Belly Dance History ~ An American Odessey
Also, the late 60s was a time of considerable social upheaval in the Western world, particularly in New York and San Francisco. Things like belly dancing that had seemed racy and exotic at the beginning of the 60s simply began to appear old-fashioned and tired. Serena talks of the dancing in the early 60s as having been a “hot fad”, a boom that inevitably led to a bust.
This particular trend was exacerbated when the Crystal Palace, a New York “go-go” joint, won a Supreme Court ruling against the laws governing the showing of bare breasts etc. The subsequent establishment of topless bars drew a significant audience away from dance clubs towards those venues that more effectively catered for their needs. However, few dancers lamented the passing of this particular clientele.
“Rockin’ the Casbah”
Aisha Ali has also suggested the outbreak of the 6-day war in 1967 between Arabs and Israelis as yet another reason (14). Public sentiment swung to the Israelis, leaving interest in things Arabic to fade away. However Morocco has dismissed this as having been a factor in the East, where work remained plentiful until the oil embargo of 73.
So it could have been over-supply of belly dancers, a falling out of fashion amongst the public or various other reasons, but wages and opportunities gradually began to diminish: The Golden Years were ending.
Developing in a New Era
By the beginning of the 70’s, the two influential scenes of New York and San Francisco were beginning to diverge. Why this happened is open to debate, but it is worth stating that this period coincided with the first stirrings of feminism and the development of the hippie ‘do-your-own-thing’ quest for personal growth on the West Coast. (Dancers from Los Angeles have told me they wish to be specifically exempted from this generalization).
In San Francisco, Jamila Salimpour had been requested by Carol Le Fleur, who co-coordinated a local “Renaissance Faire” in Berkeley in Sept ’68 (15) to organize her advanced class as a theatrical production on a proper stage. This was primarily to prevent them making a daylong nuisance of themselves basking at the event. Nevertheless it enabled Jamila to bring to fruition a set of ideas that she’d previously considered for a (cancelled) lecture (16) about presenting the many facets of the dance, particularly its originating folkloric aspects. Thus “Bal Anat” (trans: Dances of the Mother Goddess) was born, billed as presenting “Dances of many Tribes”: This was the very first incarnation of Tribal Dance.
This began a major trend in the Bay area for groups of dancers to work together to create their own new realizations of ME dance as “Tribal” dancers, with Salimpour remaining at the vanguard of this movement.
Meanwhile in NYC Bobby Farrah founded the “Near East Dance company” with his protégé Phaedra in 1969. This dance company was intended to present (13) realizations of Arabic, mainly Egyptian, folk and cabaret styles in a theatrical setting to raise the profile and standing of Middle Eastern dancing with the general public. He had been inspired to do this after visiting the Lebanon and meeting the Arabic dancer, Nadia Gamal (17). Given the prevalence of Turkish styles at the time and the corresponding lack of much in-depth experience of Arabic dances in the USA at this time this was a new and exciting idea.
Except among specialists in Turkish dance, there had been a general trend amongst the better professionals towards Arabic styles as the general knowledge of the dance had improved. Arabic audiences were more appreciative of the differentiated forms dancers could demonstrate, preferring them to the “anything goes” styles common in the 60s. Thus Arabic, being a more schooled discipline was considered to be sophisticated and dignified whilst the “Nightclub” styles were increasingly considered to be low-class and even brazen. Sadly this attitude also had a disastrous and undeserved effect on the reputation of the Turkish dance styles on which they had been based (32).
Indeed Salimpour had coined the name “American Cabaret” around this time as a term of abuse for the style that had been prevalent in the clubs and to distance her “tribal” styles from this other dance form. However the term also found ready acceptance amongst those others who were promoting the Arabic styles.
This more sophisticated style arrived just in time. Serena Wilson’s dance studio was featured in a major feature article in Life Magazine in 1971, which is considered to have started the first dance exercise craze. This sparked the new phenomenon of people coming to learn bellydance for fun and fitness rather than with a view to performing in the clubs. The era of hobby dancers had begun.
Initially as the boom took off teachers all over the US were isolated from each other and began to disseminate wild and fanciful ideas about the origins and meanings of the dance, much to the despair of those few who’d had some understanding of it.
Fortunately since the late 60s Serena had known and worked with Paul Monty, the Vice President of the Manhattan (18) chapter of the National Association of Dance Affiliate Artists (NADAA). Despite early criticism from within the Arts Establishment, Monty had quickly been persuaded of the art of the dance and he realized the extent to which it had been widely undervalued.
To counteract this Monty organized a NADAA seminar on March 5 1972 that featured Serena at the Statler Hilton hotel in NYC. It was rewarded with over 100 delegates when the normal attendance would have been 30 – 40. This was a sign of considerable hidden interest amongst a previously disdainful Arts community.
This acceptance bestowed credibility upon his project and he founded the International Dance Seminars company (13) with the intention of organizing lectures and conventions around the country with the premier teacher/dancers. The first of these was in June 1974 and led to a knowledge revolution through the 70s as dancers and dance ethnologists were identified and encouraged to share their research with the wider body of dancers. These initially included the 60’s stars such as Dahlena, Serena, Bert Balladine, Morocco & Farrah (19).
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