Belly Dance History – Belly Dancing History

Belly Dance History ~ An American Odessey
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These were truly revolutionary ideas for a society where women felt judged on their looks, and where the self-image of mature women was often damaged by a perceived failure to conform to a “norm” of female body shaping derived from a thinly disguised teenage perfection.

Kajira Djoumahna in
“Tribal Style Belly Dance”

It had the added advantage that, as a “folk-like” art form, it was acceptable at local fairs in a way that cabaret styles were not and so created performance opportunities where previously they hadn’t existed. This appealed to the many women who wanted to express their art but were unwilling to perform solo cabaret in a club or who preferred the support available in a group context. Tribal style exploded over the North West, where it is still strong today, and began to slowly spread East over the next few years.

This was surely the first time a dance form had been created in the modern era for women by women alone. Indeed so strong were the underlying feminist principles that males were initially specifically excluded from ATS. Other tribal styles have been less exclusionist, Bal Anat had featured male dancers from 1974, but given the dominance of ATS in the dissemination of this style, even today the sisterhood emphasis remains a significant barrier to male involvement.

All styles evolve as other people add their own interpretations and male participation has gradually become more frequent. Nevertheless, the only women-only ME dance events one sees with any regularity in the USA are tribal. This is in comparison with the cabaret forms that have openly welcomed men since the 70s.

Otherwise the 1980s were a continuation of the 70s trends; the last of the old nightclubs shut their doors in 1985, bringing that entire era to an end. The most famous club, the Baghdad in San Francisco, which hosted every famous dancer in the US for over 20 years, is now a Chinese takeaway.

The adoption of the Arabic styles had been more or less completed in the East by the end of the 70’s as the changeover there had been energetically driven by significant and influential teachers using the large number of dance seminars to propagate the new approach.

However, with the exception of Jamila Salimour, who had been forging her own distinctive path, no such influential figure existed in the west, nor had there been anything like the same number of teaching seminars with which to spread the word. Consequently, west of the Mississippi the widespread adoption of Arabic dance had taken much longer, most areas only beginning to adopt it during the late 80s. Even so, some areas knew nothing but American Cabaret belly dance until the early 90s.

Over the years ME dance has experienced several periods of where the popularity seems to advance and then retreat slightly. One such was the late 60s, another happened in the late 70s with the waning of the dancercise boom. The 80s were no different with Arabesque reporting falling class rolls across the majority of the country (24) by 1985. As most dancers earned their income from teaching this was problematic, but the time of the full time professional performer in the US was long gone. Despite the problems, the dance remained popular but seemed doomed to remain as a niche hobby.

IAMED Videos “Rockin’ the Casbah” & “Hollywood Babylon”

Re-invention, the Second Golden Age

Interest in the dance experienced a new boost with the advent of the video revolution. In the late 80s and particularly into the 90’s more and more dancers were bringing out teaching and performance videos, increasing the levels of interest generally. Concentrating on teaching through the 80s now paid dividends with the release of some extremely well thought out educational packages. And it wasn’t just that great teachers were releasing good instructional videos, it was the wide variety of styles that enabled dancers to become inspired to expand their range. Egyptian, Lebanese, Turkish, Armenian, Rom, Persian, Kurdish, Moroccan and Algerian dance styles are all pursued in the US and world-class teachers are available for workshops in all of those forms.

Even so, by the early 90s, the majority of classes across the USA offered a predominantly Egyptian style still infused with many hangovers from American Cabaret. There was, and still is, a strong emphasis on zills (36) whilst floor work is a desirable part of performance repertoire (knees permitting). Also the dancing will commonly display a more energetic air than the more laid back performances found in Egypt.

However although not strictly “Egyptian” as you would see in Cairo, it was nevertheless quite heavily defined to prevent the encroachment of “American Fantasy” moves. This left the field open for the re-invention of American Cabaret simply because it allows dancers to combine all of the various styles in their own personal dance expression. It emerged as a more flamboyant alternative where jazz stylizations and other moves could be brought in to develop a very high energy performance concept that now shows signs of being the dance form that will “crossover” into mainstream attention.

Another aspect of the video boom was the creation of IAMED, the International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance. Their idea was that they should get the very best dancers from the USA and beyond together in a show to be video-taped to the highest quality which would then be made available to provide a gold-standard of performance. You can buy their performance or instruction videos absolutely sure in the knowledge that the performances and the presentation will portray the dance in its best light.

But if video had increased the interest in dance styles, it has been the Internet that has bound the USA together as a united dance community. The ability to quickly inform other dancers of developments has meant that year on year those of us on the sidelines can feel their self-confidence building.





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