Belly Dance History ~ An American Odessey
A History of Modern US Bellydance (25)
– by Helen Waldie
Early Days, Golden Years
Belly dance has probably been enjoyed in the USA for as long as widespread immigration has existed, indeed we have documented evidence of public performances since at least the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876 as well as at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 (where, incidentally, no dancer called Little Egypt was recorded as having performed, 35). However, despite several flurries of interest brought about by the activities of Orientalists such as Ruth St Dennis and La Meri (1), for most of the first half of the 20th century the dance has been largely confined to those ethnic groups to which it was indigenous.
These mostly centered on the large Greek & Turkish groups in most major cities of the USA and naturally their cafes and clubs featured old-country singing and belly dancing amongst their preferred entertainments. Marliza Pons, the doyenne of Las Vegas dancers from the mid 60s through to the late 90s, wrote of learning her first moves as a young girl through the windows of such an establishment in Chicago in 1948 (2).
Whilst some of them would come from the local community, there was also a long tradition of hiring singers and dancers directly from Turkey. The singers would be the stars and would be the best-paid entertainers. Such was the pecking order that they would often try to deny being able to dance to avoid the “shame” of being just a dancer (26).
It is possible that belly dance could have remained confined to such clubs indefinitely, largely unknown outside of its originating culture. (3). However, fortune changed when the Broadway show “Fanny” opened on November 4th 1954 (4). It featured the Turkish dancer, Necla Atesh, (other spellings include Nejla Ates or Najila Attash) who had been hired for the clubs from Turkey sometime between 1948 and 1952, and Egyptian pop singer Mohammed El Bakkar. The show was an instant smash hit with its oriental music and dancing causing a sensation. Soon mainstream clubs catering to the smart and fashionable were beginning to feature this ‘new’ entertainment (California – 5) (New York – 6).
This fashion began to spread more widely, especially with WWII veterans from the N African campaigns happy to relive the entertainments of their youth (7). This trend was helped by the occasional appearances at this time of Samia Gamal in films and in Las Vegas (27) or at Ciro’s club in Hollywood (4). Tahia Cariocca also appeared in a Hollywood film in the late 50’s, although she didn’t enjoy the experience and returned to Cairo.
Lys and Lyn Gamal, who were identical twins, had been stars in Egyptian film industry and also came over to the US in the late 50s and immediately began a successful career in the clubs. They are always fondly remembered, especially for the fact that their parents chaperoned them to every one of their gigs, even after they married. Dahlena particularly remembers them as having been an influence on her dancing in the early years.
By the end of the 50s Middle Eastern clubs were opening all over the US. However the demand for dancers soon exceeded the supply, with many of the new establishments unable to afford to import or hire foreign dancers. They needed to employ locals to bridge the gap and, although in the 50s there were a few such as Adrianna Miller & Dahlena working in Boston and Jamila Salimpour and Antoinette Awayshak in LA, even by the early 60s there weren’t anything like enough dancers to meet the soaring demand.
Morocco joked that back then “if Godzilla had a bedlah, she could have gotten a job”, willingness rather than talent being the criterion for acceptance. She herself was a professional flamenco dancer and had never seen Middle Eastern dancing before she took a job because the pay was better.
Bert Baladine album cover
In fact so desperate were the clubs for belly dancers in those days that Sabah Nissan had been immediately hired by the Port Said club in NYC the night she turned up to inquire whether they might have an opening. This was despite having no costume or training and ended up performing in the pink gingham dress she’d arrived in. She was told by the Turkish lead dancer to “do what I do”; although she conceded that it probably looked a bit different when she did it (6). Soon after that she moved to the West Coast where she subsequently studied the art with Bert Balladine (34).
Serena, another successful graduate of those early New York years, maintains that whilst willingness may have got you through the door, only talent took you to the top. That said, given the circumstances, some truly inept belly dancers managed regular employment in the more westernized clubs, being known in the trade as “Wonderful Walkers” (27).
On both the East and West coasts the main sources of dancers were still the Greek and Turkish clubs. These had become suddenly fashionable with the boho set following the release of the film “Never on a Sunday” in 1960. The film “Zorba the Greek” which followed in ‘64 maintained this popularity. Young students enjoyed them because they were lively and boisterous and there was a great thrill in spending hours on end belly dancing around the tables performing dabke and chiftitelli with anyone who happened to be around. From such unlikely beginnings many illustrious careers were forged.
On both coasts the belly dancers of this time were largely untutored, moves were taken, mixed and matched at random from the many traditions of the Middle East and further. So a dance style evolved that was a new form of “Middle Eastern” dance unknown in the Middle East, nowadays we call it “American Cabaret” belly dance, but at the time it was called Oriental or Nightclub (8). Of course the general public knew it then, as now, as belly dance.
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