Shaking it off: Eugenics and Belly Dance

Anthony Shay


This article addresses the stark contrast between the reception of belly dance by American women in the 1890s, and its reception in the 1970s. I posit that the difference was caused by the widespread and popular eugenics movement in the period 1880-1960, and how that influenced and pervaded all aspects of American life. In the 1890s women overwhelmingly were repelled by belly dancing, and the racialized Arab women who performed it, while in the 1970s American women overwhelming embraced it as a form of sexual empowerment as part of the second wave of feminism. Belly dance itself was not frozen in time, events in Cairo, the entertainment capital of Egypt and the Arab world, coalesced to create a new iteration of belly dance: Egyptian cabaret belly dance. This was a far cry from the dance performed in 1893, and the glamor of the new genre was eagerly greeted by American women in the 1970s.

The First Appearance of Belly Dance in the Anglo North America: 1893 

In this essay, I characterize belly dance as a solo improvised dance genre, or perhaps better, a complex of genres, involving minute and, sometimes intricate articulations of the muscles of the torso, abdomen, hips, and breasts. It is a Middle Eastern/Central Asian/North African dance genre that has many geographic permutations, and both domestic and professional forms, an important distinction. Today, the most well-known iteration of solo improvised dance in the West , indeed the world, is professional Egyptian cabaret belly dance, which I will argue is an almost new genre of solo improvised dance that came into existence in the period 1900-1930, alongside more traditional professional and domestic forms performed in Egypt into the present day. (Shay and Sellers-Young 2005) The term belly dance is a translation of the French term danse du ventre (dance of the abdomen) that was given to it by the dashing young entrepreneur (later congressman) Sol Bloom1 . One of the first questions that occurs to the careful observer and that I address in this article is: Why was belly dance rejected by American women of 1893, and embraced by those, often their daughters and granddaughters of 1973?

It was first introduced in the United States at the Chicago World’s Columbia Exposition in 18932 . (Shay and Sellers-Young 2005) Sol Bloom was hired to oversee and manage the Midway Plaisance, the entertainment area of the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbia Exhibition, which attracted over 21.5 million paying visitors. (Badger 2015, 123; Bolotin and Laing 2002, 20) He had seen the Egyptian and Algerian dancers and entertainers at the Paris World Exhibition of 1889, and arranged to bring numerous entertainers and whole sets like the Cairo Street exhibit, together with one of the biggest attractions of the Paris exhibition, the belly dancers, to Chicago. (Bloom 1948; Salem 1995) He wrote in 1948, “More people remember the reputation of the danse du ventre than the dance itself… When the public learned  that the literal translation was ‘belly dance’ they delightedly concluded that it must be salacious and immoral. The crowds poured in. I had a gold mine3 ” (1948, 135). This chapter addresses the mainstream American reception and reaction to the performance of this dance at its first inception at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and compares it with its enthusiastic reception in the 1970s.

Sol Bloom later wrote: “Almost at once this dance was imitated in amusement parks all over the country. As it became debased and vulgarized it began to acquire the reputation that survives today [1948]—the reputation of a crude, suggestive dance known as the ‘Hootchy-Kootchy’ (1948, 135). What is missing in this description, and in most accounts of the reception of belly dance in 1893, was that men, especially working class men, reacted to the dance differently than women. (See Salem 1995 for a discussion of class differences in the reception of belly dance in 1893.) They found the “suggestive” movements and uncorseted costumes “hot stuff” (Monty 1986, 190). These men were the overwhelming majority of the audiences who paid to see it. A contemporary observer describes a typical rowdy audience: “…with a preponderance of college boys and prematurely gray men….[who were] smoking, laughing, and discussing the dancing and dancers with startling frankness, and showing their appreciation in noisy applause and by throwing showers of cigarettes to the girls” (qtd in Salem 1885, 136). All of the many contemporary illustrations showing the dancers performing before audiences in 1893, depict the viewers as exclusively men, often shown in a vulgar fashion. (See Monty 1986) “The dancer performed in the Persian Palace, where some journalists said men were entranced and women offended by the ‘notorious dances…” (Bolotin and Laing 2017, 90, caption lower right).

What is missing from Monty’s and Bloom’s descriptions of the reception of belly dance in 1893, is the gender and class gap. Working men of the period found it sexy and titillating, but for women of all classes and elite men of the time it was repulsive. In his exhaustive survey of journalistic responses of the period during and after the fair, belly dance scholar Paul Monty records multiple and typical reactions like “…[A] movement more shuffle and muscle contortion than dance…suggestively lascivious of the abdominal muscles, which is extremely ungraceful and almost shockingly disgusting” (J. W. Buel qtd. In Monty 1986, 59). The women managers of the Chicago Exposition attempted multiple times to have it banned, but were always overruled by the male managers who had appointed them. Mrs. Barker, one of the lady managers, after being urged to see it by the notorious prude Anthony Comstock, wrote, “ I object to the vile, licentious foreign dances. I would sooner lay my two boys in their graves than that they would look at the sights I saw yesterday” (qtd. In Salem 1995, 138). Like Sol Bloom, the male managers who had invested thousands of dollars in the event to make a profit saw it as a gold mine, and an attraction to draw additional viewers to the Exposition, ignored these protests. I found no comments that mentioned that women viewers embracing the dance, although the men found the uncorseted dancers “hot stuff” and those observations were made from the rear-view mirror of the twenty-first century: “North African exotic dancers hootchie-kootchied their way into the hearts of thousands of male fairgoers at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893…” (Rydell, Findling, and Pelle 2000, 36 (caption)).

Also missing is race.

In addition to gender, I will focus on race, especially in the context of eugenics, as one of the reasons for the negative reception of belly dancing. The belly dancers, who appeared at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition were Egyptian Arab women who were almost always described in unflattering racial terms such as “dusky,” is summed up concisely by historian Robert W. Rydell: “World’s fairs provide a partial but crucial explanation for the interpenetration and popularization of evolutionary ideas about race and progress” (1984, 5). And, the race that brought about that progress, as trumpeted throughout the fairgrounds of all of the world’s fairs held in America before World War II, was the Anglo Saxon “race.”

During that period until World War II, the justice system of the United States was filled with court cases that revolved around the issue of who was white, or white enough, to gain entry and immigrate to the United States, and immigrants of Arab background were frequently viewed as non-white. In 1914, “George Dow was denied a petition to become a U.S. citizen because, as a ‘Syrian of Asiatic birth,’ he was not a free white person within the meaning of the 1790 U.S. statute” (Suleiman 1999, 7), and “In 1943, a Muslim Arab from Yemen was denied U.S. citizenship because ‘Arabs as a class are not white and therefore not eligible for citizenship, especially because of their dark skin and the fact that they are ‘part of the Mohammedan world…(ibid). (Shay 2006) Thus, the Arab dancers the American viewers were seeing at the Chicago World’s fair, in which black women were routinely excluded from participation in the World’s fairs in America, were liminal between black and white: “Most African Americans who did work at the fair cleaned toilets; a few others worked as maids, police , and demonstrators in a few exhibits. (Rydell 1984, 1993; Rydell, Findling, and Pelle 2000, 84)

Historian Robert W. Rydell writes, “World’s fairs existed as part of a broader universe of white supremacist entertainments; what distinguished them were their scientific, artistic, and political underpinnings” (1984, 6). Imbued with the racist logic that permeated every aspect of American life for most individuals in 1893, they were viewing salacious dances from non-white, “dusky” performers, much in the same way that for years National Geographic could display women’s naked breasts, as long as they were “ethnographic,” that is they belonged to native women, and those breasts were not white, Anglo Saxon breasts. In spite of its titillating depictions of native women’s breasts, the National Geographic could pass itself off as an “educational” experience in the same way that the attractions on the Midway Plaisance of the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition did.

After the fair, scores of belly dancers, a few authentic, but mostly American, fanned out throughout America, performing in venues that attracted exclusively male audiences like barrooms, carny shows, burlesque stages, fairs, and even mining camps. The belly dance was now the hootchy-kootchy or cooch. “The hoochie cooch, as this new danse du ventre came to be known, freely incorporated elements from other dances, like the can-can, and moved into the mainstream of working class men’s entertainment” (Salem 1995, 155). Many of its performers called themselves Little Egypt, which became almost a generic code for salacious dancing. (Carlton 1994; Monty 1986) Unlike the protection that cushioned them from the Chicago police, due to their placement as vaguely “educational,” like the National Geographic, this educational façade outside of the fairgrounds no longer worked. Local police kept up a vigorous running battle to prevent the belly dancers from performing their lewd and lascivious hootchie cooch dances. The newspapers widely covered these police activities and the highly publicized raids throughout the 1890s, in which the dancers often enacted dramatic scenes in courts and jailhouses fit for yellow journalism. (See especially Monty 1986, 79-124; Salem 1995)

As I will argue in this essay, race, racism, and eugenics, the pseudo-science that provided the “scientific” evidence to support the spurious claims of the followers of eugenics constituted what I call the “mental furniture” of America of that period (1880-1970). American literature scholar Susan Currell uses the term “intellectual climate” (2006, 2). By “mental furniture,” I mean “that which we all know,” that which is like the familiar furniture in rooms we inhabit to the degree that it is taken for granted; that which is so common and unremarkable as to not merit comment, as philosopher Roland Barthes so eloquently wrote about in Mythologies (1972).

It was dance scholar Paul Scolieri’s brilliant essay on Ted Shawn (2016) that first sparked my interest in the intertwining of dance and eugenics. He wrote about Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis: “When a Washington Post writer announced the marriage between Shawn and St. Denis as an ‘interesting experiment in eugenics,’ he could not have imagined how Shawn’s anxiety to fulfill his eugenic ideal as a husband and father would later lead him to assert himself as an artist through his racial, ethnic, physical, and moral superiority” (2016, 203). I realized that the positive or negative reception of certain types of dances , like belly dance, were based, at least partly, in the ideals of eugenics that constituted the mental furniture of the people in 1893 America until after World War II. In 1893. Belly dance was a non-white, and therefore, non-eugenic dance. The images produced by the 1893 and subsequent appearances of belly dancing, in Lori Anne Salem’s terms, “functioned as a discourse on White-Black sexuality” (1995, v).

Dance scholar Lori Anne Salem writes, “In the minds of bourgeois women, then, the immorality of the ‘Arab’ dances represented a disease which could infect the men in their own families” I1995, 189). Thus, these dances were not only performed were not only immodest and immoral to watch it, but more seriously, it was compared to disease, hygiene one of the preoccupations of eugenicists.

Almost every scholar writing about the history of belly dance also describes the enormous popularity of belly dance in Anglo North America in the 1970s, when over one million American and Canadian women enthusiastically embraced this dance genre4 . (Sellers-Young 1992) The dance became emblematic of the second wave of feminism. (Sellers-Young 1992) It symbolized the power of women over their newly uncorseted bodies and their sexuality by performing a sensual, even daring and naughty dance. I will investigate the multiple reasons that this positive reception occurred in the 1970s, especially looking at issues of gender, race, and eugenics, but also the changes in the dance itself. As Said suggests in his characterization of the East in the mind of the West, it is a place where nothing ever changes. (Said 1979) In this essay, I will posit the notion that, in fact, dramatic changes occurred in the period 1900-1930 in Egypt, during which a new iteration or genre of belly dance, cabaret belly dance, emerged. (Cormack 2021; Ward 2018) This new dance genre was viewed as glamorous, as seen in Middle Eastern nightclubs and restaurants in America and the Egyptian cinema, and appealed to the aesthetic values of women of the 1970s, who unlike the preceding generations found satisfaction in practicing this new iteration of an exotic, sensual dance, redolent of a highly appealing orientalist fantasy. (Studlar 1997) Orientalism is another feature of life of the period of 1880-1940 that characterized Anglo North American and British life that I will explore later in the essay.

Eugenics and Race: A Witch’s Brew

I start this brief narrative to cover some of the highlights of eugenics, arguing that belief in its principles led middle-class Americans to reject belly dance in its first, 1893 iteration performed largely by Egyptian and Algerian native dancers. I think after reading this brief account the reader will understand the negative reactions which I described above. Some writers imply that eugenics and eugenic thought was discredited after the horrors of Auschwitz, and that it faded away. I still see it everywhere in entrenched whiteness, climaxing with the seditious attack on the congress of the United States on January 6, 2021, and the ensuing crude behavior of the Republican Party in their attempts at voter suppression across America, “Jim Crow 2.0” in Stacey Abrams’s terms. (MSNBC newscast March 24, 2021)

To begin, eugenics is described by historians Philippa Levine and Alison Bashford: “The aim of most eugenics movements was to affect reproductive practice through the application of theories of heredity…Eugenics always had an evaluative logic at its core. Some human life was of more value—to the state, the nation, the race, future generations—than other human life…The idea of eugenics grew quickly from the 1880s, reaching its peak in the 1920s” (2010, 3-4). Susan Currell and other authors cogently argue that the 1930s, the years of the Great Depression, with its widespread economic dislocation and poverty provoked widespread discussion in the popular press, literature, and the cinema. (Currell 2006) Eugenics was about breeding, as Scolieri indicated above, in order to create a master race, of which the dancing bodies of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn represented the perfect, eugenic, white Anglo Saxon bodies to breed a future master race. They never bred.

To a degree unimaginable to many individuals today who are unfamiliar with the term eugenics, it feels like the stuff of science fiction or dramatic films about the Third Reich in which victims are laid out on operating tables, tortured and surgically altered by mad scientists: Its aim was the creation of a master race, specifically the so-called Anglo-Saxon race. That characterization of mad scientists is not far off from reality; I remember Paul Popenoe (1888-1979), whom I still regard as a mad scientist, who tried to improve the white population through marriage counseling, or perhaps coercion, which would result in proper breeding, combined with his drive for the destruction of those who would not marry and breed, like gays and lesbians—albeit for the good of the race and mankind. (Ordover 2003) “Popenoe’s story, for example, illustrates how eugenic focus on the family transferred quite neatly to the socially conservative, often evangelical, family values of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries” (Stern 2010, 185).

As Edwin Black succinctly notes, “Eugenics was a protoscience in search of vindicating data” (2012, 16). This they found in the burgeoning, but still insufficiently verifiable sciences of Mendelian genetics and Darwin’s theories of evolution. (Roll-Hansen 2010, 90)

World’s fairs held in the United States was a location, underpinned by U.S. tax dollars, in which eugenics was very much on display to prove the superiority of the Anglo Saxon portion of the white race through elaborate and dramatic “scientific” eugenic displays stamped with the Smithsonian Institution’s imprimatur. (Rydell 1984) The Chicago World’s Fair provided that opportunity, and no expense was spared to prove the superiority of the white Anglo Saxon in several pavilions, and in the physical layout of the Fair in which the most “primitive” peoples of Africa were deliberately set as far as possible from the White City, the center of the latest white man’s technology, with each more civilized group placed closer. (Applebaum 2009; Salem 1995).

It is difficult for people of today to realize or comprehend the degree to which eugenic and racist thought and action, such as Jim Crow laws and immigration restrictions in various forms, were enacted well beyond the South, and continue to permeate American thought. The segregation and exclusion of blacks, Latinos, and Asians was a given, a part of the mental furniture. (Rydell 1993)

I argue that the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. congress was an echo of the widespread support that white supremacy, underpinned by eugenics thought, which continues to have a hold on a significant minority of the white population. However, because today, in the minds of many, racism has been reduced to a black and white divide, many did not fully realize to what degree eugenics, at least in the beginning, was not a war on people of color, but a war on the wrong kind of whites: Jews, Slavs, Italians, those with physical or mental defects, sexual deviants, and above all the poor. For example under eugenics, crime and “pauperism” were widely thought to be hereditary, and therefore those who were perceived of as falling in those categories must be eliminated either through incarceration, sterilization, or even euthanasia, and prevented from reproducing. (Black 2012; Kevles 1995; Levine and Bashford 2010; Ordover 2003; Stern 2010, 2016)

The war by the eugenicists against the poor and immigrant whites was largely due to the fact that, in the racist minds of most past Americans, blacks and other people of color were already excluded and segregated from every aspect of American life until the mid 1960s. Later, however, they widened their nets to capture every kind of “inferior” human and, in the process, over 60,000 people, 30,000 of those in California, were sterilized and institutionalized in documented cases. (Black 2012) Who knows how many were unofficially treated in this way by the legion of medical personnel who were enthusiastic to perform such operations? The ultimate goal, as Edwin Black’s subtitle suggests: to build a master race5 .

It was a ferocious attack on people who were regarded as defective: the poor, the blind, the insane, and sexual deviants, the latter who were frequently subjected to castration, often ignored in the scholarly accounts, in order to prevent these people from bearing children6 .

The eugenicists, like the Nazis after them, created a central office the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) in Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, New York founded in 1910 and run by Charles Benedict Davenport and his enthusiastic assistant Harry Hamilton Laughlin, and generously funded with millions of dollars by the Harriman railroad fortune and the Carnegie Foundation, among many others. Together, Davenport and Laughlin hired and engaged thousands of researchers who compiled enormous and detailed files covering millions of individuals provided by prisons, mental institutions, hospitals, schools, civic and county registrars (the U.S. Census Bureau resisted), as well as many Americans who voluntarily filled out the forms provided by the ERO. Although these records were supposed to be rigorously scientific, “His [Davenport’s] eugenic analyses rested on pedigrees gathered without rigorous rules of evidence concerning the traits they purported to show” (Kevles 1995, 49). These records were established for targeting those judged to be defective and hunt them down, imprison, sterilize and institutionalize them. (Black 2012) “Laughlin promised the eugenics movement that the ERO would register information on all Americans no matter where they lived to ‘[prevent] the production of defective’” (Black 2012 56). This was not a project carried out in the silence of the night, but received the support of the highest echelons of American social, educational, and political life. (Black 2012; Okrent 2019) Their efforts resulted in the passage of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, which restricted immigration only to populations of northwest Europe, keeping out inferior whites: Jews, Italians, Slavs, Greeks, and Arabs.

Early on, by 1903, Davenport connected with the American Breeders Association (ABA) in order to breed the master race based on scientific Mendelian genetic principles, the basis of the eugenics movement, that were already applied to the breeding of superior plants and animals. “Many breeders were convinced that their emerging Mendelian knowledge about corn and cattle was equally applicable to the inner quality of human beings” (Black 2012, 39). Jointly, Davenport and the ABA announced  in a report that “By segregation during the reproductive period or even by sterilization…the United States would curtail the $100 million in annual expenditures for the destitute, insane, feebleminded, defective and criminal elements—a group comprised of at least two million people” (Black 2012, 39). The term “feebleminded” covered a number of defects.

Because racism and eugenic thought was so much a given in American life, it is tempting, in the face of the horrors and suffering wrought by the eugenics movement and eugenic thought, to essentialize its total acceptance. There were individuals, among them prominent early anthropologists like Franz Boas, the father of modern anthropology, who vigorously opposed eugenics, based on the empirical evidence he gathered at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, measuring craniums (anthropometry) to prove the uniqueness of the Anglo Saxon race. In this vast project, in which he took the cranial measurements of thousands of fairgoers, he was an assistant to the curator of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Frederic Ward Putnam. (King 2020, 62). His findings, which were uncongenial to eugenic thought, revealed that: “The peoples of ‘Old Europe’ were, perhaps surprisingly, shown to be even more physically mixed than the population of the avowedly immigrant United States” (King 2020, 69). In other words, there was no Anglo Saxon race. Thus, “European race supremacists like Vache de Lapouge had based their arguments all but entirely on the presumed immutability of the cephalic index. And so did Boas—by disproving it” (Okrent 2019, 155).

But Boas, and like-minded thinkers, were on the wrong side of history in this period of racist obsession. “The resulting path [of Boas’ basic scientific methods] led straight toward a collision with his adopted country’s most time-honored way of understanding itself, a cultural obsession about Europeans and Americans had learned to call race” (King 2020, 78). This obsession with race, and the founding of eugenics, led directly to the racial purity programs of Hitler’s National Socialist regime. (Black 2012) And, while many think that after the discovery of the Nazi death camps, eugenics and its supporters folded their tents and faded into the night, they did not. The eugenicists were sterilizing Mexican American women at the Los Angeles County Hospital from 1968-1971 because they were “having too many children”; dozens were sterilized, often without their knowledge. (Ordover 2003, 173)

            Make no mistake: Eugenics, for all of the support it received by such institutions as the Smithsonian Institution, the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations and Harvard and Yale Universities, and individuals like President Theodore Roosevelt, among a legion number of others, was not a science, but a pseudo-science, constantly in search of scientific data to bolster its spurious claims. “To perpetuate the campaign, widespread academic fraud combined with almost unlimited corporate philanthropy to establish the biological rationales for persecution…Specious intelligence tests, colloquially known as IQ tests, were invented to justify incarceration of a group labeled ‘feebleminded.’…Mandatory sterilization laws were enacted in some twenty-seven states to prevent targeted individuals from reproducing” (Black 2012, xv). Edwin Black describes in painful detail the rounding up of undesirables, such as members of Appalachian clans, for incarceration and sterilization while they were still children. (Black 2012)

            Eugenics was propagated everywhere in the United States: “In the first several decades of the twentieth century, ‘eugenics’ was a term that Anglo-Americans heard about from the time of their infancy…Americans and English audiences were exposed to thousands of sermons, speeches, and journal articles…” (Hasian 1996, 30, 26). “Eugenics was an intrinsic part of early movie culture” (Keely 2006, 309). Lectures were in high demand everywhere in America. Every world’s fair in America featured a prominent eugenics display, underpinned by the latest science, prepared by the Smithsonian Institution or the Harvard’s Peabody Museum that extolled the superiority of the Anglo Saxon race and its contributions, its superior intelligence, its progress.

I argue in this essay that women rejected and were repulsed by belly dance not only by the crossing of lines of Victorian and Edwardian morality by not wearing corsets, and shimmying the torso and hips, but also by the performances of dancers who were not white. “To say that race is central to eugenics is no exaggeration…The idea of race played a seminal and decisive role in the ideological growth of eugenics during the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries” (Turda 2010, 62, 63). And, beyond, I would add. White women were not about to embrace a dance performed by liminal Arabs who were either blacks, or the most inferior types of whites.

Orientalist Dancing During the Age of Eugenics

While elite and middle-class women were repulsed by the belly dance performed by Arab women, they loved orientalist dance, as long as it was mediated by white bodies like those of Loie Fuller and Ruth St. Denis, and later La Meri. There was no gap in the performance of orientalist dance from the 1893 World’s Fair and the 1970s. Orientalist dancing, not the hootchy-kootchy performed for working classmen men in saloons around the America, but the artful undulations of interpretive dancers like Ruth St. Denis embodying the Salome of Wilde and Strauss were very popular. (Monty 1986; Salem 1995; Studlar 1997)

These dances, essentially a new genre of dance that vaguely references belly dancing, such as Richard Strauss’s original Dance of the Seven Veils, which according to Lori Anne Salem, was choreographed by the composer himself I1995, 162), up until those choreographed for Kismet by Jack Cole in the 1950s (McLean 1997), dances that were glamorous and glittery, and essentially to be viewed rather than performed, were very popular. They also had a daring quality with their revealing costumes and sensual undulations. So daring was the Dance of the Seven Veils that Strauss’s opera Salome was not permitted a second performance in New York City in 1907, although the original dancer Bianca Froehlich later performed it in multiple venues, detached from the opera, and retitled Vision of Salome.

Beginning with performances of the Dance of the Seven Veils, interpretations of “oriental” dances, made up an important part of the repertoire of Loie Fuller, Maud Allen, Ruth St. Denis, and Gertrude Hoffman. “Aesthetic dancing was almost inseparable from Orientalism” (Studlar 1997, 105).  Hollywood and Broadway created versions of similar dances in the many Middle Eastern fantasies and musicals that were very popular, especially with female audiences. (Studlar 1997, 105)

Since the end of the World’s Fair, some kind of orientalist dance was always present, such as Salomania, the fad which gripped upper-class women on both sides of the Atlantic for nearly two decades. Only the rich could afford the glittery and expensive Salome fantasy parties, featuring expensive naughty and revealing costumes, and the interpretive white women dancers to perform undulating movements in a vaguely Middle Eastern style at their society events. Elite women, at great expense, redid their mansions to resemble large oriental palaces in which to stage their Salome parties. (Salem 1995, 1555-186)  Monty records interpretive dancer Loie Fuller’s first performance of Salome in 1895. (1986, 178). “Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss’ opera of Salome, opening May 1907 in Paris caused not only a world full of Salomes, but inspiration for Loie to redo her performance” (Monty 1986, 168). Among some of the orientalist offerings, Ruth St. Denis performed Egypta a few years later in New York (1910), followed by St. Denis and Shawn’s pseudo-Egyptian Tillers of the Soil in 1916, which Monty describes and analyzes (1986, 204-221).

Nor would it be correct to assume that it was the oriental character of the dance that was displeasing; orientalism was a pleasing, almost obsessive aesthetic, a fantasy, to many middle-class American women. Many people in the middle class, especially from 1870-1920, had a “Turkish corner” or a room devoted to Middle and Far Eastern rugs, pillows, furnishings, fabrics, embossed metal trays, and other items; It was a time when life was permeated with orientalist images of China, Japan, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire. Theatres and cinemas called names like the Alhambra or the Moorish Palace sprung up in cities all over America. (MacKenzie 1995; Ward 2011) Persian rugs, from the time of Henry VIII, were enormously popular, as was pottery and porcelain in the Japanese or Chinese style (created and altered there for European tastes). Various large emporiums and their customers “…maintained interest in oriental styles, on and off, right through to the 1970s7 ” (MacKenzie 1995, 129).

But Europeans and Americans, for the most part, did not want their orientalist fantasy to have any authenticity, neither in porcelain, nor in dance; it had to be mediated through white dancing bodies, like the eugenically perfect one of Ruth St. Denis, or in designs that had been altered for European-American tastes. “Thus chinoiserie, the construction of an imaginary Orient to satisfy a western vision of human elegance and refinement within a natural and architectural world of extreme delicacy, was as much a product of Chinese craftsmen as of the West… Chinese exports had more to do with European taste and fashion as they deviated increasingly from indigenous style” (MacKenzie 1995, 108-109). In the same way, American women did not want to see actual dances of India, performed by authentic Indians, they wanted to see India through Ruth St. Denis’s interpretation of Rhada, or a half century later to hear Indian music performed by the faux Indian Korla Pandit, wearing an ostentatious jewel in his turban, playing Rhimsky-Korsokov’s Song of India on the organ in 1950s Los Angeles’s Channel Five television.

America was full of Middle Eastern dance. “In the Victorian period, images of Arabs were more common and more significant than at any other time; innumerable images of dancers, dervishes, acrobats, contortionists, sheiks and harem concubines flooded American entertainment in the nineteenth century, and they received more extensive patronage and more substantive commentary than similar images do today” (Salem 1995, 4). Dance was central to Middle Eastern images, especially images of harem girls lounging around awaiting the call of her master for a bout of unbridled sex as depicted in films like The Sheik (1921), which set off a new round of the Arab depicted as insatiably sex-crazed. (Salem 1995; Stone 1998; Studlar 1997) “Dance played a crucial role in Hollywood’s visualization of an imaginary Orient identified with unleashed sexual desires and women’s fantasies” (Studlar 1997, 105). As Salem observes: “These images had in common a distorted physicality and insatiable sexuality…But Arabs were also attractive to Americans, and entertainment images frequently depicted Arabs and Americans merging in sexual contact.” (1995, 14; see also Stone 1998). The wildly popular film The Sheik (1921) certainly promoted these images of uncontrolled sexuality.

As film studies scholar Matthew Bernstein argues, the images of these orientalist films were arguably based on the images created in one of the most influential turn-of-the-century dance events in the West:

Most decisively of all for the cinema, Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with its staging of Cléopatatra, Thamar, and Schéhérezade, which toured in the United States in the teens, contributed decisively to the mise-en-scene of Orientalist cinema. Douglas Fairbanks’s 1924 Thief of Bagdad would consolidate many of the narrative and visual conventions that Arabian nights would follow, as The Sheik would do for romance melodramas in romance settings8 . (Bernstein 1997, 4. See Pozharskaya and Volodina 1990)

            In the next section, I will argue that one of the most important elements in the positive reception of belly dance in America actually took place in Cairo, a change which has remained elusive to serious scholars of belly dance: the birth of a new dance in the ashes of the old: cabaret belly dance.

Meanwhile, Back in Cairo

The belly dance that was presented in the World’s Fair of 1893 was not the same as that which Americans encountered in the 1960s. I argue that this was an important factor in its reception. In the beginning, in the 1960s and 1970s, many belly dancers claimed that this was the oldest dance in the world and part of cult beliefs of ancient goddesses. In fact, it was a new dance. (Shay 2008, 2016)

The older version, clearly related in its basic movements to the newer dance, was static, performed unsmiling, in one place, with almost all of the movements focused on the torso and hips. Also, the many illustrations of the dancers show them almost entirely covered. By contrast, the later dancers, like Tahiyya Carioca and Samia Gamal appear smiling, using upright posture, facing the audience, wearing the twentieth-century iconic badlah costume, which consists of a halter bra, and low-slung girdle with a long filmy skirt, slit at the sides attached to it—the costume most American associate with harem fantasy scenes in Hollywood films. It was a glamorous costume made from glittery and shiny fabrics.

            In the new version, now called Egyptian cabaret dance, while still performing the traditional articulations of the abdominal muscles, the dancer moves around the entire performance space, incorporates moves from other dance traditions, and creates aesthetically pleasing poses with her hands. In addition, the music, which used to be played by a small musical ensemble of native instruments, is now played by a large theatre orchestra composed of native instruments plus a large number of western string instruments, particularly violin, cello, and bass. Unlike the past, professional dancers, especially those in five-star hotels, have their dances choreographed, like the accompanying orchestras use musical notation.

            How and why did these changes occur? We are precisely uncertain, but we can now construct a general picture.

            Elsewhere (Shay 2008, chapters 2, 6; 2016, Chapter 1), I discussed this phenomenon and have since uncovered two newer works (Cormack 2021; Ward 2018) that refine those findings. In 2008, I posited that Americans would most likely not have embraced the old style, of dancing, but found the newer, glamorous movement style, aesthetically alluring. The combination of the newer dance movements, music, and costumes attracted the hordes of women crowding classes all over America and the rest of the English-speaking world in the 1970s. (Monty 1986; Salem 1995; Sellers-Young 1992; Shay and Sellers-Young 2005)

            In Cairo, beginning in the 1890s, a new entertainment district grew, which by the 1920s was the center of a cosmopolitan night life. The old dance style had been danced in many of the Egyptian establishments for decades, and in 1922, theater scholar Raphael Cormack, sifting through Arabic-language sources, discovered that traditional dance, associated with prostitution, and fath (meaning opening), the custom known around the world, where the dancers drink with the customers, had been banned. I agree with belly dance scholar Heather Ward that the ingredients for the changes I enumerated above had been present for decades, since the 1890s, and undoubtedly some new elements had already been incorporated in the dance. But, I think that the catalyst for the quick and dramatic changes in the dance, which has not yet been successfully resolved, was the 1922 law that Raphael Cormack uncovered. “Places where the dance was performed risked being fined or even shut down” (Cormack 2021, 117)

Nightclub owners, especially the shrewdest among them, Badi’a Masabni, perhaps the only dancer among them, needed to find a solution. One could not maintain a high-priced nightclub without dancing.  The police were not choreographers, so as long as the new dance did not look like the old one, and in appearance would resemble European cabaret dance reviews, which were not subject to the ban, and part of all of the most expensive Egyptian nightclub shows, they would not make arrests. My own conjecture is that because Badi’a Masabni was herself a dancer, and had the rigor and creativity, she altered the dance in order to make it appear as a new dance, which is why this dance was so associated with her nightclub. Famous  dancers like Tahiyya Carioca and Samia Gamal, who began their careers with Masabni, mostly likely aided her in creating that style. “Badi’a was famous for her serious and rigorous approach to the art of dance, and Tahiyya [Carioca] remembered her shouting words of encouragement during rehearsals” (Cormack 2021, 300). Masabni added a few new moves, a more professional presentational style that included smiling and upright posture. (Dougherty 2000) Masabni undoubtedly borrowed from a variety of sources readily available to her, new costume ideas, a chorus line of dancers behind the soloist, which totally altered the appearance of the dance, a large orchestra and a glamorous stage and setting—all distant from the more traditional settings—and the dance, even though retaining its most basic and traditional movements, had a new look. Ward states, “What seems probable is that Badi’ah’s innovations were more deliberate, more comprehensive, and/or more attractive to audiences than those of her predecessors, or—more importantly—those of her contemporaries” (2018, 193). By the time Masabni finished, she had her dancers perform a dance that was sufficiently altered in appearance, more like a European floor show, to pass muster with the new anti-dance law, and which her Egyptian audiences embraced.

            This, then, is the new dance that became a staple of the Egyptian nightclub and cinema of the 1930s-1960s, and later American restaurants and nightclubs in the coastal cities of America in the 1950s and 1960s. (Cormack 2021; Dougherty 2000, 2005; Ward 2018) This was a dance that American women in the 1960s and 1970s found captivating and glamorous and signed up in droves for classes to learn it. (Sellers-Young 1992)

The Belly Dance Craze of the 1970s

            The history of the positive reception of belly dance by American women, in the 1970s is far better known than its reception in 1893. Less than a century had changed many things: Eugenics was now a largely disreputable term that many in the 1970s did not even know and that had largely faded from most Americans’ memories. An entire generation of educated young white Americans rejected their parents’ values, including the intense racism that characterized earlier generations. Belly dance now came in a new, glamorous package. In that period, learning and performing belly dance was only one of the many world dance traditions sought by Americans to create new identities and widen their horizons. (Shay 2008, 2016)

By 1979 the American Broadcasting Company television new program 20/20 reported that more than one million women in the United States alone were taking belly dancing classes. (Sellers-Young 1992, 143). An entire subculture sprang up around this new activity: how-to manuals, magazines and books, classes, seminars and conventions, and ultimately tours to Egypt to take courses with world famous belly dance stars and see them in live performance. (Keft-Kennedy 2013; Monty 1986; Sellers-Young 1992; Salem 1995).

            In that period during the second wave of feminism, belly dance was an overwhelmingly female activity, and it was marketed as such, especially the idea that by learning belly dance you could face down the patriarchy by controlling your body and your sexuality. The dance, as taught in that period, was touted as improving the birthing process, as a fitness routine, as a spiritual activity. It became an all-purpose activity for many women seeking new interests, new identities, and self-realization. Belly dance is now a global activity and has spread all over the world—a major contrast with 1893.

1. It was often referred to as “muscle dance” in nineteenth-century journalistic accounts. (See Monty 1986) back to text

2. Paul Eugene Monty claims belly dance was introduced at the World’s Fair of Philadelphia in 1876, however, Monty also later writes, “There is no evidence that performers, entertainers or dancers, accompanied the Egyptian exhibit.” (1986, 16). I think that the dance in its Egyptian iteration was not seen until the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbia Exhibition. back to text

3. Some of the dancers, for instance those who appeared at the Persian pavilion, and definitely the scores of them who appeared after the fair at Coney Island, barrooms, and sideshows all over America under the name “Little Egypt,” were often not native dancers, but American and European women who hoped to cash in on the popularity of belly dance, or as it was often called at the period, the hootchy-kootchy. (See Carlton 1994) Carlton characterizes Little Egypt, in her many iterations: “Little Egypt was a pre-Hollywood American sex symbol. She was created by and personified the Western obsession for the exotic” (1994, xi). Sol Bloom writes “I had nothing to do with a female entertainer Chicago fair nor did this character appear on the Midway. She was introduced at Coney Island, and there and elsewhere she acquired great renown for her actual or reputed stage appearances in the nude” (1948, 136). back to text

4. In attempting to publish the first scholarly book on belly dance that Barbara Sellers-Young and I edited (2005), we approached a university press that had published my previous book. They held the book for two years and sent the manuscript to three sets of reviewers, all of whom recommended publishing because nothing existed in the field. The book touched on a dance, still linked in the publisher’s minds with hootchy-kootchy, burlesque and stripping—that was too hot to handle. I finally, after two years, went to another publisher who, like Sol Bloom, was happy to sell many copies of it. back to text

5. When I was in my first anthropology class in the 1954 in Los Angeles City College, the “Nordic” race, was still believed to be the epitome of western civilization and progress. I still recall the terms for subdivisions of the “Caucasian” race: Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean types, with many illustrations, each darker and shorter than the last in my college textbook. back to text

6. Eugenics actually began in Great Britain, and was given its name by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in 1883. However, because the genetic and ethnic composition of Great Britain was different from that of the United States, the eugenic war, which rarely emerged from the theoretical, was largely aimed at the lower classes, especially the very poor. Pauperism, as it was called then, was considered intractable and hereditary, which is why so many individuals were sent to Australia and other prisoner colonies for stealing an apple or a loaf of bread. back to text

7. See Bolotin and Laing (2002, 139) for a photo showing a display of handicrafts that were available to American fairgoers from the Ottoman Empire in the Turkish Village exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. back to text

8. Bernstein’s spellings of the ballets does not follow the original French spellings. back to text

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