Good Question. Belly Dance is an American term that encompasses MANY different styles of Middle Eastern, Eastern European, and North African dances both traditional and modern, and also Fusion styles that have pieces that resemble these dances form the "old country" but are distinctly American. Also, Belly Dance is somewhat of a misnomer since the dance has much more to do with the hips than the belly. There are also many different terms for the different Belly Dance styles depending on the region. Although I dance Oriental or Raqs Sharqi (which translates to: Dance of the East, or Orient) a classical style of Egyptian dance, if I billed myself here in America as such no one would have a clue what I do.
I usually start by telling people I am a Middle Eastern Dancer... then they look at me all confused and then I go in with Belly Dancer and they get it :) I have to admit that before I began taking classes I had no clue what Middle Eastern Dance was. The class was offered at my College and for a couple years I would see it listed in the Course Catalogue and wonder to myself what that could be. Finally I saw the class perform at an end of the semester recital and when I saw all the students dance onto the stage in their skirts and bare midriffs with the amazingly exotic rhythms it dawned on me that it WAS Belly Dance. I was sure to sign up for it the next semester! But I digress!
Depending on who you ask in the Belly Dance community you will get different answers about what Belly Dance "IS", and usually that also comes along with a heap of what Belly Dance "ISN"T". I know I have had to explain to oh so many American that my performances can not be seen in a strip club. (Let me be clear that I have no problem with strippers. Some of them are highly talented, athletic, and creative entertainers, however I am not a stripper).
For the most part Us Belly Dancers don't mind the term"Belly Dancer" while some, however, do. I would prefer if everyone knew what I meant if I say that I am a Raqs Sharqi professional, but I don't see that happening anytime soon. Of course, I do try to educate when and where I can. For the most part I do not lump all types of ethnic and folkloric styles of Middle Eastern Dance into the term "belly dance", then agaih sometimes it is just so convenient to do so.
The Oriental or Raqs Sharqi style of the dance has strong roots in Egypt and was typically an improvisational solo dance performed with live music. Styles resembling this can be seen in just about every country in the Middle East (well, actually all over the world now!). Belly Dance is considered a living art, and like all living things it changes with time. Sometimes dancers use props such as veils and finger cymbals (zills in Turkish and sagat in Arabic) and sometimes they don't. In fact most modern dancers in Egypt don't perform with cymbals and rarely with veils (or at least a limited amount of with the veil). Typically, finger cymbals are now used mostly by American Cabaret style Belly Dancers and the American Tribal Style Belly Dance.
As you can see there are many layers to this subject, and like many complex topics the more you look into it, the more you realize there is so much to be learned. Fell free to read on in iBellydance for a deeper look into this ancient art form.