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