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True historical data on bellydance is fragmentary -- there is relatively little documentation on women's work and activities throughout the age of literacy. Current theories on the history of bellydance are a confusing mixture of speculative extrapolation and personal bias which is then often presented as historical fact. There is much room for more stringent research in this area.

Despite the lack of accurate historical information, a few points can be agreed upon. Bellydancing as it is known today is very old. It retains its connection to fertility and eroticism by being an indispensable feature at weddings in many Middle Eastern countries, performing the multifold purpose of getting the bride and groom (who may have just met) in the mood, making a blessing of fertility on the couple, and providing entertainment for the guests. Today bellydance is enjoyed variously for its artistry, ethnicity, beauty, healthy eroticism and fun!

The movement vocabulary of bellydance is a conglomeration of styles from many regions-Lebanon, North Africa, Egypt, the Arabian Gulf, Turkey--as a result of cultural exchange historically through trade and shifting national boundaries. While Middle Easterners make the distinction between "city dance" (stage, cabaret) and "country dance" (regional folk dances), Westerners use the umbrella term of "bellydance" to refer to a broad range of styles united in the use of certain isolation movements, the most prominent and pervasive of which are the isolations of the hips. In addition, isolations of the chest, shoulders, head, hands as well as serpentine and undulating movements of the torso are often found. Another common trademark is a varying degree of flirtation and coquetry. The rhythms and instrumentation used from area to area often have some commonalties despite great regional variations but in all there is an emphasis on percussion.

Because it takes much education for Westerners to be able to recognize and appreciate these regional distinctions in style and practice, we have seen in places such as the North American West Coast, where access to Middle Eastern audiences is limited, the growth of a creative phenomenon which is now called by its proponents, American Tribal style. This version of bellydance combines costuming and movement ideas from many Middle Eastern cultures with trademark innovations that make it more accessible to Western audiences and adaptable to Western venues.

Belly dance is known in the Middle East as raks sharqi, literally, :dance of the East" or "oriental dance". The current western term may be derived from the French danse du ventre, so named because of the exposure of the midriff. Raks sharqi, the contemporary stage form derived from Egyptian baladi and influenced by early Hollywood glamour and western balletic training, is distinct from raks sha'abi or folk dances, which may nevertheless be featured in glitzed up yet authentic versions as part of an oriental stage show.

Today bellydance is enjoyed worldwide and is taught in almost every country. While a small percentage of enthusiasts use bellydance as an income supplement, and smaller percentage derive their sole income from performance and/or teaching, the majority of enthusiasts pursue it for mere enjoyment as exercise, recreation and socialization. Many perform regularly as amateurs or semi-professionals: bellydance communities worldwide are notable for their energy and enthusiasm in putting on collaborative performances, workshops and other events.

It is ironic that while traditionally Middle Eastern women have been discouraged from or censured for pursuing a career as a bellydancer, many Western woman embrace it as a means of rediscovering themselves and nurturing a stronger personal identity and sense of empowerment