AMERICAN CABARET BELLY DANCE
The American Cabaret began in the 50’s in the clubs of NYC, Chicago, LA and SF. It developed as a solo art intended to entertain mixed audiences of Arabs, Greeks, Turks, Egyptians and Americans and the music reflected this multi-cultural blending. American dancers responded to the demand for a protracted and exciting progression of dance sequences by creating a fusion of folk dances with cabaret dance. The result of this was a standardized 5-part dance that began with a fast opening, went to a veil dance, a dance sequence involving standing work and floor work, a drum solo and a finale. The drum solo was a throw-way as it was not the sophisticated art it has become since because of the Modern Egyptian cabaret.
The zills were a must for every dancer because dancers were considered musicians as well. The Veil introduced the rhythm of BOLERO into the musical mix as well as the very American Veil dance itself. The Taksim often included candles, a sword or a snake and always floor work! The American cabaret was the first fusion style of belly dance and became the first foreign style of belly dance with it’s own roots and branches.
The world of belly dance has changed a lot since I entered it in 1975. Back then belly dance came in one style, the homogenized Turko-American three-to-five part cabaret. This included playing zills, veil work, standing and floor taksim, drum solos, entrances and finales, and, in restaurants, a tip section. Although there was not the tremendous stylistic diversity that there is today, this style itself was extremely diverse and challenging, and was a stunning exhibition of athletic prowess, feminine beauty-in-movement and sublime musicality.
What made it diverse and challenging was that dancers were musicians and had to understand Middle Eastern music in order to be able to play zills. They were athletes and had to execute physically challenging, lengthy veil, drum solo and floor work sequences which required tremendous strength, flexibility and endurance. Additionally, dancers drew on many styles of Middle Eastern regional dances, such as the cane dance, Turkish Rom, baskets dances, sword dances, Mahgrabi dances, snake dancing and trance dances, to name a few. In this way, the American Cabaret was the first fusion style of belly dance and set a precedent of creativity that has continued until today.
During the latter part of the twentieth century the rising popularity of belly dance around the world, combined with global multiculturalism prompted a number of changes in the art. In the eighties indigenous forms of belly dance from Egypt and Turkey began migrating around the world. The Egyptian cabaret became the primary style, eclipsing the American cabaret. Then, in the US, dancers began experimenting with fusion and diminished hybrids of the protracted American cabaret, giving birth the American Tribal Style belly dance and ultimately, Tribal Fusion. Over time, the American cabaret took a back seat to the many diverse styles of tribal belly. Today we have many styles of belly dance to choose from, including the American Cabaret, Modern Egyptian cabaret, Turkish cabaret, American Tribal Style, Tribal Fusion and Fantasy.
The upside of having so many styles is that it became relatively easy for just about anyone to learn to belly dance because most of the new styles moved away from the challenging American cabaret with it’s zill work, floorwork, veil work and lengthy athleticism. Today, there is much more variety for audiences to enjoy and, a dancer can “specialize” in a style of belly dance which suits her innate skills and personality. The downside is that there are fewer dancers today whose overall prowess equals that of the American cabaret dancer, because no style is as diverse and challenging as the American cabaret.
It is for this reason that, as a dancer and teacher, I believe all dancers should learn the American cabaret-style, including zills, veil, floor work and all the ethnic diversity that comes with it (such as cane, candle, etc). At the very least a dancers training should include entrances, finales, veil, drum solo, standing and floor taksim and playing zills, as well as the wasla suite of Egyptian music. With this training under her belt a dancer will have the physical ability, technical skills and musicianship needed to become accomplished artist in any other style of belly dance.