and tourists were still paying customers. This is the environment in which the dance transformed from the living-room and wedding entertainment into the stage-fitting Raqs Sharki that we know today. In this clip from a French movie, my favorite golden era star, Samia Gamal (who cut her teeth in Badia Masabni's Casino Opera), plays a character who is forced to dance in what the French writers fantasized a "harem" would be.
Next post we'll pick up with the vintage Egyptian style!