posted April 15, 2010
It has been over a century since the Middle Eastern dancers at the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago sparked controversy and scandal. Although the North America public today is much better educated and sophisticated than it was then, when it comes to belly dancing, many people still cling to the old “seducing the Sultan” and “dance of the seven veils” stereotypes from long ago. Admittedly, some of this can be explained by bad behavior by attention-hungry performers who represent our dance poorly to the public. However, it goes deeper than that. The mass media of television, motion pictures, newspapers, and magazines have continued over the years to reinforce the stereotypes even now, in the 21st century.
From the very beginning of moving pictures technology, moviemakers have used “Middle Eastern dance” as a means of adding sexual innuendo and sexy eye candy to their productions.
Whether the film depicts a concubine dancing for the Sultan, a spy thriller with some of the action set in the Middle East, a harem full of beauties waiting to serve their master, or a modern-day Moroccan restaurant in New York with a dancer, the primary purpose for including the scene is often to exhibit scantily-clad women to please the male audience members. Often, the characters watching these performers make comments that reinforce the “dancer as seductress” stereotype.
A list compiled by Maria, a now-retired dancer in Boulder, Colorado contains nearly 200 movies made in North America and Europe that feature either “Middle Eastern dance” scenes or scenes of women lolling about in costumes that the public would perceive as being associated with our dance form. Maria also compiled a list of over 150 television shows with such scenes. In addition to Maria’s work, I have discovered 19 cartoons, some dating back to 1926, which depict “Middle Eastern dance”.
To understand how the entertainment industry’s fascination with harems and belly dancers began, and why such scenes appeared in even the earliest moving pictures from the 1890’s, it is helpful to look at the larger context of European and North American culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The earliest motion picture technologies were developed in the 1890’s by the Lumiére brothers in France and Thomas Edison in the U.S. By this time, Europe and North America had already spent a century cultivating a fascination with the exotic East. This fascination was generated by:
- Governments and commercial enterprises used the Sinai Peninsula as a gateway to colonial holdings in India and other Asian countries.
- Treasure hunters became interested in tomb raiding – the beginnings of what we know today as “archeology”.
- Tourists saw the Middle East as an exotic place to visit. Diaries of some travelers, such as Gustav Flaubert, were widely read.
- European painters exploited the attitude that it was okay to create images of nude “barbarian” women to serve as the pornography of its day, whereas such images of European women would have been unacceptable in their society.
- Accustomed to corset-clad European women who could barely breathe, let alone move their midriffs, Europeans became fascinated with the torso-based dance styles they observed being done by women of the region.
Thus began an obsession with “the Orient” that lasted for well over a century. In the 1890’s and early 20th century, several additional events fueled this fad further, including Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé with its salacious dance of the seven veils, the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago with its associated scandals, and the debut of the opera Salomé based on Wilde’s play.
Therefore, it is no surprise that when technologies to create and project moving pictures were invented in the late 19th century, Oriental themes became prominent. Thomas Edison’s actualités (mini-documentaries) included Near Eastern entertainers.
Several early movies utilized themes of Salomé and Cleopatra. The 1916 movie Intolerance included a segment set in ancient Babylon. The 1920’s brought us Rudolph Valentino starring in The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik. Tales inspired by 1001 Nights, particularly those of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad, have enjoyed enduring popularity.
Over the course of the 20th century, many movies, cartoons, and television shows portrayed “Middle Eastern” themes which presented opportunities to display bare female midriffs or provoke cheap laughs. Interestingly, many of the early cartoons and movies provide tantalizing insights into what “belly dancing” and its spin-offs of the “hoochy coochy” and “the shimmy” looked like in the decades immediately following the infamous Columbia Exposition of 1893.
With 100 years of such material having been promoted by a profit-hungry entertainment industry, it is no wonder that certain stereotypes of the Middle East have persisted to this day. As we watch these programs, we can see Disney’s Daisy Duck doing the dance of the seven veils, a cute “harem girl” mouse dancing for the Sultan in a Mighty Mouse cartoon, Bugs Bunny wearing a turban surrounded by female rabbits in harem girl costumes, and more. In a Star Trek episode, Captain Kirk and his companions lasciviously eye the dancer and nudge each other, a theme which is repeated in an episode of The Simpsons.
In my lecture Hares in the Harem and Fantasies of Seduction which I developed to present at the International Bellydance Conference of Canada on April 22, 2010, I explore many of these images that I have gathered in my research over the years and I show how they have contributed to the continued misconception held by the North American public that “Middle Eastern dance” is somehow part of the sex industry. By understanding how our dance has been depicted in the media, we realize that the imagery the North American public grew up with often has very little to do with the reality behind the dance form we know today as “belly dancing”.
As dancers in North America, we are often very frustrated when the public’s stereotypes about our dance form limit our opportunities. Middle Eastern dance artists have been denied the use of a church basement for classes, banned from performing in a city festival, or rejected from obtaining an arts grant to fund an event. Often, our first reaction is to complain about the ignorance of those who made these decisions. However, when we examine the pervasive stereotypes about our dance that have been created by more than 100 years of mass media misrepresentation, we realize that these people’s mistaken ideas actually did come from somewhere.
Don’t miss Shira’s lecture on this subject at IBCC on Thursday April 22, 2010.
Gilded Serpent will be reporting from the event.
Ready for more?
- 8-22-06 Expo: Magic of the White City The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 DVD Review by Shira
Alas, there is a dark side to what could have been a superb documentary – the way it handles nearly every subject related to women, including the Middle Eastern dance performers.
- 1-29-05 Photos from Sumaya’s Chicago South Side Hafla by Shira
Being new to the Midwest, I thought it would be fun to attend one of Sumaya’s haflas and meet other members of the greater Midwestern dance community.
- 4-7-05 Daughters of Shahrazad: Face to Face Cultural Encounters Through the Expressive Arts
of Middle Eastern Women On March 5, 2005, a unique conference in Iowa honored International Women’s Month.
- 5-5-05 Initiating Dance Dialogue: Current Trends, The Panel Discussion at Carnivals of Stars Festival, transcribed from video by Andrea, Panel members included: Heather as moderator, Monica Berini, Shira, Barbara Bolan, Amina Goodyear, Debbie Lammam.
- 7-28-05 Rainbows of the Desert Sponsor Aziza Sa’id to Des Moines, Iowa
It was clear from the overall setup that the Rainbows are very experienced at sponsoring large workshops.
- 5-30-06 Fresh Old Sounds by Charmaine Ortega Getz
Seeking fresh sounds in belly dance music? Consider a trip back to the 1950s up to the groovy ‘70s when a new style of music was bringing the East to the West.
- 6-15-07 Seeking Sol Bloom by Kharmine
Unbeknownst to Bloom, the troupe had a hired Algerian guide, “a giant Kablye,” who had lived in London and was able to chide Bloom sternly in an accent “normally heard in an English drawing room.
- 8-12-08 Review: "Allure of the East: Orientalism in New York, 1850-1930" at the New York Historical Society by Thalia
This small one-room exhibit with its narrow geographic focus–the city O. Henry dubbed “Baghdad-on-the-Subway”–presents much for dancers to consider. As belly dance continues to gain popularity, what is this continuing "allure" of the Orientalist inspired arts? When is attraction to this aesthetic drawn from a desire to understand other cultures and when is it driven by desire to market ourselves?
- 5-21-08 Saturday Gala Peformance Part 1 of the International Bellydance Conference of Canada
Performers include: Lopa Sarkar, Sacred Dance Company of Victoria, Nath Keo, Roshana Nofret & Maria Zapetis of Bozenka’s BD Academy, Ensemble El Saharat of Germany-
Mayyadah & Amir of Germany, Ferda Bayazit of Turkey, Arabesque Dance Company & Orchestra of Toronto
- 7-17-08 Saturday Gala Peformance Part 2 of the International Bellydance Conference of Canada video and photo report by GS staff
Performers in Act 2 : Aisha Ali of Southern California, Bozenka of Florida, Amy Sigil & Kari Vanderzwaag of Unmata from Sacramento, California, Tito Seif of Egypt, Aida Nour of Egypt
- 4-14-10 Nights Out in Cairo, Part 1: Wednesday Through Saturday by Nicole
The beauty of Cairo is often in the every day things, the small things that we wouldn’t consider so worthwhile, but in fact, make up the real substance of what it’s like to live here. I don’t go to museums or monuments or see famous Belly dancers every day, but I am here in Cairo every day and that is special in and of itself.
- 4-10-10 Carl’s Photos from Rakkasah East Festival 2009, Page 4: R-Z by Carl Sermon
Raks Helm, Raks Sheva, Ranya, Raqs Caravan, Rasa, Sahara Shimmer, Salit, Samra, Scheheresade, Sera & Solstice, Shaula, Shayda, Shushanna & Sean, Soverign Reign, Surayyah, Suzanna, Tanya, Tapestry Tribe, Tasha, Tempest, The Nixies, Troupe Little Egypt, Troupe Solice, Troupe Zoryanna, Valerie Rushmere, Wild Gypsy Fired, Yame, Yasmine, Za-Beth
- 4-6-10 The Pirate, the Psychic and the Mummies in the Basement, Malia’s Story Part 1 by Malia DeFelice
So, at age 4, my world was good. I had a rich imagination sparked by images of Egyptians in the crawlspace and iron ore waiting to be turned into gold. I had a family that consisted of pirates, genies, fortune tellers, wanderers and minstrels. Most of all I had been captivated by the bejeweled beauty in the dancing tattoo. It was 1957 and I knew, like my Uncle Omar and great Aunt Katie, I would one day grow up to be someone who would follow a special calling. I decided, at age 4, that it was my destiny to become a Belly dancer!