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A Professional - Style/History

By Salome

"A Professional - Primer" outlines the basic traits of a professional. The series is intended to act as a reference to develop said traits. To read previous installments visit the Article Index page and look for the titles "A Professional - ...".

In America…

Cabaret Belly Dance

In the late 1950’s Middle Eastern cabarets began to appear in New York and California. These nightclubs featured bands that were comprised of new Americans that often hailed from different areas of the Near and Middle East. As a result the music was frequently distinct with elements you wouldn’t find in, say, a strictly Armenian, Turkish or Persian arrangement.

The dancers (those on stage and in the audience) were also of varying ethnicities; Armenians, Lebanese, Turks, Egyptians, Persians, each with the distinct dance styling of their respective countries. At that time there were no Belly dance schools, the early non Middle Eastern dancers learned, coincidentally, as it is learned in the East. By observing and imitating.

The American Belly dance style that emerged was born out of the cabarets and reflected the Eastern fusion environment created by the patrons and professionals alike. To read a personal account of this experience in the East coast clubs visit http://casbahdance.org/pricesup.html

In the early 1960’s professional American belly dancers were still few and far between. But where they existed (L.A., San Francisco and New York) the Arab nightclubs, private functions and community events employed and sustained them. Those pioneers went on to offer Belly dance classes in their respective communities and thus began the spread of Cabaret Belly dance.

Tribal Style

While cabaret belly dance continued to gain momentum one of its proponents, Jamila Salimpour, broke away to create what would later be coined American Tribal Style. In 1968 Jamila formed a dance troupe called Bal Anat

“when the opportunity to perform in an outdoor theme festival called the Renaissance Pleasure Faire challenged my imagination to create a variety show”.

As a former acrobat with the Ringling Brothers Circus she patterned the Bal Anat format after a “circus-like variety show”. The structure consisted of a crescent formation, with each dancer taking center stage to perform a 3 to 5 minute dance and then falling back into line.

The costuming effect Jamila produced was that of “tribal”. The show had a theme of so called “old styles from the Middle East” and each dancer had a character. Jamila drew on her background dancing with “Algerian water glass dancers, pot dancers and magicians”, and incorporated her version of Ouled Nail, Turkish, and tray balancing, among many other “varieties of entertainment”. Indeed Jamila claims it was she who introduced the act of sword balancing in America.

Many became enamored of her theatrical presentation and believed it to be the ‘real thing’. Jamila’s Bal Anat style would come to be imitated all over the United States, with new practitioners adding their own spin to it. Masha Archer and later her student Carolena Nericcio are most notable for shaping what we recognize at present day as ATS.

Movement toward Authenticity

Desire to observe folk and oriental dance in source countries prompted some early American Belly dancers to trod in an entirely different direction than their counter parts. Dancers, such as Aisha Ali, Morocco and Edwina Nearing, made countless pilgrimages to North Africa and the Middle East, immersed themselves in field study and recorded their findings.

Upon return, American belly dancers were introduced to the folk dances of the Ghawazee, Tuareg Berbers, Moroccans, Tunisians and Egyptians as well as Oriental dance via articles, lectures, demonstrations, audio/visual recordings and classes. This wave of information sparked a third division in style, those who would practice Near and Middle Eastern dances in their region specific, traditional forms.

The Egyptian Craze

In the late 1970’s air travel became more affordable and dance tourists made their way to Egypt. Egypt became the predominant focus of foreign dancers for two noted reasons. Cairo had long been the Hollywood of the Middle East and known ‘home’ to Oriental dance performance. And at that time Turkey was using the dance to cater to the lowest denominator and Lebanon was embroiled in civil war.

Egypt’s Oriental dance scene in the 70’s and 80’s have been hallmarked as the glory days. Their dance stars, Nagwa Fouad, Nadia Hamdi, Fifi Abdo, Lucy… were comparatively wealthy and famous throughout the Arab world. They commissioned unique compositions and hired their own orchestras, numbering up to 40 members, to present extravagant shows in the finest 5 star hotels of the country. Foreign dancers were overcome by the rich music, intriguing props, costumes and native dance expression. All elements they would take home and emulate. This marked the beginning of Egyptian Oriental dance becoming a strong and standing influence on a global scale.