Orientalism in motion: representations of “belly dance” in paintings and travel literature (19th century)

Naiara Müssnich Rotta Gomes de Assunção Nina Ingrid Caputo Paschoal About the authors

RESUMO

Este artigo analisa representações da “dança do ventre” em pinturas e literatura de viagem produzidas por europeus(ias) no século XIX. Situando esta manifestação no tempo e no espaço, descrevendo características e sujeitos que foram importantes para o desenvolvimento desta prática, analisa-se sua profunda relação com o processo de colonização do Egito. Conclui-se que a dança praticada por homens e, sobretudo, mulheres no território egípcio passou por filtros e interpretações europeias antes de se consolidar no Ocidente como “dança do ventre”. Tal contexto sociopolítico deixou marcas ainda visíveis na forma como este repertório corporal é executado, representado e reputado na atualidade.

Palavras-chave:
Dança do Ventre; Orientalismo; Colonização; Representação; História Cultural

RÉSUMÉ

Cet article vise à analyser les peintures et la littérature de voyage produites par les Européens au 19ème siècle qui représentaient la «danse du ventre» et à décrire des groupes représentés. Avec cela, il s'agit de situer cette manifestation dans le temps et l'espace, d'énumérer les caractéristiques et les sujets qui ont été importants pour le développement de cette pratique, ainsi que de comprendre la relation profonde qu'elle entretient avec le processus de colonisation de l'Égypte. Avec des informations exposées, il est possible de conclure que la danse pratiquée par les hommes et, surtout, les femmes sur le territoire égyptien a subi des filtres et des interprétations européennes avant de se consolider en Occident comme la «danse du ventre ». Ce contexte sociopolitique a laissé des traces visibles dans la manière dont ce répertoire corporel est aujourd'hui interprété, représenté et reconnu.

Mots-clés:
Danse du ventre; Orientalisme; Colonisation; Représentation; Histoire Culturelle

ABSTRACT

This article analyses representations of “belly dance” in paintings and travel literature produced by Europeans in the 19th century. Locating this dance in time and space, describing characteristics and subjects that were important for the development of this practice, it analyses its deep relationship with the colonization process in Egypt. We conclude that the dances practiced by men and, above all, by women in the Egyptian territory in the 19th century underwent European filters and interpretations before consolidating in the West as “belly dancing”. This socio-political context left visible marks in the way this body repertoire is performed, represented and reputed today.

Keywords:
Belly Dance; Orientalism; Colonialism; Representation; Cultural History

Introduction: a historiographic look into Belly Dancing

In Portuguese language, few academic works seek to address the phenomenon of dance from a historiographic perspective, willing to observe it as a cultural manifestation directly linked to a people, to a time and space, using methodologies specific to the historical discipline. As it holds the potential to be studied in any field of the humanities and arts, dance can and should be historicised, as a phenomenon inherent to the human species and our geographical and temporal action. However, dance has not yet become a common research topic among those most classical or dear to historians, even after historical studies focused more strongly on cultural themes, following the advent of the Annales school and, later, of postcolonial studies.

When dealing with the so-called belly dance, most critical scientific studies about its history – by means of perspectives or methodologies specific to history, or even to humanities – are developed outside Brazil, considerably hindering the access to their potential public in our country. Nevertheless, it is worth highlighting the effort of some Brazilian experts in producing and disseminating studies on the subject, and here we would like to point out the works of Cynthia Nepomuceno Xavier (2006)XAVIER, Cínthia Nepomuceno. ...5, 6, 7, ∞... Do Oito ao Infinito: por uma dança sem ventre, performática, híbrida, pertinente. 2006. 130 f. Dissertação (Mestrado) - Curso de Artes, Instituto de Artes, Universidade de Brasília, Brasília, 2006., Marcia Dib (2009DIB, Márcia. A diversidade cultural da Síria através da música e da dança. Dissertação (Mestrado em Língua, literatura e cultura árabe). São Paulo, Departamento de Letras orientais, Universidade de São Paulo, 2009.; 2011; 2013), Roberta Salgueiro (2012)SALGUEIRO, Roberta da Rocha. "Um Longo Arabesco": Corpo, subjetividade e transnacionalismo a partir da dança do ventre. 2012. 191 f. Tese (Doutorado) -Curso de Antropologia Social, Departamento de Antropologia, Unb, Brasília, 2012. Disponível em: <http://repositorio.unb.br/bitstream/10482/11249/1/2012_RobertadaRochaSalgueiro.pdf>. Acesso em: 01 nov. 2014.
http://repositorio.unb.br/bitstream/1048...
, Naiara M. Rotta G. de Assunção (2014ASSUNÇÃO, Naiara Müssnich Rotta Gomes de. Entre Ghawázee e Awálim: a dança egípcia a partir da obra de Edward Willian Lane. 2014. 62 f. TCC (Graduação) - Curso de História. Porto Alegre, Instituto de Filosofia e Ciências Humanas, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, 2014. Disponível em: https://www.lume.ufrgs.br/handle/10183/182762 . Acesso em: 20 mar. 2020.
https://www.lume.ufrgs.br/handle/10183/1...
; 2018) and Nina Ingrid C. Paschoal (2019)PASCHOAL, Nina Ingrid Caputo. Ventre colonizado: representações da mulher árabe e suas danças na pintura orientalista do século XIX. 2019. 155 f. Dissertação (Mestrado) - Curso de História, Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, São Paulo, 2019. Disponível em: https://tede2.pucsp.br/handle/handle/22130. Acesso em: 18 abr. 2020.
https://tede2.pucsp.br/handle/handle/221...
. Their works and others will be mobilised to complement and enrich the proposal of this article. They are relevant both for their approach to dance from a contemporary perspective, somewhat departing from the notions set forth by classical Orientalism – to which many sources from the 19th and 20th century are aligned –, and for providing significant perspectives from different areas of scientific knowledge in the humanities. In order to facilitate the reading of this work for English speakers, we chose to translate the quotations in Portuguese and Spanish to English; note that these are free translations by the authors of this article, the same as those we have done for the version in Portuguese.

The numerous gaps that permeate the history and trajectory of transformation and transnationalisation (Shay; Sellers-Young, 2005SHAY, Anthony; SELLERS-YOUNG, Barbara. Belly Dance: Orientalism, Transnacionalism and Harem Fantasy. Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 2005.) of the so-called belly dance become a two-way path for researchers who set out to delve into them. On the one hand, they raise very little or never considered questions, thus providing a certain originality to the research. On the other hand, greater attention is needed when dealing with most of the information that circulates among dancers and their public, since, in general, such information is not based on historical research, but rather on myths founded on very Orientalist discourses. Therefore, we seek to create find an alternative to the various legends and mythical explanations, which tend to relate this mode to ancient practices and the fertility rituals of goddesses of the ancient world, with no scientific scope or historical proof whatsoever.

Kathleen W. Fraser points out that “A search of (…) an exhaustive bibliography reveals that the topic of dance in the Middle East does not compare in popularity with the topics of music, theatre, and film, for example, and shows the need for far more attention by researchers” (Fraser, 2014, p. 3). This is the theme we propose to discuss in this article. We will compile information about the widespread dances labelled as belly dance, a name that, in general, refers to dance practices with origins in North Africa and the Middle East, “characterized by a core repertoire of torso movements, including articulated hip and shoulder movements such as shimmies, circles and ‘figure eights’ of the pelvis, and undulations of the abdomen” (Ward, 2018, p. 6WARD, Heather. Egyptian Belly Dance in Transition: The Raqṣ Sharqī Revolution, 1890-1930. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition, 2018.). This nomenclature is, in itself, a consequence of the processes of colonisation of the so-called Orient1 1 The terms “Orient” and “oriental” will be used here, bearing in mind that “Orient” and “Occident”, as well as “East” and “West”, are designations intrinsic to the historical process of colonialism, having its cultural and material implications, denoting the Western effort, amidst the enterprise of imperial domination, to represent the otherness they faced. , set mainly in the nineteenth century, a period we shall address in depth. We will try to comprehend the way in which this dance(s) was(were) represented in two main sources: Orientalist paintings and travel reports produced by Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries.

These materials were selected from references in the specialised bibliographies on the subject of dance in the Middle East and North Africa and though keyword research in digital repositories such as The Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA), Project Gutemberg, Internet Archive, and Wiki-media Commons, among others. Our analysis is based on the historiographic method, considering the political and social context in which the sources were produced, the expectations and impressions expressed in their texts, and the public to whom they were addressed. Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism was mobilised as the main theoretical framework for this analysis.

Edward Said himself based his work on a canon of literature to elaborate his seminal book Orientalism (2003, originally published in 1978). However, his analysis was anchored, above all, in fiction books – even though he constantly related them to other types of written sources. In this article, we will use a different scope of sources, but which are equally supported by Said, since he defines Orientalism as “a mode of discourse2 2 Discourse is a term of Foucauldian philosophy that was appropriated by Edward Said in his conceptual elaboration of Orientalism. Discourses are sets of utterances based on the same discursive formation, bearing a direct connection with power relations, thus enabling both the power itself and the possibility of resistance. See more in Foucault (2008). with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship” (Said, 2003, p. 2). With his epistemology, Said paves the way for new types of analysis of Oriental history, currently called postcolonial studies, thus enabling the making and spreading of detailed critiques of what was built in the historiographical field about the Middle East and North Africa and, as we shall add here, about their dances.

Orientalism and the colonial period

What we call here the colonial period is defined as the European military, bureaucratic and cultural presence in territories outside Europe, and colonialism is “[…] the political-administrative relationship in which the authority and sovereignty over a given territory resides in another territory, people and nation” (Sibai, 2016, p. 24SIBAI, Sirin Adbli. La cárcel del feminismo: Hacia un pensamento islámico decolonial. Madrid: Akal, 2016., our translation). For the scope of this paper, we specifically address the French and English colonisation of North African and Southwest Asian territories, regarding, as an initial milestone of this process, the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte and his troops in 1798 (an event which we will discuss further). The French presence in Egypt was brief, as in 1805 an Ottoman-British military coalition was sent to fight Napoleon’s troops and give the power to Muhammad ‘Ali, a Macedonian Turk. He and his descendants remained in the Egyptian government for much of the nineteenth century. Even though they were representatives of the Ottoman Empire, their political alliance with Great Britain ensured the presence of the military, diplomats, civil servants, scholars, artists and tourists from Europe, mainly British, residing and traveling through Egypt.

The historical sources chosen for the analysis of this work were produced in this context, being decisive for the bodily repertoire of Eastern dances to be disseminated in the West. However, we should openly point out that, although they continue to be important support for research, these materials were created and circulated under the logic of Orientalism, “[…] by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period” (Said, 2003 p. 3). Orientalism, along with the colonisation that led to it, was most responsible for spreading the so-called belly dance, but also for aggregating a series of intentions, stereotypes, judgement and concepts that are not always accurate to the way these dances were performed before the colonial period.

Belly dance and other various material and cultural elements arising from the Orient caused a real furore during the nineteenth century in Europe. European fixation with Oriental and, more specifically, Egyptian themes was called Egyptomania or Egyptophilia. This fascination materialised through objects, in the trade of trinkets, furniture and ornaments inspired by Oriental characteristics, as well as in the circulation of books (novels, encyclopaedias and travel literature) about the distant lands of the Orient, in addition to the creation of characters that permeated the European imaginary. Such fixation can be seen today in the architecture of large European cities, to which monuments were taken –– such as the Luxor Obelisk, removed from Egypt to be placed in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, France, in 1833. Another example is the Egyptian decoration of the Victoria Embankment, on the banks of the River Thames in central London (Figure 1), which also features an obelisk brought from Egypt in 1819 (Cleopatra’s Needle). This appropriation is also abundantly observable in European museums, such as the Louvre and the British Museum, whose collections are composed, above all, of pieces usurped during the colonial period.

Figure 1
On the left, the original obelisk from the Temple of Luxor (southern Egypt) in Paris and, on the right, the banks of the Victoria Embankment in London.

The spread of these elements had a prime point: the French invasion of the East, started by the Napoleonic campaign to Egypt, completed in July 1798, when troops of about 36,000 men arrived in Alexandria. This was “the first major incursion of a European power into a central country of the Muslim world, and the first exposure of its inhabitants to a new kind of military power, and to the rivalries of the great European States.” (Hourani, 2003, p. 265). Such an onslaught was financed and supported by French politics and obtained important investment from members of the elite. In addition, there was the presence of scholars who sought to uncover, classify and categorise the knowledge about the newly conquered lands. Many of these were intellectuals, who already worked as botanists, professors, architects, engravers, artists, literati, and other professions of high prestige and specialisation, and were curious about the ancient dynasties of Egypt. These men were called savants.

As a group, they represented the very conception of rationality, empiricism, and the production of knowledge, such dear values to the Enlightenment and to the rational modernity that bloomed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The goal of the savants and of the material produced by them about the Orient, after their establishment in those lands, was “[…] to promote human knowledge” (Englund, 2005, p. 107–108ENGLUND, Steven. Napoleão: uma biografia política. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2005., our translation). Such scientific veneer with which the discourse of colonisation was covered enabled the colonial power to operate by many means and with greater depth, granting meaning, intelligibility, and reality to the invasion of the Orient.

The campaign in Egypt was said to have a civilising character. Morally, it was justified by the intention of taking a certain degree of organisation to Egypt, to modernise it, to reshape its customs, according to the Enlightenment theories then in vogue. For the Western World – in particular France and England –, the Orient was “fixed forever - ‘eternally’ - in Nature” (Hall, 1993, p. 243) which should not be acceptable for the imminent nineteenth century. As put by Anne McClintock (1995), the colonisers saw the colonies as an “anachronistic space” since the landscapes, customs, beliefs, clothing and architecture were constantly related to remote and mythical times. According to the author, “the journey is figured as proceeding forward in geographical space but backward in historical time” (McClintock, 1995, p. 30), in which the non-European space is characterised as primitive, atavistic, and irrational. Despite the growing process of modernisation of the East, driven by the European powers themselves and following the European model of so-called progress, the representations of the Orient almost never showed this aspect. On the contrary: they sought to highlight the elements that referred to antiquity, to the already very remote Egyptian dynastic civilisations, as if they were frozen in time and had no history since then.

Based on the reports, studies and figures brought to Europe by the savants, interest in Egypt had increased. At this point, there was already a tradition of knowledge areas focused on the Orient – such as linguistics, history and architecture –; however, these grew and gained greater space and importance after the gradual dissemination of the work produced by the savants. The term Orientalism first referred precisely to this erudite knowledge about the East. Said, however, argues that, over time, Orientalism came to encompass two other categories as well. In addition to the academic Orientalism, we would then have the imaginative Orientalism, as representative of an artistic and literary style, based on an “ontological and epistemological distinction” (Said, 2003, p. 2) between Orient and Occident, inspiring the work of poets, novelists, philosophers, theorists, painters, playwrights, etc. Third, Said defines historical and material Orientalism that is characterised by “[…] a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (Ibid).

Although distinct, all these fronts of action were part of the same discursive corpus, which casts a European look into the East, establishing a mixed relationship between otherness and hierarchy, and producing not only a massive effect on the culture, but also on the material reality. This effort helped not only shape an image of the Orient, but also of France, England, and Europe in general. Lastly, Orientalism was also the name given to the oriental theme in visual arts, which was influenced by the colonisation of Egypt and had its heyday just after. This last concept is deeply linked to imaginative Orientalism, acting in the style of thought, construction, and feedback of the European imaginary about the Orient.

The Orientalist paintings and the “oriental dance”

The bureaucratisation of the colonies and the transport technology that arose from the intense dispute of influence between France and England — which was comprised of the development of structures such as hotels, restaurants, routes by land and sea with modern railways and steamships — made travel between North Africa and Europe easier, especially to and from Egypt. Waleed Hazbun (2016)HAZBUN, Waleed. Travel to Egypt. From the Nineteenth Century to the Second World War: Thomas Cook, the Mechanization of Travel, and the Emergence of the American Era. In: LE BAILLY, Marie-Charlotte (ed.). Red Star Line: Cruises (1894-1934). Luven: Davidsfonds/ Infodok, 2016. pp. 124-131. Disponível em: https://www.academia.edu/29660761/Travel_to_Egypt_From_the_Nineteenth_Century_to_the_Second_World_War_Thomas_Cook_the_Mechanization_of_Travel_and_the_Emergence_of_the_American_Era Acesso: 22 abr. 2021.
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states that the late nineteenth century is the moment of the emergence of mass tourism for leisure purposes. If, on the one hand, long distance travel was previously a possibility only for explorers and adventurers — who spent years away from home, seeking to explore or study wild and inhospitable territories and cultures —, on the other hand, the growth of transport, accommodation and entertainment infrastructure created the possibility of more affordable and comfortable travel. In this sense, “[…] Egypt became the first major region outside of Europe to witness this transition through which travel to a distant, exotic territory was made more convenient and increasingly affordable in the form of Thomas Cook & Son’s package tours.” (Hazbun, 2016, p. 3HAZBUN, Waleed. Travel to Egypt. From the Nineteenth Century to the Second World War: Thomas Cook, the Mechanization of Travel, and the Emergence of the American Era. In: LE BAILLY, Marie-Charlotte (ed.). Red Star Line: Cruises (1894-1934). Luven: Davidsfonds/ Infodok, 2016. pp. 124-131. Disponível em: https://www.academia.edu/29660761/Travel_to_Egypt_From_the_Nineteenth_Century_to_the_Second_World_War_Thomas_Cook_the_Mechanization_of_Travel_and_the_Emergence_of_the_American_Era Acesso: 22 abr. 2021.
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). These trips were intended as a rest from the modern, chaotic and hurried lifestyle that was established with the industrial and urban development of large cities. In general, the travellers were from the wealthiest classes, members of the economic and cultural elite of the European bourgeoisie. Their journeys to exotic destinations became a factor of social prominence, understood as a reason for prestige and fascination among their peers.

Among the savants of the first wave and the bourgeoisie arriving throughout the nineteenth century, there were also artists. Painters, illustrators, sculptors, and engravers – and often people who combined these crafts – begun venturing the Orient, primarily to seek more faithful references for visual construction of biblical scenes, which were of popular taste. Epic and historical scenes were also fashionable in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, inserted into romantic and neoclassical styles in Fine Arts. Therefore, Orientalism arises within this context of coexistence between styles and was present in several of them through portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes (Tromans, 2010, p. 157TROMANS, Nicholas. Nineteenth-century Orientalist painting. In. Groniek: Gronings historisch tijdschrift, 187, 2010. pp. 157-170).

The images produced by these travelling painters who sought to represent the East, its people and its landscape conversed directly with European colonial political interests, some more or less intentionally. The impact of such travels is visible in the themes, landscapes, characters and styles incorporated by these artists. However, painters who drew from orientalist themes were not driven only by mere passions or curiosities, as Robert Irwin (2008)IRWIN, Robert. Pelo amor ao saber: Os orientalistas e seus inimigos. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2008. would tell us in his work For Lust of Knowing, a criticism of Edward Said. Rather, their intentions were very much aligned with the colonial system, indivisibly, being products of their time. For them, as well as for scientists and the military, reports and representations by artists and travellers facilitated the absorption and domination of what was in the East.

It should be said that Orientalism did not occur as a school of painting. It figured more as a theme or complementary element to the already existing academic styles and to those that would come to be during the nineteenth century and even in the twentieth century, after the height of British and French imperialism in Egypt (Paschoal, 2019, p. 68PASCHOAL, Nina Ingrid Caputo. Ventre colonizado: representações da mulher árabe e suas danças na pintura orientalista do século XIX. 2019. 155 f. Dissertação (Mestrado) - Curso de História, Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, São Paulo, 2019. Disponível em: https://tede2.pucsp.br/handle/handle/22130. Acesso em: 18 abr. 2020.
https://tede2.pucsp.br/handle/handle/221...
). We can note that, although it was not the result of a specific movement and had no canonical methods of expression, it found ample space within the visual discourse of various artists and repertoires, both stylistic and formal. These works are then grouped by elements denoting the Orient as metonyms and other stylistic features (Nochlin, 1991, p. 51NOCHLIN, Linda. NOCHLIN, Linda. The imaginary Orient. in The Politics of vision: essays on nineteenth-century art and society. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991, p. 33-59.).

For these travelling artists who arrived in the Orient, dance was one of the elements that notably drew the most attention, sometimes being one of the main reasons that drove them to their journeys (Nieuwkerk, 1995NIEUWKERK, Karin van. "A trade like any other": Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt. Austin: University Of Texas Press, 1995.); and, after that, these individuals found it practically impossible not to write about what they saw there (Fraser, 2015FRASER, Kathleen W. Before They Were Belly Dancers: European Accounts of Female Entertainers in Egypt, 1760-1870. Jefferson, United States: Publisher McFarland & Co Inc, 2015.). Clearly, the gaze they cast at these dances, as well as the place from which they produced their reports and paintings – materials that we here analyse as historical sources – are not impartial or representative of oriental culture itself. However, we understand they remain important material on the subject, because they have a deep relationship with the way in which belly dance is seen in the West and in the colonised world, of which Brazil is part3 3 The position of Brazil as part of the West is problematic. Being a country of the so-called “Global South” (Mignolo, 2011, p.185), and having suffered both the processes of colonialism and the consequences of coloniality (Quijano 2007; Sibai, 2016), we understand that the Brazilian imaginary about the East is strongly guided by Orientalist ideas. It is determined by its European colonial heritage, as well as by the influence of imperialist cultures, such as that of the United States. For more details on the Brazilian reworking of Orientalist stereotypes, see Karam (2010) and Hassan (2018). .

Here, we will try to understand, particularly, how these paintings ultimately created stereotypes about dance, a subject that was repeatedly portrayed, making it one of the greatest clichés of the Orientalist theme. To this end, it is also necessary to address the way Westerners portrayed oriental women, since the dance is usually depicted as being performed by them4 4 It is worth mentioning that, in the colonial period, there is also evidence of Egyptian male dancers, the khawalat, which will not be addressed here since their historical erasure demands analyses that are beyond the scope of this work. For a detailed look at the issue, see Karayanni (2004) and Sellers-Young (2014). . The representation of the oriental woman was one of the pillars that supported the thought, production, exhibition, and commercialisation of the Fine Arts impregnated with the Orientalist discourse. Oriental women in those paintings were not only beautiful and exotic, but also passive and submissive, so they served as a metaphor to represent the Orient itself. The West, with its rhetoric of strength and progress, was seen as the masculine side; the East, mysterious and hidden, as a passive feminine aspect ready to be unveiled (Dib, 2011, p. 148DIB, Marcia. Mulheres árabes como odaliscas: Uma imagem construída pelo orientalismo através da pintura. UFG, v. 13, n. 11., dezembro, 2011. Disponível em: <https://www.revistas.ufg.br/revistaufg/article/view/48395/23730 Acesso em: Acesso em: 04 jun. 2018.DIB, Marcia. Música Árabe: expressividade e sutileza. São Paulo: Ed. do autor, 2013.
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).

Arranging elements in opposition – including between the one who paints and what is painted, the one who is the subject of the painting and the one who observes it in the arts hall – is nothing more than, also, a rhetorical resource to support the discourse. Orientalist painting took advantage of this contrast of extremes and created, on the oriental woman, not only an interested curiosity, but also a denunciation, as if they were immoral, ill-mannered, without civility. This counter-position is a rhetorical feature explained by Stuart Hall (1993), who demonstrates that the fetish object may also be seen with some disgust, by means of a binary opposition. He further states that the female figure is recurrently employed in representations linked to power relations, in which people who consider themselves superior in civility and intellectuality speak/paint about those who are seen as racially inferior. These, then, are represented by means of “[…] sharply opposed, polarised, binary extremes,” often being the two things at the same time (Hall, 1993, p. 229). This feature is applied, in general, in various colonial contexts, but becomes especially forceful in the nineteenth century, when the scientific theories of evolution were developed and applied for social purposes.

In the specific case of female dancers, the sensuality seen by Europeans was mixed with debauchery; their seemingly lavish behaviour was inviting and at the same time associated with prostitution. Karin van Nieuwkerk (1995)NIEUWKERK, Karin van. "A trade like any other": Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt. Austin: University Of Texas Press, 1995. states that this association comes from regarding as dishonourable the functions that require body exposure to obtain profit. These women were not properly viewed as rational subjects. Dance figures here as one of the elements that contributed to these associations.

Unlike the female bodies to which Europeans were accustomed, governed by Christian morality and covered with garments that did not outline the body, Oriental dancers used flowing, colourful fabrics that fitted to their silhouette. Public performances on the streets or in private parties organised by consuls and governors were only a small portion of dance practices in the Orient but were probably read by Europeans as representative of the whole, creating a spectrum of fantasy about dance and nurturing a fetishised imagination about the women who practiced it.

Egyptian ‘dancing girls’ ostentatious dress, conspicuous application of cosmetics, refusal to veil themselves, pronounced visibility in public spaces, and participation in performance culture, which predictably led to travelers to associate these women with stereotypical Victorian prostitution (Bunton, 2017, p. 10BUNTON, Robin. British Travelers and Egyptian ‘Dancing Girls’: Locating Imperialism, Gender, and Sexuality in the Politics of Representation, 1834-1870. 142 f. Dissertação (Mestrado) - Curso de Master Of Arts, Department Of History, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, 2017. Disponível em: <http://summit.sfu.ca/system/files/iritems1/.../etd10347_RBunton.pdf>. Acesso em: 04 mar. 2018.
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).

Belly dance – which only received this name in the mid-nineteenth century (Hawthorn, 2019HAWTHORN, Ainsley. Middle Eastern Dance and What We Call It. In: Dance Research 37.1. Edinburgh University Press. 2019.) – was not understood by the European man as an artistic expression, but rather as a ritual, a form of entertainment, often linked to a sexual purpose, or even as an ethnological artefact:

As if it was not an artistic dance but something functional, aimed at rituals, not bearing valid attributes to occupy a stage or serve as inspiration for contemporary works of art. The ethnocentrism in the evaluation of art objects puts at risk the inherent sense in the creation of these objects […]. (Xavier, 2006, p. 37XAVIER, Cínthia Nepomuceno. ...5, 6, 7, ∞... Do Oito ao Infinito: por uma dança sem ventre, performática, híbrida, pertinente. 2006. 130 f. Dissertação (Mestrado) - Curso de Artes, Instituto de Artes, Universidade de Brasília, Brasília, 2006., our translation).

In their paintings, the artists depicted the dancers as if they moved their bodies in a loose, unimpeded way, using clothes that barely covered their figures, exposing the sensuality of their movements and their sinuous forms. Elements such as nudity (Arab dance by Paul Leroy), rustic musical instruments (Tambourine dancer by Otto Pilny), juggling (The harem by Achille Boschi), swords (Sword dance by Jean-Léon Gérôme) and animals (Keeping the marabou amused by Ferdinand Roybet)5 5 Images of these works can be seen in Thornton, 1994a and Thornton, 1994b. were painted in these scenes. Not innocently arranged, these elements have specific discursive functions in the artworks, alternatively evoking the fluency of the musical body, the nearly cunning dexterity or the exaggerated proximity to nature, traits showing the lack of decorum and civility of oriental women, as if they were backward, instinctive beings (Quinn, 2014, p. 7QUINN, Rebecca. Orientalism and Representations of Alterity. In: Gender and display. mai/2014.).

Any resemblance to movements, poses, or scenic objects that we use today in belly dance is not mere coincidence, since the aesthetics of the current choreographic repertoire is derived largely from the circulation of Orientalist productions. In any case, it was through dance performances that some European travellers were able to observe the women of the Orient. This is because, in colonial times, the act of covering themselves was already a female habit disseminated by Islamic doctrines. The spaces of coexistence were also generally restricted, inaccessible to men – even the Oriental ones. The painters had to then mobilise their fantasies and desires to imagine and artistically materialise the places they were not allowed to enter. This led to the figure of the odalisque as a character of Orientalist imaginary that embodies the Western expectation regarding the Oriental woman, being a frequent element in the paintings to represent Oriental women as languid, idle and available (Great Odalisque, and Odalisque with slave by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Odalisque by Renoir, Odalisque with tambourine by Henri Tanoux).

Figure 2
Great Odalisque (1814) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867).

In reality, Odalisques were part of a low social stratum and one of their functions was also related to the entertainment of the families who owned them, since they were home servants. However, being part of a private and restricted family’s environment, Odalisques were unlikely to be seen by the painters. The ghawazee6 6 Due to the transliteration from the Arabic, the spelling of this term may appear in various forms, both in the sources and in the bibliography: ghawāzī, ghawazi, ghawaze, ghawázee, ghawa'zee, ghawâzî, ghawazis (for plغوازي, in the plural, whose most correct transliteration would be ghawāzī) and ghāziya, ghazia, gaziah, ghazeah (for غازية, in the singular, whose correct transliteration would be ghāziya). We use ghawazee and ghazya since they are the most usual forms. were the group who probably satisfied the Western eagerness about dance. These dancers were a class of impoverished and marginalised female dancers who performed in public places with dance and music, which we will discuss in detail later, since much of the information we have about them comes from travel reports. Such travel reports will be addressed in the following section

The travel reports and the “oriental dance”:

The colonisation of Asian and African territories by European powers flooded the colonies, at first, with bureaucrats, soldiers, administrators, diplomats, and scholars, and at second, with European tourists coming from the wealthy classes. Travel reports were the way by which travellers shared their experiences with a wider public7 7 Many of these published reports are available on the platform Travelers in the Middle East Archive, accessible on: https://scholarship.rice.edu/handle/123456789/1 (Accessed: 20 Apr. 2021). . Special attention to the so-called Orient had been already given since the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the stories of the Arabian Nights became known to Europeans through the translations of Antoine Galland and Robert Burton. These European versions, adapted to the tastes and expectations of the reading audience, represented the Orient as a space of exoticism and mystery, dazzling tourists who sought this magic in their travels, causing comparisons – often filled with frustration – with these oriental fairy tales8 8 According to Professor Mamede Jarouche, translator of One Thousand And One Nights to Portuguese, the compilation of this set of narratives, with the characteristics we know in the present day, is the work of scholars. It occurred between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries of the Christian era, in the geographical space between Syria and Egypt, then dominated by the Mamluk State. They are not “[...] oral legends or fables that someone once decided to compile, but rather stories elaborated by someone, in writing, from diverse sources (some of which by chance could be oral, although there is no evidence of this) that were, in an increasing way, appropriated by the street narrators, who found in them an excellent work material.” (Jarouche, 2005, p. 11-12, our translation) .

For travellers going to Egypt, some attractions were almost mandatory in their descriptions: the pyramids, the pharaonic temples, the biblical landscapes, the picturesque alleys of the city of Cairo with its minarets and wooden lattice windows, (mashrabiyas) and oriental dance. The Egyptian female dancers, the ghawazee and the awálim9 9 The possible spellings for the term “awálim”, in sources and bibliography, appear as: awālim, awâlim, awalem, awálim, awalin, awálin, awaleem, almehs, almejas, etc (for عوالم, in the plural, whose correct transliteration would be awālim) and ālma, ālima almé, alme, almeh, halmeh, alimeh, halimeh, almeja, etc (for عالمة, in the singular, whose correct transliteration would be ālma). , had already become popular in the European imaginary through Orientalist paintings, but also through academic works such as An account of the manners and customs of the modern Egyptians (1836) by Edward William Lane.

This publication consists of a detailed encyclopaedia drawn from observations made during Lane's residence in Egypt between the years 1825 and 1828, with its first edition published in 1836. Proposing objective and neutral knowledge about the Egyptian reality, this work is composed of twenty-eight chapters, describing, with great detail, themes ranging from the climate and geography to cultural characteristics, habits, laws and religion of the native population. This work is characterised as one of the “[...] great Orientalist works of genuine scholarship” (Said, 2003 p. 8) and as “[...] a classic of historical and anthropological observation” (Said, 2003 p. 15), having been read and cited by diverse figures – from scholars and academics to artists who sought an ethnographic background for their stories or paintings.

Consolidated as “[...] an authority whose use was an imperative for anyone writing or thinking about the Orient, not just about Egypt” (Said, 2003 p. 23), we should emphasise that Lane's encyclopaedia was, in fact, a scientific work, with descriptions based on the author's direct experience during his long periods of residence in Egypt. However, one should take into account that the writing characteristics of a white, English and Christian man are not simply suppressed to the detriment of a total and objective (idealised, but unattainable) neutrality. Therefore, the marks of Lane being a man of his time are noticeable in various passages of his text. For example, when addressing the moral characteristics of Egyptian society, the author classifies lasciviousness and indolence as natural features of the Egyptians, caused by climatic characteristics of the country (Lane, 1890, p.4LANE, Edward Willian. An account of the manners and customs of the modern Egyptians. 3rd edn. London: Ward, Lock & Co., 1890. Disponível em: http://scholarship.rice.edu/jsp/xml/1911/9176/71/LanMa1890.tei-timea.html#index-div1-N102CA Acesso: 8 jun. 2017.
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), applying a geographical determinism, typical of nineteenth century Western society and of the Orientalist discourse.

Lane devotes an entire chapter of his encyclopaedia to Egyptian public female dancers, entitled Public Dancers, in which he describes mainly the ghawazee, characters that were marked in the European imaginary imagination of oriental dance, the oriental women and the Orient as a whole. In addition to this group, two others stood out in Lane’s work: the khawalat, male dancers who, similarly to the ghawazee, danced in the streets, festivals and private parties, and the awálim, female dancers who, unlike the former ones, performed only indoors, hidden from the male gaze. The awálim possessed various skills related to music, poetry, literature and recitation, but also entered the Orientalist imaginary simply as dancers. Lane’s detailed descriptions and explanations of these three groups of performers, to date, constitute the main historical source for understanding who these female and male dancers were in the first half of the 19th century, and will be better analysed in the following section.

For now, it is noted that Lane’s writings influenced other travellers who were in Egypt after him. Many of the travel reports written by travellers and occasional tourists relied on Lane’s writings to develop their own accounts. It is common to find, in this type of literature, phrases such as those of Lady Duff-Gordon (1902)GORDON, Lucie Duff. Lady Duff Gordon’s Letters from Egypt. New York: McLure, Phillips & Co, 1902. Disponível em: https://archive.org/details/lettersfromegypt00duff Accesso: 8 jun. 2017.
https://archive.org/details/lettersfrome...
: “I shall see what no European but Lane has seen” (p. 124), “I detect that impression even in Lane’s book” (p. 140), and “Here is a contribution to folk-lore, new even to Lane, I think.” (p. 98). Therefore, keeping in mind the comprehensiveness and importance of Lane’s Encyclopaedia is of paramount importance to those who are concerned with studying representations of Egyptian dance.

In general, the abundant travel reports that circulated in Europe during the period, providing descriptions of the Egyptian dances, built and contributed to the corpus of Orientalist production, reinforcing stereotypes and generally negative views regarding female dancers and their dance. Statements such as “[…] Her ghawazee, who is neither handsome nor graceful, was performing when I arrived; and, by the audacious licentiousness of her exhibition, completely disgusted me” (Romer, 1846, p. 127ROMER, Isabella Frances. A pilgrimage to the temples and tombs of Egypt, Nubia, and Palestine, in 1845-6. London: Richard Bentley, 1846. 2 ver., v. 1. Disponível em: https://archive.org/details/pilgrimagetotemp01rome Accesso: 8 jun. 2017.
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) and “Our crew had a soirée in the evening, and entertained us with deafening music and dancing; the latter, which consists only of placing the body in awkward attitudes, bending backwards, and balancing upon bent knees, is as ungraceful as possible;” (Beaufort, 1862, p. 37BEAUFORT, Emily Anne. Egyptian sepulchres and Syrian shrines, including a visit to Palmyra. Volume 1. London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 2 vols. 1862. Disponível em: https://archive.org/details/egyptiansepulchr11stra Acesso: 8 jun 2017.
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) were common. Classifying the dance as inelegant, vulgar, lustful and unfit for European taste was definitely more usual than praising comments.

However, there are some exceptions. The Englishwoman Lucie Duff-Gordon, who lived for a long season in southern Egypt (from 1862 to 1869) seeking a drier climate than the British to treat her tuberculosis, recounts her encounters with ghawazee dancers in her letters to the family, which were subsequently published. One can perceive, throughout her stay, a growing sympathy towards the female dancers and the Egyptians in general, with whom she gradually develops friendship and empathy. In January 1864, she mentions having been happy to see a dance performance, but still finds it “[…] cold and uninteresting,” and describes it as “[…] contortions, more or less graceful, very wonderful as gymnastic feats, and no more” (Gordon, 1902, p. 99GORDON, Lucie Duff. Lady Duff Gordon’s Letters from Egypt. New York: McLure, Phillips & Co, 1902. Disponível em: https://archive.org/details/lettersfromegypt00duff Accesso: 8 jun. 2017.
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).

After some years living with the inhabitants of southern Egypt, she even provided information about the difficult life of the female dancers, the heavy taxes they had to pay, and about her friendship with some of them, writing in a letter to her husband in May 1868: “[…] How you would have been amused to hear the girl who came to dance for us at Esneh, (…) she was an old friend of mine, and gave good and sound advice” (Gordon, 1902, p. 375GORDON, Lucie Duff. Lady Duff Gordon’s Letters from Egypt. New York: McLure, Phillips & Co, 1902. Disponível em: https://archive.org/details/lettersfromegypt00duff Accesso: 8 jun. 2017.
https://archive.org/details/lettersfrome...
). The letters of Lady Duff-Gordon, therefore, contain several pertinent information for scholars of oriental dance, even if they were not free from the Orientalist filters inherent to that time, which are perceptible through her paternalistic empathy embedded with the idea of the “[…] white saviour” (Assunção, 2018, p. 87ASSUNÇÃO, Naiara Müssnich Gomes de (2018). Entre Ghawazee, Awalim e Khawals: viajantes inglesas da Era Vitoriana e a “Dança do Ventre”. 198 f. Dissertação (Mestrado). Porto Alegre, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, 2018. Disponível em: <https://lume.ufrgs.br/handle/10183/182762> Acesso em: 20 mar. 2021.
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).

In general, the European travel reports, when describing the Egyptian dance of the ghawazee and awálim, corroborate the sexualised, exotified and eroticised idea of Oriental female bodies, especially dancing bodies. In Portuguese, the account by Eça de Queiroz in the book Egypt –– published posthumously in 1926 –– is a rather obvious example of this type of reading. On the occasion of his visit to Egypt, between 1869 and 1870, when he covered the opening of the Suez Canal as a journalist for the newspaper Évora, the diary of the Portuguese writer has an entire chapter dedicated to Egyptian dance and its female dancers, entitled Dance of Desire. In an excerpt, he comments:

The ghawazis have always had the foresight to celebrate their strange dances: one can already see them in the bas-reliefs that cover the tombs of the ancient pharaohs, almost naked, walking around with lascivious attitudes, either in the pomp of funerals or in the joys of victories. (…) However, the ghawazis who dance for foreigners are far from having the charm that in Europe draws sighs from the schoolboys who read the Arabian Nights. The ideal is then replaced by the craft. The grace of the dances, the loving intention, the admirable music of the movements, loses the primitive originality: it becomes only a vulgar, mechanical, known, routine skill. (…) Whenever I saw them dance at popular parties, I felt dominated by that mysterious, almost gloomy dance, of a sensuality so serious that it seems more like a cult than a show (Queiroz, 2015QUEIROZ, Eça. O Egipto: Notas de viagem. Relato da inauguração do Canal de Suez. Alêtheia Editores, Lisboa: 2015. Edição do Kindle., our translation).

In this excerpt, we can already observe several elements characteristic of Orientalist discourse and of the stereotypes related to oriental dance. First, the association of Egyptian cultural elements with a distant past, as if this culture was frozen in time, representing a counterpart to the modernity and progress thought unique to Europeans. Secondly, the association of the Orient – through dance – with mysteries, eroticism, and sensuality. At the same time, the dance is characterised as strange, vulgar, and mechanical, showing the author’s anxieties regarding the Egyptian female body in motion.

According to Keft-Kennedy (2005)KEFT-KENNEDY, Virginia. Representing the belly-dancing body: feminism, orientalism and the grotesque. Tese (Doutorado) - Curso de Philosophy, Departamento de Faculty Of Arts - School Of English Literatures, Philosophy, And Languages, University Of Wollongong, Wollongong, 2005. 380 f. Disponível em: <http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/843/>. Acesso em: 21 jun. 2014.
http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/843/...
, the concept of grotesque helps when thinking about these representations of the racialisation and generalisation of Oriental dance by Europeans. Shown as an element between the boundaries of the conventional and the unknown, these moving bodies appear as ambivalent images, identified by the absence of fixity, stability, and order (Keft-Kennedy, 2005, p. 49KEFT-KENNEDY, Virginia. Representing the belly-dancing body: feminism, orientalism and the grotesque. Tese (Doutorado) - Curso de Philosophy, Departamento de Faculty Of Arts - School Of English Literatures, Philosophy, And Languages, University Of Wollongong, Wollongong, 2005. 380 f. Disponível em: <http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/843/>. Acesso em: 21 jun. 2014.
http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/843/...
). According to the author, the paradoxical expression, ranging between desire and horror, regarding the female dancers and their dance, manifested in most reports, are characteristics of the grotesque construction of the other: fascinating, ugly, exotic, exaggerated, strange, erotic, disordered, shapeless or even deformed (Keft-Kennedy, 2005, p. 50KEFT-KENNEDY, Virginia. Representing the belly-dancing body: feminism, orientalism and the grotesque. Tese (Doutorado) - Curso de Philosophy, Departamento de Faculty Of Arts - School Of English Literatures, Philosophy, And Languages, University Of Wollongong, Wollongong, 2005. 380 f. Disponível em: <http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/843/>. Acesso em: 21 jun. 2014.
http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/843/...
). Special emphasis was given to the “[…] twisting, undulating female bodies that for Western spectators seem to merge human with animal, and blur with the other dancing bodies around them” (Keft-Kennedy, 2005, p. 51KEFT-KENNEDY, Virginia. Representing the belly-dancing body: feminism, orientalism and the grotesque. Tese (Doutorado) - Curso de Philosophy, Departamento de Faculty Of Arts - School Of English Literatures, Philosophy, And Languages, University Of Wollongong, Wollongong, 2005. 380 f. Disponível em: <http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/843/>. Acesso em: 21 jun. 2014.
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).

Thus, dominated by the canon of Orientalist representations and by the commercial value of some European demands regarding exoticism and sexuality – which were part of an ideal of magical Orient presented by the tales of the Arabian Nights and by the Orientalist paintings –, these publications corroborated the idea of an oriental dance that was sexy, mysterious and exotic. However, since these reports are abundant and rich in information – even if distorted by Orientalist lenses – they remain the main historical sources for understanding the development of what, today, we call belly dance.

Ghawazee and awálim: Egyptian female dance in the 19th century.

Through the analysis in the previous sections, one can see that the representations of Egyptian dance in Orientalist paintings and travel reports, influenced by Orientalist discourse, determined the way this dance was seen and brought to the West. We note that many of the stereotypes about belly dance, which endure to the present day – of a dance that is mysterious, exotic, sensual, inherently erotic and directed to the male gaze –, were built in this period. On the other hand, these paintings and reports constitute the main historical sources that enable us to access the dance practiced in regions of the Middle East and North Africa in the period of the European invasion. Their analysis is therefore essential for historians concerned with investigating the processes that led to the constitution of belly dance as a transnational practice, casting a critical and attentive look at the strong Orientalist filters that were determining for these representations.

We will now analyse what these sources can tell us about the ghawazee, the Egyptian public female dancers. Edward Willian Lane, in his 1836LANE, Edward Willian. An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. Volume 2. 1ª ed. London: Charles Knight & Co., 1836. 2 v. Disponível em: http://scholarship.rice.edu/jsp/xml/1911/9175/41/LanMa1836v2.tei-timea.html#p079. Acesso em: 15 abr. 2021.
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encyclopaedia, defines the ghawazee as belonging to a tribe, in which a woman is called ghazeeyeh and a man ghazee, being, therefore, of an ethnicity distinct from that of most Egyptians, even though they spoke mostly Arabic and were Muslim. Regarding dance, Lane reports that, in general, the ghawazee performed on the streets or were hired to liven up parties, such as weddings and birth celebrations, being paid for by the contracting families. In these cases, they danced in the inner courtyards of the houses, in front of the place where the party was being held. He also comments that the ghawazee were never admitted to a respectable harem; however, they were commonly hired to liven up male parties. In this case, the author characterises the performances as more lascivious since the dancers dressed shamelessly, wearing low-cut and transparent clothes, being drunk with brandy or other alcoholic beverage.

The information provided by Lane is precious, laying the foundations for studying the ghawazee and their craft as public dancers, holding extremely relevant data to the comprehension of these historical characters and enabling questioning by later researchers, for example, regarding the ethnic and historical origin of this group. So far, it has not been possible to prove, using other clues, that they belonged to a specific tribe, but there is evidence that many ghawazee were related to groups of Roma people (gypsies) in the Middle East (Parrs, 2014PARRS, Alexandra. Egypt’s Invisible Gypsies. Global Dialogue: Magazine of the International Sociological Association, Madri, v. 4, n. 4, dez. 2014. Disponível em: https://globaldialogue.isa-sociology.org/category/volume-4/v4-i4/page/2/. Acesso em: 15 abr. 2021.
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). On the other hand, Lane’s assessments of the lasciviousness of their dance and the impropriety of their character also foster Orientalist stereotypes related to Egyptian female dancers.

Edward William Lane is also the main historical reference for delimiting the differences between the female dancers known as ghawazee and awálim, warning his readers not to confuse the two groups. He states that awálim designates educated woman and that these artists were best known for their singing performances, poetry recitation and occasional dancing – but only in the domestic settings of the harems. The awálim, as well as the ghawázee, were entertainment professionals; however, their services – consisting of recitals, in which they declaimed poetry, sang and played instruments – were rarely seen by men. Seeking to follow Islamic norms of rectitude, the awálim performed only for the women of the harem of wealthy houses, usually hidden from the male gaze by lattice walls. Still according to Lane, the awálim who danced were considered to be of a lower class than those who only sang; however, even they had a higher status than the ghawazee, for they were always veiled when appearing in public and did not perform in front of men.

In this case, even if Orientalist paintings can be useful to visualise what the ghawazee and their garments looked like, the same cannot be said regarding the awálim. Some of the paintings seeking to portray ghawazee may be considered relatively reliable, since similar elements can be found in several of them and are also recurring in travel reports, keeping in mind that, as they danced in the streets, they were easily accessible to Europeans. Let us examine, for example, the painting Ghawazee, or Dancing girls at Cairo, by Scottish painter David Roberts (Figure 3), whose fidelity in the representation of the dancers can be contrasted with the illustrations that appear in Lane’s encyclopaedia (Figure 4). In both cases, we can verify that, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the ghawazee performed, basically, with the same type of garments worn by middle-class women within harems in Egypt.

Figure 3
“Dancing girls at Cairo” (1846) by Scottish painter David Roberts (1796–1864).
Figure 4
Ghawázee in illustration by Edward Willian Lane.

Even considering that the ghawazee sought to attract the attention of and fascinate the European audience, something that would yield them greater financial return, their representations in pictures, in most cases, exaggerated the erotic aspect of the dance. The female dancers were represented more imaginatively than realistically, especially when the images referred to the internal scenes of the harem or to the awálim. Since we know that foreign men were forbidden from entering the harems and that the awálim from the beginning of the nineteenth century did not perform in front of men, the paintings representing them can be taken as the result of male colonial creation. This is the case of Dance of the Almeh, by French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, one of the greatest known Orientalists in the visual arts (Figure 5).

Figure 5
La danse de l’almée (1863) by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904).

Throughout the nineteenth century, because of these Orientalist representations, the terms ghawazee and awálim are gradually transformed, assuming pejorative meanings and being used to morally judge women who displayed their bodies, which was extremely reprehensible from both the Islamic and Christian point of view. According to Adra (2005)ADRA, Najwa. An urban folk genre. In: SHAY, Anthony; SELLERS-YOUNG, Barbara. Belly Dance: Orientalism, Transnacionalism and Harem Fantasy. Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 2005., professional female dancers have been and are stigmatised in Egyptian society for presenting, in public, skills and activities regarded as appropriate only in the domestic sphere and on informal occasions. Still, the view of dance as inherently sexual was a European assertion that, imbued with its own morality and looking for meaning in the torso and hip movements of the female dancers, assumed a game of seduction.

Since the tourism and circulation of travellers were often driven by dance10 10 According to Karin van Nieuwkerk (1995, p. 34), “[…] for several travelers, the main purpose of their journey to the south was to see the celebrated dancers. When they still performed in Cairo, the entertainers were relatively anonymous and scattered [across the territory]. In Upper Egypt, they were brought together and thus became visible and conspicuous”. , the appearances of its practitioners in public became increasingly frequent, in order to meet this demand, making it common for those who did not know or ignored the origins of the dancers to refer generically to any of them. Requested largely by the male audience, both the ghawazee and the awálim became associated with prostitution, and the distinction between the two groups faded.

In addition to the homogenising and eroticising European representations, there was the persecution by the Egyptian government, which banned female dancers and prostitutes from urban centres in the 1830s (Nieuwkerk, 1995NIEUWKERK, Karin van. "A trade like any other": Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt. Austin: University Of Texas Press, 1995.), causing many of them to be exiled to southern Egypt, deepening the fragile social status of these women. Based on this fact, the great impact of the European invasion on the dominated peoples from North Africa and the Middle East is evident, in political, economic and cultural issues. This is also related to the Westernising modernisation project undertaken by the Egyptian ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha (1769–1849). In a coalition of processes, it is important to realise that the original female dancers of belly dance belonged to low social classes and underwent several processes of marginalisation, although they were also seen with fascination for the exotic Oriental other.

Conclusion: the impact of European representations on the history of belly dance

In this article, sources of various media were mobilised in order to extract data and information about the dances of the Middle East and North Africa at the time of the colonial period. Researchers interested in studying the materials analysed here should be aware, however, that these sources are not neutral, innocently composed or objective: like every human project, they contain ideological and moral characteristics, as well as affinities and aversions. In the specific case of representations of Egyptian dances, the content is, in general, loaded with strong doses of idealisation, since contact with oriental women was limited and often mediated. Thus, both travel reports and paintings of this period underwent a process of imagery and discursive construction based on imagination, fantasies, and commercial interests – applied in the sale of the material produced.

The dances in the sources we analysed were extensively represented in textual and visual ways in order to incorporate the basic elements of the discursive formulation of Orientalism: the idea of the historical stagnation of the East, the racial hierarchies, the binary structure of comparison with the West, the exoticisation of bodies and the geographical space itself, and the so-called incivility. Therefore, the Oriental dances in the representations analysed served as a metonym to join these elements, contributing even to the moral justification for the oppressive colonisation of the East.

Despite homogenising possible regional characteristics, and despite having a strong exotified and eroticised filter on these bodily manifestations, this material enables us to understand the historical figures that practiced dance in that period, how their work was conducted, in which environments and under which circumstances. It also helps us to understand how these representations determined how belly dance constituted a transnational dance mode, much permeated by the Orientalist imaginary.

Today, the stereotypes originated in colonial times persist, especially in the West and Westernised regions such as Brazil. Common images in the mass media and in the popular imaginary characterise oriental dance as inherently erotic, exotic, mysterious, sensual and as a practice aimed at provoking, pleasing, and seducing the male gaze. At the same time, there is an equally Orientalist idea being nurtured, especially among Western practitioners, according to which belly dance is a practice originated in remote times, in female rituals to fertility deities. Such narratives reiterate the nineteenth-century notion that the so-called Orient and its cultural practices are essentially related to an ancient, mystical, atavistic, little-known past and to a generic esoteric spirituality. This dance is never related to a specific people, culture, or community, but to an Orient that is distant, exotic, and homogeneous.

By working with these materials to compare and contrast them, we were able to learn a brief history of what is conventionally called belly dance and how it was used to compose a discursive corpus that we identify as Orientalism, within the convention proposed by Edward Said. We should emphasise that the Orientalist discourse also had – and still has – an impact on material dimensions, being more than a subjective thinking basis. The Orientalist discourse has shaped and still shapes the way the Orient is imagined, represented, and produced in our society. We expect that this article opens the path to broader discussions and research on the subject, in order to deepen the understanding of belly dance as a manifestation inherently related to the history of the Middle East and North Africa and their colonisation, in all their complexity and heterogeneity.

Notes

  • 1
    The terms “Orient” and “oriental” will be used here, bearing in mind that “Orient” and “Occident”, as well as “East” and “West”, are designations intrinsic to the historical process of colonialism, having its cultural and material implications, denoting the Western effort, amidst the enterprise of imperial domination, to represent the otherness they faced.
  • 2
    Discourse is a term of Foucauldian philosophy that was appropriated by Edward Said in his conceptual elaboration of Orientalism. Discourses are sets of utterances based on the same discursive formation, bearing a direct connection with power relations, thus enabling both the power itself and the possibility of resistance. See more in Foucault (2008)FOUCAULT, Michel. A arqueologia do saber. Rio de Janeiro: Forense Universitária, 2008..
  • 3
    The position of Brazil as part of the West is problematic. Being a country of the so-called “Global South” (Mignolo, 2011, p.185MIGNOLO, Walter. The Global South and World Dis/Order. Journal of Anthropological Research, 67(2), p. 165-188, 2011. Disponível em: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41303282 Acesso em: 25 jun. 2020.
    https://www.jstor.org/stable/41303282...
    ), and having suffered both the processes of colonialism and the consequences of coloniality (Quijano 2007QUIJANO, Aníbal. Colonialidad del poder y clasificación social. In: CASTROGÓMEZ, Santiago; GROSFOGUEL, Ramón (ed.). El giro decolonial: Reflexiones para una diversidad epistémica más allá del capitalismo global. Bogotá: Siglo del Hombre Editores, 2007.; Sibai, 2016SIBAI, Sirin Adbli. La cárcel del feminismo: Hacia un pensamento islámico decolonial. Madrid: Akal, 2016.), we understand that the Brazilian imaginary about the East is strongly guided by Orientalist ideas. It is determined by its European colonial heritage, as well as by the influence of imperialist cultures, such as that of the United States. For more details on the Brazilian reworking of Orientalist stereotypes, see Karam (2010) and Hassan (2018)HASSAN, Waïl. Carioca Orientalism: Morocco in the imaginary of a Brazilian telenovela. In: BYSTROM, Kerry; SLAUGHTER, Joseph R. (ed.). The Global South Atlantic. New York: Fordham University Press, 2018. P. 274-294..
  • 4
    It is worth mentioning that, in the colonial period, there is also evidence of Egyptian male dancers, the khawalat, which will not be addressed here since their historical erasure demands analyses that are beyond the scope of this work. For a detailed look at the issue, see Karayanni (2004)KARAYANNI, Stavros Stavrou. Dancing Fear and Desire: Race, Sexuality and Imperial Politics in Middle Eastern Dance. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004. and Sellers-Young (2014)SELLERS-YOUNG, Barbara. Masculine or Feminine - Ancient or Contemporary: "Raqs Sharqi" and a World of Converged Images. In: The World of Music, new series, v. 3, n. 2, p. 123-139, Music, Movement, and Masculinities, 2014..
  • 5
    Images of these works can be seen in Thornton, 1994aTHORNTON, Lynne. The orientalists: painter-travellers. Paris: ACR Edition Internationale, 1994a. and Thornton, 1994bTHORNTON, Lynne. Women as portrayed in orientalist painting. Paris: ACR Edition Internationale, 1994b..
  • 6
    Due to the transliteration from the Arabic, the spelling of this term may appear in various forms, both in the sources and in the bibliography: ghawāzī, ghawazi, ghawaze, ghawázee, ghawa'zee, ghawâzî, ghawazis (for plغوازي, in the plural, whose most correct transliteration would be ghawāzī) and ghāziya, ghazia, gaziah, ghazeah (for غازية, in the singular, whose correct transliteration would be ghāziya). We use ghawazee and ghazya since they are the most usual forms.
  • 7
    Many of these published reports are available on the platform Travelers in the Middle East Archive, accessible on: https://scholarship.rice.edu/handle/123456789/1 (Accessed: 20 Apr. 2021).
  • 8
    According to Professor Mamede Jarouche, translator of One Thousand And One Nights to Portuguese, the compilation of this set of narratives, with the characteristics we know in the present day, is the work of scholars. It occurred between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries of the Christian era, in the geographical space between Syria and Egypt, then dominated by the Mamluk State. They are not “[...] oral legends or fables that someone once decided to compile, but rather stories elaborated by someone, in writing, from diverse sources (some of which by chance could be oral, although there is no evidence of this) that were, in an increasing way, appropriated by the street narrators, who found in them an excellent work material.” (Jarouche, 2005, p. 11-12JAROUCHE, Mamede Mustafa. Prefácio: Uma poética em ruínas. In: O livro das mil e uma noites. Volume I - ramo Sírio. São Paulo: Globo, 2005. p. 11-35. Tradução Mamede Mustafa Jarouche., our translation)
  • 9
    The possible spellings for the term “awálim”, in sources and bibliography, appear as: awālim, awâlim, awalem, awálim, awalin, awálin, awaleem, almehs, almejas, etc (for عوالم, in the plural, whose correct transliteration would be awālim) and ālma, ālima almé, alme, almeh, halmeh, alimeh, halimeh, almeja, etc (for عالمة, in the singular, whose correct transliteration would be ālma).
  • 10
    According to Karin van Nieuwkerk (1995, p. 34)NIEUWKERK, Karin van. "A trade like any other": Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt. Austin: University Of Texas Press, 1995., “[…] for several travelers, the main purpose of their journey to the south was to see the celebrated dancers. When they still performed in Cairo, the entertainers were relatively anonymous and scattered [across the territory]. In Upper Egypt, they were brought together and thus became visible and conspicuous”.
  • This original paper, translated by Rafael Guimarães Esteque and revised by Roberto Candido Francisco, is also published in Portuguese in this issue of the journal.

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Publication Dates

  • Publication in this collection
    09 Sept 2021
  • Date of issue
    2022

History

  • Received
    24 Apr 2021
  • Accepted
    11 Aug 2021
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