Vaudeville, Danse du Ventre (Dance of the Stomach) to Chicago
The time in which bellydance started to become popular and to be taught in the USA, in the 1960s, is crucial for the transmission of Raqs sharqi on a global scale.
Although Raqs sharqi in the USA was and still is influenced by a variety of Middle Eastern dance styles, the Egyptian influence became strong, particularly when Americans started traveling to the Middle East, including Egypt, to seek the roots of this dance.
The first time that the European public had seen dances from Northern Africa and the Middle East, which the French called ‘danse du ventre’ (dance of the stomach) was in 1889 at the Paris International Exposition, where dancers from countries including Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey performed (SerpentineVideo, 2007).
A few years later, in 1893, the World’s Fair and Exposition was held in Chicago. As Getz (Getz, no date) reports, Sol Bloom was named manager of the Midway Plaisance, an area that was going to be full of entertainment and ethnic culture.
Having seen the northern African and Middle Eastern dancers in Paris in the 1889 exposition and how successful they were as an attraction, Sol Bloom made sure that these dancers were also present in Chicago. Their dance was then called bellydance, from the French ‘danse du ventre’.
At the time, bellydance attracted much attention but was also condemned by some because of its movements of the hips that some considered obscene.
Indeed, vaudeville dancers employed some of these movements in their dances and incorporated them in their burlesque routines, hence the association between bellydance and burlesque, which has remained ever since in the imagination of the general public in the West.
Some American vaudeville dancers at the time danced Middle Eastern routines.
American Vaudeville and Western Dancers
There are still some videos available from the late 1800s of dancers who were probably American vaudeville dancers performing Middle Eastern inspired routines.
For example, Princess Raja, in 1904, (Cerice Janan, 2006) danced with hip isolations and finger cymbals, and at the end held and balanced a chair in the air with her teeth (a stunt that was often performed by acrobats in various countries around Northern Africa and the Middle East).
A telling example of the Western opinion of dances that employed torso isolations is a video from 1896 called Little Egypt (TigerRocket, 2012), where a dancer is performing a belly dance routine, with finger cymbals, and, at minute 0:32, the video is censored with horizontal white stripes to cover the hips and the chest of the dancer.
This is an example of how society’s regulative rules try to limit the individual agency of artists. In this case, the artefact (the video) is a resource for the transmission of the performance but it also reflects the rules of the society in which the performance took place.
At the time, Middle Eastern dances influenced American and European performing arts in different areas.
Performances and dancers influenced by Middle Eastern dance included vaudeville and some of the first Hollywood movies and some dancers such as La Meri, Ruth St Denis (Figure 21) and Maud Allan (Figure 22), who were looking for inspiration from oriental dances from the Middle East and India (Reed, 1998; Koritz, 2003; O’Shea, 2003).
These Western influences, as we have seen, contributed to shaping the modern raqs sharqi costume, the bedlah, influencing Badia Masabni and the Egyptian cinema industry.
However, there was no influence on the general public in the West. This was going to change from the 1960s onwards.
The Diffusion of Belly Dance
In the 1960s there were two main factors that contributed to the diffusion of belly dance among the American middle classes: the Middle Eastern diaspora and feminism. As Shay and Sellers-Young explain (2003, p. 12), in the 1960s in America:
The baby boom generation challenged the organizational structure of society from the laws regulating the definition of a civil society to social mores related to sex and gender. . . .
Following World War II, large groups of Arab Christians, Jews, and Moslems from Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East had come to the United States to escape political problems in their native countries. They created communities . . . Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco . . .
a series of restaurants opened in these ethnic enclaves that became natural gathering places for immigrants from Syria, Lebanon, Greece, Turkey and Egypt. Arab American musicians cleverly adapted the emblems and symbols of Orientalism made popular by such contemporary Hollywood films as Salome (1953), Kismet (1955), Never on Sunday (1960) and Zorba the Greek (1964) and joined it to a new musical style derived from their traditional music. Adventuresome city dwellers begin to flock to these restaurants in the 1960s.Shay and Sellers-Young explain (2003)
The pioneers of belly dance in the USA learnt raqs sharqi, not in classes but, as they were hired to perform in ethnic restaurants, by watching professional Middle Eastern dancers, as well as ordinary people who danced socially in those restaurants.
American Belly Dancers
The most successful of these early American belly dancers were already trained in other dance forms. Some of these dancers were:
- Helena Vlahos
- Morocco (also called Auntie Rockie, aka Carolina Varga Dinicu)
- and Jamila Salimpour.
These same dancers continued studying Middle Eastern and Northern African dances in depth, travelling to the countries of origin of these dances, and they then started teaching classes and workshops and organising trips to Egypt and other countries with their students.
In the 1960s, New York especially, was a hotbed of culture and, according to Morocco:
8th Avenue, from 27th to 29th Streets, had 10 restaurant/ night clubs with continual live, nightly Mideastern music, 3 dancers 6 nights a week, & a 4th on the 3 days the others were off.(Varga Dinicu, 2001, para. 9)
Regarding how she learnt, Morocco writes:
I watched it all & sponged it up. When a movement one of the customers did catch my eye, I’d wait till the (usually older) woman went to the ladies’ room, follow, & convince her to teach it to me then & there.(Varga Dinicu, 2001, para. 18)
Morocco (ibid.) explains that musicians and singers were from different countries such as Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Egypt, Lebanon and they were all playing together.
The Influence of Middle Eastern Restaurants
Other dancers have similar tales of learning by imitation, as they were hired to work in multicultural Middle Eastern restaurants, including Jamila Salimpour (El Safy, 1994), Dahlena (Gamal, 1999), Helena Vlahos (Westover, no date).
It was not long before the generation of dancers who learnt in the restaurants started teaching in structured classes. Abila, one of my interview participants, recalls that:
When I was 16 . . . there was a belly dance class down the street and I thought that would be really cool. . . . At that time all that we danced was what is currently known as vintage oriental or American nightclub style. We had the live bands and they were mixes of musicians from all over the Middle East from immigrant families . . . I grew up in New York City. So the Greek nightclubs on 8th avenue were where a lot of that stuff was happening. My local teacher didn’t do classes for long, she sent us to her teacher, when she was done and her teacher turned up to be Ibrahim Farrah.Research Participant from the PhD of Dr Valeria Lo Iacono (2019)
Ibrahim Farrah, whom Abila mentions above, was a famous American oriental dance teacher and performer, who taught generations of dancers in the US. Forner (1998) reports that he was of Lebanese heritage and, after training in ballet, jazz, and modern dance, he started practicing oriental dance in the 1960s.
Forner (ibid) adds that, between 1968 and 1971, Ibrahim travelled to the Middle East for dance training where (in 1968 in Lebanon) he met Nadia Gamal (18.104.22.168) who became his mentor and friend.
He started teaching in New York in 1967 and founded the first Middle Eastern dance theatre troupe (in 1969) in the USA, called Near East Dance Group, and the first oriental dance magazine, called Arabesque.
According to Forner (1998, para. 86), in the early 1970s, ‘there were many American dancers who were also researchers traveling, working and studying in the Middle East’.
Ibrahim Farrah was one of the first oriental dance male practitioners outside of the Middle East, who taught and performed.
Similarly, in Egyptian movies (even if Shay (2006) argues that male dancers who performed solo improvised dances with torso articulations have always existed), I did not see any male raqs sharqi performers.
Male choreographers such as Ibrahim Akef, Isaac Dickson and Mahmoud Reda were very influential in shaping modern raqs sharqi, but they did not perform this genre on stage themselves.
Another male oriental dance performer and teacher who was involved at the beginning of the bellydance classes craze in the US was Bert Balladine. According to El Safy and Murjan (1997), he was from Eastern Europe and was trained in circus acrobatic and ballet before discovering oriental dance in 1958 in Egypt.
Regarding how he started teaching in America, Bert told Murjan ‘when I returned to America in the early 60’s, the Haight-Ashbury “flower children”  scene was alive and people were ready to discover this dance, and so I helped them’ (El Safy and Murjan, 1997, pt. Interview by Ma Shuqa Mira Murjan).
The Flower Children, Feminism and Middle Eastern Dance
The “flower children” movement was the result of huge changes in American (and Western) culture, which led to people being more curious about different cultures.
As El Safy (1994, paras 2, 3) recalls regarding the late 60s/early 70s in America, when she travelled to California to take classes from Jamila Salimpour, ‘we were hungry for the authentic, substantive and soulful’.
The flower children movement coincided with a new wave of feminism that encouraged sexual liberation.
Bellydance was considered empowering and, during the 1960s and 70s, Deagon argues (no date, para. 9), ‘belly dance . . . encouraged self-expression, it freed women from constraint in their physical movement, and it encouraged taking center stage’.
In the 1970s, following the success of their weekly classes, practitioners started organising big festivals around the USA and then around the world, where famous American dancers taught.
Dr Monty has been credited as being the first organiser of such events (Forner, 1998; Gamal, 1999; Varga Dinicu, 2001).
Moreover, books on belly dance started being published, such as Dahlena’s book from 1976 The Art of Belly Dancing (Gamal, 1999, para. 1).
By that time, Dahlena had opened her own dance studio in 1974 in Chicago, which, as Gamal (ibid, para. 19) recalls, were attended by wealthy women and ‘Dahlena believes that it was the influence of these students, women of position and means, that allowed the dance to gain respectability’.
Gamal explains (ibid.) that Dahlena performed raqs sharqi worldwide, including in France, Iraq and Syria and, after spending a month in Egypt for dance training, Dahlena returned to Egypt several times with her students.
Dahlena was not the only American teacher to lead dance tours to Egypt. Auntie Rockie did the same for many years.
This was a trend destined to continue, as more and more bellydance teachers started organising trips for their students, and the reputation of Egypt, among raqs sharqi practitioners, as the cradle of bellydance was cemented. I was not able to find many videos online of American belly dancers from the 60s and 70s.
I managed to find some videos featuring Dahlena on YouTube, 12 in total, one from a movie from the early 1960s (Dahlena Myrick Pearce, 2013) and the others much more recent, from the early 1990s.
Raqs Sharqi in England
It was probably the popularity of raqs sharqi in the USA that helped it become a global phenomenon; however, the diffusion of raqs sharqi in each country may have followed different paths.
In England, for instance, according to Cooper (2013), the arrival of raqs sharqi in the 1970s was due to a combination of two factors:
- the opening of exclusive Arab nightclubs in London (due to the closure of clubs in Lebanon because of the civil war)
- and the arrival of American belly dancers, who were searching for new opportunities to teach and perform.
For example, the American dancer Asmahan (2012a, 2012b), reports that she started learning raqs sharqi in America with Jamila Salimpour in 1972, and she then went to London to perform in exclusive Arab nightclubs in 1977, where many famous Egyptian dancers also performed.
There, she learnt modern Egyptian style raqs sharqi. Asmahan (ibid) recalls that it all ended in 1990 with the Gulf War, which started an economic recession that spelt the end for those clubs both in Cairo and London.
Similarly, a British born dancer, Yasmina of Cairo (aka Francesca Sullivan) (Sullivan and Farouk, 2006), started dancing professionally in the clubs and restaurants in London in the 1980s, she then danced in various countries in the Middle East before finally settling in Cairo in 1995 where she is still living. She no longer performs in nightclubs, but she teaches raqs sharqi to foreign dancers, both in Cairo and around the world at workshops and festivals.
In London, as well in the US, oriental dance was initially performed to live music, as it still happens in Egypt. However, now the performance landscape of raqs sharqi in the UK and the US has changed and places where live music is performed are hard to find.
For instance, Westover (no date, para. 26) observes that ‘nightclub productions of the Dance as found in the native Middle Eastern countries are all but vanished in the United States’.
1 – The flower children (also called hippies) movement started in San Francisco, in the early 1960s, in the area of Haight-Ashbury, where it culminated in 1967 during the so-called Summer of Love. After 1967, this movement declined in Haight-Ashbury, but it spread elsewhere in America and Europe. The flower children movement was associated with: rebellion against conformist values of society held by older generations; opposition to war; sexual freedom; colorful clothes and experimentation with drugs (Anthony and McClure, 1995; Braunstein, 2001; Morris, 2009; Misiroglu, 2015; Curteman, 2016; Moretta, 2017)
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