Defining Belly Dance
The term "belly dance" is somewhat of a misnomer in that it does not primarily involve movements of the stomach, nor do you need a bare belly to perform it. Belly dance involves both percussive and sinuous movements of the torso and hips and traditionally would be improvised to live music rather than heavily choreographed. In its countries of origin belly dance is generally referred to as oriental dance (raqs sharqi in Arabic and oryantal dans in Turkish). This can be confusing to English speakers as the term the Orient is more often used to refer to the Far East, rather than the Near and Middle East. Due to the prevalence of English across the globe though, the term belly dance is readily used and understood even in the countries of origin.
Where Does Belly Dance Come From?
The strongest cultural traditions of belly dance can be found in the countries of Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece (where it is referred to as the tsifteteli). These countries are generally regarded as having their own distinct and recognisable styles. However, professional and social belly dance is enjoyed by audiences of all ages and social classes across the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. Professional belly dance performances can be seen at a variety of venues from five star hotels in exclusive districts of Cairo to rural weddings.
Other Regional Dance Styles
Along with belly dance or oriental dance, a belly dancer may incorporate various regional and folk styles into her performances depending on her audience. In Egypt, belly dancers will include styles that reflect the cultural heritage and traditions of Egypt such as saidi (from upper Egypt), baladi (urban folk music somewhat akin to the blues tradition in North America), Nubian and Eskanderani/Alexandrian style. In Lebanon, belly dancers may include in their set the dabke, which is a line dance usually performed as a group, which can be found primarily in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Palestine. Belly dancers working in the Gulf will incorporate khaleeji into their sets. Khaleeji is an adjective from the Arabic language which means from or of the Gulf. There are many different styles of dance and music from the Gulf, but the term khaleeji is used as a convenient blanket term to refer to all of them.
A fantastic resource for learning more about belly dance is Shira's website. It contains hundreds of articles about dance, music and culture, along with a huge body of song translations.
You can also read my article below about the controversial topic of "belly dance fusion".