“Bellydance” is a western term used to describe a wide variety of dances native to the Middle or Near East which focus on articulation of the hips and torso. 


Since many dancers consider this term to be a misnomer, a more accurate term would be Raqs Sharqi, which means Eastern Dance or Oriental Dance (also acceptable terms).


The term is believed to come from the French “danse du ventre” (“dance of the stomach”), coined by Victorian-era colonials who encountered what they considered to be an exotic dance of the abdomen.


While several forms of bellydance include abdominal movements, such as undulations, belly rolls, contractions, and expansions, the dance’s primary expression is in hip, torso, head/neck, and arm/hand articulations. Most modern styles include influences form Western dance forms including ballet and flamenco, and so a performance will often involve graceful footwork, as well.


There are three categories of movement in bellydance:

  1. Shimmies/Flutters/Vibrations – Fast, continuous back-and-forth movements most often of the hips or chest/shoulders, but the abdomen can be vibrated in a flutter, and some dancers will shimmy a single leg, arm, even their hair!
  2. Accents – Sharp, staccato movements usually of the hips, chest, shoulders, belly, neck, head or hair and are used rhythmically, in time with the music or as accents. They include lifts, drops, contractions, expansions, locks, pops, and hits.
  3. Fluid/Serpentine Movements – Sinuous “snake-like” movements of the hips, chest, shoulders, arms/hands, head/hair—even the entire body—that most often form circles, figure-8s, or undulations. They can include horizontal and vertical circles and figure 8s of the hips and chest, snake arms, hand circles, upper and lower-body undulations and slides. Fast slides and circles can also be used as accents

There are also a wide variety of styles in bellydance.


From the Middle East the most common styles are Egyptian, which focuses on intricate hip work, gooey abdominals, and balletic footwork, and Turkish which tends to have sharper, larger movements than Egyptian, and more of a focus on the upper body. Floor work (kneeling, laying, rolling on the floor) is also common in Turkish dance.


Other popular Middle Eastern styles include Lebanese—which is similar to Egyptian in its intricate hipwork, though the dancers tend to wear high heels, which creates a sharper upward motion in the hips. Lebanese dancers also include dabke-style footwork—and Iraqi, which features wild hair throws, folkloric foot-stomping, and lots of floor work. Knives are also a favorite prop in Iraqi dance.


Many American dancers blend these and other Middle Eastern styles with Western forms of “showgirl” dance to create the glitzy American Cabaret which incorporates a wide variety of props like wings, fan veils, swords, and fire (candles, poi, fire fans, etc.)


American dancers formed a distinct style of bellydance called American Tribal Style (ATS) which was intended to return to the community-based roots of Middle Eastern folk dance, but has developed a stylized vocabulary of movements that focus on sinuous isolation similar to the movements of Hip Hop.


A comprehensive list of Middle Eastern and Western dancers, dance styles, and dance history can be found on veteran midwestern dancer Shira's site.


The Baltimore-based dancer Shems also provides a substantial of bellydance styles that features videos of each style.