The First Ripples of Belly Dance on America’s Shores

by Jamila Salimpour

Many of us are celebrating the centennial of the introduction of bellydance to the United States this year because of the sensation caused by Little Egypt’s performances at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.  This certainly was the first stirring of the national awareness of this Middle Eastern dance tradition.  However, if we are to be historically accurate, bellydance was actually first introduced to the U.S. as part of the Tunisian exhibition at the International Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, celebrating the centennial anniversary of the independence of the United States.

The discovery of this event was the result of a coincidence relating to my research into the dance. In 1972, word got around that Theme Events of San Francisco Christmas Dickens Faire.  When I approached the entertainment committee they laughed and said “Jamila, what would bellydancers be doing at a Faire during the time of Charles Dickens?”  Well, bellydancers have been around since the beginning of time, and I set out to prove that since trading between Europe and the Middle East had been going on for centuries, surely there must have been a continuation of music and dance exchange.

"Scene in a Tunisian Cafe - The Scarf Dance." 1851 engraving of the Tunisian Exhibit at the Crystal Palace Exposition in London.

My research soon led me to a book on the Crystal Palace Exhibition which took place in England in the year 1851 (exactly in Dickens’s time).  Special music was composed and music sheets whose covers showed a cross-section of the people who came and exhibited at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exposition were for sale.  There it was!  In typical Abaya and turbans, the representatives of the Middle East, in a variety of dress, mingled with the Europeans in Victorian dress.  In descriptions of the activities at the Faire, one historian said, “As has always been the case at Bazaars, Faires, Expositions, and gatherings such as these, are the scenes of a vast variety of side shows, spectacles, theatrical representations, juggling, and other amusements for the edification of the visitors, who in this way, combine business with pleasure.”  Countries have traded not only goods but musicians, dancers, poets, and a variety of things both for propaganda and entertainment.

While I was in the throes of my research a student of mine by the name of Aida visited me and brought me a Xeroxed copy of a print from an old book which showed a dancer accompanied by Orientale musicians.  She prefaced her gift with the statement, “You probably have this in your collection…but I thought just in case you didn’t…well here!”  It wasn’t exactly an exciting print, but as I began to inspect it more thoroughly I noticed that the words on the page described the attendance of Queen Victoria at the Crystal Palace Exposition.  It was that picture which convinced the entertainment committee that we belonged at the Faire.

The 1851 Crystal Palace Exposition in London was followed by the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1853, followed by the Paris Exposition in 1867.  Although I know of no pictorial or written verification that there were dancers at the New York Exhibition, I do have prints of the Orientale Dancers and musicians at the Paris Exposition.

In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant and the Congress approved funds to initiate an International Exposition to be commemorating the centennial anniversary of the independence of the United States.  Invitations were extended to the governments of other nations to be represented and to take part in the International Exposition.  Foreign nations sent their own workmen to build their individual exhibitions, some of which took up to five years to complete.  Areas were designated to nations that participated.  The countries which accepted the invitations of the President of the United States were Africa, Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, China, Equador, Egypt, France, German Empire, Great Britain and colonies, Canada, New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Guatemala, Salvador, Honduras, Japanese Empire, Liberia, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Russia, Siam, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, and Venezuela.  On May 10, 1876, the Exposition was officially opened.

The section devoted to Tunisia was located on South Avenue behind Denmark, Sweden, and Turkey.  The contributions of this nation included essences and flavoring extracts, pottery, carpets, rugs, jewelry, and national costumes contributed by his highness Sidi Mohamed Essadok, Bey of Tunis.  M. Valensi, a Tunisian merchant, also contributed goods which were on sale throughout the exhibition and consisted of folk goods, Turkish pipes with pottery heads and very long cane stems, also fine Turkish tobacco.  Mr. Valensi was also responsible for the import of the musicians and dancers, who sang and danced to their native melodies on a kind of raised platform in his Tunisian Bazaar and Cafe.  Coffee was also served here and visitors were afforded the novelty of smoking Turkish tobacco through pipes two yards long.  The Bey of Tunis also exhibited two Arabian tents, illustrating the domestic life and customs of the Arabian Sheikhs and Bedouins.

The Turkish display was similar to the Tunisian except for the masses of opium wrapped in leaves.  The Turkish carpets were highly praised.  The Turkish bazaar and Cafe was presided over by native Turks, dressed in their native costumes, red Fez cap, red tunic, yellow sash, blue and brown silk trousers.  They furnished visitors with coffee and pipes, the former served in tiny cups about the size of an egg-cup.  Dispersed throughout the room were small bazaars selling rich costumes, carpets, pipes, swords, daggers, hilts and many other novel ornaments.

Egypt had an interesting display of the products and resources of that fertile country, and mementos of her ancient splendor.  A Turkish coffee set was exhibited, made in filigree work, of 22-carat gold.  The set was valued at $4,400.  Furniture inlaid with pearl and ivory was evidence of the most industrious and painstaking effort on the part of the Egyptian workmen. Sabres, saddles, silks, wines, opium, antiques and hieroglyphic engravings taken from mummies were also exhibited.  The exhibition was described as a dedication from “the oldest country in the world to the youngest country in the world.”

Sketches depict Tunisian workmen building a Bazaar.  A print depicts a scene from the Tunisian cafe:  dancer and musicians on stage performing while young Tunisian children serve the Victorian-attired customers exotic Turkish coffee.  Women wait for their menfolk in an anteroom while the men try the nargile (water pipe) or the chibouk (long, wooden pipe).

When the Exhibition closed in November 1876, nearly ten million people had attended.  The gates grossed about $4 million.  All sorts of Centennial articles were offered at public auctions, and eagerly purchased by the public.  Egyptian, Turkish and Tunisian furniture, jewelry and bric-a-brac were sold to the highest bidder.  That is undoubtedly how so many Middle Eastern souvenirs became hierlooms that somehow ended up in antique shops across America from sales of estates.

There was no evidence of any anger or furor over the dancers at the Centennial such as there was at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.  The exposition was considered a success.  As one historian put it, “This vast undertaking was faithfullly conducted to a conclusion of glorious triumph.”

Reprinted by permission of the author from Habibi, Vol. 2, #7.

Jamila Salimpour began her performing career at the age of sixteen in Ringling Brothers Circus as an acrobatic dancer. She studied Middle Eastern music and dance, and in 1947 began appearing at cultural events and ethnic clubs in Los Angeles, and later in San Francisco where she owned the Bagdad Cabaret. She began teaching in 1952, developing a unique method of verbal breakdown and terminology for her movements. She has trained innumerable teachers and performers from all over the world, and produced weeklong seminars and festivals, often co-teaching with her daughter, Suhaila. In 1969, she created Bal Anat, performing and touring with the forty-member troupe. Jamila Salimpour’s complex finger cymbal patterns were published in a “Finger Cymbal Manual.” She also published a history of Middle Eastern Dance, From Cave to Cult to Cabaret, as well as a photographic collection of Middle Eastern dancers at the Chicago World’s Faire, and the “Dance Format” manual. From 1974 to 1990, Ms. Salimpour was the Contributing Editor for Habibi. www.suhailainternational.com

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