Discovering Professional Belly Dance at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century
by Heather D. Ward “Nisaa of St. Louis”
posted June 10, 2013
The transition from awalem and ghawazee dance styles to theatrical raqs sharqi began during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth in Egypt. Unfortunately, scant film footage exists of dancers from that period to reveal exactly what professional belly dance looked like during that critical moment in Egyptian dance history. However, still photos and travelers’ descriptions from the time do allow a few conclusions to be drawn about the nature of belly dance in Egypt at this important transition. These primary sources provide invaluable insight into the technique, aesthetic, costuming, and performance format of the dance as it existed at that time.
The period of interest in this discussion extends from the 1870s through the 1920s. As I have discussed elsewhere, entertainment halls, or salat, began to spring up around Cairo’s Ezbekiyah district in the latter half of the nineteenth century, particularly after the completion of the Ezbekiyah Gardens in the 1870s (Ward, “From Café Chantant to Casino Opera,” 2013). The establishment of these venues provided a new place of employment for Egypt’s professional belly dancers, the awalem and ghawazee, who were restricted in where they could perform in the Egyptian capital. By the 1890s, Western travelers’ accounts and guidebooks clearly allude to belly dance being performed in the entertainment halls of Ezbekiyah (for example: Baedeker 1898: 24; Reynolds-Ball, Cairo To-Day, 1898: 12). Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, the salat were a mainstay of Cairo’s popular entertainment scene around Ezbekiyah and Shari’ Emad al Din, and Egyptian dance was one of many forms of entertainment offered on their stages.
In the 1930s, the popular dancers who got their start in the entertainment halls of central Cairo made their way onto the silver screen, providing a clear visual record of what the dance had become, but revealing little about what it had been during those earlier years.
Close-up from a postcard postmarked 1905 showing dancers at the sala El Dorado in Cairo (the postcard is from my personal collection)
The extant film footage of dancers performing Middle Eastern or Middle Eastern-inspired dances at the nineteenth to twentieth century transition consists of a mere handful of films, many of them recorded by Thomas Edison. It is peculiar that these dance forms that were such a fixation for European and American observers of the Middle East, would turn up so infrequently in the new medium of motion pictures. Among the Edison films are “Princess Ali”, 1895, “Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance”, 1896, and “Turkish Dance, Ella Lola”, 1898. (See Nugent n.d. for an excellent discussion of “Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance”.) In addition to these films, there is footage by the Lumière Brothers that provides a brief glimpse of dancers at the Exposition Universelle of Paris in 1900 (Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, 1983). Also, there is the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company’s footage of a performer who was known as Princess Rajah, 1904.
Unfortunately, none of these films portray dancing that is unequivocally Egyptian. Princess Ali’s costuming, movements, and manipulation of scarves suggest that her dance may be Algerian, not Egyptian. Similarly, the dancers in the Lumière film, although wearing costuming similar to that of contemporary Egyptian dancers, showing one of the dancers playing finger cymbals, seem to be performing Algerian dance. The dances of Fatima, Ella Lola, and Princess Rajah all share some basic features of the dancing performed by Egyptian ghawazee in the present day (e.g. the Banat Mazin ghawazee) such as stationary and traveling hip shimmies and shoulder shimmies. Further, Fatima and Princess Rajah play finger cymbals during their performances, something that seems to have been a significant feature of Egyptian dance at the time and remains so in the present. (See below.) Yet, both Ella Lola and Princess Rajah were American-born vaudeville performers, and Fatima, whose ethnic origins are unclear, worked as a “cooch dancer” at Coney Island (Carlton, 1994: 62). Thus, although it is probable that these three dancers learned some of their movements from native Egyptian dancers (whether directly or indirectly), it is impossible to know to what degree their dancing is American vaudevillian rather than Egyptian.
Thus, it is necessary to resort to textual and photographic sources that detail Egyptian dance at its source in Cairo. In spite of the paradoxical dearth of film footage, textual descriptions of Egyptian dancers from this period are abundant and often quite detailed. Further, photographs and picture postcards from the time provide an invaluable record of costuming, stage layouts, etc.
The following is a vivid description of a visit to the sala El Dorado in 1907. This popular Cairo entertainment hall was originally situated off Midan al Khazindar to the northeast of Ezbekiyah Gardens, but sometime around 1880, it moved to a new location on Shari’ Wagh el Birket (today known as Shari’ Naguib el Rihani). (Ward, “The Search for El Dorado…in Cairo”, 2013) I have chosen to quote the entire account here, as it provides a useful framework for the remainder of this discussion.
“In the company of a South African, Mr. Wertheim, and an Englishman, Mr. Bacon, who knows Cairo thoroughly and also the seedy parts, and who wants to be our guide, I’m going tonight to the Eldorado, a local café concert.
In a large room the audience is almost entirely composed of natives, who do not seem to have paid an entry fee exceeding half a piaster; maybe they are let in for free.
They do not buy drinks; but the institution recovers its expenses nonetheless, thanks to a few women, who go from one table to another and get paid to drink. A Sudanese, not pretty, but with an agreeable figure, sits down at our table. She judges Mr. Wertheim as the most generous of us and gets him to offer her two half-bottles of beer at 10 piastres, and thus we have completed our entry price. This woman is covered with fake coins imitating the Austrian currency, as I bought at Wadi Halfa.
At the end of the hall is a large stage, occupied by six men and as many women, seated in semi-circle facing the audience. They sing a sad melody, accompanied by a guitar and a tambourine, and intervals of clapping. A woman who resembles La Goulue rises, she is very young, but quite stout. She is dressed in pink, covered with gaudy trinkets, her belly is bare; she produces a variety of movements and tremors, it’s called, as everyone knows, the belly dance. She accompanies herself with two pairs of small cymbals attached to fingers like castanets, and these contortions last a long time; however she pauses to empty a beer that is sent to her by an enthusiastic spectator.
When she is finished, she comes into the room to “pass the hat” with a small saucer which she places successively on each table and which she leaves there for a few minutes, during which she stands aside discreetly. Most of the natives give a small coin. During this operation, she is tracked and monitored by a fine Egyptian with a great black mustache and a fierce expression, who does not lose sight of her for a moment, nor the money she collects, he is probably her impresario.
Three tables are now occupied by Europeans; at the table next to ours there is an Englishman, accompanied by a donkey driver and a guide from Shepheard’s Hotel, that I hear say: "You have already spent three pounds tonight, and it is only eleven."
The same show is repeated every half hour. It is followed by a cinematograph, and starting at one o’clock in the morning, the audience dances. We do not wait for more. The tickets are different prices, depending on how the client is dressed; the cashier judges us to be worth tickets at five piastres per person, but is content to give us a ticket for a single seat for the three of us.” (Loewenbach 1908: 219-220, translated by the author, with assistance from Christine Ferhat.)
From this account, supplemented by others from roughly the same period, it is possible to draw several conclusions regarding the nature of belly dance on the sala stages of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Technique and Aesthetic
Loewenbach’s account describes a solo performer who rises after a musical interlude, performs the “movements and tremors” of the so-called “belly dance,” and accompanies herself with finger cymbals. Although Loewenbach does not go into much detail regarding the movements themselves, other accounts offer a bit more:
“It was not what I would call dancing at all. She simply walked up and down the stage swaying her body about, the dancing being all from the hips up.” (South Australian Chronicle, 17 June 1893, 16.)
“…a girl laden with jewels and ropes of pearls on her neck, and in every plait of her hair, twists and twirls about the stage with solemn slow iteration. She has on her hands rough castanets with which she beats the maddening time to a tune so hideous that the European nerves tremble at it. Her feet scarcely seem to move. But the expression comes from the centre of the body, which shakes like jelly. On and on she goes, round and round, perpetually twisting, wagging her body just as some people can wag their noses and their ears, until at last she sinks exhausted on a sofa.” (Scott, 1894.)
“The dance du ventre is not a dance in our acceptance of the term at all; it consists of tremblings, wrigglings and jerkings of the lower abdominal muscles, including those of the hips, loins, and back; the dancer in short steps, moves round and round the stage, sometimes back to the audience, in order that she may show, in detail, her movements in as great variety as possible.” (Star, Issue 7512, 20 September 1902, 2.)
Taken together, these accounts permit several conclusions regarding the typical belly dance presented in Cairo’s entertainment halls at the turn of the 20th century:
- The dance was performed solo (more on this point later).
- The primary movements of the dance were localized in the torso, with minimal footwork.
- The dance was performed to the accompaniment of a takht, a traditional ensemble of singers and musicians.
- The dancers sometimes played finger cymbals during their performances.
The dance being performed in Cairo’s turn-of-the-century entertainment halls does not seem to have differed substantially from that performed by Egypt’s ghawazee much earlier in history. Yet, by the 1930s, when belly dance became a common sight in Egyptian films, the dance had incorporated additional footwork and arm positions, seemingly more elaborate than what is described in these earlier accounts, and a “chorus line” of dancers backing up the featured soloist had become commonplace. From at least the 1930s onward, dancers were accompanied by larger and more varied musical ensembles than the small traditional takht of their predecessors; the ensembles generally included a mix of traditional and Western instrumentation. Common consensus in today’s belly dance community – perhaps based on statements by Badia Masabni herself in interviews – is that Badia Masabni created these innovations in the dance. Film footage from the 1910s and 1920s would be invaluable in settling once and for all to what degree Badia influenced the stylistic development of raqs sharqi, since Badia opened her first club in 1926, and dancers were definitely a featured part of entertainment line-ups well before that. Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate footage from this period as of the time of this writing.
For example, an Underwood and Underwood stereograph clearly illustrates a dancer from Upper Egypt with her midriff bare. Though undated, this stereograph must have been produced sometime between 1880 and 1920, when Underwood and Underwood were actively producing stereographs.
Regarding costuming, both Loewenbach and other observers offer useful insights:
“…a girl laden with jewels and ropes of pearls on her neck, and in every plait of her hair…” (Scott, 1894.)
“The dress consists mainly of a rather full silk skirt, with tabs of colored silk; this is held from falling off by a thick band of stuff passing round the hips. A silk or linen skirt [Author’s note: this appears to be a typographical error in the original text; I believe the author was referring to the shirt, rather than the skirt.] of very open, lace-like meshes, and an amteree [sic], or short, sleeveless vest, complete the costume. Modern clocked open-work stockings and high-heeled French shoes are worn. A mass of necklaces of real gold coin pendants, each suspended from a tiny braid of hair; lots of bracelets, anklets, armlets, etc., are used by those who are better off.” (Star, issue 7512, September 20, 1902, 2.)
Contemporary postcards clearly corroborate these descriptions.
The basic costume described and illustrated here – skirt, skirt “topper” with long ribbons, sheer chemise, vest, heeled shoes – seems to have evolved from the earlier costuming of the ghawazee, which was itself essentially an elaboration on the everyday garments worn by ordinary women in the privacy of the hareem, or women’s quarters, of the home. (See Lane 1836.) Egyptian ghawazee in Upper Egypt continued to wear a version of this costuming into the second half of the twentieth century. (See Aisha Ali and Edwina Nearing’s work on the Banat Mazin ghawazee.)
One point of particular interest in Loewenbach’s account is the statement that the dancer’s midriff was bare. Does this mean that the dancer’s belly was entirely uncovered, or was she perhaps wearing a sheer mesh chemise that, for a turn-of-the-century European observer, made her belly effectively “bare”? Notably, photographs of dancers wearing the vest without a shirt or midriff cover do exist from this period. For example, an Underwood and Underwood stereograph clearly illustrates a dancer from Upper Egypt with her midriff bare. (See http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/kt0r29q906/?order=2.) Though undated, this stereograph must have been produced sometime between 1880 and 1920, when Underwood and Underwood were actively producing stereographs. (University of Chicago Library, 2010.)
Also interesting, are illustrations of Egyptian dancers from the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. (See http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b7702324n. or top of page.) The coin decorations on these dancers’ vests give the impression of a “proto-bedleh.” Compare these vests to the top worn by Taheya Carioca in the film Ghafir Al Darak in 1936. The resemblance is unmistakable.
The above embedded video clip is hosted on Priscilla Adum’s (“Lebdancer”) YouTube channel
Taken as a whole, the textual and photographic evidence leads to some interesting conclusions regarding the relationship between the costuming from this period and the bedleh, the bra/belt/skirt combination that would become the Egyptian belly dance “uniform” by the mid-1930s. First, the bare-navel look of the bedleh had precedents in earlier costuming. Second, it is not impossible to imagine that the bedleh bra could have evolved from the vests worn by earlier dancers.
In short, elements of the bedleh were already in place at a much earlier period than previously realized, and the bedleh may have emerged largely as an elaboration upon an existing costuming aesthetic, rather than as a wholesale adoption of Western fantasy costuming.
Loewenbach and other writers provide invaluable observations regarding the spatial layout of a typical sala, the organization of the show, and interactions between audience and performers:
“Seated on divans on a stage at the end of the room are the performers, some ten in number – the orchestra and male singers on the right, the female singers in the center and the exponents of the eternal and monotonous dance on the left. The faces of the lady vocalists are hidden by the yashmak, but it is apparent that the fair ones are endowed with an abundance of adipose tissue, for in the east, as in the west, a prima donna is generally a person of weight. No veil, however, hides the faces of the dancers, who, when not actually engaged in distorting their bodies, puff away with enjoyment at the ubiquitous cigarette.
A dancer with an indescribable swagger leaves the divan and commences to posture on the platform. A hum of admiration rises from her many admirers, for she is a prime favorite with the habitués of the hall. For a solid quarter of an hour does this brown-faced nymph continue her hideous contortions – hideous, at all events, to persons of uncultivated tastes”.(Hopkinsville Kentuckian, May 30, 1899, 7.)
“The whole show consists of a few wailing musicians sitting on a raised platform at one end of the café, accompanying the endless gyrations of a stout young woman of unprepossessing features, who postures in particularly ungraceful and unedifying attitudes. Then her place is taken by another, equally ill-favoured and obese, who goes through the same interminable gyrations, to be relieved in her turn; and this goes on hour after hour. This strange “unvariety show” is, nevertheless, one of the established sights of Cairo, and is frequented in great numbers by tourists.” (Reynolds-Ball, The City of the Caliphs, 1898: 191-192.)
These accounts describe venues that existed strictly for the purpose of providing entertainment to paying customers. In traditional contexts for belly dance performance, such as weddings and mawalid (saint’s day celebrations), the dance occurred as an integral part of a significant social occasion. In the new, non-traditional setting of the sala, the dance came to exist for its own sake: no special event was necessary to justify a dance performance. Audience members sought out the establishment and paid the entry fee with the express purpose of seeing something entertaining – perhaps dance, music, or even a film, for, as Loewenbach’s description indicates, the dance show was only one of the entertainments available at a typical sala.
Postcard from 1902 showing dancers, singers, and musicians onstage at another typical sala (the postcard is from my personal collection)
click on image for enlargement
These accounts also describe a theatrical setting in which the performance space was clearly demarcated: a raised stage at one end of a hall. In some venues, the stage was bounded by a low railing. (See illustration above.) This clear delineation of performance space from audience space was a definite break from traditional belly dance performance contexts, where casual interaction between the performers and the audience was commonplace. Moreover, as Loewenbach describes, although the dancer moved about the audience soliciting tips after her performance, her direct interaction with audience members was minimal. This would suggest that, at least at El Dorado, the dancers themselves were not engaged in the practice of fath (sitting and drinking with customers) – the sala had other female employees specifically tasked with this duty. This is a marked difference from the dancers of the salat of the 1920s and 1930s, who regularly engaged in fath.
The dance show itself consisted of multiple performances by a single dancer, or else successive performances by a variety of soloists throughout the course of the evening. Though postcards and photographs sometimes depict multiple dancers performing at the same time, travelers’ accounts generally only allude to soloists. Based on the photographic evidence, it seems that even when two or three women were dancing together, there was little coordination among them. Between performances, the dancers would sit and rest on a divan on the stage, or else circulate through the audience to collect tips.
Who were the audiences at these performances? Although it is clear that European and American tourists did frequent the dance shows, most travelers’ descriptions suggest that the performances were geared toward Egyptian audiences. A consistent feature of Western travelers’ accounts is the general distaste with which the authors viewed not only the native dance, but also the accompanying music. (See also, for example, Warner 1900: 101-102.) The writers often seem baffled by Egyptians’ fondness for arts and music that Western eyes and ears found so repugnant. Yet, one author asserts that most of the entertainment halls were owned by “enterprising Greeks and Levantines for European visitors”. (Reynolds-Ball, The City of the Caliphs, 1898: 191-192, emphasis in the quotation-mine.) That non-Egyptians may have owned many of these venues is not altogether surprising, given that many, later, better-known sala owners – such as Badia Masabni – were not native Egyptians. However, Reynolds-Ball’s suggestion that the salat and their dance shows were intended for Europeans is not borne out by her contemporaries, such as Loewenbach, who clearly indicate that:
…the majority of patrons at these establishments were Egyptian and that the style of entertainment offered was of little appeal to non-Egyptians.
The descriptions of Loewenbach and other contemporary observers of belly dance performances in the entertainment halls of late nineteenth/early twentieth century Cairo reveal a great deal about a dance form in transition. In terms of technique, aesthetic, and costuming, the dance did not undergo immediate and substantial changes when it moved from the traditional settings of weddings and mawalid to the theatrical context of the salat. In fact, comparison of costuming from the period with the bedleh worn by dancers in films of the 1930s suggests some degree of continuity between the costuming of the awalem and ghawazee and that of the dancers in Egypt’s cinematic “Golden Era.” However, the movement of the dance to the sala stage did have a profound impact on the fundamental nature of belly dance performance. Belly dance was no longer embedded in traditional social occasions; it now existed, alongside other forms of entertainment, as entertainment for entertainment’s sake, and it was presented in venues specifically designed to provide amusements to paying customers. That change enabled others that were to follow – such as changes in technique, musical accompaniment, etc. – because it brought dancers together with other artists such as: singers, composers, actors and actresses, etc. – in venues which essentially became melting pots for invention and innovation in Egyptian arts and entertainment.
References and Resources
- American Mutoscope and Biograph Company
“Princess Rajah Dance” The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920 (Library of Congress American Memory Collection), 1904. <http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/varstg:@field(NUMBER(1821))>
Egypt: Handbook for Travellers. (4th remodelled edition). Leipsic: K. Baedeker, 1898. From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA).
- Carlton, Donna
Looking for Little Egypt. Bloomington: IDD Books, 1994.
Edison, Thomas A., Inc.
“Princess Ali” Early Motion Pictures, 1897-1920 (Library of Congress American Memory Collection), 1895.
Edison, Thomas A., Inc.
“Turkish Dance, Ella Lola” The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920 (Library of Congress American Memory Collection), 1898.
“In an Arab Music Hall” Hopkinsville Kentuckian. 30 May 1899: 7.
- Institut National de l’Audiovisuel (INA)
“L’Expo Universelle de 1900” INA, 1983.
<http://www.ina.fr/video/CAB8301052601/l-expo-universelle-de-1900-video.html> —- see 8:49
Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 1836. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2005.
Promenade Autour de l’Afrique, 1907. Paris: Ernest Flammarion, 1908. From Hathitrust Digital Library.
- Nugent, Marilee
"Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance (1896): A Film by Thomas Edison" All About Belly Dancing, by Shira, n.d.
<http://www.shira.net/about/fatima-coochee-coochee.htm>. Accessed May 10, 2013.
- Reynolds-Ball, Eustace A.
Cairo of To-Day: A Practical Guide to Cairo and Its Environs London: Adam and Charles Black, 1898. From Hathitrust Digital Library.
- Reynolds-Ball, Eustace A.
The City of the Caliphs; a Popular Study of Cairo and its Environs and the Nile and its Antiquities Boston, London: Estes and Lauriat, T. Fisher Unwin, 1898. From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA).
- Scott, Clement
“Egyptian Dancing” Evelyn Observer, and South and East Bourke Record. [Australia]. 2 February 1894: 2.
- South Australian Chronicle
“Letters to Boys – No. LI. In Egypt” South Australian Chronicle. 17 June 1893: 16.
“The Ghawazee of Cairo: The Picturesque Dancing Women of Egypt” Star [Canterbury, New Zealand]. Issue 7512. 20 September 1902: 2.
- University of Chicago Library
Underwood & Underwood. Collection 1899-1908. Chicago: University of Chicago Library, 2010.
- Ward, Heather D.
“From Café Chantant to Casino Opera: Evolution of Theatrical Performance Space for Belly Dance.” The Gilded Serpent. 10 January 2013.
- Ward, Heather D.
“The Search for El Dorado…in Cairo.” The Gilded Serpent. 3 March 2013.
- Warner, Charles Dudley
My Winter on the Nile. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1900. From Internet Archive. <http://archive.org/details/mywinteronnile00warniala >.
- Author’s GS bio page
 La Goulue was a famous French dancer who performed at music halls such as the Moulin Rouge.
Ready for more?
- 1-10-13 From Café Chantant to Casino Opera, Evolution of Theatrical Performance Space for Belly Dance,
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