Belly dance is a unique and beautiful form of ancient dance that originated in the Middle East. It can be traced back to even before the Ottoman period, during which time it spread into the rest of the Middle East through caravans of travelling Gypsies. Belly dance is best known as a torso-driven dance, with an emphasis on the articulation of the hips. Aside from the dance moves, belly dancing is also characterized by its distinctive costume, which typically includes a fitted top or bra, a fitted hip belt, and a full-length skirt or harem pants. The bra and belt are richly decorated with beads, sequins, crystals and embroidery. But what puzzles most people is why belly dancers wear coins.
Bras and belts gilded with coins have long offered a mysterious and evocative allure to this unique dance. Photographs from the 19th and early 20th of dancers draped in coin jewelry have since stoked the curiosity of many admirers of this dance. It is interesting to know the customs behind this fashion. The basic story is as follows. Sometime in the past, in the Middle East where belly dancing originated, young and marriageable women would dance for coins that were thrown to them. They would then sew these coins onto their hips scarves, saving them for dowry. When a woman had earned enough, she could return home to a proper and happy marriage and give up dancing.
This basic story has evolved depending on time and place, and the emphasis is shifted in the Arab world, where one detail is added: Young women would sew their dowry to their clothes to let men know how much money they had. As men followed the caravans, they would hear coins jingling from far away, signifying that a woman of marriageable age was in that caravan. The dowry sewn on the girl’s clothes would tell a man whether he could afford to marry her.
In truth, these stories are not supported by evidence, which make them “mythic histories”, meaning myths that masquerade as historical accounts. Myths are public, collective dreams, according to Sigmund Freud. When a mythos is told and retold in a context like the belly dance community, there must be strong underlying reasons for its popularity. It must be satisfying some vision that the dancers have of themselves and of the dance itself.
Let’s take one of the more important questions: Why does she wear her coins? The myth implies that there is no safer place to keep them than on her own person as jewelry. This is actually quite accurate to practices in historical Middle Eastern cultures. This kind of display of one’s own value – even if it rests on patriarchal judgments of women’s worth – is a strong non-conformist statement. It fits well with the experience of belly dancing as a celebration of individual expression and beauty.
Another question is: why is she dancing for dowry? In the Arab world, it is understood that dowry is not expected from the girl, or even from her father and family. It is to be expected from the husband-to-be! In this story of a woman dancing for dowries, to woman is portrayed to be in a position to reify herself. The dancing brides know what the going rate is, and they stop when they have it.
So the next time you admire a belly dance performance, know that coins are there for more than just flattering the dancer’s figure. The coins themselves tell meaningful histories of a rich ancient culture, and the kind of women these culture had.
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