To many, the history of burlesque starts in the 1940s; vintage imagery and burlesque go hand in hand, but it may surprise many that the history of the artform goes way back to the times and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. We just love doing a bit of research and our Lilly Laudanum firmly believes in knowing the history of an artform if you are to perform and teach it. Since she began performing burlesque almost five years ago, she has embarked on an interesting journey on its history and will be bringing you her findings in a this series, beginning with her favourite time zone: the 1800s.
How ‘Little Egypt’ Changed The Face Of Burlesque And Belly Dance – a Brief History.
The late 1800s were a pivotal time for the world, things were changing; there was a boom in world travel thanks to the invention of various new transports, and with this came a thirst for experiencing ‘exotic’ sights, sounds and cultures and a rise in ‘world fair’-type exhibitions across the globe, but it was the Chicago World Fair (originally known as the World Columbian Exposition) , 1893, held to commemorate the 400 years since Columbus arrived in the new world that was to change things in the history of burlesque and belly dance for good.
Before this time, belly dance was known as an indigenous dance specific to North Africa and the Middle East, but a 23-year old visionary Sol Bloom spotted some Algerian dancers in a similar exposition in France and invited them to the US to be part of the Midway Plaisance (the mile long centre of amusements housing the sideshows) he was developing for the World Fair. Alongside the snake charmers and scorpion eaters were dancers moving their hips and shimmying in a manner that seemed both shocking, exotic and interesting to the respectable, waxed moustache and long skirted folk of the late 1800s, and the ‘Street In Cairo’ exhibit was a hit, featuring dancers including Fahreda Mazar Spyropoulos (aka Fatima, pictured above) and Fatima Djamile (featured in one of the first films, Edison’s Coochie Coochie dance).
The Streets Of Cairo exhibition led to an emergence of dancers adopting the moves, including Ashea Wabe (a Canadian native, born Caroline Devine), thus inventing the Danse De Ventre or belly dance, and alongside the Fatimas above, most of these belly dancers were billed as Little Egypt as the new entertainment swept across America and beyond.
What this new style of dance did to belly dance is quite interesting (in short, Hollywood got hold of it and it morphed into the jewelled cabaret style you see in films, on holiday and in restaurants, as it crossed back to its North African roots, albeit with a lot more sequins) but how it changed burlesque fascinating. Before the emergence of Little Egypt, burlesque had existed mainly in music halls, and parlour entertainments as parody (men parodying women, women parodying men, situational parodies and more…) but as performers began to come through, excited by this exotic and shocking new way of moving, the Hoochie Coochie dance was born as part of a parodying performance, a bit more sexualised for the male audiences of mostly service men.
A few decades later, in the 1940s and 1950s, the hooche coochie had become the bump and grind, more familiar to those interested in the golden age of burlesque. Performers perfecting this style included Crystal Starr and Tempest Storm
Nowadays, bump and grind performances are still widespread with performers such as The Exotic Luna Rosa, Missy Malone and Leyla Rose putting their own stamp on this style, but on the whole a lot of performers use bump and grind movements to accent parts of a routine instead of bumping and grinding themselves right through a track.
For more reading on Little Egypt, head over to this book, Donna Carlton’s excellently researched tome, which although more geared towards the belly dance genre, gives a great background on the history.
**Please note, Bluestocking Lounge do not own the copyrite for any of the above images or film clips, copyrite remains with the owner.**