The art of belly dance, although enjoying a long history, is mostly shrouded in theories and speculation concerning its actual origin. One theory states the art form originated with the religious practices of ancient Arab and African tribes who used the dance as a form of ritual in worshipping deities of fertility and the moon. Another theory focuses on the belief that belly dance, although not called by that term, has always been a form of entertainment, danced by women in the Middle East and some Arab nations. In fact, in Middle Eastern circles, women who practice this dance form as well as those who do not use two specific movements to aid in childbirth.
Originally called raqs sharqi, or oriental dance, the form has evolved into an individual kaleidoscope of various dance forms and genres, with each dancer adding their own unique attributes and skills to the basic foundation moves. This phenomenon has given rise to several new styles in the West, tribal belly dance, gothic belly dance, fusion belly dance, and most recently owing to the Victorian era and military fascination, steampunk belly dance. These unique styles combine other dance forms to create subtle movement and costuming differences within the overall genre.
Tribal belly dance is performed in a group setting with other women. The dancers move in a synchronized fashion, and perform sets of movements strung together with cues from a focal dancer. The focal dancer can alternate between various 'tribe' members, with everyone knowing and understanding which cues signal a particular series of movements. The effect given is that a tremendous amount of practice is necessary to achieve the beautifully choreographed dance numbers, when in actuality, the performances can often be improvised because every dancer has studied the sets of movements pertaining to each cue.
Tribal belly dance costuming can be influenced by cultures from nomadic Arabian, Afghanistan tribal wear and jewelry, Banjara mirror work, Bulgarian textiles and colors, Bohemian and Romanian styles, and even gothic influences. The main consideration is that the costuming must be in similar styles, and a color palette must be shared by the entire troupe. After that, any accessories simply add to the individual style and personality of each dancer.
In the gothic, fusion and steampunk genres, dancers perform individually, or with a partner. The main delineation between these forms of dance, other than the variation of movement, is found in the costuming choices of each dancer. Gothic dancers perform to a darker variety of music, often with techno influences, and wear costumes with more metal focus points, glimmer, mirrors, and chains. Additionally, gothic pieces tend to stay primarily in shades of black, gray, silver and red, though some have added colors such as purple or white as well.
Fusion dancers are the most varied of the styles however, taking both dance movements and costuming choices from many other forms of dance as well as belly dance. A fusion dancer may have a belly dancing foundation, and then add African tribal dance for an eclectic and electrifying performance, where costume choices can include feathers and animal prints in addition to the standard belly dance basic wardrobe.
The newest genre melding comes in with Steampunk belly dance. An individually created style, steampunk is a mix of gothic and fusion, with the main differences being in costume choices. More vintage, Victorian and Vaudeville type themes can be seen in this form, as well as a heavy military and techno science fiction influence. Costume pieces typically have watch parts or faces, gears, skeleton keys, cameos, pearls, and lots of lace incorporated into the designs.
The upsurge of these melded dance forms in recent years has caused a number of talented textile artists and dancers alike to begin creating belly dance bras, belts, and accessories with a wide variety of appeal. Using everything from vintage textiles, to newer more glamorous trims has caused this dance style to metamorphosis into an appealing pastime on a mass level, where there is no longer a line drawn between the very young and the more mature dancer. The costumes are more forgiving and personalized than traditional raqs sharqi, and the styles allow for a larger group of women to be involved in this beautiful, sensual, and expressive dance form.