(The super condensed mini version)
Middle Eastern Dance is an umbrella term which refers to all dances of the Middle East and it's surrounding areas from both the past and present. However its also a term commonly used to refer to Raqs Sharqi or "belly dance" and its various styles, offshoots, and predecessors. Many scholars believe that Raqs Sharqi stems from older dances. It has been called the world's "oldest dance," with theories linking it to ancient dances in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Persia, India and other ancient civilizations. There is no way to know for sure just how far back the roots of this dance style actually go.
Middle Eastern dance may have many origins. It is possible that this dance can be traced back to Mesopotamia where temple engravings depicting dancers have been found. These same types of depictions have been found on temples in Egypt dating back to 1000 B.C. and in Greece. It is believed by many that this dance started as an ancient ritual dance for fertility and childbirth. The priestesses were sometimes "sacred prostitutes" where they would perform these dances for clients as they invoked the Goddess. Around 0 B.C. there were Greek writings that described Nile dancers as rapidly vibrating. Some of the movements from these dances might still be the same as modern MED (Middle Eastern dance).
Our modern version of Raqs Sharqi only goes back as far as the early 1900's when it was modified as a stage art to compete with western style stage performances and offer entertainment that would have more appeal to foreign occupiers and tourists. However, the original dances in their pre modified version were likely a form of Raqs baladi or even Ghawazee.
During the Middle Ages, Egypt had different classes of dancers. There were the Ghawazee who were considered street performers and the Awalim who were trained slaves and courtesans to the wealthy. The Ghawazee are "Gypsies" who come form several sub-groups of the Dom. They were noted as early as Napoleon's incursion into Egypt in the late 1700's. They are mentioned in Edward Lane's book about the Customs and Manners of the Modern Egyptians as well as journals and memoirs by travelers such as Flaubert. Many accounts describe their side-to-side shimmy which is still part of their essential repertoire.
The Awalim were highly trained in the art of poetry, music, and dance. They were generally slaves who were trained in facilities throughout the Middle East. Upon completion of their education they even came with a list of poems and songs which they could recite for their master. Their education also trained them in the art of improvisation and the most valuable of them would be those with a high degree of talent in both memorization and improvisation. They were an expensive addition to any household but offered a great deal of entertainment value especially since they would then also be responsible for teaching their art to the rest of the harem. Both classes of dancers had a very different but possibly similar style of dance. For the most part the dance was traditionally done by women for women; the separation of sexes and the veiling of women predates Islam and can be traced back to many ancient cultures.
During the Ottoman reign over Egypt there was a surge in tourism and many soldiers. The Ghawazee dancers of course saw this as a moneymaking opportunity and would follow camps of soldiers to dance for. This embarrassed and angered the ruler of the time, Muhammad Ali Pasha who exiled the Ghawazee to Esna, which is in southern (upper) Egypt, to solve his problem. During this time, many artists whom we refer to as Orientalist painters visited Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia (among other various Middle Eastern countries). They painted many beautiful pieces depicting dancers and harems. Since these artists were not usually allowed into the harem, their paintings are...