From Mish Mish via BellyTalk, a NW discussion group for bellydancers. It is confirmed by what Jamila told us at her weeklong, that she was essentially the one who conceived the sword as a bellydance prop:
“In Turkey and Arabic countries, dancing with a sword is done mainly by men as a display of skill in combat or to prepare for battle. My troupe used to have a Druse from Lebanon who did a spectacular sword dance his father had taught him and I have seen videos of a Persian dance troupe where the men feign battle and dance in unison.
Dancing while balancing a sword on your head has become popular in the United States with soloists and troupes but there is no such tradition in Arabic countries where balancing something on your head is a part of daily life, so it’s no big deal The idea for this dance can be traced back to Jamila Salimpour and her seminal dance troupe, Bal Anat who became famous performing at the Renaissance Fair in California in the 1970’s. Jamila was inspired by an Oriental painting from the late l9th Century by French artist Jean Leon Gerome of a group of musicians and a dancer, probably a ghawazee, dancing with a sword balanced on her head and another held in her hand. The swords belonged to the Turkish soldiers in the background who had undoubtedly hired the dancers to entertain them. A replica of this painting appears on Aisha Ali’s recording of “Music of the Ghawazee” As Jamila’s influence spread throughout the USA, so to did the practise of balancing a sword on your head.”
If I remember correctly, Rhea was (or it is said she was) Bal Anat’s first sword dancer. She’s still sword dancing, I saw her perform in Baltimore this summer.