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The History of Belly Dance, Part 3

With the advent of the industrial revolution came international communication and travel. People began visiting other countries and tourism became a viable source of revenue for countries around the world, including the Middle East. This explosion of world-wide interaction between countries brought about the growth and development of belly dance as a public performing art in four major countries: Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and the United States. And, from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, belly dance grew in popularity. But also, the artists themselves became popular and even grew to become epic stars of film and stage.


Dance has been a cultural tradition in Egypt for thousands of years. Many paintings and sculptures show Ancient Egyptians dancing. Throughout history, Egypt has spawned different types of dance, from ancient Egyptian dance, to traditional/folklore dance, as well as theatrical dance such as belly dance. Of these, Oriental, or “belly dance”, has undoubtedly been the most recognized and popular

Its popularity as a theatrical style began in the early twentieth century in the cabarets of Cairo, many of which were started by belly dancer and impresario, Badia Masabni. She is considered to be the originator of Egyptian belly dance as a performance art. She was not only responsible for opening a number of nightclubs, but also for launching the careers of early Egyptian stars, Samia Gamal and Tahia Kariokka.

Badia Masabni

These dancers were part of a period known as “The Golden Era of Belly Dance”. Tourists flocked to Egypt to see the Pyramids, but also, to see the grand floor shows of Cairo. Egyptian film included belly dancers, who were (and are) comparable rock stars in the west.

Samia Gamal

Tahia Karioki

Billboards to this day line the streets of Cairo advertising their films and floor shows. The negative underbelly of an Egyptian dancer's world is that Egyptian's have always had a double standard or, a love-hate relationship with belly dance. One would never have a wedding without a belly dancer, but one would never have their daughter become one!

During this period of belly dance’s heyday, (1920’s – 1950’s) the political climate in Egypt was fairly liberal about belly dance. This all changed when Islam became a political power to be reckoned with during the building of the high dam in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Sohair Zaki

Nagwa Fuad

President Nassar was under social and religious pressure to subdue the dance to satisfy religious fervor against it. Dancers were not allowed to be as flamboyant or physical. Belly dancers stopped doing floor work, had to cover their middles, could not receive tips on their person, stopped playing zills and were under scrutiny from the ever-present eyes of the “Modesty Police”, who hung out at the clubs. Any dancer who did/does not comply with the new laws was/is arrested. This new “modest” style of Egyptian belly dance became known as “Modern Egyptian Belly Dance.”


Meanwhile, in Turkey, the reverse happened. Theocratic government gave way to secular government when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk became its first President from 1923 until his death in 1938. During his reign, belly dance enjoyed fewer restrictions and had an important place in the tourist industry, as did the Egyptian dancers. The dance was evolving and becoming freer, allowing dancers to flourish artistically.

Emine Adalet Pee

The first prominent dancer in Turkey was Emine Adalet Pee. She was an actress and belly dancer who rose to fame in the early 1920’s. She was followed by a number of (mostly Rom/Gypsy dancers) such as Semre Ozge. The Turkish Roma people had always been performers in the Middle East. Not being conformists they enjoyed a monopoly in the performing arts, and indeed, it was because of them that belly dance was nurtured and preserved as an art in the Middle East. However, this monopoly ceased when, under the new freedoms of secularism, and with the explosion of tourism, non-gypsies such as Tulay Karachi and Princess Banu, began rivaling Rom dancers for the spotlight in cabarets and clubs.

Semre Ozge, Rom dancer

Tulay Karachi, Turkish dancer

Princess Banu

Egyptian and Turkish belly dance were very different, mostly because of their folkloric roots. The folk music and dance of each country, to a large extent, defined the music, movements and costuming of each style of belly dance.In Egypt, the dancers wore modest costumes and were kept under strict surveillance to follow modesty laws, and present discreet shows. But in Turkey, under secular law, dancers wore scanty costumes, did floor work and zill work, and accepted tips. In the beginning, both countries engaged small bands (tahkts) to perform for dancers. But eventually, Egyptian belly dance bands became large orchestras, (firqas), eventually fusing Western instruments and elements into their own music. Turkish clubs continue to this day to present the dance shows with small tahkts and still use only indigenous instruments.


The other country that promoted belly dance as a local performance art was Lebanon. The fact that Lebanon did not place restrictions on dancers and actually enjoyed the art, (without conflict), allowed the dancers to thrive and become excellent artists. Lebanese belly dance is athletic and a grand spectacle of drama. The dancer most people think of when considering Lebanese belly dance is Nadia Gamal, known for her kicks, back bends and large, sweeping use of space. And moreover, her intensely dramatic stage personality.

Nadia Gamal, Lebanese dancer

No matter what conflicts existed, no matter what love and hate, by the middle of the twentieth century in these three countries, belly dance had become recognized as an exotic, albeit true form of entertainment and art. But, it wasn’t just a Middle Eastern phenomenon, because during this evolution of the art in the Middle East, the United States was simultaneously enjoying the birth of its own style of belly dance.


Early immigrants from the Arab, Turkish and Greek worlds formed diaspora’s in the major cities of the US, sparking an awareness of and appreciation for Middle Eastern music and belly dance. However, it was an impresario named Sol Bloom at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 who introduced belly dance to the American public. He created a midway known as “Street in Egypt” where he featured a dancer who called herself, “Little Egypt”. Since this was the Victorian era, a naked, writhing girl dancing to snake charmer music was scandalous and the dance she performed was instantly dubbed “Hootchy-Kootchy”. Hootchy- Kootchy, as it came to be known during the era of Vaudeville, set the stage both to nurture the art of belly dance, as well as to establish a long standing stigma that belly dance was stripping.

"Little Egypt", First American belly dancer at the Chicago Worlds Fair, 1893.

Simultaneously, while Vaudeville was in its heyday, lesser-known immigrants from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Greece and Turkey, were settling in the big US cities. They gathered in grocery stores, churches and parks to play music and dance. These parties were known as haflas and large picnics or festivals were known as mahrajans. Most of these people did not have much music and dance training, but, they pulled together a few instrumentalists and voila! the first bands of Middle Eastern music were formed, as were the first dancers. These events fostered a new context within which Middle Eastern music and dance became known and a real “Scene” was being established, laying the ground work for Middle Eastern music and dance to become the craze in the U.S.

As time passed, private halfas and mahrajans gave way to taverns and restaurants and more formal “shows” began to emerge – not just for the immigrants – but, also for Americans. Americans began patronizing the Greek, Turkish and Arab taverns and later the restaurants or, “joints” (as they were called in NY in the 50's) to listen to this exotic music and, on the rare occasion, to see the dancers (who were mostly someone’s sister who got up to do a little dance in street clothes).


In the late fifties and early sixties in NYC, there was a plethora of clubs on 8th Ave and 29th St. The Greektown, The Egyptian Gardens, Istanbul, Ali Baba, to name a few. All thriving and catering to Greeks, Turks, some Arabs, a few curious Americans and a steady stream of movie stars. Most of the musicians were Greeks and Turks for whom playing Arabic music was a feat. And certainly playing for dancers was even more challenging. Because, in addition to being from a variety of countries, they were not professional musicians so, creating a cohesive sound was difficult. And making the music work for the dancers was tough. The tempos were hair raisingly fast and there was no such thing as a drum solo. So, for dancers, the first generation of musicians in the US did not make it easy to dance. Nonetheless, these clubs were the breeding grounds for an emerging style of music called, “Ameraba” – Arab- American music. It blended American phrasing with Greek, Turkish and Arabic music so it was easier for the American palate. It was an awesome hybrid and extremely well-received. Albums sold like hot cakes!

Popular musicians such as George “The King of Belly Dance” Abdo and Eddie “The Sheik” Kochak produced album after album to satisfy the new demand for this exotic sound and the growing number of dancers who wanted to learn the dance. And the clubs were the incubation centers for tyro dancers who vied for a spot with the imported Turkish dancers, to learn the dance and live their newfound passion.

El Avram, Middle Eastern club/restaurant 50's

Cafe Feenjon, The Village, NYC

Some of the dancers in the first generation of U.S. belly dancers came into prominence in this place and time; Serena, Sabah, Morocco and Najla Ates (a Turkish dancer) made their names working in the NYC clubs.

Serena, one of NYC's first cabaret dancer, 1950's

SEBAH, one of the first NYC dancers

Najal Ates, Turkish dancer who made it big in the US in film and stage

The Queen of NYC dancers - Morocco

Stigma of Sexuality, Stripping and Burlesque

As in Egypt, throughout the 40’s and 50’s, many movies featured belly dancers, (Son of Sinbad, King Richards Crusades, Les Belle de Nui”, Salome), fueling the fire of the public’s newfound fascination with belly dance. The movies portrayed the art as sexual and many of the dancers themselves dressed like strippers, drawing attention to the nudity of the art, thus punctuating the stigma that belly dance and stripping are one in the same. Furthering this belief is the ironic fact that belly dance was becoming popular during an uber conservative period in the US - the post-McCarthy-era. During the 50’s, the Burlesque and strip joints were being shut down. So, many of the strippers became belly dancers, bringing their sexual movements and costuming with them into their belly dance acts and re-enforcing the image of belly dance as a form of stripping or hootchy-kootchy.

Era of Free Love

As the McCarthy era faded and the era of free-love was born, more women wanted to learn to belly dance. These women saw the art as an ancient dance for spirituality. But the stripping stigma remained a real problem and many of the women who became belly dancers in the late 60’s and 70’s were horrified that the public viewed them as such. Patrons hiring belly dancers often requested them to strip and were disappointed when they did not.

In order to counteract this stigma, the “Earth-Mothers” of this era dug back into the history of the dance, to its embryonic beginnings, and borrowed the myth that it was a dance done to help women in child birth. While this myth may have some basis in fact, (it is difficult to prove, as women have always lived cloistered lives in the Middle East and, historically, little to nothing was written about them), it was rather moot. The fact is that, no matter how spiritual the art was to the dancers themselves, to the public, a half naked women performing a dance involving shaking, shimmying and gyrating, makes it difficult to dispel the idea that belly dance is not a sexual art. Nonetheless, the stigma did fall away with time.

Some factors which disabused the public of this image of belly dancers as strippers were:

  1. Women’s Liberation gave women political and social power they had not known prior to that movement. Subsequently, women were gaining respect that allowed them to have a sense of themselves outside of being sexual beings, while enjoying a new confidence as sexual beings.

  2. They stopped dressing like strippers (with pasties and no underwear), giving more credence to their dance as more than a nude exhibition of sexuality.

  3. Additionally, nudity itself was becoming less offensive during the 70’s and so the impact of the art as a nude dance lessened the false belief that it was sexual.

  4. Over time, as exposure to the dance broadened, more and more women with training entered the field, adding greater acceptance to it as an art.

  5. The advent of tribal style belly dance, which advocated women dancing for women, gave women venues outside of nightclubs, which were run mostly by men for men.

By the early 1970’s the new view of belly dance as a legitimate art and not as stripping or burlesque, had taken hold. The public began to enjoy belly dancers in private parties, at mainstream social events and at restaurants. The Cabaret had been born

The Three-Five Part American Cabaret – The First Fusion Style Belly dance

With just a smattering of technique – mostly from the traditional Turkish and Greek cultures, and even fewer Arabic/Egyptian movements - American Cabaret dancers developed their own distinctive style. Prompted by the club owners’ demands that the dancers be interesting and innovative, American ingenuity took over.

Without the restrictions of modesty police or the need to adhere to indigenous cultural norms, American dancers slowly developed their own format of belly dance. One that appealed to American audiences. In addition to props, they added a section solely for the veil, a floor work section, a drum section, a tip section, they played zills, wore coined bedlahs. And thus, the first fusion style - the 5-part cabaret - was born.

Aida al Adawi- SF dancer doing pot dance in tribal garb from the 70's

Top west Coast dancer, Rhea doing a sword with Bal Anat, Director, Jamila Salimpor

Serena of NYC doing her famous Candle Dance.

Serena Wilson of NY became known for her use of candles, Jamila Salimpour of San Francisco used pots and swords. Many dancers used snakes. After their own shows, they often went club hopping and learned as much as they could of folk dances and culture as well. Most dancers were required to use zills and to play with the band when not dancing, and knowing the music was essential to being able to dance and to get a job. This was a time of enormous growth and creativity; these early pioneers were awesome dancers with an immense education in the art of belly dance as a Middle Eastern dance art ~ done their way.


At the same time as this growth was happening in NYC and the East coast, the West coast club scene echoed what was happening on the east coast. Initially, with the exception of a few Arab and Egyptian dancers, belly dance was relegated to private events such as haflas and mahrajans, and most of the dancers were Arabic or of Arabic descent. They were family members just dancing for fun for and with family and friends. But as the club scene grew and dancers needed to be “professionals” these women dropped out of the dance world because of their religious beliefs and Americans once again took center stage in the belly dance world.

Many say that the real beginning of the LA belly dance club scene came into being in the 1950’s in a club called Hershaway’s 1001 Nights in the Farmer’s market of Los Angeles. Some of the patrons began doing impromptu folk dances along with the informal belly dance performed by family members.