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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.

Dick Oates teaching in 1970 at The Intersection, a folk dance club in Los Angeles

As clubs proliferated, the demand for dancers and musicians grew. Again fueled by the film industry, tourism and the immigrants. Because dancers were in high demand they danced every night and made oodles of money. Folk dancing – particularly Greek folk – was all the rage. Zorba the Greek was a huge hit and classes began happening at several places like Café Danse and The Intersection.

In these early days, dancers made their own costumes, taught themselves to dance and sat-in with bands to learn the rhythms, the music and the folk dances. Creativity abounded in all things. Dancers back then became stars just because they were. These people became the earliest “Super-Stars” of the art and took it to a new level of skill.

Popular LA Dancer, Diane Webber

Super-Star SF Dancer, Dahlena

LA's Grand Dancer, Aisha Ali with Sadoun al Bayyati

The Queen of the West Coast - Jamila Salimpour,

and original creator of Tribal Style belly dance.

LA Star - Antoinette Awashak

Dancers Begin Teaching; Commercialism Comes to Belly Dance

In the late 1960s and early '70s the demand to learn the dance had spread like wildfire and during that time belly dancers began teaching. Middle Eastern bands took dancers with them on tour, which helped spark interest in the dance outside of the big cities. Music was being recorded so that helped increase interest. In NYC Serena and Morocco set-up classes, as did uber famous Lebanese-American, Ibrahim Ferrah, whose name is royalty in the annals of belly dance history.

Serena - the first NYC School

Ibriham Ferrah - International Super- Star of dance.

Bert Balladine - one of the first and foremost teacher's on the west coast.

The Lady who started it all on the west coast - Jamila Salimpour and her famous company, Bal Anat. The original Tribal - Style belly dance in the 1970's.

Bert Balladine and Jamila Salimpour of San Francisco began teaching a mixture of folk, tribal and cabaret styles. Diane Webber, Aisha Ali, Jenaeni Rathor and Leona Wood of Los Angeles started schools, restaurants and troupes. The dance took off as a commercial venture for these artists and the public flocked to it like flies to honey,

However, while wildly popular, belly dance was still a sub-culture art and a cottage industry. That is to say, despite the fact that there were now teachers, costumes were still hand-made, props, only found in the Middle East, were difficult to get. Additionally, during the late 70’s and early 80’s a lot of the clubs featuring belly dance such as The 7th Veil and the Fez, either closed or became strip joints. So, on the one hand the teachers were creating a new generation of dancers, and, on the other, it was something of a dark age for the belly dance as a performance art. There were fewer and fewer places to perform and more and more dancers wanting to perform. But, like all endings, a new beginning was on the horizon.

Festivals and Workshops

To meet this new demand to learn belly dance, in the 80’s dancers began to coordinate festivals and workshops and bring the few professionals that existed together to teach. Rakkassah was born, as was Cairo Carnival (now Cairo Shimmyquake), vendors began making costumes in the Middle East and exporting them to the west. Haflas, workshops and festivals provided the new venues for performing for incoming students to show off their new skills. Many of the recognized dancers who taught became super-stars in the art and sponsors on both coasts shared their stars, as they began touring and teaching to the masses.

At the same time several manufacturers of belly dance accoutrement opened. In the 70’s, Saroyan Mastercrafts began designing and selling finger cymbals and swords. Madame Abla of Cairo, became the haute couture costume designer for dancers around the world. Vendors began opening boutiques in Khan al Kahili, LA and NYC. Record numbers of musicians began recording and selling music for dancers and playing at festivals. Dancers were traveling to Egypt to study and learn from the source. Commercialism had blossomed in the dance. And, at the forefront of these trips to Egypt, was the latest craze to hit the west,

~ “Modern Egyptian Belly Dance”.

Modern Egyptian Style

By the 1980’s this new style eclipsed the homogenized American 3-5 part cabaret in popularity. Costumes began arriving from Egypt as did famous Egyptian dancers and choreographers, such as Mamoud Reda and Farida Fhamy. Gone was floor work, gone were the zills, gone was veil work and the full skirt with coined bra and belt. With no veil work, no floor work, no zill work and only standing steps and isolations, belly dance was now a lot easier to learn and the numbers learning it, exploded!

Mamoud Reda - Egyptian Choreographer Extraordinaire

Farida Famy - Egypt's Favorite star and Mamoud Reda's muse

Since most of the belly dance clubs had closed, live music was a thing of the past. But recorded music was abundant and the combination of this ease of access to music, costumes and teachers created a new golden era for belly dance – this time world-wide.

Tribal Style Belly Dance

Tribal dance was a part of most belly dancers’ repertoire throughout the 70’s, (Ghawazee, Shikkhat, Bedouin dances, etc.), but, belly dance was belly dance and tribal dance was tribal dance. By the 80’s, belly dance was almost synonymous with Modern Egyptian cabaret. It seemed that almost no one did the American style anymore. And the general popular opinion in the west held Turkish style in disrespect because of it’s nudity and perpetual presentation of the dance as a sexual art. Throughout the 80’s it was all about Modern Egyptian Belly Dance. However, after ten years of popularity, Egyptian style, like American style, was becoming predictable and ubiquous. That changed dramatically with the sudden and dramatic appearance of two new artists; Dalia Carrela and a young tyro – Carolena Nericcio.

Dalia Carrella - Creator of "Dunyavi (World) gypsy Belly Dance"

Carolena Nericcio - Creator of American Tribal Style Belly Dance.

It was an uncanny synchronicity that they both made a splash at the same time and even more uncanny that each dancers new style of belly dance was founded on much the same technique - a blend of traditional cabaret belly dance with gypsy and tribal elements. At the time that SF based Carolena was selling her new “American Tribal Style” of belly dance, NYC based dancer, Dalia, had packaged and was selling her style of Gypsy or, “Dunyavi (World) Belly Dance”.

They were both brilliant businesswomen who knew the rule of packaging – that when a product is stale you boost sales by re-packaging it. And, both being extraordinarily talented, charismatic and ambitious, were very successful at selling their new form of belly dance. It didn’t hurt that Egyptian was getting old and familiar, as this prompted a market for the new and different style – Tribal/Gypsy Belly dance.

American Tribal style belly dance was “Every Woman’s Style” – just about anyone could do it because the vocabulary was simple and easy to learn. The costuming did not point to the sexuality of the dance, but rather, the earthy funky elements of tribal women dancing together for each other. It wasn’t about the sexy soloist, dancing in a cabaret for tips and too often to lascivious men. It was clean, but still exotic; simple, but mesmerizing, earthy, but beautiful. Any woman at any age could do it and get away with being a tribal belly dancer. It was the new rage – and still is today.

Fat Chance Belly Dance

On both the east and west coasts, Dalia’s gypsy style took off like wild fire and she successfully brought women everywhere into the fold of her new "Dunyavi (World) Gypsy" style of belly dance. Dancers could enjoy a little flamenco without really learning flamenco.A little of Indian dance, without ever having studied Indian dance.

With these two new styles of belly dance, a woman could be a secretary in the day and beautiful sensual gypsy at night. In the western world where glamor, sensuality and community were becoming things of the past, with cabaret, tribal and gypsy belly dance, women could be exotic, without being alien, communal, without joining a cult, and they could be sensual without being sexual.

Tribal Fusion

Since the advent of tribal and gypsy belly dance, new, younger artists, like Rachel Brice [originator of Tribal Fusion], have entered the world of belly dance and contributed their own version of the art blending western techno music and dance with the traditional, old-time movements. Rachel’s bawdy, urban style contradicted everything traditional about belly dance and presented a new, challenging style of belly dance. Tribal Fusion belly dance has become much like the contemporary dance styles of the west – anything goes. This has set the stage for absolute creativity since the bonds of ethnicity have been thrown off. It is a phenomenon of women’s new place in society as free, independent beings. Strong, sexy and in control of their own art.

Belly Dance Super Stars - Tribal Fusion Group: Moria Chappell, Zoe Drakes, Cami Liddle,Sharon


Rachel Brice - Founder of Tribal Fusion

All of these styles were brought into a mix of fusion when modern day impresario, Miles Copeland, put together a top-notch itinerat company, “The Belly Dance Super Stars” featuring all styles, and took them on the road.

Belly Dance Super Stars

At first many old-timers were horrified because belly dance was now being held up to the scrutiny of western standards; it wasn't just dancers dancing for other dancers - now the general public everywhere came to see the dance, and, the media held the dance up for critique. In a way, this echoed the earliest club scenes in NYC and the west coast, where dancers had to live up to the club owners demands for excellence and innovation. The “anything goes – everyone is great” attitude of the earlier, “Hippy Era” was being upbraided and eliminated. Belly dance finally made it into the big time – the real world of commercial art. It became a world-class dance.But, with great power, comes great responsibility - the dancers who were on the big stage had to live up to Western standards in the professional dance world; they had to be fit, have technical prowess and performing skills. Jillina, the companies choreographer, set high standards and a new benchmark for belly dancers everywhere.

Belly Dance Today

Today, the Belly Dance Super stars are doing what all dancers do when the gig is over and they begin to age….they are teaching, opening studios and putting on their own shows. But, like their predecessors from the early days, they left an indelible impression, not only on the world of belly dance, but on the world at large. As much as many hated this new direction, it put the art on the map like never before. Belly Dancers are no longer considered strippers and burlesque dancers. They are artists. And they are bringing their art to the world and to the future generations of artists. It brings to mind something my teacher, Jenaeni Rathor used to say to us students:

“A great teacher wants her students to excel and indeed, to surpass her. Only then does the art evolve.” ~Jenaeni Rathor, (Ansuya's mother, my teacher)

Considering the stars she made - including her own super-star daughter, Ansuya, I believe she lived this value throughout her career as a teacher.


Everyone one of the dancers over the past fifty-seven years who excelled and took the art to a new level, are today the dancers and teachers, heroes and stars of the genre. The dancers of today have a lot to be thankful for, to the pioneers of each of these generations. And, they have a lot to do to keep the art growing from here on.

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