Almée or Salomé?  Hybrid Dances of the East, 1890-1930


Andrea Deagon


ABSTRACT:  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 Western dancers.


At 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.[1]  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.[2] 


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. 


During 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.[3]  The 300-seat theater which featured the four Algerian and Egyptian almées (professional dancers)[4] 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).


Why the difference between the reluctant tolerance of the dance in Chicago, and its provocation of immediate action in New York?[5]  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[6] – 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).


Yet 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.  


To 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 feminine propriety; their reportedly irresponsible, unrestrained behavior modeling the opposite of the ideal of feminine complacency. 


This 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.


Oddly 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 mass appeal. 


In 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 anti-dancing tract: 


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 the Baptist.[7]


While 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. 


In the popular 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 propriety – 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 appeared as the wavering cultural constructs that they were.


To 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.[8] 


Despite such complications, American thirst for the sensational dance opened avenues for many performers from the Middle East.  In Chicago, there were literally hundreds of representatives of Middle Eastern countries resident in the Midway Plaisance, where the fiction of happy 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.[9]  While some exhibits were brought over en masse by entrepreneurs – for example, the Algerian Village performers sponsored 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.


Most evidence suggests, however, that the dancers who performed in America 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). 


In 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 party performers 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]).


Waba’s 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.


Waba, 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.[10]  Obviously, this reflects not any internal drive of Eastern art, but the conventions of the American stage.  At the Seeley party, Waba apparently 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.


The 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. 


While 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. “family”) audience.[11] 


Other 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.[12]  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.


Near-authentic 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 century America. (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 role. 


In 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 in America, 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 satirized.   


As 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).


Salome 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 apparent 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.   


This 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.


By 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 are unknown.

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 had apparently 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.”). 


But 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. 


Zourna, 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 [1914]: 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, innocent past.


The 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.    


Both 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.   


As 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 foothold. 


Throughout 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.


But 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.


The 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).


Perhaps 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.






[1] A number of 19th century primary sources in which the themes of the grotesque and the fundamental failure of the dance’s appeal 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. 


[2] 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, Desmond 1991. 


[3] 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,” which apparently fit in better with American phraseology.


[4] 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 [1860], 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.


[5] 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.”


[6] 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.


[7] 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 both upper 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).


[8] All incidents reported in the New York Times.  Fatma and Inspector Williams: 12/2/1893;  Pompous lawyers: 12/5/93; 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 had approved 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.


[9] This 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 (see Carlton 49, 56-7).


[10] Waba’s 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.


[11] 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 collection,


[12] 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,




Newspaper Articles


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.  December 6.

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. 1897.  Chapman on the Stand.  January 13.

New York Times. 1897.  Chapman 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.”  August 28.

New York Times. 1924.  Armen Ohanian Dances.  May 2.


Archival Sources


Ella Lola Video.  Library of Congress’s American Memories Collection,


Princess Rajah Clippings.  New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dance Collection.


Princess Rajah Video.  Library of Congress’s American Memories Collection,


Books and Articles


Al-Faruqi, Lois Ibsen. 1977.  Dance as an Expression of Islamic Culture.  Dance Research Journal.  10.2: 6-17.


Allen, Robert C.  1991.  Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.


Apter, Emily.  1999.  Continental Drift: From National Characters to Virtual Subjects.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Bancroft, Hubert Howe. 1893.   The Book of the Fair.  Chicago: The Bancroft Company.  Paul V. Galvin Library Digital History Collection: .


Bizot, Richard.  1992.  The Turn-of-the-Century Salome Era: High- and Pop-Culture Variations on the Dance of the Seven Veils.  Choreography and Dance 2.3:71-87.


Bloom, Saul.  1948.  The Autobiography of Sol Bloom.  New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons.


Carlton, Donna. 1994.  Looking for Little Egypt.  Bloomington, Indiana: IDD Books.


Celic, Zeynep, and Leila Kinney. 1990.  Ethnography and Exhibitionism at the Expositions Universelles.  Assemblage 13: 35-59.


Deagon, Andrea.  2005.  The Dance of the Seven Veils: The Re-vision of Revelation in the Oriental Dance Community. In: Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers-Young, eds.  Belly Dance: Orientalism, Transnationalism, and Harem Fantasy.  Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers.


Desmond, Jane.  1991.  Dancing out the Difference: Cultural Imperialism and Ruth St. Denis’s “Radha” of 1906.  Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 17.1: 28-49.


Flaubert, Gustave. 1996. Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour.  Ed. and Trans. Francis Steegmuller.  New York: Penguin Classics.


Green, William.  1977.  Strippers and Coochers – the Quintessence of American Burlesque.  In: David Meyers and Kenneth Richards, eds. Western Popular Theatre.  London: Methuen. 157-69.


Hichens, Robert.  1904.  The Garden of Allah. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.


Ives, Halsey C., ed.  1893-4.  The Dream City.  St. Louis, MO: N. D. Thompson Co.  Available from the Paul V. Galvin Library Digital History Collection: .


Karayanni, Stavros.  2004.  Dancing Fear and Desire: Race, Sexuality and Imperial Politics in Middle Eastern Dance. Waterloo, ON:  Wilfrid Laurier University Press.


Kealiinohomoku, Joanne W. 1979.  Culture Change: Functional and Dysfunctional Expressions of Dance, a Form of Affective Culture.  In: John Blacking and Joanne W. Kealiinohomoku, eds.  The Performing Arts: Music and Dance.  The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 47-64.


Keft-Kennedy, Virginia. 2005.  Representing the Belly-Dancing Body: Feminism, Orientalism, and the Grotesque.  Dissertation, University of Wollongong.


Kendall, Elizabeth.  1979.  Where She Danced.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 


Kinney, Troy, and Margaret West Kinney.  1935 [1914].  The Dance: Its Place in Art and Life.  New York: Tudor Publishing Co.


Koritz, Amy.  1994.  Dancing the Orient for England: Maude Allan’s The Vision of Salome.  Theater Journal 46.1: 63-78.


Lane, Edward William.  2003 [1860].   An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians.  Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.


Laurie, Joe Jr.  1953.  Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace.  New York: Henry Holt and Company.


Mabro, Judy.  1996.  Veiled Half-Truths: Eastern Travelers’ Perception of Middle Eastern Women.  I. B. Taurus.


Ohanian, Armen.  1923.  The Dancer of Shamakha.  New York: E. P. Dutton and Company.


Shay, Anthony. 1999.  Choreophobia: Solo Improvised Dance in the Iranian World.  Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers.


Snyder, Robert W.  1989.  The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York.  New York: Oxford University Press.


Sobel, Bernard.  1946.  The Historic Hootchy-Kootchy.  Dance 20.10: 13-15, 46.


© Copyright 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.