Raqs Sharqi (Arabic) or Oryantal Dansi (Turkish) is considered one of the oldest dance forms and has been influenced by many cultures. The dance can be traced back to Mesopotamia where temple engravings depicting dancers have been found. Egyptian tomb paintings dating as far back as the fourteenth century BC depict dancers.
Around 0 B.C. there are Greek writings that described Nile dancers and the dance is also depicted in Persian miniature paintings from the 12th and 13th centuries. It is believed by many that this dance form originally started as an ancient ritual dance by women to prepare for childbirth.
The Nawar (which is the Indian word for gypsy) traveled from India throughout the Middle East. The Nawar are believed by many to be the ancestors of the Ghawazee. Similarities in the traditional dances of India and the Middle East are still noticeable today.
Historically, there were different classes of Middle Eastern dancers. The Ghawazee (Gypsy dancers) were street performers, while the Awelim (meaning wise or learned) were trained in the art of dance and music. They played instruments such as the oud for the wealthy. The dance was traditionally done by women, for women as a form of entertainment, as the separation of the sexes pre-dates Islam and can be traced back to the Byzantine
In classical Greece, a woman from a poor family could tie a sash around her hips and dance for her dowry in the marketplace. Spectators would throw small gold coins at her, money which she then sewed into her bodice and hip-belt as decoration, since she had no other safe place to keep them. Today, dancers still wear costumes decorated with coins.
During the 18th and 19th Century Romantic Period many European artists whom we refer to as Orientalist painters visited Egypt, Morrocco, Tunisia, and other Middle Eastern countries. They painted many beautiful pieces depicting dancers. It is unlikely these artists were admitted to the women’s communal areas, so much of the harem depictions may be complete fantasy and not reality.