Ameribic, Little Egypt and Elvis

Since we covered the Middle East music and activity today but didn't talk about bellydancing and everyone liked the bellydancing pictures, I decided my wild card entry would be about the evolution of bellydancing.

Bellydancing music and the artform itself differs based upon region. In all cultures, the technique and tradition of belly dancing is rich in history and has evolved over time due to outside influence and adaptation to survive as a cultural art-form. There are many fusion styles of Middle Eastern music and belly dance for various reasons- whether it be a result of regional influence or for entertainment value. The evolution and ultimate fusion of various styles has initiated heated debate among the belly dancing communities as to what is deemed traditional, Americanized, and fusion- and what is better or more respected. Also, many people have misconceptions regarding belly dancing (ie: It is meant to be seductive, it is somehow taboo etc.). From these misconceptions arise the issue of orientalism which is prevalant when discussing the historical timeline of belly dancing and how it emerged (and was adapted to expectations) in America.

The common name, belly dancing, is actually quite controversial and there is a long debate regarding the man who supposedly coined the term "bellydancing", Sol Bloom. In one article by Atea it states:

The English introduction of the term "bellydance" is credited to Mr. Sol Bloom. He was an entertainment impressionario considered to be the first to popularize belly dance in the United States by bringing authentic Middle Eastern dancers and musicians to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (he was actually not the first to bring the dance to these shores, but earlier stage shows in the U.S. did not capture the attention of American public as his did). Some will say that Mr. Bloom's coining of the phrase "belly dance" to publicize his shows at the Fair was done with sexist, racist, and malicious intent explicitly to cause salacious outrage in the Victorian public of the day and to generate headlines (in Victorian times, polite society did not use the word "belly", or many other words that are acceptable today). In actuality, Mr. Bloom was not making up the term, but simply translating the French "Danse du Ventre" into English.

However, Kharmine writes a long article that was published in a belly dance magazine entitled Seeking Sol Bloom and she explores what is usually said about Bloom ("At the time, society considered any description of the body to be socially unacceptable, vulgar, and Sol would have know the term "Belly dance" would sensationalize, interest and ultimately increase his business (which it did).") and the truth behind the statements. It is a very interesting article about the debate surrounding the term "belly dance".

A lot of the debate centers around how the name is ued and how it is ultimately degrading to the dance and dancer. Much of these feelings are derived from the Western orientalist perspective that is projected upon dancers - whether they say they are Middle Eastern dancers or belly dancers. The idea that belly dancing was meant to solely entertain men or be salacious in any way stems from the way belly dancing was introduced in American entertainment evident with Little Egypt's involvement in the scene. The controversy with Sol Bloom actually doesn't end with the coining of the phrase "belly dancing" but extends to introducing dancers such as Little Egypt to the scene. In Kharmines article she states the following:

"Bloom was very emphatic that he never hired “a character named Little Egypt” to perform on the Midway, although he acknowledged that one or more of the dancers may have performed elsewhere under that name. A San Francisco saloon in 1897, for instance, called itself the Midway Plaisance. It featured “cooch dancers,” among them, a “Little Egypt.”
(For more details about the 1893 Midway entertainment, the various Middle Eastern and Turkish dancers, and which concessions actually caused the most scandal, I recommend Donna Carlton’s superb “Looking for Little Egypt.”)"

But what about the dance before Westernization and fusion? What was the tradition behind the music and dance that was the cause for such controversy later on? How did the artform originate?

According to anthropologist Sheila Kitzinger, belly dancing originated as a tool in child birth. I thought this was scientific nonsense until I came across many other sources citing the same facts, including a well known belly dancer Soraya who offers this brief history on her website:

"Oriental Dance or "Raks Sharqi" in it's most classical form, translated from Arabic means "The Dance Of The Orient". The term "Belly Dance", was first used by the French when they saw the undulations and the body isolations, "The Dance of The Stomach". Also, it was called "Danse Du Venture", or the dance of adventure. In the ancient Middle East/Mediterranean, the belly dance was first performed as sort of a birthing aid. Basically, the sisters of the women giving birth, would aid the new mother by undulating and rolling their bodies in natural,curvy snake -like movements to help with the delivery of the baby. It is a dance as second nature as breathing, and it got its start not as Entertainment, but for childbirth

Slowly Middle Eastern dance became more of an entertainment related art form. This dance was first brought to America just over 100 years ago at the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1893 by "Little Egypt". "Little Egypt" was the first, and more people then ever are collecting memorabilia of her famous belly dance."

Based upon the costuming, names of moves and dances, and overall dance style an audience member can sometimes tell from where the dancer or the dancer's teacher comes. However, the fusion dance that has emerged make identification a bit more difficult. Soher Azar offers A Primer on Middle Eastern Dance Styles and identifies some of the distinguishing factors between each. (Bellydance.org also offers a very brief history into bellydancing and addresses the misconception that bellydancing was meant to entertain men.)

While there are natural regional differences, a lot of fusion genres have emerged (note in my very first wild card blog Maria, the Russian bellydancer, who mixes many genres of dance and music. Look at the comments on the youtube page and you will notice a very general debate over fusion belly dance.) There have been many influences whether it be classical European or Spanish dance (there are arm positions that are influenced heavily by traditional flamenco dancing) or even "Gothic" interpretations (If you though Robert Maribal was bad with rock indie- Cher look a like Native American music check this Experimental Gothic Bellydance Video out). With the first big introduction of belly dancing in Western entertainment in the 1890's came the revision and popularization of the dance form for entertainment and production value. However, this was simply the beginning.

If you skim or read Belly Dance History: An American Odyssey it explores, in great detail, the evolution of belly dancing around the world and in America due to world events and entertainment and political value.

A good example being:

"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 that 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 that 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 that 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 (14). Public sentiment swung to the Israelis, leaving interest in things Arabic to fade away. However 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 belly 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."

Today belly dancers face challenges due to the dichotomy that is present in their art form. On one hand there is a rich cultural tradition that is being represented and on the other hand, there has been so many different influences that have watered the traditional aspects down that it is hard to find a balance between what is accepted and what is demanded. Within the belly dancing community there is tension because some dancers look down upon others based upon the interpretation or adherence to a certain tradition, or lack thereof. However, the world of belly dance- even 'purely' traditional Middle Eastern dance- is convoluted. Within traditional Middle Eastern dance there are differences not only between region but also between demographics (folk/tribal/Berber etc.) which makes it difficult to differentiate between the genres.

Ultimately Middle Eastern music and dance, as it relates to belly dancing, has undergone many transformations and the dancers face many challenges based upon the popularization and the way in which Middle Eastern dance was introduced and grew in America.

*And just because I found it, a youtube video of Elvis singing about Little Egypt in a film:

*I personally learn from a Lebanese teacher but she learned, at one point, from a traditional Egyptian Middle Eastern dancer. Most people would assume I danced traditional Egyptian style based upon the costuming. In Egypt Oriental dancers are prohibited from exposing a bare midriff. Here is a listing of costuming differences based upon region:http://www.orientaldancer.net/belly-dance-costumes.shtml

1 comment:

  1. Wow! This was really interesting! I never knew how complicated the term "belly-dancing" was. It is interesting that different costumes can differentiate between the different dance styles. I really enjoyed reading this and hope to learn more about this in the future.
    P.S. I love the map of the world... I don't know if I had told you that already.