The following is a post by Alexandra, visual artistperformer and instructor at Belly Motions.

The power of fantasy and romanticism found in the art of the early 19th century Orientalist movement in many ways opened the gateways to the Middle East. Passion, power, violence and exoticism were also popular themes. So, what did “Belly Dance” art look like back then and why? What does it look like today?

Arab Cavalry Practicing a Charge, 1832

Let’s first look at a few brief but important historical facts. The 1800’s bore an artistic movement called “Orientalism,” a branch of the “Romantic” movement which strived to radically turn away from traditional and conservative ideas in an effort to rebuild collapsing politics and culture in a post-Napoleonic era. Romanticism focused on modern subject matters and encouraged artists to explore emotion, vibrancy and passion in their work.

Women of Algiers, 1834

French artists, looking to take part in this new movement, accompanied politicians to North Africa on diplomatic excursions to places like Morocco and Algeria, where they documented domestic life within the Arab world. They produced luscious paintings that were filled with information and color. The famous “harem” scenes characteristic of the Orientalist movement show women lounging on bright and decorative pillows and rugs or sometimes bathing nude in baths.

In reality, these images were fantastical and invented by the artist through rumors, imagination and political propaganda. Islamic culture and religion did not actually permit men and women to be in the same quarters, therefore artists created “generic” images such as Eugène Delacroix’s Women of Algiers in their Harem (1834) and Arab Cavalry Practicing a Charge (1832).

The Middle East was thus “romanticized” by Westerners, leaving no voice for the reality of Middle Eastern people to showcase the truth about their culture. On the other hand, it did open doors for cultural exchange and curious travelers from all walks of life to venture into what was then a mysterious and unexplored world.

Fifi Abdou

Times have changed, and today 21st Century Middle Eastern art finds its own identity in wide a range of mediums including paintings, photographs, film and, some of our favorites – music and dance! For example, Egyptian Artist Youssef Nabil photographed living legends such as the legendary Oriental Dancer Fifi Abdou and singer, Natacha Atlas. Persian Artist Shirin Neshat made poetic films and photographs that document Iran’s politics and culture.

Natacha Atlas

Personally, as a western artist who’s been heavily influenced by Middle Eastern music and dance, I find myself in search of an artistic identity of my own through Middle Eastern culture. My paintings capture (belly) dance movement and emotion in celebration of  that very confidence and sensual femininity that was first depicted way back in the early 19th century as a “fantasy” but later became a “taboo;” it’s an ongoing theme between freedom and oppression that is still evident in Middle Eastern culture today.

As Belly Dancers we should “thank” the Orientalists, for their art sparked interest in what we know today as the Art of Belly Dance, which has grown to reach a variety of cultures globally. Belly Dance has become a continuous, inspirational circle of cultural interactions between countries in all continents of the world, each culture adding a bit of its own flavor to the mix!

For more on Orientalism and Belly Dance History, check out the following sources:

Orientalism by Edward Said (1978)

Dance: Orientalism, Transnationalism, And Harem Fantasy, Edited by Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers-Young (2005)   

For more on my artwork, visit my website by