Middle Eastern dance was introduced in the United States at the 1893 Chicago World Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair) in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. The event filled over 630 acres, featured 200 neoclassical buildings, and had over 267 million visitors over its six-month run. It featured a Midway, billed as an outdoor museum of ethnic villages.
Sol Bloom, an American promoter, brought an authentic folk troupe he had seen perform “danse du ventre” (dance of the belly) at the Paris International Exhibition in 1889 (where the Eiffel Tower was unveiled), to the event. He recreated an Algerian village with folk dancers. It was called “The Algerian Dancers of Morocco.” At the time, Algeria was a French colony. The exhibit included exhibits and performers from Egypt, Persia, Tunisia and Morocco.
Though the dancers were covered from head-to-toe, the way they moved and used their bellies was considered risqué. The display was controversial. An investigation ensued and “any tendencies toward indecency and vulgarity” were removed. Sol Bloom promoted the dance as a pure folk art and abhorred the unsavory reputation it was given.
One of the most famous dancers was Farida Mazar Spyropolis (1871-1937), who performed as “Fatima” at “A Street in Cairo” exhibit. The Syrian wife of a Greek business owner in Chicago, she was called “Little Egypt” because of her size. She also danced at another exhibition, the 1933 Century of progress in Chicago at the age of 62 and at the time of her death had a lawsuit against Metro-Goldwyn Mayer for using her name in the film, The Great Ziegfeld. The name “Little Egypt,” however, became synonymous with belly dance and there were many opportunistic imitators.
One was Ashea Wabe who made a name for herself and a bad name for the dance when she purportedly popped her naked, voluptuous self out a huge pie at a stag party at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. The party was raided by the vice squad.
Soon, Vaudeville performers (not the most respected in proper society) created “hoochy-koochy”or “shimmy and shake” using belly dance movements in a sleazy predecessor to stripping. Strippers were given Middle Eastern names. Burlesque houses and carnivals aided in giving belly dancing an unsavory reputation. Belly dance gained the reputation of tease and sleaze.
Though we’ve come a long way, the stigma remains. Sadly.