Almée or Salomé? Hybrid Dances of the
changing economic and artistic milieu of Western professional
entertainment from 1890 to 1930 provided
a liminal space for performances of “Eastern dance” by women of both
Middle Eastern and non-Middle Eastern descent. In defining their performance
personas and in articulating their
hybrid dance techniques and presentations,
these artists engaged in a fluid process that reflects the ever-changing reinscription of the relationship
between the consumers of the West and the East they envision. This paper explores
the nuances of this complex
interaction through the careers and performance
experiences of both Eastern and
the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th,
two species of representation of Eastern dance enjoyed widespread popularity in the West. The first was more or less authentic women’s
dances of the Middle East and North Africa, in particular
the solo-improvised “danse du ventre,” presented
by natives of those cultures. The second
was the theatricalized presentation,
by Western women utilizing primarily
Western dance techniques, of dances on Middle Eastern themes. On the face of it, these forms were very
different. Authentic danse du ventre (as it became widely known; literally, “belly
dance”), was presented in cultural
exhibitions or in less exalted venues such as dime museums or midways. In popular discourse, its techniques and practitioners could be described in terms of the grotesque,
and it was often treated as a cultural marker distinguishing the progressive West from less advanced nations. Its purported indecency played
a substantial role in the discourse of the dance, but was mitigated by the
foreignness that supposedly made such “vulgar” sensuality unappealing
to the elite of the West. On the other hand, Western women’s interpretive dances on Eastern themes, epitomized by the Salome craze of 1907-1910’s, were
generally performed in theatrical
venues, and were treated as the artistic product
of the dancer. The theme of the Orient
might serve as a marker for a network of ideas including destructive sexuality,
failure of moral judgment, and the confusion of sensuality and spirituality.
Yet the performing artists
themselves were described as complex
vehicles for these themes, and often the aesthetic quality of the dance was
understood as mitigating the sexual elements of performance.
Despite the apparent clarity of these categories, though, in the
marginal spaces of the changing
economic and artistic milieu of professional
entertainment in America, dancers from both East and West “crossed over,” as
women of non-Eastern ethnicity learned and performed
authentic techniques, often in the persona
of Eastern women, and women of Eastern ethnicity found resources to claim
artistic value for their dances. In
defining their performance personas and in articulating their hybrid dance
techniques and presentations, these
artists engaged in a fluid process that reflects the ever-changing reinscription of the relationship
between the consumers of the West and the East they envision.
the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, danse du ventre rocketed into American popular
culture, gaining notoreity for both its scandalous nature and its profitability.
Following the Exposition’s
close, several of the exhibits, including “A Street in Cairo,” opened
in the Grand Central Palace
in New York. The 300-seat theater which featured the four
Algerian and Egyptian almées (professional
initially had lines 50 deep. But on the second day of the exhibition,
Police Inspector Williams shut the
dancing down. The manager of the Egyptians objected, and put
matters to the test by continuing the show. The theater was raided again, and three
dancers were arrested for public
indecency. The next day they were tried,
convicted, and fined $50 each. Their
manager and lawyer protested
vociferously. But in the end, the young
women had to modify their dances, removing the “most objectionable” movements,
and substituting a little “high kicking,” which would presumably
not offend (New York Times, 11/30/1893; 12/2/1893; 12/7/1893).
the difference between the reluctant tolerance of the dance in Chicago, and its provocation
of immediate action in New York? One factor was the performance
space of the dance. In Chicago, the various venues which offered
Eastern dances were laid out along the shining Midway Plaisance, accessible
only by wending one’s way through the uplifting
exhibits of Western technical and cultural achievements that dominated the
fairgrounds. The performance
venues for danse du ventre – and
there were several – were
buried in exhibits designed to create the surreal feeling of immersion in a
another world. The almées from Cairo,
for example, were to be seen only
after venturing through streets packed
with donkeys, camels, galabiya-clad vendors,
open-air bazaars, and even the
“ruins” of an ancient Egyptian temple. The
dancers’ potentially shocking
violations of propriety were mitigated by their location at both a physical and fantastic remove from real life. While the dances were, from time to time, protested, sometimes vigorously, they were never
actually shut down. Neither were the
other forms of dance that showed a similar vocabulary of movement and
daringness in undress, the “Naughty Hula” (Kealiinohomoku 1979) and the performances of the Dahomey Africans. As ethnographic
displays, the dances were
contextualized in an ordination of cultural development
that illustrated the primacy of the
industrial West (see, e.g., Celik and Kinney 1990).
when the much-reduced exhibit was transferred to New York, it lost the physical
and imaginative remove that had insulated the civic body from its potential moral danger. With the Exposition’s
massive paean to Western progress the Exposition
lacking, the role of the danse du ventre
in defining Western cultural superiority
was obscured by the intimacy of its threat.
The Grand Central Palace
theater in which the Cairo
dances were played out was easily
accessible to anyone, the potential
threats of the dance exacerbated by proximity
– and by the unavoidable social self-revelations its popularity made plain. In a society whose moral confidence was
already wavering in the face of unresolved questions about both women’s proper
roles and the place of the lower
classes in creating the dominant discourses of culture, the gyrating dance of
the almées became a dangerous outside
intrusion into a volatile mix.
an extent in Chicago,
but certainly in New York,
the danseuses du ventre were
transformed by the popular press
into a manifestation of the “low other”: shifting, changing, chaotic, and
vulgar embodiments of the lower-class challenge to the dominant
hierarchies. In addition, they were
described as violating the established limits of specifically
their reportedly irresponsible, unrestrained behavior modeling the opposite
of the ideal of feminine complacency.
identity was formed for them by orientalist thinking, but it was orientalism of
a particularly American sort. For comparison,
the discourse surrounding the Egyptian
dancers at the 1889 Paris International Exhibition four years earlier had
followed topoi already established
in French writing about the dancers of the East, and highlighted their complex, dangerous allure and their effect on the individual drawn into their spell. The almées represented
the dangers (and delights) of self-loss in the world of Eastern seduction. But in America, the threat was perceived differently. It was not was not so much that danse du ventre would suck individuals
into moral turpitude. Its perceived
effect on men was, rather, the stirring up
of a collective masculine prurience
that divided the interests of men from the moral well-being of their
families. The threat was not to the
individual’s moral essence so much as to the fabric of society.
enough, I have found the Arabic idea of fitna,
or “moral chaos,” helpful in
characterizing the sort of anxiety these potentially
volatile performances evoked. In the modern Arab world, female performance has the potential
to cause fitna because it excites passions, sensual pleasure
and loss of self, that temporarily
obscure and ultimately undermine social values.
The ability of danse du ventre
to inspire this Yankee version of fitna was seen as resting in several
factors: its exogenic fascination, its transgressive techniques of hip articulation, and its specifically
the liminoid space of the stage,
surrounded by an audience eager for shocking novelties, danse du ventre could not help
but exacerbate cultural tensions about ethical and social cohesion. But it was not alone in doing so. The danse
du ventre quickly fell into alignment with perceived
moral threats more immediate to the American experience. Most prominent
was the sometimes violent opposition to both mixed social dancing and dance performance of any sort. This coalition of evils appears in
Mrs. William Tecumseh Sherman’s contemporary
It was not in the arms of reckless youth that Miriam
danced beneath the eyes of Moses …. [T]he
ancestress of the waltz and the polka,
of the suggestive skirt dance, and the more suggestive serpentine, and the abominable pantomime
of the danse du ventre of the East,
was the barbaric orgy in which Herodias ‘came dancing,’ upholding
on a platter the gory head of John
it may have been somewhat more horrible than polkas
and skirt dances, the danse du ventre
nevertheless was only one of a crowd of moral temptations;
its performers were apparently
no more culpable than performers of other sorts of dance.
press coverage of the New York incident, the danseuses du ventre became emblematic of
the contradictions that lay beneath the seemingly smooth surface of
conventional morality. They were portrayed as emotionally volatile and defiant of
feminine complacency, yet these
negatives were countered by their personal
– they were never accused of immoral relationships
or immoral actions beyond that of their dancing. Their dances were “obscene,” yet the dancers
satisfied the standards of decency with their dress, both on stage and
off. The Streets of Cairo dancers
themselves became a site of ideological slippage, where the associations that undergirded the
accepted definitions of propriety
as the wavering cultural constructs that they were.
negotiate this rugged terrain, and in contrast to the Paris Exposition, where florid orientalist fascination had
dominated the critical response, the
New York Times coverage of the Grand Central
Palace events features a
chaotic humor, evenly distributed among the combatants. The Egyptian
dancers are described as “four alleged beauties from Egypt,”
and one of them, Fatma, was “appropriately
named as to the first syllable.”
Fascinated audiences are portrayed
as making a comically cowardly volte-face to cheer Inspector
Williams when he shut down the dance they were eagerly watching. Various proper women hustle out of performances
in an amusing dudgeon. At the dancers’
trial, the patrolman who attempts to demonstrate the offensive movements is
laughed out of court. The dancers’ lawyers are unbearably pompous,
their manager is caught out in a self-serving lie, and the captain who raided the place
is a little too devoted to his duty to inspect
the performances. This humor reflects the vivacity of the
ongoing redefinition of the public
and permissible. The dominant voice, that of propriety
offended, is undermined by subtle jibes.
Deviant voices are rendered comically, but they are still rendered. This humor is one way of negotiating the
ongoing social tensions the danse du
ventre seemed to exacerbate. A
“Streets of Cairo” exhibit (whether it was this one, or one modeled on it)
found a permanent home in Coney Island by 1896, offering many opportunities
for the figurative fisticuffs to continue.
Despite such complications,
American thirst for the sensational dance opened
avenues for many performers from the
there were literally hundreds of representatives
of Middle Eastern countries resident in the Midway Plaisance, where the fiction
native villages obscured a complex
world of professional aspiration.
While the public may have
believed that all of the Algerians were Algerian (for example) or all the Egyptians
Egyptian, there was in fact some
mobility between the exhibits, as performers
left one and joined another for personal,
professional or economic reasons. While some exhibits were brought over en masse by entrepreneurs
– for example, the Algerian Village
by Sol Bloom (Bloom 106-8, 120-23) – it appears that other performers
acted more like free agents once they were established in the White City. It is difficult to characterize the professional situation of the dancers at the fair,
except to say that there was probably a variety of relationships with employers
and different levels of financial reward.
evidence suggests, however, that the dancers who performed
in the wake of the Chicago
exposition, whether they remained
after the fair or came over afterwards in response
to demand, worked in troupes, and
the experiences of the New York
Streets of Cairo dancers shows why. The protection of a manager fluent in English and
cognizant of the American legal system, probably
seen as desirable before, appeared as an absolute necessity in New York.
Some Arab entrepreneurs
developed their own resources. By the end of the 1890’s, an informal social
and professional network of Eastern
dancers had begun working the agricultural fair circuit, with established
members of the Arab emigrant community assisting those who needed help in negotiating their legal and economic positions (New
York Times, March 31, 1895).
1895 Ashea Waba, one of several dancers who performed
under the name “Little Egypt,” appears in
our sources because of her participation in the infamous Seeley dinner party. This
bachelor party, sponsored by a wealthy New York politician,
featured a variety of female entertainers.
The party was raided by a policeman acting on information that Seeley had
solicited improper dances and songs. When the raid made the news, Seeley, in an
Oscar Wildean misjudgment, had the policeman
brought up on charges of improper
action, and the resulting trial entertained the public
for weeks. Oscar Hammerstein, no fan of
Seeley’s and always with an eye to the sensational, hired Waba and other Seeley
to star in a satire of the event at his Broadway theater, playing concurrently with the trial (New York Times 1/13/1897, 1/14/97,
1/16/1897 [display ad]).
testimony and other elements of the trial coverage reveal some details of the
life of an Eastern woman who was working in the West outside of the idiom of
the cultural exhibition and without – at least in this case – the buffer of a
troupe and a handler. She was hired through an independent booking agent, but beyond that, we have no
information about who managed her career and with what resources. As “Little Egypt,”
she may have been a solo performer.
who spoke English well enough to
testify in it, said that she had been hired to perform
a dance and a pose. A pose,
also called a tableau, was a theatrical form in which living people
recreated a famous scene or painting. Obviously, this reflects not any internal
drive of Eastern art, but the conventions of the American stage. At the Seeley party,
performed to music by an American
band. Authentic music was the stuff of
ethnological display, and Waba was,
at least sometimes, performing in
other contexts. And clearly, when Waba performed in Hammerstein’s satire, the “Silly Dinner
Party,” she adapted the aesthetics
of her performance to the structure
of the overall show. Waba’s flexibility
and ability to work in a Western milieu enabled her to take jobs such as the
Seeley engagement, may have brought her steady work, and certainly brought her
her 15 minutes of fame.
trial evidence also confirms that while the danse
du ventre was notorious, it was in ethical alignment with other performance arts.
It was considered possible to
perform it without offense: Waba is
said to have done so in her Broadway stint, and even the Streets of Cairo
dancers finally ended up on the proper
side of the divide. Seeley’s supposed
solicitation of improper songs and dances of all sorts shows that for the
leaders of public morality, all
variety acts, not only the danse du
ventre, were potentially problematic.
some Eastern women were entertaining in venues outside of ethnographic displays,
American women were performing
“Eastern” dances. The variety dancer
Ella Lola, the year following the World’s Fair, presented
a Turkish dance as part of her program, which also included Western dances. While she is readily identifiable as a
Western imitator, she was capable of
controlled hip articulations that
suggest she had witnessed authentic Eastern dance and practiced
what she saw. Her solo performances were directed toward a Vaudeville (i.e.
American dancers adopted Eastern personas. On Coney Island, in addition to the “Streets of Cairo,”
there were other performers of danse du ventre, many of whom were known
as “The Original Fatima” (New York Times
8/8/1897). It’s hard to know the extent
to which the myth of their Eastern origin was supposed to be believed, but everybody didn’t believe
it. While it is impossible
to recreate the performances of most
of these dancers, surviving film evidence shows that some dancers, at least, presented careful and convincing impersonations of the East. Princess Rajah, filmed by Thomas Edison in
1904, began performing danse du ventre on Coney
Island, performed on
the agricultural fair circuit with ethnographic
shows, and evidently specialized in portraying Eastern dance. Her technique, as preserved
on the Edison video, is quite convincing. She plays
finger cymbals expertly, and performs a specialty
act, balancing a chair in her teeth, which was a standard element in Mediterranean
and Middle Eastern popular performance.
Eastern dance apparently did have a place
in American popular
entertainment at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. But the most powerful
effect oriental dance had in American popular culture was through its adoption into burlesque. In 1893, when danse du ventre surged into the American popular imagination, burlesque was promulgated by troupes
of scantily dressed women who satirized the high culture of the day by offering
humorous plays in travesty. Burlesque rose up,
as earthquakes rise from the clash of tectonic plates,
in the clash of traditional upper class cultural dominance with the increasing
dissatisfaction of the working class with both the existing power structure and the stifling restriction on
entertainment. In challenging propriety,
the satire of burlesque subtly dug at the traditional hierarchies of late 19th
(Allen 1991: 23-118; Snyder 3-25).
Danse du ventre virtually demanded the sort of satire burlesque
offered. And it was in a unique position to contribute to the burlesque agenda. Ironically, the same sociopolitical machinery that marginalized burlesque performance as a product
of the “low other,” and sometimes even shut it down, had somehow convinced
itself to approve
the hip-shaking danse du ventre as
ethnological display. The haughty cultural elitism that undergirded
the colonialist rhetoric of the World’s Fair was the very thing that allowed
this transgressive dance a place on
American soil. The elite, it appeared,
were hoist with their own petard.
Danse du ventre found a congenial home in burlesque. But not performed
by Eastern women. Eastern ethnological performance had never wholly lost the taint of the
grotesque. The display
of sexualized beauty which was the underlying ethos of burlesque demanded that
white women become its oriental dancers.
Before long, a number of burlesque troupes
featured a danseuse du ventre, and
one troupe at least was headlined by
“Little Egypt,” not Waba but an
American woman playing the
addition, the popular acceptance
of danse du ventre as cultural
entertainment allowed its hip and pelvis focused techniques to finally emerge full
force in burlesque shows. Previously,
the dominant ethnic connection for pelvic
dance was African, and of course, that was a problem
where the African was by definition grotesque.
But the orientalizing image of the nearly-white odalisque provided entrée for
the wide-scale adoption of pelvic techniques in burlesque shows. Now hoochie coochie, as the danse du ventre was soon renamed, could
add its flavor to the many means by which burlesque transgressed and
burlesque appropriated and reinscribed the pelvic
movements of Eastern dance, and as
American women learned to play the
orient in part by adopting its dance techniques, the longstanding
theatrical orientalism of the West was gearing up
for its own explosion into popular
culture. In 1905, Richard Strauss adopted Oscar Wilde’s one-act play
Salome as an opera,
including its Dance of the Seven Veils.
Strauss’s Salome debuted at
the Metropolitan Opera House in January 1907, but amid morally-charged
controversy, it was shut down after five performances. Soon New
York vaudeville houses were offering Salome dances,
and a film of the Dance of the Seven
Veils was playing in a Bowery nickel
theater (New York Times 2/4/1907). By 1908, in the family-friendly venues of
vaudeville, some Salome or other was always dancing in New York, from the ethereal La Sylphe of France to the equally ethereal female impersonator Julian Eltinge (New York Times, 8/16/1908).
dances inspired controversy that was
virtually a mirror image of the uproar
around danse du ventre only fifteen years before. Danse
du ventre had offended through its movements, but the dance vocabulary of
the Salomes was entirely Western. Danse du ventre had no narrative, and no
meaning beyond sexual display. On the other hand, the Salomes offended
through their sacrilegious narratives. Danse du ventre had not been criticized
for its costume, but the scantily-clad Salome dances abutted – so to speak – on the wider controversy about nudity and propriety
in art. While Egyptian
performers of danse du ventre had seldom ventured out of the generic in the
American public’s eyes, the
individual Salome dancer was acknowledged as the author of her improper performance.
new dynamic of “oriental” theater allowed new opportunities to at least one American performer of danse
du ventre. Princess Rajah, whose
near-authentic techniques had been the mainstay of her career to date, crossed
over into big time vaudeville in 1908.
William Hammerstein, Oscar’s son, had discovered her as she performed a Cleopatra
dance, complete with live snakes, in
Huber’s Dime Museum, which was also a venue for
ethnic displays of hoochie coochie,
and the following week she was headlining at the Victoria Theater
(New York Times 1/6/1909). In adopting
the Cleopatra motif and the “bra and
hip belt” costume of the Salome
dancers (Princess Rajah Clippings), she had wisely traded the pseudo-Orient of the midway for the pseudo-Orient of post-Salome
vaudeville. It’s too bad we have no way
to estimate how much, if any, of her authentic Eastern dance technique made it
onto the vaudeville stage.
the 1910’s, there were a number of other dancers who made their living by impersonating exotic denizens of the Orient: Mata
Hari, to name the most notorious, her imitator Miriam Hari, and Madeah Lurith,
among others. It remains unclear how
many of them were actually believed to be Eastern women. In addition, there were variety dancers who
sometimes performed oriental dances,
and performers who identified
themselves primarily as “oriental
dancers,” at least for a couple of
seasons. The techniques of their dances
By the 1910’s, generic cooch dancing, which had become
increasingly sexually explicit, had
replaced danse du ventre on the midway (Allen 255-56; Green 1977; Sobel
1946). The Streets of Cairo concession
in Coney Island had ground to a halt. Eastern dance in America was either absent or
obviously fake. In 1911, when the 1904
bestselling novel The Garden of Allah
was translated onto the Broadway stage, the Times
announced that an Algerian dancer named Faddma was being imported to “give the real Algerian dance, and not
such exaggerations as have been seen in this country” New York
Times 8/28/11). The dismissive attitude found in the 1890’s
toward the merits of ethnological performance
transformed enough to allow for the possibility
that an Algerian dance might have more than voyeuristic merit. Faddma was well received (Kinney 1935
(1914):199, who calls her “Fatma.”).
for the most part, Eastern women who
wanted success in theater could not rely on authenticity. It was necessary to invent an Orient palatable to the Western imagination.
a part-French, part-Tunisian dancer in the 1910’s, met this
requirement by presenting Arab
dancing as an exalted form of communication, with gestures that carry meaning
individually and in tandem. Apparently,
the notion of a secret language of dance allowed her to claim higher meaning
for her own performance, as well as
to suggesting that misunderstanding had fueled previous
dismissive readings of Eastern dance. A
series of photographs in the Kinney’s Dance (1935 : 196-213) shows Zourna performing
in vehicles such as a pseudo-traditional
“Dance of Greeting,” or a “Dance of Mourning” or even “A Slave Girl’s
Dance.” Performing in a costume unlike
anything found in the actual Middle East, yet
making use of Middle Eastern materials such as the silver-studded assiut
fabric, she appears
to portray the Arab world of her
imagination through largely balletic moves.
In her narrative of the East, the femme
fatale of the Salome phenomenon
was replaced by the daughter of an
Arab world whose claim to respect
lies in the near-ritual dances of a pristine,
trope of a pristine
East, uncorrupted by Western prurience, also appears in the work of Armen Ohanian, a Christian
Armenian dancer who fled upheavals
in the Middle East for Paris in 1911 (Ohanian 1924). Ohanian acknowledged throughout her Western
career that she was not presenting
traditional dances, but her own interpretations. Though her productions
centered on “Oriental” themes, she embraced the creative freedom of Western
aesthetic dancers. In a typical playbill, her 1924 program
in New York
included both a Salome dance, and a Buddhist ecstatic dance called “Nirvana” (New York Times 6/2/1924). Ohanian’s success rested both on
self-exoticising and on expertise in
the Western creative milieu, through which she created an evocative imaginary
Orient with the authority of her identity as an Asian woman.
Zourna and Ohanian achieved success as dancers through impersonating
the Orient in a way that aligned with the particular
dynamics of the theatrical Orientalism of the early 20th
century. Both dancers offered
authenticity embedded in an Oriental body in which intermingled sensuality and
spirituality evoked ancient purity and wisdom.
Both reclaimed the Oriental woman from the taint of the femme fatale, and both, of course, completely rejected the tradition of danse du ventre. In fact, they rejected most of the tenets of
dance in the Islamic world: its aesthetics of musical interpretation, its non-narrative structure, the high
value placed on improvisation, and so on (See al-Faruqi 1977; Shay
1999: 16-55). But Western audiences were
both convinced and pleased by these
dancers who, beneath the impenetrable
veneer of the Orient, talked, worked, and danced like Western artists.
the work of these oriental dancers was subsumed in the broader developments in
aesthetic dance in the 20th century, offshoots of the Salome dance
found a comfortable home in burlesque, as had the danse du ventre a quarter century before. By the 1930’s, when La Meri and others were
making a place for ethnic dances in serious theater, Salome-like costuming and
hip articulation equaled purely American entertainment. When belly dance reappeared in the United States
in the 1950’s, it was in part through burlesque venues that it found a
these two waves of oriental dances, the careers of individual dancers took varying
paths. Yet in both, the key to an
“Eastern” dancer’s success was, bluntly, to provide the audience with something
that it both wanted and could understand.
Market forces brought scores of Arab performers to America in the
mid-1890’s, and sent most of them packing a decade later. Market forces called dancers like Princess
Rajah first to the midway, and then to the orientalism of the Salome
dance. And market forces allowed a place
on the variety stage to Eastern women who could align their personas and dances
with a brand of orientalist fantasy that was both pleasant and comprehensible.
of course, market forces reflect needs and desires that are shaped by the fundamental, deeply
ingrained tensions in society. The
American demand for both danse du ventre
and the orientalizing femmes fatales
of the Salome craze was fueled by a network of interwoven social tensions that
were realized metaphorically on the
stage, intellectually in the discourse surrounding these theatrical
manifestations, and with emotional resonance in both cases. The danse
du ventre stirred up anxieties
about the role of social class in determining culturally acceptible practice
. The very different feminine personas of the danseuse
du ventre and the Salome dancer both exemplified
the dangers women’s uninhibited behavior (sexual or otherwise) forced on the
social order. While the dancers of both
genres and their managers repeatedly
alleged the innocence of their artistic products,
these dances nevertheless struck up
against constraints on agency determined by both gender and class, and in so
doing, revealed the rapidly flowing
water beneath the fragile ice of conventional propriety.
period 1890-1930 in America saw
immense social change, and performances
of both authentic and fictional dances of the East were absorbed into the
discourse of these conflicts, at times becoming figureheads for articulating
the frightening challenges that threatened American goodness. But throughout this period,
an element of humor mitigated the perceived
threat. In the discourse of both the danse du ventre and the Salome dance,
serious declamations that emphasized
the degeneracy of these phenomena
were countered with a variety of satirization that diffused the potentials for conflict and brought these potentially transgressive images of feminine
sexuality into the realm of one big shared joke. The fun poked
at all parties in the New York
incident and the Hammerstein stage satire of the Seeley dinner party in the 1890’s find counterparts in humorous song lyrics, quips and cartoons in the 1900’s-1910’s: “We call this
our Salome table,” goes the caption
of a cartoon postcard, “all legs and
no drawers” (Author’s collection).
this mitigation through humor is why, ultimately, both the danse du ventre and the Salome dances left their strongest American
legacies in burlesque, where the alien could be smoothed over into the merely
exotic, and the absurd pretensions of artistes existed to be mocked. A burlesquing sort of humor, after all, had
been a means of alleviating the disturbing potentials of Eastern dance from the
very start in America,
and even in the popular response to belly dance today, that little gleam has
never really vanished.
 A number
of 19th century primary
sources in which the themes of the grotesque and the fundamental failure of the
are quite apparent
are collected in Mabro 1996:118-36; see also Gustave Flaubert’s descriptions of both Kuchuk Hanim and Aziza (1996: 118-121, 155), and Hichens 1904: 89-93, 108-121. Much recent literature on danse du ventre in the Western
imagination establishes and theorizes these pervasive
motifs, e.g. Apter 1999, Karayanni
2004, Keft-Kennedy 2005. However, most
of this literature concerns the dance as performed
for Western audiences in the East rather than responses
to renditions on American soil.
 The Salome
dance phenomenon has been thoroughly
documented and theorized; for example: Bizot 1992;
Deagon 2005; Kendall 1977: 73-9;
Koritz 1994; on a related topic,
 The original
exhibit at the 1889 Paris Exposition,
on which the Chicago
exhibit was modeled, was called “Une Rue
du Caire,” and in Chicago,
the title was “A Street
in Cairo.” But later American exhibits were universally
(as far as I have been able to determine) known as “[The] Streets of Cairo,”
fit in better with American phraseology.
 The usage of
the French term “almée” (from Arabic almeh, pl.
awalim) changed in the course of the
19th century. It originally
meant an educated singer/dancer who performed
for elite audiences, often of women only.
But over the course of the 18th century, as demand for
Eastern dance by Western tourists and colonials increased, this meaning faded
(see, for example, the discussion of
Lane 2003 , 355-6, 372-82). By the
end of the century, the French “almée”
came to mean only “professional
singer and dancer,” and was used fairly indiscriminately of Eastern
dancers in France, in particular when the author wished to emphasize their allure
This term was popularly used for the Egyptian
performers of danse du ventre at the Paris Exhibition of 1889. In using “almée”
in this paper,
I adhere to this informal usage, rather than the older, more specific usage of almeh.
 There were some
vehement protests of the dancing,
and some motions made toward shutting down the offending exhibits, but all of
these failed, either because the dancing was deemed inoffensive, or because it
was justified as cultural display;
see Carlton 47-51, Ives 1893-4 (“A Dance in the Street of Cairo Theater,” “A
Performer of the Danse du Ventre.”
 Dancers appeared
at the Street in Cairo,
Algerian Village, Moorish Palace, Persian Palace, and less prominently
in other venues as well. See Bancroft
1893: 856-77; Carlton
1994: 27-43; Ives 1893-4.
 Quoted in “Parlor Dancing Denounced,” New York Times, 2/18/1894. Attitudes about the morality of dancing were
not, in fact, an issue of social class, in that both sides of the debate had
and lower class advocates; nevertheless, those opposed to dancing often associated approval
and viewership of professional dancing with the lower classes (e.g. New York Times 12/4/1893).
incidents reported in the New York Times. Fatma and Inspector
Observant captain: 12/4/93; comic policeman, 12/7/1893. The
dancers’ manager made the mistake of asserting that the patrician
Mrs. Potter Palmer of Chicago
the dances and had seen them 13 times at the Columbian Exposition. But Mrs. Potter Palmer happened to
be visiting New York
as the danse du ventre tussle
emerged, and her indignant reply in
the New York Times revealed the
shortcomings of his strategy: 12/6/93. The Coney Island
exhibit (with other Coney Island offerings)
was shut down with regularity.
mobility is suggested both by contemporary
sources (e.g. the portraits of
individual performers in The Dream City (1893), and by later
recollections of parties involved
account and other testimony: New York
Times 1/13/1897. Carlton’s argument that the “pose” meant a pose
in the nude (1994: 65) is apparently based on a misunderstanding of the term “pose”; there is nothing in the trial accounts to
suggest that something as scandalous as that was to be a part
of the Seeley party, and Waba’s
testimony in the trial seems intended to establish that her dancing and costume
were not improper.
 Videos of
Lola’s dancing, both her Turkish dance and a variety dance based in Western
techniques, are available online from the Library of Congress American Memories
 On Princess
Rajah’s beginnings in Coney Island: Laurie
1953: 40, 372. Edison’s video may be found in
the Library of Congress’s American Memories Collection, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html.
New York Times.
1893. The World’s Fair in
Miniature. November 24.
New York Times.
1893. Too Oriental for Williams. December 3.
New York Times.
1893. Police and Law Defied. December 5.
New York Times.
1893. Mrs. Palmer Misrepresented.
New York Times.
1893. No More Midway Dancing. December 7.
New York Times.
1894. Parlour Dancing Denounced. February 2.
New York Times.
1895. Alice Noonan, Mohammedan. March 31.
New York Times.
on the Stand. January 13.
New York Times.
Hearing Ended. January 14.
New York Times.
1897. Reform on Coney
Island. August 4.
New York Times.
1907. 5-Cent Theater Burns; Panic on the
Bowery. February 4.
New York Times.
1908. The Call of Salome. August 16.
New York Times.
1909. Wm. Hammerstein’s Find. January 6.
New York Times.
1911. Algerian Dancer in “The Garden of Allah.”
New York Times.
1924. Armen Ohanian Dances. May 2.
Ella Lola Video. Library of Congress’s American Memories
Princess Rajah Clippings. New
York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dance
Princess Rajah Video. Library of Congress’s American Memories
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2008 by Andrea Deagon.
Andrea Deagon received her
Ph.D. from Duke University in 1984. She currently coordinates the Classical
Studies program at UNC-Wilmington,
where she also teaches Women’s Studies.
She has studied, taught and performed
Middle Eastern dance since 1975. Her
articles on Middle Eastern dance have appeared in both dance and academic publications.