The history of bellydance in America is intimately connected with Chicago history; it started as a sideshow attraction at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, with the promotion of the first 'Little Egypt' by Sol Bloom. This is both our glory and our downfall; Americans of that era were titillated by the exoticism of 'Belly Dance', finding it to be not quite decent, especially as the dancer's midsection might be exposed. See Little Egypt's 'Coochee-Coochee' dance here:
Much, much later, after years of vaudeville, night club, and burlesque shows, bellydance began to develop in a uniquely American form, as cued group improvisation. This can be virtually indistinguishable from choreography when performed by a seasoned troupe. It is a demanding and rewarding art form, which can be likened to playing jazz, in that the performers must know the step vocabulary and the music very well, in order to exchange leadership and interpret the song on the fly. A thrilling and empowering experience, it is open to anyone of any age or size, male or female.
What about that 'belly' word? The fact is, nobody can really account for its use in describing this dance, though there are several theories. You don't have to have, or lack, any particular size of belly! You don't even have to show your belly. Bellydance is based on expert muscular isolations, meaning that the dancer can move one part of her body while holding other parts still, or layering a different movement over the basic one. It takes a great deal of work and practice to master this technique. We are still striving to get the respect we deserve. One day...