Belly Dance History ~ An American Odessey
The establishment of various magazines around the country that began to bring the communities together helped this process of increasing the general knowledge of belly dance. These worked in association with Paul Monty and others by publicizing and making possible national tours by prominent dancers and dance scholars.
Arabesque and Habibi were the first magazines to be national in scope. Farrah had used his own nationwide lecture tours of 1974/5 to solicit advanced subscriptions to fund his as his yet unpublished magazine. Habibi, originally the voice of the West Coast founded in Oct 74, had been quietly enlarging its reach so that it too was quickly established as a national magazine. What marked these magazines apart from the local magazines was their commissioning of learned articles that stressed not only the history and culture of the dance and the Middle East but whose principle objective was again to reach out to the wider arts community and encourage increasing respect for belly dancers and the dance.
By the end of the 70's there were so many students that it was economically feasible to sell out tours by such genuine Middle Eastern luminaries as Nadia Gamal and Mahmoud Reda. Also tour parties were visiting the Middle East to train with dancers over there. Morocco led the first, but many others have followed over the years.
Of course, as well as the true stars a few lesser Middle Eastern teachers came over as well, particularly from The Lebanon after the outbreak of civil war in 1975 had destroyed the lucrative Arabic tourist trade. They would promote themselves on the premise that because they were native to the region they had a deeper understanding of the music and culture. However the quality of these imports was variable, leading Arabesque to opine at this time that people should be aware that simply being from the Middle East did not a quality dancer/teacher make. (20)
However as the training of the hobby dancers continued, a number of them began to approach professional quality and began looking for jobs in the by now restricted number of venues. This was an era where fierce under-cutting and job poaching took place (33). Finally professional dancers began to join together into associations that served as both local information swap meets, but also as unions to codify local behaviors.
The first of these was probably WAMEDA who in 1977 were noted by Arabesque to have engaged a lawyer as part of their negotiations in their fight for fairer pay (21). However, the most influential was MECDA, which formed in Los Angeles in response to the low wages being offered by restaurants in Hollywood. Boycotts and strikes were organized; indeed so successful were they that Los Angeles even now supports many more top quality dancers than the locals deserve (not that I'm jealous or anything). It should be noted though that for various reasons, with the exceptions of the two afore-mentioned, these attempts at codifying etiquette and behavior within the communities failed.
Although this period started with the seeming collapse in the popularity of the dance, this setback had been turned around completely by the end of the decade. By encouraging a quest to understand more about belly dance in its myriad forms and to put it into the context of its originating cultures and music the place of dance in American culture had become stronger than ever. The hobby dancer boom had become the platform for the re-orientation of the profession from being performance-led to being instruction-led.
So successful indeed was this new generation of dancers that Readers Digest suggested in 1977 that there were 5,000 teachers, full and part time, working in the USA (22). By the early 80's Arabesque would quote the figure of 2,000 full time professional teacher/dancers (23). With the limited job market in the US, a few were keen to try their luck on the Middle Eastern and European circuits. A move which led to the cry by Egyptians that they were being displaced from their jobs by undercutting Americans (23), oh how times change!!
Tribal and Beyond
So while most of the country moved over to Arabic styles during the 70s and 80s, San Franciscan dancers continued to be inspired by the "tribal" ideas of Bal Anat, which had finally been wound up in 1976. Mixing authentic dance moves in entirely new contexts, many troupes began to create new and theatrically inspiring presentations.
One such was Masha Archer, whose committed feminism meant that she was particularly hostile to cabaret and only considered presenting her work in theatrical arenas. She eventually abandoned dancing completely in the late 70's, but one of her students, Carolena Nericchio, developed and refined her ideas and wrote them into a detailed manifesto for a dance form she called American Tribal Style (ATS). She created her own troupe, Fat Chance Belly Dance, with which to promote her ideas.
This was a radical step. If American Oriental had been a mongrel of styles that came together to create something with recognizable influences, ATS, like jazz in the field of music, became a uniquely American 'voice' where the whole was so much more than the sum of its influences. The fact that a written statement drove it also meant that if you bought into ATS you had to do it that way. The concepts of ATS became a recognizable and self-perpetuating style irrespective of who performed it.
Another important aspect of ATS was its concentration on woman-power and sisterhood, staying true to its roots in deep feminist convictions. Prior to this, success in belly dance had meant success in the cabaret form, where conforming to the young and thin body type mattered as much as ability.
Now a dance developed where only competence mattered; nobody judged a belly dancer on her looks. It also removed the more glamorous aspects of cabaret dancing by choosing clothing and adornment styles that deliberately avoided enticing display. The clothing is often many layered and lacking glitter with jewelry being ethnic rather than sparkly. The dancers evoke a strong and powerful femininity that is far removed from the allures of cabaret. By concentrating on group work it also prevented a single woman becoming the focus of attention. Indeed, the dancer's body ceased to be the focus at all, the group dynamic was what captured the eye.
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