Although it is largely seen as a dance of seduction, bellydance -- the dance of the hips and torso -- has a complex history in the Middle East, where it has been practiced for hundreds if not thousands of years as a folk dance done by women and men of all ages, that celebrates life and community.
In spite of European orientalist fantasies, it is highly unlikely that the dance was used seductively in harems, since a sultan spent little time in the harem. Further his first wife or mother would generally choose a given evening's consort.
There is, however, some evidence that it was once associated with ancient fertility rites.
Dancer and historian Morocco (Carolina Dinicu) recounts her experience with a Berber tribe where she joined the women in circling a mother-to-be with undulations who “danced the baby into the world”.
She also quotes a Victorian-era dancer named Armen Ohanian who credits the baleful “spirit of the Occident” with the lewd perception of the dance. According to Ohanian, “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.”
While there are many who dispute the “fertility” origins of bellydance (read more here and here), there is some evidence in ancient figurines and etchings that may indicate a dance that articulates the hips and torso.
Regardless of such speculations, the dance is practiced by many women and men throughout the world who have found that it helps them to develop a positive connection to and appreciation of their bodies.