A Short and Sweet History of Belly Dance from 1900-1960s: From Folk to Fame – ALLAF 023
In this second show in this 3 part series on the History of Belly Dance, we’ll dance through night clubs, theater stages and movie screens around the world from the 1900s up through the 1960s, when the Women’s Rights Movement welcomed belly dance classes into the dance studios of the US.
But first, a Danceable Ritual that helps us enjoy whatever time period we are dancing in.
Stop and smell the roses.
Yes, it’s cliché. But a moment of smelling a flower can bring us great joy and satisfaction as we ride the cycles of chaos and order from day to day.
If there is a flower near you now, get ready to sniff it. If there isn’t a flower, find something else you like the smell of. It could be your lotion, or a piece of fruit, or your partner’s pillow. Whatever it is, get close to it. Close your eyes and exhale. As you inhale, rise up with good posture. Open your chest. Relax all of the muscles in your face. Inhale again, letting a satisfied smile raise the corners of your lips. A face you may make when you are dancing to a song you love or for people you love. The more you make this face in every day life, the easier it will come to you when you dance. Open your eyes. Maybe the world looks a little different. Stop and smell the roses.
Dance has an essence of the place where we dance. The way the ground or floor meets our feet. The thickness of the air.
Years ago an Italian woman told me that “A flower has the smell of the soil where it grows.” That stuck with me. So does the memory of the rose garden that was always in full bloom at our family reunions in the country. There are so many good things to smell and appreciate in our lives. Let’s remember to stop and enjoy them.
We’re going to dance through the first half of the 1900s together in this show. Since we all love music, let’s start with the classic belly dance song Aziza from the 1950s film of the same name.
Imagine a time before Spotify, Youtube, MP3s, CDs, mixed tapes, and 8 tracks.
Imagine a time where in order to hear a song, you needed a record and a record player. Or hoped that radio you play what you want to listen to or just sang to yourself. Or you had to seek out musicians to hear music.
A time when the roots of belly dance were learned informally from family and friends. When there was no belly dance class to attend. When aspiring dancers went to smoky night clubs and the movies to see stars belly dance and tried to remember how they moved.
Imagine the buzz in the movie theaters of Cairo when the film Aziza was first released in 1955. Imagine jaws dropping as Naima Akef descended the staircase on the big screen, legs glowing through the high slits in her skirt. Stunning costume glittering with crescents of glass bead strings swaying on her belly. She looks to the side and tosses her veil when she feels like it. The darbuka player kneels at her feet and flips his drum while playing. It’s as if he is playing only for her hips.
The people at the nightclub in the film don’t take their eyes off of the dancer while they puff curls of hookah and cigarette smoke. They drink from small glasses and dance in their seats. A solo violin plays for a moment. The accordion player comes close to Naima as the accordion is featured for a riff, and then the ney player swoops in from across the room and leads the song for a moment. Naima is surrounded by music.
The song shifts, and all of the sudden Naima is playing finger cymbals and 5 the women in the audience rise up and sing “ya way lah” and dance in their stylish 1950s dresses behind her.
And then Naima is the sole dancer again, smiling with her mouth open as if she is breathing in delight.
And the rhythm changes a lot. It goes from wahad wanuus (which is a version of maqsum) to maqsum Dt tD t ,and malfouf D k k. I’ve seen some notation for this song that even has a little saidi at the beginning and beledi at the end. The song is very orchestrated and structured, unlike other Arabic music which is largely composed of improvisation. It would be hard to work a taksim into this song.
And the song fades away beautifully with the bowing of the violin. This ending is part of the song’s uniqueness, along with the instrument features and breaks.
So this is the kind of song you want listen to many many times so you can get comfortable with the instrument features, breaks and rhythm changes. I could only find this song on Spotify with the Arabic title ة – محمد عبد الوهاب, so look for the Arabic script on the Belly Dance Body and Soul Spotify playlist. I put the songs on there in the order they are featured, so the songs that come before it are all from the first 22 shows of A Little Lighter. The only info I could find on story line of the film Aziza was that it is about 2 orphaned Egyptian sisters, and belly dancer actress Naima plays them both. I had a hard time finding any parts of the film on youtube except the Aziza dance scene. Maybe Aziza is the name of one of the sisters?
The recording you are hearing now is of our band Taksim Ithaca playing the song. Unfortunately our friends who plays accordion and ney were not part of this recording, but you can still hear the melody of the song and the rhythm changes.
I know it can be difficult to remember the names of composers, but the man who composed this song “Aziza” is really worth remembering if you don’t already know of him. Mohamed Abdel Wahab wrote over 1000 songs, and sang over 100 of them himself. Born in Cairo in 1907, he made his first recording at the age of 13 and lived for 80 years. He wrote the national anthems of multiple Middle Eastern countries. He was a singer, musician, composer and actor. They say he invented the Arabic film musical, inspired by French musicals he saw in Paris. He lived during the time when European rule replaced Ottoman rule. He brought Western instruments like the accordion into his compositions and had full orchestras. He fused rumba, tango and samba with Egyptian music. According to an article by Mark Levinson on the site Al Mashriq, Abdel made the stars sophisticated in a more Western way.
He writes, “To a popular culture in which romantic love was commonly associated with suffering, Abdel Wahab introduced a romantic hero of light-hearted wit and urbane sophistication. His films portrayed a Westernized social elite and featured music that broke from tradition.”
Maybe Abdel Wahab’s music created some bridges between Egypt and the West. Regardless, we have this composer to thank for treasured musical films like Aziza that feature belly dancers of the past, as well as music that we can dance to today. Songs like Zeina Zeina, Leilet Hob and many more.
In show number 019 titled “Where Did Belly Dancing Come From? Belly Dance History up to the 1900s” we reflected on paintings and written accounts about dancers to get an idea of what it would have been like to be among our belly dance ancestors back in history. Harems in private homes, family parties and festivals and market places in the Middle East. As we discussed in the first part of this series, Ghawazee and Awalim dancers from Egypt, Ouled Nail dancers from Algeria, and Rom dancers developed the art of belly dance centuries before us. And during the vast and culturally diverse Roman and Ottoman Empires dancers traveled and performed throughout the Balkans, Turkey, Middle East and the whole northern coast of Africa.
We’ve set the stage with a Danceable Song and a Danceable Ritual.
Let’s get into the history of Belly Dance from the 1900s up through the 1960s
The Salimpour School Belly Dance Compendium is a great resource for belly dance history (as well as many other things), and much of what I present here was read there and was repeated in multiple online sources I found. I will link to sources in the show notes on aliciafree.com. So if you want to sources, head to the show notes. This is by no means a complete or academic paper on belly dance in this period of history. I’m just hoping that you will learn a few things in this show that enrich your appreciation for belly dance as well as your practice and performance. So here we go.
Late 1800s through early 1900s: Gender Segregated Weddings & Vaudeville
We need to turn the clock back just a little bit to capture the beginning of belly dance in film. Let’s really start at the tail end of the 1800s. Multiple un-corseted dancers used the name “Little Egypt”. One of them was filmed by Thomas Edison doing the “Coochee Coochee” dance at the World’s Fair in Chicago. That seems to be the most well-known beginning of the documented story of belly dance in the US, where it then influenced dance at carnivals in vaudeville and in burlesque.
A little side note semi-related from this era in the US. My Granny is an American with Romani heritage. She has always told me how she and her mother would go to carnivals to look for family. But all they found were Turks. She describes her family as British gypsies. It just made me think of the kinds of people who were traveling with carnivals in the US before the 1950s.
Back to belly dance. Belly dance had been part of the cultural fabric outside of the US long before Thomas Edison captured Little Egypt dancing on film.
In the early 1900s we had World Wars, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and Atatürk forcing Turkey to be more like Europe. There were still gender segregated weddings in Egypt calling for all-woman bands and dancers. Just imagine what fun they had.
Then in the 1930s women were allowed to be at the same wedding party as men. Sounds good and fair right? I wonder if this change kicked women musicians out of the entertainment industry. Men could play all the parties now. And the women who were willing to dance with men in the room now had leering men to deal with instead of a room of women who probably supported and danced with them. Just a guess.
1920s & 1930s Night Clubs & Tourism
Let’s jump back again a little to the 1920s to meet Badia Masabni (Bah-dee-ah Mah-sahb-nee) in her nightclubs in Egypt.
British rule and other factors brought European dance styles, tourists, and a market for European style nightclubs to Egypt. There were other night clubs before Badia’s, but Badia Masabni’s night clubs were innovative. According to Shira.net, Badia had Turkish dancers in her Egyptian clubs. And according to The Salimpour School Belly Dance Compendium Badia Masabni’s night clubs featured choreographed group pieces. Ballet and ballroom dance travel steps were fused with belly dance. Hollywood inspired 2 piece bra and belt costumes emerged from Badia’s clubs. And it was in Badia’s clubs that moves from the Awalim and beledi “countryside” fused into Raqs sharqi and became an internationally-known Middle Eastern dance style.
Belly dance started to appear on stages and some belly dancers became celebrities, which apparently had not happened before. Professional. An art form.
Rising to be Considered an Art Form
Now, I imagine that some Ghawzee dancers and Awalim were famous, at least locally. And there were dancers who danced for and were employed by or owned by royalty, and family members who danced at weddings and other ceremonies and for themselves.
Maybe the big difference came when dancers could perform in public and also be treated as professionals with cultivated skill. Movie Stars. Stars of the stage rather than carnival side show acts and poor women of ill-repute dancing for money. And maybe performers started to be known by their own names rather than the names of the people who owned or hired them.
I imagine women most saw the art in belly dance much more than the people writing the history books, so when they talk about belly dance becoming an art form, that may be referring to when men finally recognized it as such.
And folk dancers have an interesting role here. As Maria Hamer talked about in show 021, we should be studying our folk roots as belly dancers.
So let’s talk for a moment about some perceived differences between folk art and high art. Folk seems to be useful, from a group of people with no individual taking credit for creating it, repetitive, easy learn and easy to appreciate. No audience is needed, it is often passed down through generations of family, and can be associated with ceremonies and just plain fun.
Art seems to be more from individuals, often learned from someone outside the family, more complex and harder to learn, and can take education or a bit of thought to understand. Badia hired choreographers to train her dancers and create something new. That’s no longer folk.
Sometimes I bring art from studio-learned belly dance to a folk context around the fire. Back to repetition and simplicity. Back to movements where I am honoring the sky, picking fruit and coaxing flames. And I bring the simplicity back when I want to improvise with dancers who have not studied from the same people I have. A simpler common language that is easier to understand.
But when I’m performing a solo for an audience, my moves are so varied. I want to surprise them. I want them to remember a move or a look. In folk dance, we remember more of the feeling. The context.
I can see how belly dance roots could come from all of these types of dances. Let’s remember Even with belly dance nightclubs emerging and modernizing belly dance in Egypt in the 1920s, folk dances related to belly dance must have been alive and well in the rural areas and cities of many countries.
Badia’s night clubs impacted the whole world by nurturing dancers who because the film stars Samia Gamal (Sah-mee-ah Gah-mahl) dubbed “The National Dancer of Egypt” and Tahia Carioca (Tah-hee-ah Kah-ree-oh- gah) dubbed “The Marilyn Monroe of the Arab World”.
Lebanese dancer and lesser known dancer and film star Bebe Ezzeldine also became famous at this time, and there’s quite a complicated history with her and Badia you can read on Shira.net. I just wanted to mention that though Egypt was really in the international spotlight during this era, there were wonderful dancers in Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Syria, and probably other countries at this time as well.
In the 1930s the Great Depression impacted the whole world and made audiences hungry for something light hearted and mind-numbing. Aka musicals with women in bikini-like costumes smiling and dancing. Escape from rationing, bombs falling, horrible news, defeats, and national shame.
The cross pollinations here goes every direction. Belly dancers and musicians in Arab countries were incorporating elements from Latin America, Hollywood and other parts of the US and Europe. Cross pollination with South Asia had been happening for many years, but traveling across the ocean got easier and music and dance followed suit.
1940s-1960s Egyptian and Hollywood Film & Immigrants
During Egypt’s Golden Era of film from the 1940s-1960s, Egypt was an entertainment center in the Arab world. And the films were technologically on par with European and American films, but they were in Arabic with themes that made even more sense to people. Think about this. Hollywood has been feeding the entire world with technologically cutting edge movies ever since the advent of film. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a low budget foreign language film on a bumpy bus or in a filthy hotel room, but I have. It’s not pretty. And the golden Age of film from Hollywood started in the 1920s and tapered off in the 1960s. I guess more people got TVs at home or something.
Dancers in this era look so damn happy. Smiling, glowing, owning a whole room of most likely sexually-repressed men. Movie theaters full of them. Unfazed by embarrassed or strange looks on the faces in the audience. And they make mistakes. They look so natural. Belly dance classes or instructional videos didn’t exist, so the dance traveled from person to person much more organically, allowing the movements of each dancer to come out. More dancing, less practice. That kind of thing. Choreography and troupes did emerge as well, but there was a lot of solo improv to live music up until the 1970s.
Taheyya and Samia were both fascinating people and talented actors as well as elegant dancers. Taheyya was an activist, she fused Latin rhythms and dance moves with Raqs Sharqi, and did a variety of dance forms in films.
Samia worshipped Taheyya, and Badia took Samia on as a chorus girl. She worked hard and was noticed by another film star named Farhid Al-Attrach. He was a singer, composer, actor, and he was royalty, so they never married. But watching Samia dance right next to Farhid while he sang is magic…and steamy. It’s almost like he’s protecting her so she can really dance.
In addition to Samia Gamal and Taheyya Carioca, Naima Akef is another belly dancer turned film star who has strongly influenced belly dance as we know it. She started as a circus performer. Very cool.
In the Greek films I have seen with belly dance, the gyrating and ever gorgeous Boubouka stands out. She doesn’t smile as much as the Egyptian ladies, but they do all seem to look down more than they look at the audience. More introspective. Maybe less challenging. When a belly dancer doesn’t look at the audience now I perceive them as scared or disinterested in the audience.
It seems like Turkish-born dancers performed outside Turkey and dancers from other countries went to perform in Turkey. I have read that there was a stigma against women who danced in public, secular law allowing tipping and even skimpier costumes than those in other countries near by, and the Turkish film industry wasn’t as productive as Egypt’s. And in Turkey the Roma people were also a large portion of the dancers.
Jamila Salimpour is a great resource on how belly dance was taking shape in the US during the Golden Age of Egyptian film. Jamila started dancing before there were belly dance classes or belly dance stores in the US. She got her finger cymbals from an Armenian hardware store in the 40s.
In my own belly dance experience in Ithaca New York, it was really the Arab, Iranian, Greek, Turkish and Armenian students who came to study in my town that brought belly dance music to life for me after an American teacher named June Seaney taught me Turkish and Egyptian Oriental. June is a student of dance historian Artemis Mourat.
Hollywood did put out some films with fabulous belly dance costumes, but from what I’ve seen the attempts at belly dance in these Hollywood films really help us appreciate the elegant belly dancers from the films shot abroad. (Films like Son of Sinbad, King Richards Crusades, Les Belle de Nui, Salome).
1960s: Reda Troupe in Egypt, Resurgence in Turkey and Emergence in US
By the 1960s another generation of dancers around the world had learned to dance by watching Egyptian film stars like Samia and Tahia
And of course more performers were rising up in Egyptian film an innovating. Like the 1960s Reda Troupe, which fused folkloric and modern performances in films and shows with over 100 performers. Very theatrical. Seen by many as both Innovative and respectful of Egypt. They continued into the 1980s.
The Egyptian choreographer was Mahmoud Reda and Farida Fahmy was the main dancer. Farida’s father was an academic who actually supported her dancing, and it seems this allowed other dancers to rise up. Funny how it takes a man to legitimize what women do.
And American Cabaret began to emerge in the 1960s. We had diaspora gatherings of immigrants from the Middle East in Lebanese night clubs, Greek restaurants, and Egyptian Hookah bars.
Jamila also wrote that in the 1960s mostly Arab audiences in San Francisco would come for the music and not really watch the dancers, but American audiences could not really understand the Arabic music so they focused more on the dancers. In my experience, this is still often the case.
James Bond movie “From Russia with Love” starts with a belly dancer dancing over the credits and has a descent belly dance scene. That probably inspired a lot of people to start dancing in the US, even though it honestly is not very good. There was certainly a bit of fake oriental dance in these old US films.
The Women’s Rights Movement in the US in the 1960s was watched by the whole world, and American women started to shimmy and undulate like the Middle Eastern women they admired in films. They discovered ancient goddess worship, invented new kinds of spirituality, and reclaimed their sexuality. Hell yeah. Classes popped up in cheesy YMCA studios and dancers got hooked on the music and dance of the Middle East. Clubs had bands. Musicians played together with other live musicians. Dancers danced with live musicians. Fingers hit drums and strings. The moog was invented in a town just down the road from where I live in Ithaca NY, and drum machines were on the horizon.
Waves of fundamentalism and conservatism came and went throughout Egypt and many places in the world, forcing dancers into hiding, kicking dancers out of families, and forbidding dance at many celebrations. This continued past the 1970s in many areas. Hell, it still happens in many places and families today.
In the next part of this History of Belly Dance series that goes from the 1970s-now, we’ll talk more about Jamila and Bal Anat. According to the Salimpour compendium, “The combination of Jamila’s dance format technique and of the unique Bal Anat presentation began the tribal movement and stylization that would soon take root in the belly dance community.” (p.31)
When the harems were abolished at the turn of the century, some of the dancers who sought new work began performing in European style theater halls in Istanbul.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Kemal Atatürk pushed to modernize the new Republic of Turkey. He favored regional folk dances and classical ballet to Oriental Dance. Although it was no longer part of everyday life, it was still performed at parties, traveling carnivals, and public holidays. In the 1960’s Oriental dance made a comeback due to the demands of the tourists. At this point Turkish women also performed the dance.
DAMN SEXY DANCE MOVE
Figure 8 to Floor
“One thing I remember her showing me was a hip figure eight going slowly all the way to the floor and all the way up again” – Jamila Salimpour’s when she met with Rosemarie, an Oriental dancer from Egypt who sang in six languages around 1950 p. 11 Salimpour Compendium. Jamila started dancing in 1947
FEATURED LIGHTEN MY BODY FOOD
Rosewater. So my sweet mother in law really got into rosewater for a while. I honestly haven’t known what to do with the bottles of rosewater she has gifted us.
There’s something about roses. I will always remember the candied rose petals on the Persian-inspired wedding cake of my amazing belly dancer friend Tessa Myers. I will never forget my Great Aunt Betty’s rose garden in August, or the bowl of water with a rose blossom always beneath the smiling portrait of the deceased husband of one of my wisest mentors.
Add a little bit of rosewater to a dessert recipe from The Great Life Cookbook.
MAKE YOU SHINE COSTUME TIP
Let’s be honest. Some of the best dance costumes cannot be washed. And some of the best belly dancing has been done in desserts where there isn’t a lot of water. And if we don’t do anything about it, our costumes can feel a little gross when we dance. But we can make them smell good! Add rosewater or incense to your costume box. I’ve had incense in my costume trunk from my first trip to India. It’s been in there almost 20 years, and it still smells good! And when I open the trunk and start choosing which of my treasures I will wear when I dance, that smell is so distinct that it actually puts me in the frame of mind to dance. It is the smell of decades of shimmies, spins, smiles and sly looks. It has become part of my joy of dancing.
Spray rosewater on your face, hair and pillow.
SAINT OF TRUTH
If you have listened to more than one of these podcast episodes of A Little Lighter, something has you coming back. Would you be up for taking a couple minutes to write a review of the podcast? If you write a review, I’ll gift you a 15 minute private belly dance lesson. It will be unlike any belly dance lesson you have had before, and you’ll love it. Post the review, go onto my website and email that review to me and we’ll set a date to meet online. I bet the 15 minute private belly dance session with me will be more beneficial than many hours you have spent studying dance before, and other podcast listeners will appreciate your honest review.
References and more fun videos:
Naima Akef Cane dance: https://vimeo.com/104735467
Absurd “Road to Morocco” film trailer: https://youtu.be/pV4d0aLVFKc?t=56
1950s Samai Gamal in Valley of the Kings https://youtu.be/m1KZbuvJcgI?list=PL1_YBtxrSpkih6Af423hggWFUyYA569bf&t=35
Strange lock-kneed drums only dancing western looking women https://youtu.be/gwoiTGmzrQw?list=PL1_YBtxrSpkih6Af423hggWFUyYA569bf&t=104
Samai Gamal green veil dance color film https://youtu.be/DzG20oCSsX0?list=PL1_YBtxrSpkih6Af423hggWFUyYA569bf&t=87
Samai Gamal Amir Al Intikan https://youtu.be/idzZ6D4obHg?list=PL1_YBtxrSpkih6Af423hggWFUyYA569bf&t=4
Naema Akef in “Kholkhal Habibi” 1960
Katy Voutsaki dancing with veil on what looks like a theater stage https://youtu.be/29ho-hX_b0o?list=PL1_YBtxrSpkih6Af423hggWFUyYA569bf
Greece 1960s Introspective Boubouka: https://youtu.be/as65PilYg0g
Turkish 1954 Nergis (Nergiz) Mogol dancing in “Calsin Sazlar Oynasin Kizlar” (music not synchronized) https://youtu.be/3ROra-QAATk
Turkish Rom dancer in cabaret costume in 1965 film Yankesici Kiz? https://youtu.be/yq1SuDrab-w
1950s Sinbad with cheesy costumes and very ballet looking “belly dance” https://youtu.be/B8jd8Jzan-8?t=48
Turkish film stars 1960s http://www.kristinamelike.com/oriental.html