A dancer dancing Raqs Baladi in Cairo
Historically, dance has always been an important part of Arab culture. One of the oldest social dances enjoyed by Arab people in the Middle East and North Africa is Raqs Baladi (Arabic: بلدي, romanized: baladī; relative-adjective "of town", "local", "rural", comparable to English "folk", with a lower-class connotation). During the series of invasions on the Arab world, Europeans were influenced by Arab culture. During the French campaign in Egypt and Syria in 1798, Europeans were interested in the Arab world. In the middle of the 19th century, the Arab lands, especially the Levant, Mesopotamia and Egypt were collectively referred to as the 'East'. The Middle East attracted European painters and writers described as Orientalists, who specialized in Oriental subjects; among the most prominent personalities are Jean-Léon Gérôme, Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
Orientalism has undoubtedly contributed to the misconception of the popular dance as a dance of temptation, conducted for the pleasure of men. In fact, because of the traditional gender segregation, women in the Middle East usually dance only in the women's company between parents and friends. Sometimes a professional dancer and musicians were invited to the women's Caucus. Today, gender segregation is not strictly practised in many urban areas, and sometimes both men and women dance socially at family and/or community events.
Arabic dance was performed in the United States in 1893 at the World's Columbian Exposition, which included an exhibition entitled "The streets of Cairo". The exhibition was attended by dancers from several Arab countries from the Middle East and North Africa, including Syria and Algeria. The term "belly dancing" is often credited to Sol Bloom, its entertainment director, but referred to the dance as danse du ventre, the name used by the French in Algeria. In his memoirs, Bloom states, "when the public learned that the literal translation was "belly dance", they delightedly concluded that it must be salacious and immoral...I had a gold mine."