Chapter Four

Belly Dance and Birth Ritual






Chapters Two and Three focused on the evidence (and sometimes the lack of it) from the later periods of prehistory, the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras, in the SIDTA area, and proposed that there is some evidence that a form of SIDTA existed in the Neolithic in Egypt.  At the same time, these chapters left unaddressed some of the key questions dancers have about this art: its possible role as a birth dance, and the role of matriarchal societies in the development of the dance.  These are important issues, both because of their place in the ancient history of the dance, and because of the power these ideas have had in the modern attempts to come to terms with the nature and history of belly dancing.  Chapters Four and Five address them directly.


Birth Mysteries

Birth is one of the most cataclysmic events any of us experiences.  We go through it first as infants, struggling through the birth canal into the bright, noisy world.  Later, most women will experience it from the other side, laboring through severe pain and a strangely intense solitude to bring the child to light.  Childbirth is potentially agonizing and dangerous for both mother and infant.  Hours of wrenching labor begin with a rush of amniotic fluid and end with a rush of blood.  If all goes well, a new life is cut free from its connecting cord.  But the first pangs of labor also contain the knowledge that a death or deaths could be the end of it. 

Traditional societies, including the subsistence level hunter-gatherers whose lifestyle is most like that of our earliest human ancestors, have a wide variety of approaches to childbirth.  There is no single rule about where it happens, who is present, or what rituals are performed.  There are, however, some general trends.  Childbirth is not “medicalized” in that it is seen as a natural process, not an illness; the woman in labor is not a patient requiring a doctor’s treatment but a person with a difficult task to accomplish.  Women are usually in attendance: female family members, friends, and/or particularly knowledgeable women (professional or not) assist in the birth.  Masculine roles vary: in some cultures, the father actively participates or is present, while more commonly, men are excluded from the process.[1]  Usually, ritual actions and prayers are appropriate to ease the birth and protect the laboring woman and her child.  Ritual actions are taken to protect the baby during its vulnerable first days, and later, to mark its entry into the social world.  The woman too may undergo ritual preparation sometime after the birth to incorporate her back into the everyday world. 

For women in traditional societies, who might give birth perhaps every two to four years throughout their fertile period, childbirth is a part of life.  They would also witness and assist at other births.  They would be aware of the potential dangers and occasional deaths, and they would be able to share the joy and relief of safe delivery many times.    

Modern women have a rather different experience.  In general, we give birth many fewer times than women in traditional societies.  We rarely die in the process, although unlike them, we are defined as patients and go to a hospital.  We have the help of anesthetics and other medical paraphernalia.  Often a male physician directs the process and the father is present.  In general, we do not assist or attend the births of other women.  For some of us, giving birth is not an empowering experience, as voices other than our own direct the process.  We may regret the sterile hospital atmosphere.

Aware of the shortcomings of our own childbirth experiences, Western women may idealize the imagined birth experiences of the past.  We may describe women from traditional societies as feeling less pain[2] than modern women.  We may speak of some attractive customs, such as the birth hut or the supportive, all-woman atmosphere, as if they were universal in “primitive” birth practices, although in fact they only occur in some societies.  Disempowered by the hospital and sometimes male-directed birth experience, we may want to reclaim childbirth as a “women’s mystery,” something to be celebrated, something that shows the mystical power of women’s creative force.

Is childbirth in traditional societies an honored ritual, a place where women’s mystical power is demonstrated in tangible form?  Is it celebrated in dances that reproduce the motions of labor, honoring the productive power of the sacred feminine?  Is belly dance a descendant of such childbirth dances?


The Popular View

The view that belly dance is descended from ancient birth rituals, which were once universal but are reduced, in our patriarchal world, to a shadow of their former power, has become a standard feature of popular histories of belly dance.  It is  promulgated over the Internet and in introductory classes all over the world.  In her 1980 Earth Dancing, Daniella Gioseffi encapsulates these ideas:


To the primitive mind, the involuntary rolling[3] of the stomach in childbirth was very likely the magic hocus-pocus that brought life forth … No doubt, early woman created her magic mystery dance of worship – a “birth dance” – in much the same way primitive people create rain or war dances… These early women’s dances were a celebration of female pride and potency …  Many [dancers] agree that the dance of the stomach, in particular, is descended from ritual worship of the earth goddesses of ancient times and that the belly rolls are imitations of birth contractions.


Then, through fictionalized historical vignettes of “earth dances” and through descriptions of her own and others’ belly dance performances, Gioseffi presents a powerful image of a birth dance that resembles the floor work of modern belly dance, in which the dancer symbolically gives birth to herself.  She claims that belly dance is the direct descendant of this ancient ritual. 

Gioseffi is only one voice among many.  The idea that belly dance originated as a birth ritual may be found in many different sources, and has become a standard element of the histories belly dance teachers give their students in the early lessons, tell to newspaper reporters who cover their classes, and put forth on their web sites. 

One good effect of the “birth dance” origin myth is that it has all but driven out the “history” of the early 1970’s that centered on “slaves in the sultan’s harem.”   The origin of belly dance as childbirth ritual is certainly a more palatable history to present to the public. 

But is it true?  Because this matters too.  How closely is belly dance related to childbirth, and what is the evidence for a connection between childbirth and belly dance, either in history or in the present day?


Belly Dance Techniques and Childbirth  

There are two central ways in which belly dance might be related to birth: first, its techniques might be helpful in the actual labor process, and second, its techniques might be associated with the labor process symbolically, so that that belly dance might be used ritually or in teaching young women about labor or for other purposes where the symbolic connection of dance with birth would make sense. 

As far as the first idea is concerned, the jury is still out.  To the best of my knowledge, there has been no statistical study comparing the birth experiences of mothers who are skilled in belly dance, to the experiences of non-dancing mothers. 

This has left the battle to be fought anecdotally, and anecdotes abound.   There are many women, in the West at least, who attribute an easy labor to their study of belly dance.  [QUOTES] 

On the other hand, there are quite accomplished dancers who have had difficult labors.  Suhaila Salimpour, for example, whose dance technique is extraordinary, had to have an emergency C-section after many hours of a difficult labor.  I’d been dancing for nearly 25 years when I gave birth, and my labor was no walk in the park.  Over the many years of my involvement in dance, I have heard of other such experiences from good dancers.  But these stories have not become an element of the popular rhetoric of the dance.  Perhaps this is because (in my observation) the dance community is far more open to stories of belly-dance-influenced successful labors, than to stories of difficult labors in which belly dance expertise did not help.

No one has collected anecdotes from Eastern women about whether their abilities in belly dance assisted their childbirth.  I suspect there aren’t any.  For Western women, the techniques of belly dance are foreign and are learned in a context which consciously connects dance, sex, and birth.  For Eastern women, this style of dance is taken for granted and does not tend to pick up the same associations Western dancers take for granted.  Shareen el Safy, who has spent decades interviewing Egyptian and Turkish dancers, comments, “The [Egyptian] dancers I know[4] who became pregnant and had live births, or miscarriages, seemed to follow the norm in terms of pregnancy and labor experiences. [The Egyptian dance star] Dina, however, told me that she had her son after 5 hrs of labor, and smoked a cigarette immediately after!” 

Lucky Dina!  It is still possible that Middle Eastern women who belly dance frequently do benefit from it, but do not notice how much the dance helps them because they take it for granted.  But until someone does a statistical study that correlates dance ability and ease in childbirth, there is no solid evidence to work with.

Since we are left in the realm of anecdotes, I will comment that my own experience has changed my perspective on the relationship between belly dance and labor.  Before I gave birth, I thought that belly dance movement was intimately related to birth processes.  But when it came to my actual labor, I realized: giving birth is nothing at all like belly dance.  For one thing, if I felt that much pain while dancing, I would stop, which is not an option the labor experience offers.  The shimmies and hip articulations that absorb so much of a dancer’s practice have no relevance in labor.  I have heard undulations described as related to the movements of labor – but the protracted pushing is nothing like an undulation, nor did I observe my belly undulating at any stage in the process.  In the “pushing” stage of childbirth, the laboring woman has to repeatedly bear down very hard with her lower abdominal muscles, maintaining the pressure for ten seconds or so.[5]  It is grueling work, and the motion of bearing down, let alone the duration of it, is not a technique of belly dance.   And one does not belly dance in a squatting position, or (so I’d hope) flat on one’s back with one’s feet up.  In my experience at least, the techniques of belly dance do not directly relate to labor. 

This is not to say that belly dance movements have no uses.  In the early stages of labor, some belly dance movements might feel good – I used them.  Non-dancers have found similar relief from other forms of mild activity.  A woman who is fit and feels confident about her body – effects of belly dance, no doubt, but also of other forms of exercise – will have a better childbirth experience than someone who is not, with all other factors being equal.  A woman who comes from a culture (or subculture) in which childbirth is regarded as natural and is not a feared unknown, will suffer less anxiety and perhaps have an easier labor because of it.  But all the belly dance expertise in the world cannot make your cervix dilate more quickly, or adjust your baby’s head size or position in the birth canal.  These and other complicating factors often determine how difficult a given labor actually is.

Whether or not the actual techniques of belly dance actually do help in childbirth, there could still be widespread belief in the SIDTA area that they do, and this might explain a symbolic connection between belly dance and birth. [1]  Is the connection between belly dance and childbirth strong in the Middle East?

Well, no.  Again, speaking from anecdotal evidence, most people from within the diverse cultures of the East do not actually see a connection between childbirth and belly dancing.  Shareen el Safy, who has interviewed[6] Egyptian dancers and maintained connections with all levels of the Egyptian dance community over the past 25 years, comments, “I personally did not receive any confirmation that the dance as it is practiced in Egypt now is consciously related to birth. I heard no references to that … even when I directly asked dancers about this. Rather, it seems that the dance is so much a part of the popular culture – everyone does it – that it's not separate from the everyday.”  Dancer/ teacher A’isha Azar[7] describes her experiences more forcefully: “I have asked women from different locations in the Middle East, including Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Levantine countries, and everyone just looks at me like I am out of my tiny mind.”   In my research for this article, I questioned a number of other dancer/researchers about their experiences in the Gulf states, Morocco, Turkey, and other Middle Eastern countries, and in all but one case got a negative.  Evidently, there is not now a widespread feeling in the Middle East that “belly dance” is intimately related to childbirth.

Where belly dance does have a close conceptual connection with childbirth is in the West.  There are historical reasons for this, which I will discuss below, but there is also the matter of how we read the torso-focus of this foreign dance technique.  For Westerners, hip and pelvis articulations are not the standard dance vocabulary, so we think they must have a significance that goes beyond their simple function as dance moves.  Since both sex and childbirth use pelvic movement, we are inclined to see a connection between those human processes and belly dance.  We are inclined to think that metaphorically at least, the dance is about one or the other (or both at once) of these ranges of ideas. 

It seems that we are more prone to see the cosmic and ritual significance of both birth and belly dancing than are Middle Easterners.  But was that always the case, or can we identify a historical Middle Eastern (or more widespread) connection between birth and belly dancing?


Ancient Evidence   

There is plenty of evidence that birth and motherhood play an important role in the mythologies of many different cultures, but very little evidence that dance is an integral part of the story. 

From prehistory, there are some visual representations which seem to blend the imagery of dance and the imagery of birth, to the extent that they are ambiguous or capable of different interpretations.  For example, figure ___ represents what the feminist archeologist Marija Gimbutas calls a “birth-giving goddess,” while Yosef Garfinkel, specializing in early dance, calls it a schematized dance motif.  Could it be a birth-giving and dancing goddess?  Are the ideas of dance and birth entwined in this image?

Unfortunately, we can only speculate.  In my opinion, the most likely scenario is that it’s one or the other, and the people of the culture knew which.  (Only the modern archeologists are confused.) 

It is less likely, but still possible, that it deliberately entwines metaphorical ideas of dancing with metaphorical ideas about birth: something like the “eternal dance of life” or the idea of rebirth into the dancing cosmos.  However, while the thought-worlds of Neolithic potters are as complex as our own, they are not the same.  Most serious students of the past do not think they could make such a specific reading of an image produced by a culture so different from ours. 

Furthermore, we really can’t argue that the image shows a direct connection between the pelvic birth process and a pelvic dance – in other words, use it as evidence of belly dance – since it’s far to schematic to bear that reading.

From the historical era, Egypt offers a lot of evidence of music and dancing accompanying the birth of the Pharaoh, and may give us an indication that traveling musicians and dancers played a role in the births of ordinary people.  In the pre-18th dynasty story of Redjedet, three goddesses and a god are sent down to help Redjedet give birth.  They pose as a troupe of traveling musicians, and are admitted to the house where Redjedet is in labor.  The women assist her and celebrate the birth.  Their assistance is not playing music or dancing, though – it is magically calling forth the children she is bearing.  (This source will be discussed more fully in Chapter six.)  It is possible that one of the functions of such musicians and dancers was to help ease the woman’s childbirth – but more likely, they simply celebrated it.  Our evidence is very scant.

Another possible connection is that some professional dancers in ancient Egypt in the New Kingdom are portrayed with tattoos of the god Bes on their thighs.  Bes was the dwarf god who protected the household, especially children and women in childbirth.  He is a dancer himself, with one leg often shown kicked up, and his ugliness and antics frighten away demons that might harm the vulnerable newborn or its mother.  The connection of dancers with Bes reflects a well-established Egyptian belief system which incorporates sex and nudity into a complex of ideas about fertility and personal rebirth into the afterlife.  But it is not evidence that the dancers played a direct role in childbirth, or in rituals that had to do with childbirth: it seems to be more a comment on the identity of the professional dancer.  I will go into this more in Chapter Six.

Unfortunately, this is all we get from antiquity.  So, to put it bluntly, there is no conclusive or even really suggestive ancient evidence to support the idea that belly dance originated as a birth ritual, or that belly dance was widely practiced as a birth ritual in antiquity the SIDTA area (or anywhere else). 

The lack of ancient evidence is not, however, concrete proof that belly dance was not associated with birth in the past.  The specific rituals of birth are not often mentioned in the historical record – we are more likely to hear about other rituals, such as the public ones incorporating the baby into the community, than about what happened in the privacy of the birth site.  Undoubtedly, there are many “women’s mysteries” – and men’s, for that matter – that are lost to us because they were never recorded. 

But the loss of this information does not give us permission to make up whatever we want. 

As with prehistory, we can still move to our second rank of evidence: comparative ethnography.  If we find examples of “belly dance” birth dances among hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists from other parts of the world, we can argue that they also took place in the SIDTA area.  If documented birth-related belly dances typically occurred in more recent times in the Middle East, we can extrapolate backwards and argue that they also occurred in the more distant past. 


Ethnographic Evidence

Before treating the modern evidence for belly dance as birth ritual, one major question needs to be addressed. 

What exactly is a birth ritual? 

We tend to use this term casually, but since we are trying to define human behavior, we should be more specific about what we mean.  “Birth ritual” could mean several different things.  (1) A celebratory dance that is done on the occasion of the birth.  (2) A dance that repeats the imagery of birth in other contexts not directly related to an actual birth.  (3)  A dance that uses birth movements to celebrate the feminine principle and feminine creative power.  (4) A dance done by women to initiate girls into the secrets of birth.  (5) A dance that is done by the woman’s attendants at the time of the birth, to assist her in labor, and is understood as magically assisting the labor. 

Number (1) is definitely attested, both all over the SIDTA area and in many other cultures as well.  Dancing very frequently plays a role in the celebration following a successful birth.  In Egypt in the 19th century, and to a lesser extent now, further celebration followed on the seventh day after a child’s birth, when the child was incorporated into the community, and professional dancers might be hired.  In most human cultures, dance is an element of both ritual and celebration, and the two often overlap.  This is certainly the case in the diverse cultures of the Middle East. 

There is no doubt that belly dance is one of the “ritual acts” – social rituals at least – that define important transitions (such as successful birth) in a person’s life.  On the other hand, celebratory dancing does not have an exclusive connection with birth.  So although belly dance has a definite connection with birth in this way, ultimately it would be misleading to call it a birth ritual on these grounds.

Number (2) is more complex.  Birth is such a dramatic and powerful event that its metaphor finds its way into many aspects of life, from poetic imagery to cosmological myths to ritual actions, in virtually every society.  I don’t know of rituals that imitate its movement, but there are any number of rituals – in particular, male initiations – that involve symbolic birth “from the male” as a counterpoint to one’s original birth from the mother.  Rebirth is a powerful image even in modern Christianity, and there is evidence that it was a popular image in a great many human societies, in all periods of history. 

But what about (3), danced rituals that imitate the motions of birth, and have as their purpose the honoring of the feminine principle in the public realm?  Wish away.  This is not a factor (an overt factor, anyway) in the dance of the modern Middle East.  But even among hunting and gathering groups and “primitive” agriculturalists, there is no evidence of the kind of dance that mimics the birth process to celebrate the Goddess or feminine creative power – even among groups where women are respected for all aspects of their creative potential.  The sort of dance Gioseffi and others describe so eloquently is a modern fiction, which arises from our own need to valorize aspects of femininity our culture does not respect.  It does not find a place among real tribal societies.  Among real people, the feminine principle, like the masculine, is inextricably enmeshed in a network of specific stories, meanings, actions, and places.  People dance their histories and beliefs, which are specific and named.  The idea of dancing out birth to celebrate a generalized concept of the feminine is a creation of our myth-less age. 

Number (4) is an interesting case.  In cultures where girls undergo initiation rituals into adulthood, women’s dances are often a feature of the initiation.  They may involve teaching, but the teaching is about a variety of cultural knowledge: for example, stories or actions that are valuable for a woman’s spiritual being.  They do not typically focus on sex or birth, since the adult woman is different from a child in ways that go far beyond those simple facts of feminine life.[8]  Initiation dances typically reflect the dance styles of the people who do them.  If hip articulation is a technique of the mainstream of dancing, then it appears in the dances done at initiations.  If it is not, it doesn’t.  In the SIDTA area, torso articulation is a common technique, and not especially associated with initiations.  Children, both boys and girls, learn it long before they require initiation into the mysteries of adulthood. 

Having said that, there is some anecdotal evidence that in some cultures, there were dances that, through undisclosed techniques, taught young women about both sex and childbirth.  La Meri, a student and performer of many types of ethnic dance in the 1920’s-40’s, reports that in Hawaii she heard of the Ohala hula, danced for just such a purpose.[9]  This dance was evidently not a part of the mainstream tradition of hula, which was hierarchical and not particularly oriented toward representing life processes.[10]  It would be interesting for a dance ethnologist to pursue the few anecdotes of such dances back to their source, and there may be local wise women (and men) in various cultures who preserve the knowledge of such dances – or at least, the myths surrounding such dances, since “there used to be a ….” is a common motif in narrative that may not relate to actual historical fact.  (In other words, there could be a traditional story that such a dance existed, yet no real dance of this sort in the area’s actual history.)

Number (5) is perhaps the “birth ritual” as most of us envision it: a group of dancing women surrounding a woman in labor.  It is an ensconced element of the popular vision of the ancient history of belly dance.  Is this sort of dance found throughout the world, an instinctive, feminine response to the labor of another woman?  Is it found widely in the Middle East?  Was it, in bygone days?

The evidence from outside the Middle East is not encouraging.  When you survey the birth customs of women in traditional societies, you find a wide variety of practices.  In some societies, such as the hunter-gatherer !Kung people of the Kalahari[11], the ideal birth is accomplished alone; in Russian tradition, it might be accomplished secretly in order to protect mother and child from evil influences.  Where there are groups of women assisting at the labor, different actions are possible.  They might breathe with the laboring woman, tell jokes or stories, or harangue her, or encourage her gently, or comfort her with words or touch.  They may encourage her by actions as well, as in one traditional Mayan childbirth[12], where the mature women present demonstrated their favorite techniques and positions for labor, giving valuable information with a touch of humor.   Encouragement by attending women takes many forms.    

But given this, I have not found any that involve organized dance.  It may be that dance is usually considered more appropriate for celebration after the birth, when the danger is past.  It may be that the more “natural” dynamic in childbirth is for the attendants to partake in or respond to the physical expressions of the birthing mother rather than to try to draw her into their own.  Or it may be that labor has sudden crises that are at odds with the way dance unfolds in time.  For whatever reason, I am not aware of anything in the broader anthropological record that confirms the use of dancing in the labor place.  It is not a universal phenomenon, and apparently is extremely rare.

But the absence of dancing in childbirth in world cultures generally is not specific evidence about the Middle East.  We need to consider that.


The Modern Middle East  

Given that some form of belly dance is practiced over such a wide area, and given that the “birth ritual” story is so entrenched in popular culture, it may come as a surprise how little evidence there is for anything like a belly dance birth ritual in the Middle East.  I’ve divided the published information into several categories.[13] 

(1) Direct accounts of attendance at a dance-like birth ritual by anyone of Middle Eastern ethnicity: None.

(2) Reference to a relationship between belly dance and birth or motherhood by people of Middle Eastern descent: One, by the Armenian dancer Armen Ohanian, in 1923.

(3) Reports by Westerners of attendance at a birth ritual: one, from the noted dancer/ researcher Morocco, in 1967.

(4) Reports by Western sources of statements from Middle Eastern people that they had actually attended dance-related birth ritual(s): Two; one in 1961, by La Meri, referring to multiple events in 1928 and before; one, by Morocco, in 1967, of an event in 1937.

(5) Reports by Western sources that people of Middle Eastern descent believe that birth rituals are practiced: several.

(6) Reports by Western sources that people of Middle Eastern descent see a connection between belly dance and childbirth: several.

Obviously, the published information doesn’t reflect all the knowledge there is about such things.  This issue will need attention from anthropologists and dance ethnologists before it can be resolved.  Oral tradition of some groups in the Middle East may be the best resource for exploring this issue, but as yet no one has made a systematic study of it.

In contrast to the lack of published evidence, many Western artists who have worked in the Middle East or worked closely with the Middle Eastern community, and several dance ethnologists who have done extensive fieldwork in the area, have reported to me that the people they study do not see a connection between belly dance and childbirth, or use belly dance in their birth-related rituals.  In the anthropological literature, there are no accounts of belly dance or any dance as birth ritual.

The situation is complex, and I will discuss this evidence in detail, but in any case, the idea that belly dancing birth rituals are a standard practice in the Middle East should be revised.  They aren’t. 


Connections from within the culture: Armen Ohanian.   Ohanian was an Armenian Christian who grew up and became a professional dancer in Iran in the early years of the 20th century.  She came to the West in the early 1910’s, and performed there in the 1910’s and 20’s.  Her autobiography, The Dancer of Shamakha, was a popular success in the 1920’s, and through republication of excerpts in Habibi magazine in the 1970’s, via the prominent dancer and teacher Jamila Salimpour, it influenced the development of popular concepts of dance history in the West.  Ohanian was evidently an extraordinary woman, whose telling of her life bubbles with romance and exoticism. She describes a sordid encounter with the danse du ventre:

Thus in Cairo one evening[14] I saw, with sick incredulous eyes, one of our most sacred dances degraded into a bestiality horrible and revolting. It was our poem of the mystery and pain of motherhood, which all true Asiatic men watch with reverence and humility, in the far-away corners of Asia where the destructive breath of the Occident has not yet penetrated. In this olden Asia which has kept the dance in its primitive purity, it represents maternity, the mysterious conception of life, the suffering and the joy with which a new soul is brought into the world.  Could any man born of women contemplate this most holy subject, expressed in an art so pure and so ritualistic as our eastern dance, with less than profound reverence?  Had this been told me, I could not have believed it.  Such is our Asiatic veneration of motherhood, that there are countries and tribes whose most binding oath is sworn upon the stomach, because it is from this sacred cup that humanity has issued.  But the spirit of the Occident had touched this holy dance and it became the horrible danse du ventre, the hoochie-koochie. To me, a nauseating revelation of unsuspected depths of human bestiality, to others it was – amusing.  I heard the lean Europeans chuckling, I saw lascivious smiles upon even the lips of the Asiatics, and I fled.


Ohanian clearly connects Eastern dance with what is pure and noble, as opposed to what is sexual, base and corrupt.  She says that Eastern men watch this true dance with respect, and implies that their respect comes from their veneration of motherhood.  In evoking “maternity, the mysterious conception of life, the suffering and the joy with which a new soul is brought into the world,” she alludes to both sex and birth, processes of which, as a woman in the early 20th century, she could not name directly without causing offense or at least, creating a realism that is at odds with her romanticized portrayal of herself and her art. 

In Ohanian, we do have someone of Eastern ethnicity who is making, in print, the connection between childbirth and belly dance.  She does involve sex in the equation, but only as the “mysterious conception of life.”  But she does not connect Eastern dance with ritual, only with a range of symbolic meaning that the “Asiatics” (Persians and other Middle Eastern people) share, as audiences of the dance.

She is not an impartial witness.  Her presentation of the Cairo “danse du ventre” and her response to it fits in with what she wanted her Western readers to know about herself and her art.  Throughout her biography, she creates an image of an Asia which is more delicate, more sensible, and more respectful of women than the brash West.  She creates an image of herself as virtuous, desirable but pure, ethereal, romantic, passionate – all characteristics that would help her in her dance career.  Writing for a Western audience, in countries where hoochie-koochie dancers abounded, she was also at pains to distinguish her artistic presentations from what was being done in the dime museums and music halls of the day.

Ohanian is not a typical woman, and she wrote after spending years in the West, but she shows us that at least one thoughtful, insightful Eastern woman could see a connection between “belly dance” and motherhood, even if most women might not. 

She is not, however, a reliable source for information about dance history prior to her own time.  She implies that the dance was originally “about” a sacred range of maternal ideas, then was debased by contact with the West into the sexualized “danse du ventre.”  But the connection between dance and prostitution or other sexualized social roles is long established and long predates the Western colonial presence in the East.[15]  Eastern dance was not “originally” about motherhood, and later debased.  Dance can be used by different people in different circumstances to mean different things, whether motherhood, sex, celebration, or something entirely different is intended.  I don’t doubt that Ohanian’s dance differed by far from the danse du ventre most common in Cairo in the 1910’s, but neither dance was the “original” – both were possible sites on a continuum of representations of the dance, and relationships between dancer and audience. 

In summary, Ohanian confirms a symbolic connection of dance and motherhood, though she says nothing about ritual, and provides biased information about the evolution and nature of Middle Eastern dance as a whole. 

And interestingly enough, she has nothing at all to say about motherhood or birth in any of her descriptions of her own dances.


Western direct observance   Our only published observation of the use of belly dance in connection with birth comes from the noted dancer/researcher Morocco[16].  She describes how, playing the role of a family servant, she attended the childbirth of a friend’s cousin in a small village in Morocco (the country) in 1967:

[The woman giving birth] was dressed in a lighter kaftan and d’fina and was squatting over the hollow, sweating up a storm. The other women had formed a series of circles, three deep around her, but made way for us to get to the first circle. All the women were singing softly and undulating their abdomens, then sharply pulling them in several times. The movements were much slower and stronger than what dancers call the flutter, and can be seen in some Schikhatts. They repeated the movements while slowly moving the circles clockwise.

The cousin would get up and do the movements in place for a few minutes and then squat for a few minutes and bear down. She didn’t seem particularly agitated or in any pain. The only sign of strain was the perspiration that soaked her hair and forehead.


The birth (of male twins) was easy, and the women danced in celebration for some time afterward. 

Morocco has written eloquently about this experience, but has never subjected it to an anthropological sort of analysis, so it has been read in many different ways, some of them quite naïve, over the years.  What does she actually describe?

First, she describes a birth practice in which the women in attendance perform two movements: a soft undulation, and a sharp downward pelvic contraction, while singing, and in which the woman giving birth imitates the movements at times during the process.  It appears to be a use of “sympathetic magic” – magically accomplishing something by imitation – in which the pelvic movements of the attendants assist the movements of labor.  Morocco also observes that these movements were like some of the movements found among professional dancers. 

On the other hand, this is not exactly belly dancing.  Later, when Morocco asked her chief informant[17] if she had been dancing, she was told, “ ‘We imitated the natural movements. She had to do these movements when she gave birth [literally, “gave to light”] because she couldn’t do otherwise.’”  The moving women did not regard what they were doing as related to their usual social dancing (SIDTA), or for that matter, as any kind of dance.  In other words, in their view, this was decidedly not belly dance. 

If we are looking for torso articulation of any sort by attendants at a birth, then Morocco describes it.  But if we are looking for evidence of belly dance involved with birth, let alone evidence of the origins of the dance, this is more ambiguous.

This brings up a significant question in our approach to the history of belly dance: to what extent do we respect the local views in our own discussions of the meaning and history of the dance?  For example, do we respect the local opinion that these torso movements during birth were not dance, and especially were not belly dance?  Or do we insist that they were belly dance, and use them to support the idea that belly dance is intimately related to birth processes? 

In anthropology, the terms “emic” and “etic” encapsulate this dilemma (see sidebar).  An emic view, or a view that tries to get as close as possible to how people from within the culture see things, would agree that the scene Morocco describes does not relate to belly dance.  An etic view, a view that uses cultural material to explore or set out our own ideas of what is happening, might use Morocco’s account as evidence that there is a connection.  Neither view is “wrong” or “right,” but they might provide different readings of the same data.

Yet even if you adopt an etic view of this evidence, it is also essential to realize how extremely rare this sort of scene is in the Middle East as a whole.  Morocco is, in fact, the only person who has ever described witnessing such a scene to a Western audience.  In the past 30-40 years and even before, many women anthropologists with good rapport with their ethnic communities have done field work in the Middle East, and many health care professionals and aide workers have provided medical and personal assistance in any number of Middle Eastern locales.  In my research for this chapter, I both consulted the academic literature and interviewed dancers and field researchers who have worked in Egypt, the Persian Gulf, Turkey, and other areas of North Africa and the Middle East.  None of them, except for Morocco of course, have personally seen this sort of scene.

Morocco says that this practice was unusual enough (in 1967) that she flew out to the Middle East from New York specifically to attend this birth.  The scene she describes – a large number of attendants and a huge campsite and tent devoted to the occasion – implies a wealthy group and a special occasion.  Obviously, poor women would not have this kind of support.  Obviously, most births were not like this in the 1960’s, or Morocco would have been able to work her way into one more easily, with the aplomb that characterizes her relationship with the world and its people.  Either this sort of birth was a rarity to begin with, or it had become one.

Morocco’s fascinating account provides a colorful thread in the tapestry of women’s relationships and the role of dance within them.  But it  should not be the linchpin of broad assumptions the birth ritual was either the ancient origin or the typical Middle Eastern use of belly dance.


Second-Hand Accounts: There are several of these, mostly relating to the early years of the 20th century.  In a 1961 article, the pioneering ethnic dancer La Meri (Russell Meriwether Hughes) says, “QUOTE.”  This implies that such things were common in the 1920’s, though it is not clear whether Fatima took part in them as a dancer or as a family member.  Morocco relates meeting a Saudi woman,[18] Farab Firdoz, early in her dance career, who told her about performing such rituals when she was younger, as late as 1937.  Firdoz “had been told/ instructed by her Arabian grandmother, who lived in Bahrain but was from one of the desert (as versus city) clans/tribes.”  Firdoz “had been present when the women of her grandmother’s tribe gathered around the pallet of a woman in childbirth and did those movements, which she did along with them. Other dances were done afterwards to celebrate the birth, as well as a more elaborate repetition of the actual birth dance.”  Later, she met a Moroccan man who eventually steered her to the birth she witnessed.  Fatma was a Jewish Egyptian working in Morocco when she met la Meri.  Farab Firdoz relates a practice of her grandmother’s desert tribe, a practice which, reading between the lines, was not typically Saudi.


Reports of Middle Eastern people who acknowledge the connection:   Morocco reports that various people have spoken to her about her articles on dance and birth, pleased that she has acknowledged that connection in the culture.  Amel Tafsout, the Algerian dancer and dance scholar, asserts that belly dance does have a connection with childbirth in her native Algeria.  Shareen el Safy told me that the Egyptian choreographer Mohammad Khalil had told her that birth dances like that described by Morocco were practiced by Berbers.  There may be other people of Middle Eastern extraction who believe there is a connection between birth and belly dance, or that belly dance is widely practiced at births, whom I or others I spoke to have not encountered.  I wouldn’t be surprised.  As Ohanian’s 1923 account demonstrates, that is a possible reading of the dance by a person from within the culture (though Ohanian’s Persian dances were probably far removed on the continuum from the Cairene danses du ventre, possibly giving her an outsider’s perspective on the techniques). 

Now, in the 21st century, when even Egyptians are beginning to use the term “belly dance,” there is the question of whether modern Middle Eastern people who see the connection are reflecting authentic Middle Eastern cultural responses, or Western revisions of belly dance history.  Because of the shameful aspects of dance performance in the Arab world, there has been a reluctance among Eastern historians to research and discuss this dance.  Consequently Western voices have made an impact on the East, and our conviction that the dance originated as a birth ritual, like our term “belly dance,” may have found its way full circle.



As I said above, this rather brutal accounting only takes into account published evidence, or evidence that I, sitting at my desk, have been able to glean second- or third-hand from people with deeper connections with the diverse cultures of the Middle East.  But here it is:

·        We have no strong evidence, and hardly any even equivocal evidence, from any period of antiquity, that belly dance was related to birth practices. 

·        The comparative ethnographic evidence does not offer any parallel dance-related childbirth traditions, at least as far as I have been able to find.

·        We have only one first-hand account of a “birth ritual” involving pelvic movements, and the participants there did not regard these movements as dance.

·        We have two accounts of conversations with Eastern women who said they had attended or participated in such rituals.  The last instance we find is in 1967, the other two in the 1920’s and 1930’s. 

·        The eye witness account and the second hand accounts point specifically to North African desert peoples.

·        We have a few people of Middle Eastern ethnicity agreeing that there is a connection of some sort between belly dance and childbirth and/or motherhood, the first in 1923, and others to the present day.

·        We have widespread puzzlement or denial by people of Middle Eastern ethnicity that there is a connection between belly dance and childbirth.


What do we make of this?

First, with respect to antiquity: The absence of evidence is not proof that belly dance (or sympathetic pelvic movement) was never used by attendants at a birth, since historical sources are notoriously bad at preserving the intimacies of female experience in most periods.  But it is very definitely a reason not to use “birth ritual” as an origin story for belly dance.  It makes us look foolish to cling to an explanation that has nothing concrete to support it.  While the “childbirth connection” has been used to legitimize and rehabilitate the art since 1923, there are other ways to do this that do not involve unknowns (at best) or fictions (at worst).

What do we make of our three scattered accounts (two of them imprecise and second-hand) about Middle Eastern practices of birth ritual? 

It is possible to read them as the signs of a dying practice, once universal, but now edged out of existence by modernization and Westernization.  But I do not think that is a necessary or even good reading of the evidence. 

There is no doubt that the changes of the 20th and 21st century have brought about the end of many customs, some of them reflecting aspects of fertility that seem at odds with the mainstream of religious belief.  For example, the Arabic scholar John Lewis Burckhardt[19] described a marriage custom in which a man wrapped head to toe in white, wearing a massive male organ made out of cotton, cavorted in the wedding procession of a bride, and this interesting custom seems to have faded out since 1817.  (But it was apparently not widespread before then.)  McPhereson’s 1940 account of the celebrations of Egypt’s moulids[20] (Arabic saint’s days) gives a powerful indication of the changes that were sweeping through Egypt at that time, as year by year the types of performance evolved and changed.  Egypt was not the only place in the Arab world to be so affected.  As many anthropologists have found, a change in power structures or means of production often brings about sweeping changes in folk customs.  Interestingly, it appears that the folk dances that are most adversely affected in this process are the men’s dances that originally reflected tribal identity, which is now fading in the face of modernization.[21]  In any case, the Westernization of the Arab elite, the availability of  Western material goods, the medicalization of childbirth, urbanization and industrialization, and many other factors, have been at work in the Arab world for a long time. 

When we, as modern Westerners who are attuned to other cultural realities (and I’m putting all belly dancers in this category, rightly or wrongly) try to understand the cultural changes of the world, there are several mythic narratives that help us do it.  One of these is the story of “women’s rituals repressed by men.”   Another is the story of “native customs stamped out by Westerners.”  These narratives define cultural processes we see as threatening, and alert us to the losses globalization brings about in the world.  They also give us permission to act as champions of the “losers” in this cultural war.  They give us the “right” to save or at least honor the lost rituals and the lost customs.

Or do they?  All too often we recreate these rituals and customs in our own image, and use them for our own purposes.  And this is really the opposite of championing the underdog.

We need to examine our own desire to believe in birth rituals, and our tendency to project them back into the past as a universal practice or central ethos of belly dance.  This is something that serves our own purposes: to legitimize the dance by associating it with birth rather than sex, or to validate our perception of belly dance as a supportive feminine art.  More insidiously, by putting belly dance in the “victim” position in the cultural narrative of the West’s steamrolling of women and other cultures, we justify our own rewriting of the meaning of the dance, even if it is at odds with the cultural perspectives of the vast majority of the people of the Middle East.  It begs the crucial question, “what is the significance of the dance within its native cultures?” and gives us permission to reinscribe it with our own meanings.  Whatever might have been lost in this period of cultural change, we do not have the right to replace the unknown with myths of our own making.


The Place of Childbirth in Belly Dance

The Middle East has gone through immense cultural changes in the past 150 years.  For that matter, over the past 4000 years, it has seen many empires rise and fall, many invasions and periods of exploration, and changes in means of production.  It is not – however appealing the orientalist idea is to us – an unchanging repository of pristine culture.  It changes on its own, and according to its own necessities.

Neither is it uniform.  While some areas, such as urban Egypt, the urban Levant, and coastal North Africa, have absorbed substantial Western influence, there are parts of the Middle East and the rest of the SIDTA area that have not.  This does not mean that they live in the realm of orientalist timelessness, but it may mean that things like childbirth practices have not changed in the past hundred years.

Still, despite the modern interest (both popular and professional) in women’s practices, there are no more reports of danced birth rituals from these areas or any others.  

The modern narrative of the destructive powers of patriarchy and of the West gives us a familiar pattern in which to read this: another women’s ritual destroyed by patriarchy, another folk custom wiped out by Western incursions.  But we should be wary of any reading that collapses such a complex area as childbirth practices into such as simple pattern. 

If belly dance birth rituals were a widespread matriarchal custom stamped out by patriarchy, then how did one survive until 1967? 

If Westernization wiped out formerly widespread belly dance birth rituals, then why do they not exist in areas where Westernization is less intrusive? 

The real situation is far more complex, and I think it has to hinge on two central truths.  One is that in human cultures there is a vast variety of possibilities for birth customs (or any custom), and the many different local areas and distinct peoples of the Middle East probably had different ones.  Some of these may have involved sympathetic pelvic motion and singing by attendants, such as Morocco describes.  Others most likely did not.

Another given is that change happens, not always for reasons of incursion or repression.  For example, the ancient Greeks began cremating rather than burying their dead not long before the advent of writing – though no one has ever figured out exactly why.  Customs change, regardless, even important and meaningful ones.

The way I see it, our scattered sources do offer the possibility that pelvic movements (not really dance) were part of a labor practice in which sympathetic motion was used to encourage the laboring woman.  They do not really support the idea that this practice was widespread, let alone universal; if anything, they point to North Africa and possibly the Berber culture as the home of this sort of labor practice.

There is nothing in our sources to indicate that “birth dance” rituals were ever common or widespread in the Middle East.  The only way to get there from here – “there” being the view of widespread or universal belly dance-birth rituals, and “here” being the state of our evidence – is to take a ride on the train of our culture’s self-serving narratives: the ones that allow us to recreate the past (or other cultures, and especially the past of other cultures) as our own playground of the spirit, in which we construct worlds and histories amenable to ourselves.


Middle Eastern Perspectives

People vary within a culture, and one source of variance, especially when you have a complex and multi-cultural society, is the interpretation people put on their own cultural products.  In the Middle East, there are people of widely different political systems, material cultures, means of production, religious habits, languages, and levels and varieties of education.  Even about the most important issues, multicultural societies have widely varying opinions.

The majority opinion in the modern Middle East seems to be that belly dance is not related to childbirth.  But there are evidently people of Middle Eastern descent who believe that it is, in one way or another.  Something about it – the movement, or the intensity, or the maternal love some dancers emanate – may make them think so. 

There are also evidently Middle Eastern people who believe that the connection of belly dance with childbirth lies in the distant past.  For example, ____ told Morocco that “QUOTE”  This is not evidence that it did.  The average Middle Eastern person is not qualified to state what happened in the distant past any more than I am able to describe the birth customs of my Celtic ancestors a thousand years ago.  Middle Eastern people, like modern Americans, use the unknowable past for their own purposes, and respond to feelings of the primal by putting them in the past.

It is possible that some people, perhaps those who love dance and think deeply about it, may seek meaning for it in the symbolic realm of motherhood.  They may locate these meanings in a vision of past practices, because that is an open space for it in their minds.  There may be places where (or at least people for whom) there is a tacit understanding that belly dance relates (at least in part) to childbirth, just as there is evidently a majority view that they are very different things.  We should not expect uniformity of perspective from the Middle East.  But when we hear so many people say that belly dance and childbirth are not related, we should also honor that and revise our own opinions to incorporate this thread of the realities of the dance. 

If we insist on telling our story at the expense of theirs, we should also contemplate what necessities of our own bring us to this point.


A Dance of Birth and Motherhood

When Armen Ohanian wrote of the “primitive purity” of the dance, that “represents maternity, the mysterious conception of life, the suffering and the joy with which a new soul is brought into the world,” I understood exactly what she meant.  I understood it because I have seen it many times.  In the Egyptian tradition of raqs sharqi, the emotional power of a mature woman’s dance can evoke all of that.  “Suffering and joy,” whether it is the dance of love between lovers or the immense act of giving that results in a new life, is all a part of the emotional range of raqs sharqi at its best.

In my own dances, I often do feel and portray the mother-love I learned about in the first days I spent with my newborn child.  It is powerful and all-encompassing, and in the sliding, effervescent emotionality of the dance, it easily rises up and transmutes into other feelings and other types of wisdom.  It has become a part of the complexion of my dance, and perhaps the pain and fierce joy of childbirth informs it in some way.  If it surfaces anywhere, it would be in the physically intense moments of the taqsim, where the undulations bring all of my attention into my physical and emotional centers.

Dancing offers to both the dancer and her audience an experience of tarab, or enchantment, which is something like the experience of communitas: a place where shared feeling carries you into an eternal moment.  Part of this enchantment is the sense of eternity, even while you participate keenly in the moment.  The emotionality of mother-love may emerge in this enchantment, and take on an existence that seems to transcend time.

For the Western dancer in particular, belly dance may seem to evoke archetypes as well – among them the archetype of the Great Mother, nurturing the world through her endless bounty.  Entering into an archetype, and recognizing it in your dancing, seems to catapult you into a realm of eternal truths.  But archetypes, like tarab, are also very much of the moment.  Archetypes are not really universal, but rather formed in their specifics by each society.  We see the truths, and feel the emotions, that our culture has prepared us for.  

Enraptured by tarab or by a sense of embodying an archetype, we may try to express the truths we find in these states as historical truths.  But this does not work.  Danced truths are not material realities.  The truths about birth or motherhood that arise in a performance of raqs sharqi are artistic and emotional truths, not evidence of past practices.  They do not convey facts about what happened in delivery places a thousand or five thousand or fifty years ago. 

By insisting on a material reality for belly dance’s expression of truths about birth and motherhood, we ironically denigrate the dance’s power as a vehicle for artistic expression, thus denying it a place equal to Western arts.  Belly dance can be a “birth dance” primarily in the web of meaning that emerges, for dancer or for some of her audience, in performance.  Birth and rebirth, pain and struggle, and the bounty of mother-love, find their reality in the moment of the dance, as archetype, as metaphor, as enchantment, and as emotion. 

We should be content with that.



[1] Database

[2] This claim may in fact be true, not because of the actual amount of pain but in the dynamics of how it is described and dealt with.  ____ point out that in American hospitals, the woman is not in charge of her own pain medication and might have to convince a doctor to medicate her by displaying severe pain, and that she may feel desperation because of her lack of control when help is available, complicating her physical pain.  Women in traditional societies, where pain medication is not typically available, may have a more fatalistic idea about the pain; since they are not regarded as patients but as women who are doing a hard job, their experience of pain may not be complicated by disempowerment.

[3]28, 55

[4] Personal communication, 7/10/06.

[5] This technique seems to be universal, reasonable enough, since it is possible and it works.  The duration of the push is limited by how long a woman can reasonably bear down before she needs a relaxed

inhalation  .  What varies is local wisdom on when to start the pushing process Dina’s experience aside, the indications both East and West are that belly dance expertise is not a significant factor in ease of birth.


[6] Shareen el Safy, who has interviewed …  Personal communication, 7/12/06.

[7] Dancer/teacher A’isha Azar …. Personal communication, 7/17/06.

[8] Lincoln, ______.  Where there is reference to sex or birth, it is wrapped up in symbolic imagery – for example, among the ___, a young girl pierces the leaf that covers a pot, symbolizing defloration, but in a ritual context that aligns it with ideas important to her people as a whole.  This is one place where there is a sort of “urban legend” situation going on: what about the Ohala hula?  What about Seneca dance practices?  All I can say is, show me an anthropologist who has documented this, as opposed to a dancer who talks about some bygone practice, and I will believe it’s a widespread phenomenon.

[9] Ref

[10] Kealiinohomoku – Hawaii/Bali

[11] For the !Kung: SOURCE; For Russian practices: SOURCE

[12] From the account by Jordan, 32-3.

[13] In all of these, I am focusing on published material, both popular and academic, some of which incorporates aspects of folk tradition.  I realize that published material often does not include vital elements of folk tradition, but on the other hand, often it does, such as Morocco’s accounts of her encounters with it.  Many published accounts of experiences in the Middle East include interviews and commentary that do include folk traditions.

[14] Thus in Cairo one evening … Ohanian 261-2.

[15] predates the Western colonial presence in the East … The colonial presence definitely wrought some changes in Eastern dance, though, and that will be discussed more in chapter ____ .

[16] Our main piece of evidence … Her accounts of the events, which originally appeared in several different publications, can be found on her web site,

[17] “Giving to Light.”  Morocco later clarified the issues involved for me in a personal communication, 7/8/06.

[18] “Giving to Light,” and personal communication, 7/18/06.

[19] the Arabic scholar John Lewis Burckhardt … 137-8.

[20] McPhereson’s 1940 account of the celebrations of moulids … And while the moulids were constantly changing, they were nothing to the changes in popular entertainment in urban venues – McPherson has quite a lot to say on the dire influences of jazz on the local arts.  __________

[21] Images of Enchantment ____.