The term “belly dancing" is a misnomer—and became popular entirely by accident, says Shruti Narayanan, a dancer who has been practising it for eight years. The term has been in use since the late 19th century and was probably coined by the US entertainment impresario Sol Bloom to describe a performance at the Chicago World Fair in 1893. It stuck.

This and other stories from the history of belly dancing are part of The Oriental Trail 2.0 show, being put together by Narayanan and her students along with two other dancers, Payal Gupta and Debapriya Das, who run belly-dancing academies in Bengaluru. Scripted by Narayanan, the show will have over 30 dancers recreating the history of belly dancing, including its Egyptian origins and the Chicago performance.

Belly dancing is also referred to as raqs sharqui or raqs baladi, but Narayanan says these are not very accurate terms either—they simply mean “dance of my homeland". “There was a lot of self-exoticizing in Egypt in the early 20th century, when the country started opening up to tourism, and the folk dance, which was a celebratory dance performed by men and women, changed subtly," says Narayanan. Then it went to the US and was influenced by other forms and, later, even by the feminist movement, when women took it up as a way of embracing their sexuality.

There are takers—mostly women—for the dance form in Indian metros (Bengaluru alone has four academies) but many take it up for fitness and weight-loss reasons: not the best way to approach it. “After all, you don’t hear of people learning Kathak and Bharatanatyam to lose weight, do you?" she asks. “Ironically, I did my Bharatanatyam arangetram (stage debut) in Saudi Arabia (she lived there till age 16) and started learning belly dancing only when I came back to Bengaluru," she says. “The dance comes naturally to the female body; you just have to give in to the flow. I watched my first performance on a Nile cruise when I was 11, and later it just flowed through me, like it was waiting to be tapped into."

The Oriental Trail 2.0 will be performed on 14 July, 6.30pm, at ADA Rangamandira, Bengaluru.

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