Bellydancing is a dance form that originated centuries ago; it involves isolating the muscles for moves such as twisting the abdomen and hip movements. Performed primarily by women, bellydancing is a low-impact exercise that could help people lose weight, tone muscles, improve their posture, and relax.


For centuries, bellydancing has been a form of entertainment in Middle Eastern countries. The dance form spread across the Middle East and beyond, brought to other countries by nomadic travelers known as gypsies. These men and women danced in public to support themselves, and audiences showed their appreciation by tossing coins to them. Modern audiences also enjoy watching bellydancers and may see them perform while eating at a Greek restaurant or at a multicultural festival.

Interest in bellydancing led to the creation of classes where students could learn the steps and moves. Some students learn to bellydance to experience this aspect of their heritage; others bellydance as an enjoyable way to exercise. People may take classes to learn bellydancing at a studio, community center, or at home with instruction from DVDs, books, or online courses.


While most bellydancers are women, men performed bellydances in nineteenth-century Egypt. During the twenty-first century, male and female performers bellydance in Egypt and other countries. Performers often teach classes, and instruction is offered in countries ranging from Ireland to Australia.

Classes for men and coed classes are held at locations including Toronto, Canada. Bellydance classes are offered for children as young as 6, for mothers and daughters, and age-specific groups such as teenagers or people age 55 or older. Some instructors only teach women; others offer coed classes for both genders.


Dance has been a form of expression for thousands of years, and there are several theories about the origin of bellydancing. Dance was part of religious rituals before Christianity and Islam were established. Ancient peoples revered women because they could give birth, and matriarchal religions focused on the worship of female deities like Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The isolated moves of the stomach and hips found in bellydancing may have been part of fertility dances that priestesses performed at temples. There is also a theory that some bellydance moves made childbirth less painful for women.

A woman bellydances in a traditional outfit. Bellydancing is a low-impact exercise, performed primarily by women, that can help with weight loss, muscle toning, posture, and relaxation.

A woman bellydances in a traditional outfit. Bellydancing is a low-impact exercise, performed primarily by women, that can help with weight loss, muscle toning, posture, and relaxation.

These nomads supported themselves with public performances that included dances with isolated body moves. They sometimes used props like veils, candles, and sticks. For a time, public performances were allowed because cities taxed the dancers and welcomed the income. However, complaints from the religious community led to the ban of public dancing in Cairo in 1834.

By that time, tourism in the Middle East brought belly dancing to the attention of Europeans and Americans. One of those Europeans was Englishman Edward William Lane. He lived in Cairo and wrote a book titled The Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians, according to a 2008 New York Times article. Reporter Daniel Williams quoted Lane's observation that Cairo residents preferred male dancers, believing that women should not “expose themselves.”

Cairo lifted the ban on dancing around 1850, but did not allow the activity in public. Dancing was done indoors in cabarets, businesses like nightclubs that offered entertainment.

Names of the dance

In the Middle East, bellydances developed in Middle Eastern and Near Eastern countries were known as raqs sharqi. This is Arabic for “dance of the East” or “dance of the Orient.” The presence of bellydancing in cabarets in nineteenth-century Cairo led to raqs sharqi, also being known as the “Egyptian cabaret style.”

A larger audience learned about bellydancing through the new entertainment form of movies. Films sometimes showed what was called a “Hollywood” version of bellydancing with sometimes exaggerated movements that shocked the public.

Immigrants from the Middle East brought the authentic version of bellydances with them to the United States. During the 1930s, dancers performed these routines in nightclubs and restaurants. By the late 1960s, teachers offered bellydance classes at locations ranging from adult schools to dance studios. The classes were aimed at women and promoted bellydance as a form of expression and a way to lose weight.

Contemporary bellydance forms range from the folkloric, which is based on centuries-old tradition, to modern bellydancing that could include elements of hip-hop steps, ballet, and other dance styles.


Although the abdomen and hips are the focus of bellydancing, other parts of the body play a role in the dance that involves isolating parts of the body. The dance may incorporate movements from head to toe, so the dancer begins by establishing the proper dance posture, warming up, and gently stretching before beginning to dance.

For the dance posture, the dancer stands with feet 12 in. (30.48 cm) apart. The knees are loose, and the spine is straight. The shoulders are pushed back slightly, and the chin is raised 1/2 in. (1.27 cm) higher than it usually is. The abdomen is flexed so that the stomach is raised, and the dancer feels tension in the lower abdomen.

Dance moves

When dancing, the dancer may stay in one place or walk and turn to music. Some bellydance moves include the:

Dance Styles

A person may bellydance alone or with one or more dancers. Most bellydances in the United States draw upon the Egyptian cabaret moves and costumes. In the United States, this style may be known as American Cabaret or American Restaurant style bellydancing. Other forms of bellydancing in the West include American Tribal Style.

CABARET. Cabaret style is the most recognizable form of bellydancing because of its history as a performance art. Usually one person dances at a time, and dancers usually follow a set routine. Dancers wear colorful costumes. Women usually wear a bra-like top and a floor-length skirt or flowing pants. The midriff is exposed, and there is usually a coin belt at the top of the skirt or pants. The belt is layered with coins and has historical meaning. Centuries ago, the dancers put the coins from the audience in their belts.

For the modern dancer, the sound of the coins striking each other adds to the performance. The sounds intensify as movements become more rapid. The male dancer may wear pants and a vest so that his chest and abdomen are exposed.

MALE DANCES. Men in coed classes learn the same movements as women, and some male dancers say they add more force to the moves to make them more “masculine.”

Some folkloric dances such as the takib (sometimes spelled tahib) began as male dances. The dance developed centuries ago by shepherds in Upper Egypt involved the cane or stick (takib) used in martial arts. Men thrust the sticks at each other, an activity that resembled fencing and was accompanied by music. Dance historians say that female dancers gently mocked these moves in their version of this dance.

For the contemporary version of dances like the takib, a man may wear a caftan (sometimes spelled kaftan), a long-sleeved, loose-fitting robe.


Preparation for bellydancing usually starts with instruction. Students in bellydance classes may dress in costumes or wear loose, comfortable clothing. Some women wear sports bras and yoga pants, with scarves tied around their waists.

Someone new to bellydancing begins by taking a class or learning at home with a DVD or book. The dancer begins by warming up and stretching. The goal of preparation is to build up strength and flexibility. A warm-up of five to 10 minutes could consist of walking in time to music. Some dance instructors use yoga-based stretching for a warm-up.

Learning to bellydance could be an ongoing process. The goal initially is to learn basic body movements, with arm moves learned later. Advanced bellydance instruction could include learning moves like the shimmy and the dervish turn. Experienced students could also learn to dance with props such as veils, canes, or zills, finger cymbals that create musical sounds. The zills are musical instruments, and a dancer wears two pairs. There is one on the thumb and middle finger of each hand, and the person plays the zills while dancing their sounds.


People should consult a doctor before beginning any exercise program. While bellydancing is a low-impact exercise that does not put a great deal of strain on the body, pregnancy and some physical conditions such as obesity and joint problems could limit the movements that a person does.


These limitations are usually modifications such as bellydance routines designed for pregnant women and a modified version of the dervish turn for a person with a spinal condition or neck problems.


Bellydancing is a weight-bearing exercise, which is one that is done while a person is standing. Weight-bearing exercises help to maintain bone density (thickness), and bellydancing improves posture and muscle tone. Bellydancing could result in weight loss, as well as firm up parts of the body including the arms, abdomen, and hips. Furthermore, bellydancing is a form of expression that could give a person more confidence.

People who take classes may bellydance with other students in performances held as part of the class. These performances, open to family and friends, are an opportunity to practice, improve technique, and gain the health benefits received from exercise. Students may also join with their teacher and perform at community events such as fairs. This could lead to an added benefit: earning income while doing an enjoyable fitness exercise.

See also Dance ; Obesity ; Stretching ; Weight loss ; Yoga .



Coluccia, Pina, Annette Paffrath, and Jean Pütz. Belly Dancing: The Sensual Art of Energy and Spirit. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 2005.

Cooper, Laura. Belly Dancing Basics. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2004.

Sharif, Keti. Bellydance: A Guide to Middle Eastern Dance, Its Music, Its Culture and Costume. Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2004.


Williams, Daniel. “Letter from Egypt: Making a Comeback: Male Belly Dancers in Egypt.” The New York (January 2, 2008). (accessed January 10, 2017).


Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association, member, .

Liz Swain

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.