The Extraordinary History of Belly Dancing in the U.S.A.

The extraordinary history of belly dance in the U.S. began in the 19th Century. Although there were dancers performing middle eastern stylings at the much smaller 1876 Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia, it was not until the 1893 Chicago World's Fair that this genre gained national attention. The term "belly dancing" is often credited to Sol Bloom, the Fair's entertainment director; he referred to the dance as danse du ventre, the name used by the French in Algeria. In his memoirs, Bloom states, "when the public learned that the literal translation was "belly dance", they delightedly concluded that it must be salacious and immoral ... I had a gold mine." Authentic dancers from several Middle Eastern and North African countries performed at the Fair, including Syria, Turkey, and Algeria—but it was the dancers in the Egyptian “Streets of Cairo” exhibit who gained the most notoriety. The fact that the dancers were not corseted and gyrated their hips was shocking to Victorian sensibilities. Mr. Bloom took advantage of the publicity, and announced that women and children would not be allowed in this theater!  Men attended in droves. 

Who was the first popularized bellydancer? There were no soloists, but it is claimed that a dancer nicknamed Little Egypt stole the show.  Some believed that her “pet name” originated because her real name was too difficult to pronounce.

The popularity of these dancers subsequently spawned dozens of imitators, many of whom claimed to be from the original “Streets of Cairo” show. The victorian society continued to be scandalized by the dance, and dancers were sometimes arrested.  The dance was nicknamed the "hoochie coochie", or the shimmy and shake. “Belly Dance” drew men to burlesque theaters, to carnivals, and circus lots.  Everywhere, dancers claiming to be “Little Egypt” sprang up, yet most knew nothing about Middle Eastern music or dance.

Thomas Edison made several films in the 1890s. They included a Turkish dance, and “Princess Rajah” from 1904, featuring a dancer playing zills and doing "floor work.” Choreographer Ruth St. Denis also used Middle Eastern-inspired dance in the film Intolerance, her goal being to lift dance to a respectable art form at a time when dancers were considered to be women of loose morals. Hollywood began producing films such as The SheikCleopatra, and Salomé, to capitalize on Western fantasies of the Orient.  Despite these popular outlets, Bellydance remained on the fringes of respectability in America for decades.

Moving forward, the 1960s were hallmarked by refreshing freedom in popular dance - the tradition of “couple dancing” was broken, and huge venues touting light shows and “acid rock” became the rage.  Creative rock bands from the Beatles to the Kaleidoscope infused East Indian and Mid-Eastern sounds into current Western music.  Clothing styles (for both sexes) exploded with new ideas, new looks, new freedom.  These factors, as well as a passion for international folk music and dance, fed a new wave of fascination for those in North America.

In the United States, interest in Bellydance came into its own during the ’70s.  To answer and to feed the demand, a spate of books were written, magazines were founded, record albums were produced, and classes & seminars cropped up nationwide.    

Subsequently, the ’80s brought profound change to the Mid-Eastern dance scene from several sources:  Politically, the Lebanese Civil War had no sooner taken its toll than the revolution in Iran became front-page news, replaced by the specter of hostages taken from the American embassy in Iran.  Xenophobia erupted, clubs closed (some even burned) and the general popularity of belly dance plummeted. Of course, people with a true love for this extraordinary genre remained, and as luck would have it, technology emerged that would prove to be a defining moment in all dance: the Video!  By the end of the ’80s middle eastern dancers had, through this medium, an incredible spectrum of knowledge in styles, costuming, and music from which to mold their repertoire.  

In the bellydance field, video contributed greatly to the huge popularity of the “Egyptian Style” as the rage of the 90’s - so different in the concept that some dance competitions created a new category devoted to that venue.  Diversity, however, often leads to dissension, and controversy flew regarding the rather strict parameters of the Egyptian style.  Many dancers felt the “loss” of aspects of Bellydance embraced in Turkey, Greece, and some Arabic countries: Veil dancing, Floor dancing, and Karshilama (9/8) were virtually nonexistent or relegated to folkloric performances.  Many dancers mourned their loss.

Then, the new Millennium dawned - and the pendulum swung.  All that is old is new again, but with a heightened perspective and an elevated level of information.  Cymbals, veil, floor dancing, and 9/8 all became sought-after skills, and the widening spectrum of Middle Eastern dance had an assortment of new looks - from American Tribal all the way to Rock Fusion.  As in all art forms, the evolution of Bellydance has been an exciting journey every step of the way!


Dancer, Author, Musician, Producer

Ms. Schill is the co-author of “The Compleat Belly Dancer,” a book that became a national bestseller published by Doubleday & Co., as well as two sequels; “The Finishing Touch” and “The Teachers Guide.” She also co-authored and starred in a videodisc produced by MCI (Universal Studios) as well as writing and producing an instructional videotape trilogy entitled “Belly Dance: Fine Art of the East.” Marta has created choreography for such stars as Dinah Shore and Barbra Streisand, and acted in and created dance routines for TV and motion pictures. In the past two decades, Marta Schill has created major productions to bring the total spectrum of the American Middle East dance community (Cabaret, Tribal, Fusion, etc.) together for the public to enjoy.

Photo credit for Marta’s photo: Mike Simpson

Dancer’s in blog image post: Little Egypt, Zahra Zuhair, Sadie Marquardt