The History of Belly Dance Starting with the 1970s: Feminism, Flights & Stigma – ALLAF 028
Celebrate 1970s Strictly Belly Dance records by Eddie the Sheik, admire the moves of Egyptian belly dance star Mona Said, and take a peek into stigma and the gritty lives of many belly dancers in Cairo now.
This is the 3rd show in this series on the History of Belly Dance. In this episode and the next one, we’ll cover the 1970s up to present day.
In the first two episodes in this history of belly dance series, we talked about belly dance up through the 1960s. We chunked it up into one episode of dance up to the 1900s, and another from the 1900s through the 1960s. We highlighted some of our belly dance heroes including Naima Akef and unnamed Ghawazee dancers. In this big big world of dance with a huge number of dancers and an infinite web of information we can access at all times, we can choose our influencers as well as the styles we want to study and embody.
But up until the 1970s, there was not a lot of information recorded about what was really going on in contexts where belly dance thrived. Sure there were movie stars in fabricated scenes we cannot forget, as well as culturally warped written accounts mostly from outsiders with Orientalist perspectives. But so many pivotal belly dance moments will forever remain fleeting experiences, unrecorded and unremembered. Fading away when those hearts stopped beating. And that’s a beautiful thing.
For this show beginning with 1970, we have so much more information to digest. Increased migrations, tourism and cultural exchange. An increasing number of videos, sound recordings, photos, and written accounts each year up to the age of widespread internet in the 2000s, which made so much of this exponential.
Don’t worry. I’ve done the sifting for you. This is not a comprehensive history by any means, and that is not the goal. Here’s my wish for you: By the end of this series, something you have been confused in belly dance about will be clear for you. You’ll get it. And you will be inspired to find out more about a specific dancer or region or dance style and bring that into your dance. Sound good?
In this show we are reflecting on the recent past, becoming even more aware of what has shaped us and who we are as dancers. Sometimes at night, we can see our own reflection in the uncovered windows in our houses. They become like blurry mirrors. We catch ghost-like glimpses of ourselves. We may even see a younger version of ourselves. Do you know what I’m talking about?
You can try this simple Danceable Ritual now, and also try it next time you are in a private space and you see your reflection in a window.
Pause and take a deep breath. Exhale. Take another breath in, letting this breath relax and rejuvenate you. As you exhale, raise your arms up above your head with grace. Face up, inhale a third time, rolling your shoulders back, opening your chest, and as you exhale assume a beautiful pose. Craft it with the help of your reflection. Relax your face, coaxing the corners of your mouth into a subtle smile. Linger here for a moment, enjoying the openness and stillness. Enjoying the beauty of teachers and dancers you admire reflected by you.
Let’s get you in the 1970s mindset with Eddie the Sheik Kochak. This choice is straight up American, and that is the admittedly the lens we will be looking through in this show. I will try my best to acknowledge the diversity of perspectives of social and performing belly dancers and belly dance enthusiasts around the world, but I am indeed an American.
Let’s feature the song “The Sensual Chifti” by Eddie the Sheik Kochak. Eddie was one of the main musicians behind those 1970s Strictly Belly Dance records you have hopefully encountered in your local record store. Eddie passed away in 2018 at the age of 97. He was doing something right.
Eddie was born in Brooklyn, and he had the accent to go with it. His parents were from Syria. He loved to drum. Eddie traveled to the Middle East as a performer in the US military during World War II, and his sergeant apparently had trouble saying his last name. So he called him Eddie the Sheik. Eddie partnered with an Iraqi violinist Hakki Obadia and they used the terms “Amer-abic” and “Amer-aba” for their music. According to Brooklyn Arts Council.org,
They played “Arab classics and folk songs adapted to New York City’s diverse audiences, dancers, and musicians.” So it sounds like they were bringing immigrants together with their collage of music and also popularizing and Americanizing Middle Eastern music just in time for Americans to become empowered by dancing to it. Ridiculous song names like “Salaam to you”, “Oriental Cha Cha” and “Arabic Rockin’ Melody” show his sense of humor, and probably other intentions I’m having trouble realizing because I’m distracted by the goofiness. Eddie probably created a bridge for Americans who would not have discovered music that was actually from the Middle East without Eddie introducing them to his “Amer-abic” style first.
The name of the song Sensual Chifti is special. That is to me, the essence of the dance. Sensual. An invitation to be without words and just feel the music mix with your soul in the moment. Now, the words sexual and sensual can accidentally be conflated, so it’s worth defining the word sensual here. Pleasure. Gratifying to the senses, and not necessarily sexual. And sensuality is the enjoyment, expression or pursuit of pleasure. That is why I dance in a nutshell. Enjoyment, expression, and the pursuit of pleasure.
Since the rhythm in this song is not an 8 count chiftitelli D kt kt DD t, the word chifti in the title is probably just letting us know that it is a dance song.
The rhythm in this song is Rumba. D – t – D . When you string measures of this together, it creates a double doum between the measures.
Maqamworld.com states that “Iqa‘ Rumba is an Arabic adaptation of the Latin American dance rhythm by the same name. It became fashionable starting from the 1930s and was used to add a little foreign flavor to Arabic arrangements.” We mentioned before how Tahia Carioca began fusing Latin rhythms with belly dance in the 1930s. This is just a reminder that what we call “belly dance” and “belly dance music” never has been and never will be static. Some might disagree, but from what I have seen there are no real rules. For example, in a video from 2012 Eddie the Sheik plays doumbek holding it between his knees rather than on his lap like most of us do now in the west. There is no one way to play a rhythm or use a word or do a move. People use the word chiftitelli in many ways, and no one person owns or defines that word above all others. There is infinite variation.
Some teachers seem to get in the “I am right and that is wrong” mode, but we create meaning together and it is not static. There are of course relatively new patented movement vocabularies that one person wrote down and shared after watching many people do many different things. American Tribal Style, for example. That is much more ballet-like, where there is one right way to execute a move and dancers strive to do it just like that. Most belly dance over the last hundred years has been constant variation and improvisation.
I’m having so much fun reading Alia Thabit’s book “Midnight at the Crossroads: Has Belly Dance Sold it’s Soul?” now. Alia has a great way of explaining how Westerners often strive for visual perfection in their dance and Easterners focus more on what she calls “richness of emotion”. Aisha Ali recommended I read Alia’s book when I told her I was working on this 3 part history. Thank you so much for the suggestion Aisha! Can’t wait to interview her for you all.
Back to the song Sensual Chiftitelli. The use of the finger cymbals in this song is lovely. And I very very rarely say that. I do wish it was more in the background so I can hear the melody more, but maybe we’re supposed to feel like there’s a dancer right in front of us when we listen to the recording.
In my experience, it’s enough that we are sometimes standing in front of the 6 piece band with shiny stuff all over our boobs and potentially preventing the audience from appreciating the live music right in front of them. Then add finger cymbals, and a dancer can make it hard to see AND hear the musicians. That just ruins it for me. In this recording, the finger cymbals are prominent but never too loud, and there are dynamics in the volume. And there are pauses and patterns that vary in a relaxed way.
The choice of the song Sensual Chiftitelli is inspired by my friend Tessa Myers. Tessa has been my bridge to the amazing Mama of Tribal Fusion Jill Parker. I’ll talk about Jill’s contribution to our belly dance heritage later in this show, and Tessa will be featured on an upcoming show as well. We will be talking about controversial trends fusing belly dance with burlesque. Woohoo!
Subscribe and that show will come right up in your feed.
DAMN SEXY DANCE MOVE
I’m going to talk a little bit about a recent documentary filmed in Cairo called “At Night, They Dance.” The Damn Sexy Dance Move featured in this show is performed by the dancers in the film twice in the first 4 minutes of this documentary. I’ll link to the film in the show notes.
This is an accent move we’ll call the Disappearing Dancer. When there’s a great accent or pause in the music, half of the dancer disappears for just a moment. They keep their back and upper body standing straight up and bend their knees quickly so their head drops down to where their belly was. Their butt is not sticking out. They are totally straight. And they zoom right back up to neutral standing position smiling. When I do this, I raise my heels to squat and keep my back verticle, and I squat at an angle to the audience with my knees closed and together.
Have issues with your back or knees? No need to try this one. Respect your body. And if you do like this move, it’s not a good one to drill. Practicing it a few times when you dance is fine, but I think it’s really a surprise move that loses luster when repeated and it could irritate your back and/or knees.
I probably watch 2 movies a year, and one of these was this documentary called “At Night, They Dance”. Mahin Sciacca sent out a link to this film in her amazing list serve, which I highly recommend signing up for. She is always thinking of ways to reach us and teach us.
Back to the documentary. It’s on youtube, and it shows the daily lives of a lower class family of professional belly dancers in Cairo. It is disturbing. These dancers are outcasts. Possibly illiterate. Depressed, laying in bed until a sister or a thug pulls them out to put their makeup on and make $20 dancing on stage at a wedding. They wear short skirts. They often look bored on stage with blaring speakers and obnoxious men surrounding them. Their agent is their mother, a sometimes screaming foul-mouthed liar. I needed to see that movie in order to begin understanding these stigmas I’ve been told about for so many years.
That is just one depiction of one family of women dancers. This is the commercial version of the dance rather than the ethnic context, and it really contrasts the way most encounter belly dance outside of the Middle East.
Let’s talk about women’s rights and feminism that sparked interest in belly dance outside of the Middle East in the 1970s and has given non-Eastern dancers a very different experience.
FEMINISM AND BELLY DANCE
Women’s rights movements in the US in the 1960s and after were felt around the world. Gender segregation declined in many places, and women had less space to themselves and more eyes on them because they were going out in public more. They also had more freedom to move.
In the 1970s many women had expanding options for work. Not just sex work, dancing in public, and house work. Women could make money in other spheres. So some women in the belly dance profession pursued other options. And other women not born into the belly dance world chose it.
Even as feminism, women’s equality and opportunities for women have grown, the stigma of women who dance in public remains crystalized. Here are some negative stereotypes of professional belly dancers in the Middle East:
- Satan-like temptresses. Luring men away from God, their families and their responsibilities
- Shameful women. Performing for the sexual pleasure of men.
- Greedy women. Dancers dance for money, and when you are in a social situation dancing with your family it is for fun, not for money. Many dancers share the money they make with their family.
- Poor women. This is where classism kicks in. Performers are often from lower classes and have less options. They are hired by the middle and upper classes to make their celebrations more fun. These were Roma, women seen as prostitutes, and widows and other women who had to leave the privacy of their homes in order to survive.
That documentary “At Night, They Dance.” shows this all too clearly.
When I first saw belly dance in the year 2000, it was in a beautiful dance studio filled with natural light at an Ivy League school with wealthy students from all over the world. My teacher was angelic, graceful and wise. The belly dance troupe I joined was composed of the most well-behaved women I had ever spent time with. They didn’t party or stay out late. They just wanted to dance.
In a way that beginner belly dance class was the Middle Eastern family experience we never had. We were not little girls imitating their aunts, but we were still young and in a safe space learning the movements from an elder. And most of us had not grown up listening to Middle Eastern music through the kitchen radio or at family parties or in taxi rides. That lack of musical exposure is probably the biggest setback for most dancers who start dancing outside of the Middle East. Most of us had never even seen a belly dancer perform live in public. It’s the dancing in public part that turns women who love to belly dance into something often perceived as threatening.
The stigma of women dancers is real. Now let’s talk about some superpowers of paid belly dancers that feminist movements have made it possible for us to celebrate:
- Willing to take risks in the public sphere. To be the one everyone is watching. Unwilling to hide their sensuality, even when the people in the audience take zero responsibility for their own minds and look for a dancer to blame. Even when family members want to disown them or prevent them from dancing.
- Business women. Nightclub owners, teachers, performers who earn a living dancing and often share that money with their families. Not that what they do with the money matters. It’s their business. But if they are supporting their families, that seems to align with the values of those who are judging these dancers. They could be applauded for dealing with the shit they deal with.
- Willing to stay up late and sweat and bring up the energy and translate the music for an audience and keep the experience fresh for the musicians.
- Covered in jewels and beautiful fabrics. Elevated and sought after. If no one was hiring theses dancers, they wouldn’t be performing.
Egypt has been seen as a modern and relatively liberal art and entertainment center of the Middle East for quite a long time. It seems like Lebanon and Turkey were also more liberal, and therefore had more public dance performance opportunities. But it was the US that created the workshop era and classes for people who wanted to experience belly dance without the stigma and negative associations so alive in the ancestral homes of belly dance. https://www.newsweek.com/saudis-and-last-egyptian-belly-dancer-89525
Of course, there are a handful of dancers in the Middle East who were treated more like stars than devils. Nagwa Fouad was one.
There’s a great article in Habibi by Shareen El Safy written back in 2001 on Nagwa Fouad, one of the most famous dancers turned actress from the 70s to the 90s. She sounds like a woman who danced at 110%. She put on a spectacle and brought ecstasy to the audience with their smile.
Nagwa Fouad had 50 piece orchestras, new and original songs sometimes every couple months, costume designers, and apparently she put the money she made from a show back into a show. She relied on her income from acting in films. And she smiled. Like she was having a really good time. Full on energy.
So many amazing dancers emerged in the 1970s. Egyptian dancers Mona Said and Fifi Abdo are my two favorites to emulate. They just look so natural and powerful when they dance. Every time I watch one of their videos I learn something from seeing how they feel the music.
Fifi Abdou Dancing in a beledi dress
FEATURED LIGHTEN MY BODY FOOD
We carry the seeds of dance home from many places and water them until they grow into something we can enjoy and share with others. Sprouts are just like that. Sprouts add color, shape and sass to our lives. A lot of stores now carry an array of sprouts, and they are also easy to grow at home. Back in the kitchen, where generations of people who love to dance have cooked while singing and dancing.
You really just need the right seeds to sprout. Other equipment can be improvised and you don’t need soil. Home grown sprouts are the freshest produce you can get your hands on in if you live in a place with a non-growing winter season. Eating really fresh vegetables has a lot of health benefits. If you’d like to try sprouting, check out the short and sweet article titled “How to Grow Your Own Sprouts at Home” on my site. I’ve had the best luck with organic alfalfa seeds that are sold for sprouting. Sprouting peas and sunflower seeds is really fun, and pea shoots and sunflower shoots make great healthy snacks. I think broccoli sprouts smell bad. Radish sprouts are great if you like your sprouts to be a little spicy. I have mixed alfalfa and radish seeds together and sprouted mixed and it works great. On my site there are also recipes that look great with a sprout garnish. Like Soft Corn Tacos with Red Rice, Avocado, Sprouts and Kimchi, and Vegan Egg Salad
MAKE YOU SHINE COSTUME TIP
If you are dancing to recorded music from a particular era, try to match it with a costume a dancer in that era might have worn to dance with that music. Yes, most of the audience may not have a clue. But it may help you feel the music more deeply, and dance more like you had that very band in the recording right there with you. Like dress up time travel…
Watch videos of performers you want to emulate and make notes about what they are doing. Where are their eyes looking? How do they hold their hands? What do they do when there’s a taksim? How do they enter the stage or begin their dance? How do they interact with the audience and the band? What are their default moves? Try to describe what they may be feeling.
If we make a habit of watching dance videos actively, beyond being entertained, we will be more able to follow the lead of these dancers we admire. By absorbing some of their dance wisdom, we will feel more confident when we dance and look better too.
Featured image of belly dance record cover: https://www.flickr.com/photos/willem-alink/2626057302/