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American Odyssey - US Bellydance History

by Helen Mon Sep 12th, 2011 at 02:28:11 PM EST

AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY - A History of Modern US belly dance (1)

Early Days, Golden Years

Middle Eastern dance has probably been enjoyed in the USA for as long as widespread immigration has existed, indeed we have documented evidence of public performances since at least the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876 as well as at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 (where, incidentally, no dancer called Little Egypt was recorded as having performed (2) ). However, despite several flurries of interest brought about by the activities of Orientalists such as Ruth St Denis and La Meri (3), for most of the first half of the Twentieth  century the dance has been largely confined to those ethnic groups to which it was indigenous.

There were large Greek & Turkish groups in most major cities of the USA and their cafes and clubs naturally featured singing and dancing amongst the entertainments. Marliza Pons, the doyenne of Las Vegas dancers from the mid 60s through to the late 90s, wrote of learning her first moves as a young girl through the windows of such an establishment in Chicago in 1948 (4).

Whilst some of them would be locals, there was also a long tradition of hiring singers and dancers directly from Turkey. The singers would be the stars and would be the best-paid entertainers. Such was the pecking order that they would try to deny being able to dance to avoid the "shame" of being just a dancer (5).

It is possible that the dance could have remained confined to such clubs indefinitely, largely unknown outside of its originating culture. (6). However, fortune changed when the Broadway show "Fanny" opened on November  4 1954 (7a). It featured the Turkish dancer, Necla Atesh, (other spellings include Nejla Ates or Najila Attash) who had been hired for the clubs from Turkey sometime between 1948 and 1952, and Egyptian pop singer Mohammed El-Bakkar. The show was an instant smash hit with its oriental music and dancing causing a sensation.  Soon mainstream clubs catering to the smart and fashionable were beginning to feature this `new`entertainment (California - (8a)) (New York - (9a)).

This fashion began to spread more widely, especially with WWII veterans from the N African campaigns happy to relive the entertainments of their youth (10). This trend was helped by the occasional appearances of Samia Gamal in films, in Las Vegas(11a)and at Ciro's club in Hollywood (7b) during this time. Tahia Cariocca also appeared in a Hollywood film in the late 50's, although she didn't enjoy the experience.

Lys and Lyn Gamal, who were identical twins, had been film stars in Egypt working in dance musicals. They also came over to the US in the late 50s and immediately began a successful career in the clubs. They are always fondly remembered, especially for the fact that their parents chaperoned them to every one of their gigs, even after they married. Dahlena particularly remembers them as having been an influence.

By the end of the 50s ME clubs were opening all over the US. However the demand for dancers soon exceeded the supply with many of the new establishments unable to afford to import or hire foreign dancers. They needed to employ locals to bridge the gap and although  in the 50s there were a few, Adriana Miller & Dahlena worked in Boston and correspondingly Jamila Salimpour and Antoinette Awayshak  in LA, even by the early 60s there weren't anything like enough dancers to meet the soaring demand.

Morocco joked that back then "if Godzilla had a bedlah, she could have gotten a job", willingness rather than talent being the criterion for acceptance. She herself was a professional flamenco dancer and had never seen Middle Eastern dancing before she took a job because the pay was better.

In fact, so desperate were the clubs for dancers in those days that Sabah was immediately hired by the Port Said club in NYC the night she turned up to inquire whether they  might have an opening. She had no costume or training and wore the pink gingham dress she'd arrived in. She was told by the Turkish lead dancer to "do what I do", although she concedes that it probably looked a bit different when she did it  (9b). Soon after that, she moved to the West Coast where she subsequently studied the art with Bert Balladine (12).

Serena, another spectacularly successful graduate of those early New York years, maintains that whilst willingness may have got you through the door, only talent took you to the top. That said, given the circumstances, some truly inept dancers managed regular employment, being known derisively in the trade as "Wonderful Walkers" (11b).

 On both the East and West coasts the main source of dancers were the Greek and Turkish clubs which had sprung up to cater to both the local populations and the many Greek sailors moving through all international ports at that time. These had been around particularly in New York since the 40s and had become suddenly fashionable with the boho set following the release of the film "Never on a Sunday" in 1960. This popularity was maintained by the film "Zorba the Greek" released in `64. Young students enjoyed them because they were lively and boisterous and there was a great thrill in spending hours on end dancing around the tables performing dabke and chiftitelli with anyone who happened to be around. From such unlikely beginnings many illustrious careers were forged.

The dancers of this time were largely untutored, moves were taken, mixed and matched at random from the many traditions of the Middle East and further. So a dance form evolved that was a new form of "Middle Eastern" dance unknown in the Middle East; nowadays we call it "American Cabaret", even if at the time it was called Oriental or Nightclub (13). Of course it was known as bellydance to the general public then, as now.

The dance style was mostly rooted in Turkish and Lebanese, it could include just about any move that looked roughly exotically oriental. Nobody complained because nobody knew any better. Indeed many dancers of that era stress the level of ignorance that there was about the dance and its origins. Many that is, except those few who gradually developed their interest in the dance and who learnt "the real thing from the real people - the aunties, grannies, older musicians and other (Turkish) dancers" (Morocco - 14a).  Counted on the fingers of two hands, these dancers became the leaders of the profession who completely changed our view of the dance over the next 20 years.

Also they were dancing to performances by musicians from a mix of countries with varying traditions. The musicians in the ethnic areas would play together 6 - 7 nights a week and so came to knew each others' music well. Those who were there remain nostalgic for "that all night mix of real Turkish, Greek, Armenian & Arabic music and folk songs that one could hear in most of the clubs/restaurants on any given night, where entire families would come in and dance together (15)".

Away from these major areas dancers had to cope with largely western musicians whose knowledge of Middle Eastern music could be very limited indeed. This led to a sound that was a hybrid of Western and Middle Eastern and became known as "Amerabic". Most dancers now associate the term with Eddie "The Sheik" Kochak who, by producing his own records, made the sounds of that era widely available.

This was truly a golden era of ME Dance in the US. Jobs were plentiful, and very well paid with the dancers all in the first flush of excited youth. For example, Aisha Ali speaks of the headline dancer in one prestigious club earning $500 a week for a twice-nightly 10 minute slot (8b). The average was $300 - 350 at the top clubs in Las Vegas, but if measured against the rental for an NYC apartment of $45 -80 a month it was still a staggering sum (14b). Adam Lahm wrote that in 1960 in NYC the Turkish dancers could expect $200 a night although this is considered unlikely by others.

To balance that though the average wage was $30 - $35 a night was common (9c), but it's worth remembering that this would be a steady 6 nights a week, 52 weeks a year income...in cash. And of course, dancers could do several gigs a night at weekends.

However, it is worth noting that according to Dahlena most dancers were registered with the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA)  (16) and that during the 60's there were just 300 throughout the whole of the United States; an exotic and rare breed. That said, the dancers in the ethnic clubs didn't have to register at all, and there were probably over 50 employed in 8th Avenue, NYC alone (17) . Serena has also indicated that there were at least 100 - 150 in regular employment in New York State and its environs, few of whom were AGVA registered. Morocco says that, although she is an AGVA member, she has never needed it for Oriental dance.

On the West coast Aziza suggested that there was a genuine disincentive in that, due to management attitides, Guild members would have had difficulties working the Baghdad club (18a) in San Francisco, the most prestigious club there, while Aisha Ali pointed out that, due to the scarcity of dancers on the West Coast, AGVA membership wasn't actually necessary in California, but was essential to gain access to the well-paid work available in Nevada (19). So there may be a certain under-reporting of the number of dancers working professionally during this decade, but this doesn't really conflict too strongly with Dahlena's estimate, given that New York and San Francisco were exceptions rather than the rule. Most put the number of dancers at this time nearer to 500 than 1000.

Reading their rose-tinted reminiscences of this time, particularly on Gilded Serpent "North Beach memoirs" (20), the attitude seems typified by one of the songs from that period;-

"Those were the days my friend, we thought they'd never end,
 we'd sing and dance, forever and a day,
 we'd live the life we choose, we'd fight and never lose,
 those were the days, oh yes those were the days".

However, various strands began to come together that brought these halcyon days of well paid performance work to a gradual end.

One was that by the mid 60s the better clubs expected their dancers to know what they were doing from day one, inexperienced dancers were no longer being employed straight off the "street" to sink or swim. So, various teaching establishments opened to meet the demand. It is probable that they gradually became so successful that they caused a situation of over-supply.

Bert Balladine and Jamila Salimpour had, like Morocco in NYC, been training dancers informally since the beginning of the decade. However, Jamila retired from performing in 1965 and began teaching on a full time basis. Initially her classes were small, Aziza talks of 5 or 6 at a time (18b), although by 1968 her classes were very large indeed.

Meanwhile in New York Serena took over the Joe Williams "Stairway to Stardom" dance studio in 1966 and also began training dancers in ME styles. Bobby Farrah began teaching Oriental Dance at the International School of Dance, Carnegie Hall, before moving to other studios to found his own dance school (21a). Although all of these schools were happy to accept students who were merely curious about this dance form, they were principally aimed at taking experienced professional or near professional quality dancers from other disciplines and turning them into club performers. Not many would actually make it, but these additions would have had an accumulative effect given the small number of dancers at the time.

Also, the late 60s was a time of considerable social upheaval in the Western world, particularly in New York and San Francisco. Things like belly dancing, which had seemed racy and exotic at the beginning of the 60s, simply began to appear old-fashioned and tired. Serena talks of the dancing in the early 60s as having been a "hot fad", a boom which inevitably led to a bust.

This particular trend was exacerbated when the Crystal Palace, a New York "go-go" joint, won a Supreme Court ruling against the laws governing the showing of bare breasts etc. The subsequent establishment of topless bars drew a significant audience away from dance clubs towards those venues which more effectively catered for their needs. However, few dancers lamented the passing of this particular clientele

Aisha Ali has also suggested the outbreak of the 6 day war in 1967 between Arabs and Israelis as yet another reason (22). Public sentiment swung to the Israelis, leaving interest in things Arabic to fade away. Although Morocco has dismissed this as having been a factor in the East where work remained plentiful until the oil embargo of 73.

So it could have been over-supply of dancers, a falling out of fashion amongst the public or various other reasons, but wages and opportunities gradually began to diminish: The Golden Years were ending.

New Directions

By the beginning of the 70's, the two influential scenes of New York and San Francisco were beginning to diverge. Why this happened is open to debate, but it is worth stating that this period coincided with the first stirrings of feminism and the development of the hippie `do-your-own-thing' quest for personal growth on the West Coast. (Dancers from LA have told me they wish to be specifically exempted from this generalisation ;-) ).

In San Francisco, Jamila Salimpour had been requested by Carol Le Fleur, who co-ordinated a local "Renaissance Faire" in Berkeley in Sept '68 (23) to organise her advanced class as a theatrical production on a proper stage. This was primarily to prevent them making a day-long nuisance of themselves busking at the event.  Nevertheless it enabled Jamila to bring to fruition a set of ideas that she'd previously considered for a lecture (cancelled due to Bobby Kennedy's assassination the night before)(24) about presenting the many facets of the dance, particularly its originating folkloric aspects. Thus "Bal Anat" (trans: Dances of the Mother Goddess) was born, billed as presenting "Dances of many Tribes": This was the very first incarnation of Tribal Dance.

This began a major trend in the Bay area for groups of dancers to work together to create their own new realisations of ME dance as "Tribal" dancers, with Salimpour remaining at the vanguard of this movement.

Meanwhile Bobby Farrah, who had been a protégé of Adriana Miller's after she moved to Washington, before having a succesful career across the ocuntry moved to NYC and founded the "Near East Dance company" with his dance partner, Phaedra, in 1969. This dance company was intended to present (21b) realisations of Arabic, mainly Egyptian, folk and cabaret styles in a theatrical setting to raise the profile and standing of ME dancing with the general public. He had been inspired to do this after visiting the Lebanon and meeting the Arabic dancer, Nadia Gamal (25). Given the prevalence of Turkish styles at the time and the corresponding lack of much in-depth experience of Arabic dances in the USA at this time this was a new and exciting idea.

Except among specialists in Turkish dance, there had been a general trend amongst the better professionals towards Arabic styles as the general knowledge of the dance had improved. Arabic audiences were more appreciative of the differentiated forms dancers could demonstrate, preferring them to the "anything goes" syles common in the 60s. Thus Arabic, being a more schooled discipline, was considered to be sophisticated and dignified whilst the "Nightclub" styles were increasingly considered to be low-class and even brazen. Sadly this attitude had a disastrous and undeserved effect on the reputation of the Turkish dance styles on which they had been based.  (26).

 Indeed Salimpour had coined the name "American Cabaret" around this time as a term of abuse for the style that had been prevalent in the clubs and to distance her "tribal" styles from this other dance form. However the term also found ready acceptance amongst those others who were promoting the Arabic styles.

This more refined style came at just the right time. Serena Wilson's dance studio was featured in a major feature article in Life Magazine in 1971, which is considered to have started the first dance exercise craze.  This sparked the new phenomenon of people coming to learn bellydance for fun and fitness rather than with a view to performing in the clubs. The era of hobby dancers had begun.

Initially, as the boom took off, teachers all over the US were isolated from each other and began to disseminate wild and fanciful ideas about the origins and meanings of the dance, much to the despair of those few who had some understanding of it.

Fortunately since the late 60s Serena had known and worked with Paul Monty, the Vice President of the Manhattan (27) chapter of the National Association of Dance Affiliate Artists (NADAA). Despite early criticism from within the Arts Establishment, Monty was soon persuaded of the art of the dance and he realised the extent to which it had been generally undervalued.

Monty organised a NADAA seminar on March 5 1972 which featured Serena at the Statler Hilton hotel in NYC. It was rewarded with over 100 delegates when the normal attendance would have been 30 - 40. This was a sign of considerable interest amongst a previously disdainful Arts community.

This acceptance bestowed credibility upon his project and he founded the International Dance Seminars company (21c) with the intention of organising lectures and conventions around the country with the premier teacher/dancers. The first of these was in June 1974 and led to a knowledge revolution through the 70s as dancers and dance ethnologists were identified and encouraged to share their research with the wider body of dancers. These initially included the 60's stars such as Dahlena, Serena, Bert Balladine, Morocco & Farrah (28).

This process of increasing the general knowledge of dance was helped by the establishment of various magazines around the country that began to bring the communities together. These worked in association with Paul Monty and others by publicising and making possible national tours by prominent dancers and dance scholars.

Arabesque and Habibi were the first magazines to be national in scope. Farrah had used his own nationwide lecture tours of 1974/5 to solicit advanced subscriptions to fund his as his yet unpublished magazine. This brought widespread dance communities into contact with each other. Habibi, originally the voice of the West Coast founded in Oct 74, had been quietly enlarging its reach so that it too was quickly established as a national magazine. What marked these magazines apart from the local magazines was their commissioning of learned articles that stressed not only the history and culture of the dance and the Middle East but whose principle objective was again to reach out to the wider arts community and encourage increasing respect for dancers and the dance.

By the end of the 70's there were so many students that it was economically feasible to sell out tours by such genuine Middle Eastern luminaries as Nadia Gamal and Mahmoud RedaAlso tour parties were visiting the Middle East to train with dancers over there. Morocco led the first, but others have followed over the years.

Of course, a few lesser Middle Eastern teachers came over as well, particularly from The Lebanon after the outbreak of civil war in 1975 had destroyed the lucrative Arabic tourist trade. They would promote themselves on the premise that because they were native to the region they had a deeper understanding of the music and culture. However the quality of these imports was variable, leading Arabesque to opine at this time that people should be aware that simply being from the Middle East did not a quality dancer/teacher make. (29)

However, as the training of the hobby dancers continued, a number of them began to approach professional quality and began looking for jobs in the, by now, restricted number of venues. This was an era where fierce under-cutting and job poaching took place (30). Finally professional dancers began to join together into associations which served as both local information swap meets, but also as unions to codify local behaviours.

The first of these was probably WAMEDA who in 1977 were noted by Arabesque to have engaged a lawyer as part of their negotiations in their fight for fairer pay (31). However, the most influential was MECDA which formed in Los Angeles in response to the low wages being offered by restaurants in Hollywood. Boycotts and strikes were organised; indeed so successful were they that, even now, Los Angeles supports many more top quality dancers than the locals deserve (just joking guys). However, we should note that, with the exceptions of the two afore-mentioned, these attempts at codifying etiquette and behaviour within the communities failed.

So although this period started with the seeming collapse in the popularity of the dance, this setback had been turned around completely by the end of the decade. By encouraging a quest to understand more about the dance in its myriad forms and to put it into the context of its originating cultures and music the place of dance in American culture had become stronger than ever. The hobby dancer boom had become the platform for the re-orientation of the profession from being performance-led to being instruction-led.

So successful indeed was this new generation of dancers that Readers Digest suggested in 1977 that there were 5,000 teachers, full and part time, working in the USA (32). By the early 80's Arabesque would quote the figure of 2,000 full time professional teacher/dancers (33). With the limited job market in the US, a few were keen to try their luck on the Middle Eastern and European circuits. A move which led the Egyptians to complain that they were being displaced from their jobs by undercutting Americans (33).

Tribal and beyond

So while most of the country moved over to Arabic styles during the 70s and 80s, San Franciscan dancers continued to be inspired by the "tribal" ideas of Bal Anat, which had finally been wound up in 1976. Mixing authentic dance moves in entirely new contexts, many troupes began to create new and theatrically inspiring presentations.

One such was Masha Archer, whose committed feminism meant that she was particularly hostile to cabaret and only considered presenting her work in theatrical arenas. She eventually abandoned dancing completely in the late 70's, but one of her students, Carolena Nericcio, developed and refined her ideas and wrote them into a detailed manifesto for a dance form she called American Tribal Style (ATS). She created her own troupe, Fat Chance Belly Dance, with which to promote her ideas.

This was a radical step. If American Oriental had been a mongrel of styles that came together to create something with recognisable influences, ATS, like jazz in the field of music, became a uniquely American `voice' where the whole was so much more than the sum of its influences. The fact that it was driven by a written statement also meant that if you bought into ATS you had to do it that way. The concepts of ATS became self-perpetuating.

Another important aspect of ATS was its concentration on woman-power and sisterhood, staying true to its roots in deep feminist convictions. Prior to this, success in ME dance had meant success in the cabaret form, where conforming to the young and thin body type mattered as much as ability.

 Now a dance developed where only competence mattered; nobody judged a dancer on her looks. It also removed the more glamorous aspects of cabaret dancing by choosing clothing and adornment styles which deliberately avoided enticing display. The clothing is often many layered and lacking glitter whilst jewellery is ethnic rather than sparkly. The dancers evince a strong and powerful femininity that was far removed from the allures of cabaret. By concentrating on group work it also prevented a single woman becoming the focus of attention. Indeed, the dancer's body ceased to be the focus at all, the group dynamic was what captured the eye.

These were truly revolutionary ideas for a society where women felt judged on their looks, and where the self-image of mature women was often damaged by a perceived failure to conform to a "norm" of female body shaping derived from a thinly disguised teenage perfection.

It had the added advantage that, as a "folk-like" art form, it was acceptable at local fairs in a way that cabaret styles were not and so created performance opportunities where previously they hadn't existed. This appealed to the many women who wanted to express their art but were unwilling to perform solo cabaret in a club or who simply preferred the support available in a group context. Tribal style exploded over the North West, where it is still strong today, and began to slowly spread East over the next few years.

This was surely the first time a dance form had been created in the modern era for women by women alone. Indeed so strong were the underlying feminist principles that males were initially specifically excluded from ATS. Other tribal styles have been less exclusionist, Bal Anat had featured males dancers from 1974, but given the dominance of ATS in the dissemination of this style, even today the sisterhood emphasis remains a significant barrier to male involvement.

All styles evolve as other people add their own interpretations and male participation has gradually become more frequent. Nevertheless, the only women-only ME dance events one sees with any regularity in the USA are tribal. This in comparison with the cabaret forms which have openly welcomed men since the 70s.  

Otherwise, the 1980s were a continuation of the 70s trends; the last of the old nightclubs shut their doors in 1985, bringing that entire era to an end. The most famous club, the Baghdad in San Francisco, which hosted every famous dancer in the US for over 20 years, is now a Chinese takeaway.

The adoption of the arabic styles had been more or less completed in the East by the end of the 70's as the changeover was energetically driven by significant and influential teachers using the large number of dance seminars to propagate the new ideas.

However, with the exception of Jamila Salimour, who had been forging her own distinctive path, no such influential figure existed in the west, nor had there been anything like the same number of teaching seminars with which to spread the word. Consequently, west of the Mississippi the widespread adoption of arabic dance had taken much longer, most areas becoming influenced by it during the late 80s. Even so, some areas knew nothing but AmCab until the early 90s.

Over its years of popularity ME dance has experienced several periods of where the popularity seems to advance and then retreat slightly. One such was the late 60s, another happened in the late 70s with the waning of the dancercise boom. The 80s were no different with Arabesque reporting falling class rolls across the majority of the country (34) by 1985.  As most dancers earned their income from teaching this was problematic. However the time of the full time professional performer in the US was long gone now. Despite the problems, the dance remained popular but seemed doomed to remain as a niche hobby.

Re-invention, the second golden age

Interest in the dance experienced a new boost with the advent of the video revolution. In the late 80s and particularly into the 90's, more and more dancers were bringing out teaching and performance videos, increasing the levels of interest generally. Concentrating on teaching through the 80s now paid dividends with the release of some extremely well-thought out educational packages. And it wasn't just that great teachers were releasing good instructional videos, it was the wide variety of styles that enabled dancers to become inspired to expand their range. Egyptian, Lebanese, Turkish, Armenian, Rom, Persian, Kurdish, Moroccan and Algerian dance styles are all pursued in the US and world class teachers are available for workshops in all of those forms.

However, by the early 90s, the majority of classes across the USA offered a predominantly Egyptian style which was infused with many hangovers from American Cabaret. There was, and still is, a strong emphasis on zills whilst floor work is a desirable part of performance repertoire (knees permitting). Also the dancing remains generally more energetic in the turkish manner with more moves being layered than the more laid back arabic styles.

However, although not strictly "Egyptian" as you would see in Cairo, it was nevertheless quite heavily defined to prevent the encroachment of "American Fantasy" moves. This left the field open for the re-invention of American Cabaret simply because it allows dancers to combine all of the various styles in their own personal dance expression. It emerged as the more flamboyant alternative where jazz stylisations and other moves could be brought in to develop a very high energy performance concept that now shows signs of being the dance form that will "crossover" into mainstream attention.

Another aspect of the video boom was the creation of IAMED, the International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance. Their idea was that they should get the very best dancers from the USA and beyond together in a show to be video-taped to the highest quality which would then be made available to provide a gold standard of performance. You can buy their performance or instruction videos absolutely sure in the knowledge that the performances and the presentation will be exactly as you've always wanted the dance to be portrayed.  

But if video had increased the interest in dance styles, it has been the internet that has bound the USA together as a united dance community. The ability to quickly inform other dancers of developments has meant that year on year those of us on the sidelines can feel their self-confidence building. Not just with resource sites such as the incomparable Shira and events-listings web-sites like bellydance NY, but increasingly with discussion forums such as the med-dance list and then Bhuz. This latter particularly has a worldwide membership, bringing the entire global dance community to discuss issues, share information or just shoot the breeze.  

Equally Tribal has moved on: Jill Parker's work with Ultra Gypsy has pointed the way to the next level of presentation in theatrical contexts. Urban Tribal of San Diego has taken to working using modern nightclub dance music whilst Rachel Brice's troupe, The Indigo, are working within "Gothic" contexts. All have attracted considerable attention for their innovative and exciting work to extend the envelope of modern American bellydance styles.
 Also, there is the phenomenon of the American Bellydance Superstars. A mix of some top dancers and some likely contenders, their unifying characteristic is that they are young and ambitious enough to endure the indignities and discomforts of a traveling rock and roll tour, to fall out of a coach after a day long drive and walk onstage performing to the highest level night after night. It's an attitude as well as a talent.

Initially there was a lot of skepticism over this project but dancers all over America have been enthused by the quality of dancing to improve their own performance. Now the BDSS concept has global reach. Only time will tell what effect this has on ideas about the presentation of dance shows in general.

And Finally...

Despite its size, the USA nowadays has the feel of a single confident community, united and excited by the sense of their own continuity and development. The days of being geographically divided into divergent factions of opposed interests seem long gone.

Rather there is a strong sense that the US dance community now celebrates their diversity, rightly viewing it as strength. Each dancer now has the opportunity to learn the key skills of a wide variety of styles if they choose and, via the internet, seek out like-minded people from across the world. Their art is not replication, it is re-invention.

Credits and Excuses

As the inspiration for writing this essay, I must give credit to the discussions about dance history we had on bhuz back in 2004/5. Whenever you hear yourself saying "somebody ought to write a properly researched history of all this stuff", you should be aware you've already volunteered. I'd like to throttle thank Lauren Haas for initiating the guilty thread and Carolynn Ruth who twisted my arm :-)). And a big hug and thank you to Cathy Selford (Vashti) who lent me her precious stack of Arabesques and Habibis.

In an interview recently the historian Simon Scharma said that "history is not authoritative, it is argument". What has been so fascinating about the research for this article is that so often there has been no definitive version of events or trends. Indeed the USA is so vast that what is true in one place can be patently untrue in the next city, let alone between the coasts. The task of trying to weave these strands into a single narrative thread has been "interesting" at times.

Exaggerations, Herstory, mythologies and fakelore abound and I am indebted to Morocco, Serena, Anaheed, Zahra Zuhair and Carolynn Ruth amongst others for their patience in trying to ensure that I did not perpetuate certain of these mis-directions.  Despite their help, this will remain just "A History.." rather than "The History.." This is my version and as far as I know it is true, but it will remain forever one new fact away from complete revision. The Truth remains elusive.




As most of us accept, the term "belly dance" was coined by the huckster Sol Bloom to boost the attractions of the Middle Eastern dancers hired by him for the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. Although obviously salacious, it is in fact a reasonable translation of the French Colonial term for one dance of the Ouled Nail of Algeria, wherein they rolled a silver belt (or gold) up & down their abdomens with their muscle control.....(The french referred to other ME dances as Danse Orientale).

However the name has been seen as problematic due to its alleged associations with burlesque dancing and many dancers remain uncomfortable with the unwelcome baggage it carries. Many prefer to use other terms such as the original arabic term Raqs Sharki, others include Raqs Orientale, Oriental Dance and Middle Eastern Dance.

It is worth reminding the reader that no term in any of the laguages of the countries from which this dance comes calls it "belly-" anything .
Raks Sharki = Oriental (or Eastern) dance (Arabic)
Oryantal Tansi = Oriental dance (Turkish)
Raks-i-Shahane = Oriental (Eastern) dance
(Turkish) Raks-e-Arabi = Arabic dance (Farsi/Persian)
 Raks Turkos = Turkish dance (Egyptian Arabic)
Raks Farrah = Happiness dance (Lebanese Arabic!)
Or, simply Raks = Dance!!!

 However, throughout this essay the name belly dance will be used, not just because it is the only one that most people actually recognise, but, appropriately for an essay on American History, it is a term genuinely "Made in the USA"  


2    Donna Carlton : Looking for Little Egypt (back).

3    Arabesque articles on the dancers Volume IV issues 1 & 4 (back).

4    Marliza Pons memories of Chicago (back).

5    Habibi; Vol 19:4 (back).

6    Jamila Salimpour's memories of the late 40's early 50's (back).

7    Leona Wood :"La Dance du ventre, A fresh appraisal" Arabesque Jan 80
Paul Monty also references this in his unpublished History of Bellydance 1876-1976. (back a) / (b).

8    Aisha Ali's history of 50's Californian dance Arabesque IX:2 (back a) / (b). .

9    Adam Lahm's history of 50's & 60's New York Arabesque IX:4 (back a) / (b) / (c). .  

10    Michelle Forner "Transmission of Belly Dancing in US" : MA thesis (back).

11    Morocco : Private correspondence (back a) / (b).  

12    Habibi vol 16 : 1 (back).

13    Morocco : private correspondence with author (back).

14    Morocco : Habibi vol 19:4 (back a) / (b).

15    Morocco : Direct quote with permission (back).

16    Michelle Forner "Transmission of Belly Dancing in US" : MA thesis (back).

17    Morocco : private correspondence (back).

18    Aziza article about not being unionised (back a) / (b).

19    Looking back (back).

20    Gilded Serpent : North Beach Memoirs (back).

21    Michelle Forner.  Habibi article Vol 17 : 1 (back a) / (b) / (c). .

22    Aisha Ali : Arabesque Vol IX:3 (back).

23    Jamila Salimpour : Habibi Vol 17:3 (back).

24    The origins of Bal Anat (back).


Although of Lebanese descent, Farrah had been heavily influenced from the late 60s by the dancer, Nadia Gamal, whom he'd met and trained with during an extended visit to Lebanon.

She was of Sicilian/Grecian parentage, but had been born in Alexandria, Egypt. Through her parents connections she had been encouraged from an early age by the legendary Badia Massabni (Arabesque Vol I) as well as by Samia Gamal and Tahia Cariocca until her parents were obliged to leave Egypt by Nasser's "reforms".

Before the civil war, Beirut had been the playground of the Middle Eastern aristocracy and so this was where the most prestigious venues and lucrative contracts were available. Nadia began her career in the Lebanon at the age of 16, allegedly as a fill-in for a dancer who failed to turn up, and remained there despite not being a Lebanese national.

Therefore, Farrah's aspirations were towards promoting Arabic dance in honour of Gamal.


26    This trend is explored at length in Habibi Vol 19:4 (back).

27    Paul Monty : Arabesque vol X11:2 (back).

28    Morocco; Habibi Vol 14:2 (back).

29    Farrah : Arabesque vol 2:4 (back).

30    Morocco - If jobs are up, why are dancers getting less ? (back).

31    Editorial comment : Arabesque Vol III:1  (back).

32    Michelle Forner "Transmission of Belly Dancing in US" MA thesis P15  (back).

33    Editorial comment; Arabesque XII:2  (back).

34    Editorial Comment; Arabesque Vol IX:2A. back

Wow, how little did we know when a friend and I attended the Wash DC Port Said Club in the 1960s.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears
by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Tue Sep 13th, 2011 at 11:04:13 PM EST
There is a persistent rumour that JFK was a regular attendee at the Port Said and was due in again the night after he got back to DC from Dallas on Nov 22nd 63.

Bobby Farrah started as a waiter there and gradually became part of Adriana's act. Then he moved to NYC and rapidly became one of the prime movers in the development of the dance through the 70s.

You should note that NYC had 3 very strong characters, Bobby, Morocco and Serena (Williams). There was considerable tension between them, particularly Bobby and Morocco, the ripples of which rolled coast to coast right up till he died in 98.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Wed Sep 14th, 2011 at 03:01:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
D'oh, that's Serena Wilson, not the tennis player

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Wed Sep 14th, 2011 at 10:13:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Great tidbits adding to the already rich wealth of historical data about this era.  My wife and I, having met in DC during this period, both recall fondly the old Mary Hopkin tune you cite. Indeed, those were the days.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears
by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Wed Sep 14th, 2011 at 11:04:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I've just found a site with some great autobiographies on them. You can't really find these via google for some reason and the cited autobiographies are rubbish in comparison.

Am adding the links as I can.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Wed Sep 14th, 2011 at 12:00:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Now all you need are some photos.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin
by Crazy Horse on Wed Sep 14th, 2011 at 06:59:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
this is the only picture you need. Dahlena in 1970, the greatest American bellydancer in the pose that became the archetype

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Sep 15th, 2011 at 06:54:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I had no idea of the large scope of this subject. Thanks for your fascinating research.

'tis strange I should be old and neither wise nor valiant. From "The Maid's Tragedy" by Beaumont & Fletcher
by Wife of Bath (kareninaustin at g mail dot com) on Fri Sep 16th, 2011 at 08:47:24 AM EST
There's also the 1876-WWII era to do yet. I have the research material, it's just finding the energy to do it

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Fri Sep 16th, 2011 at 11:41:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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