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Women’s History Month & Belly Dance History

March is Women’s History Month

Hello there!  Today I’m doing something a bit different.  In honor of International Woman’s Day, which falls in Women’s History Month, I’m sharing a bit of belly dance history each day over on my FaceBook page. I’ve decided to put up five posts this month that round up those entries for the week.

Day 1 – Palmolive Soap Advertisement, 1920’s

When I was a young girl, this was one of my favorite pictures.  I loved historical advertising, and I thought that I looked a bit like this lovely lady.  When little kids are asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I secretly wanted to grow up to be her.  To my eyes, she looked like she was getting ready to dance.  It didn’t hurt that there was a bit of resemblance between her face and mine.

My mom took belly dance classes in the mid-1970s and though she didn’t stick with the hobby, I certainly was hooked. When I started taking classes myself at 17 and soon started performing in Milwaukee Wi, I knew I was making my dream of being a professional dancer come true.

As a “Triple Threat”  (in my case, dancer, costumer, and historian) I am most happy when I get to share my favorite photos – so let’s embark together on this historical adventure!

Algerian Cafe - Chicago's Columbian Exhibition, 1893 - Costume History Month - Studio DavinaDay 2 – A scene from the Algerian Theater – Columbian Exhibition, Chicago 1893

The Chicago World’s Faire in 1893 is often used as the starting point for tracing the history of belly dance in the United States.

The truth is, there were middle eastern dancers spotted at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 as well as individual dancers performing in major cities like New York.

And while Sol Bloom made a big deal about “Little Egypt” doing the “Belly Dance” in the Streets of Cairo Exhibit at the Columbian Exhibition of 1893, there were middle eastern dancers performing in various exhibits along the Midway Plaisance.

In this illustration, you can see a dancer performing an Algerian Scarf dance. If you look close, you can see that she is holding a small scarf in each of her hands. Her costume is very Turkish in cut and style, which is to be expected as Algeria was part of the Ottoman empire at this time and urban clothing was influenced by the Turkish style.

Omene - 1880's - One of the first recorded Turkish dancers working in the US - Costume History Month - Studio Davina

Day 3 – Omene – Turkish Dancer – New York 1880’s

One of the earliest recorded middle eastern dancers to perform in the US was the Turkish Dancer Omene.  She appeared in the variety theater circuit of NYC and beyond. Throughout the 1880s, newspaper printing technology improved and illustrated newspapers became much more popular.  As the decade progresses, more line illustrations like the one to the right begin appearing in regular newspapers like the New York Times. 

Omene lived a scandalous life. New York City newspapers documented her outrageous activities. The press was especially fascinated with sharing the melodrama of her tumultuous relationship with her husband Yank-Hoe.

As a testament to her popularity, she appeared in a series of Cigarette Cards in 1890 and there is a very nice article about the collection of the Met Museum in New York City. Read more about Omene and her adventures in this informative article by the New York Metropolitan Museum.

Unknown Egyptian Dancer in Assiut and Dowery Necklace - Costume History Month - Studio DavinaDay 4 – Unknown Egyptian Dancer, 1940s

This is one of my favorite photographs of an Egyptian dancer wearing an assiut robe and a classic dowery necklace. Wedding dresses made of assuit were traditional in Upper Egypt during the last quarter of the 19th century. Wedding attendees – especially married women – would also don assuit shawls.

Dancers would wear assiut to henna night and other wedding celebrations, especially for the zeffa. Although no longer tied to wedding traditions, dancers continue to wear assiut.

Have you checked out my book about assiut? Costume History Month - Studio DavinaHave you read my book about assiut?
Only $24 through the end of March at my Etsy store.

If you are interested in assiut, make your way over to my assiut Facebook group where we share loads of images and discuss the history and use of assiut through the ages.

If you would like to see assiut in action, I’ve got a YouTube playlist that includes vintage and modern performances.

Autochrome Lumiere photo of Unknown Egyptian dancer by George Lekegian 1907-8 - Costume History Month - Studio Davina Day 5 – Autochrome Lumière of an Unknown Dancer – Georges Lékégian – 1907-8

Autochrome Lumière was the first camera capable of taking color photos. This technique used glass plates that were dyed with red, green and blue potato starch and a layer of emulsion. When the light passed through the glass, a softly colored image was created. Subjects had to pose for quite a length of time to capture the image so they are often slightly fuzzy from holding poses.

Georges Lékégian’s father Gabriel was part of the large Armenian community living in Cairo after the diaspora in the 19th century. Gabriel opened a studio and turned out a wide variety of photos including landscapes, portraits and “types” for postcards. His son inherited his eye and his business. It’s often confusing which G. Lékégian created any particular image at this time.

Georges experimented with the Autochrome process when it was new. What’s great about this photo is that we know it’s provenance. This image was made in the Cairo based  Lékégian studio. So unlike the numerous undated black and white postcards, this image offers us a tiny slice of costume history.

Note that this Ghawazee dancer has chosen to wear a matching vest and skirt of red with contrasting yellow/gold tabs with tassels on her hip treatment.

Read an overview of this photo process over on the Wikipedia site.

Gilda Gray from the Movie "Devil Dancer" - Costume History Month - Studio DavinaDay 6 – Gilda Gray dance with the Ziegfeld Follies

Gilda Gray was an early 20th-century dancer who performed on stage with the Ziegfeld Follies. She is often erroneously credited as the originator of “The Shimmy.”  Gilda’s career moved from stage to screen. This promotional photo is from the 1927 movie “The Devil Dancer.”

By the 20’s the show-girl costuming formula of a cropped top or bra, embellished belt worn below the navel, and a full skirt was de rigueur for a belly dancer. In this image of Gilda’s ensemble features all of these costuming elements. Though this style dates from the ’20s, you might see a similar ensemble worn on stage at your next dance event. Moving forward through the 20th century, belly dance ensembles will change and evolve with shifts in tastes and developments in technology. But the three-piece set remains the emblematic uniform for the modern professional belly dancer.

While Gilda didn’t invent the shimmy, she was a master of the art and you can see her bust out a few shimmy moves in this clip from the 1929 movie “Piccadilly.”

Samia Gamal by Loomis Dean for Life Magazine - Costume History Month - Studio DavinaDay 7 – Samia Gamal by Loomis Dean for Life Magazine 1952

Today I’m sharing this beautiful black and white photo of the incomparable Egyptian dancer Samia Gamal by photographer Loomis Dean shot for Life Magazine in 1952. This beautiful composite photo captures the elegant movement of the great dancer through an overlay multi-exposure darkroom process.

In 1952 Samia was performing at the prestigious and very upper-class dinner theater the Latin Quarter in New York City. Headliners of the club included Frank Sinatra and the Andrew Sisters. It ran from 1942 to 1969. (Fun Factoid: The Latin Quarter was founded and run by the father of broadcaster Barbara Walters)

Life Magazine was instrumental in sharing ideas about US culture, not only with Americans but throughout Europe and around the globe. Life not only recorded our culture, but it shared, reinforced, and directed the zeitgeist. This magazine shaped opinion and created celebrity with its gorgeous photography and easy to read articles.

Brief article about Samia in Life Magazine

Lys and Lyn Jamal, 1950's - Costume History Month - Studio DavinaDay 8 – Lys and Lyn Gamal

The Gamal Twins were beautiful sisters, not twins. They created their act and took the name Gamal to make them more appealing and unique to the Egyptian audiences.

Specialty acts like the Gamal twins stand out for their uniqueness are often better documented in the historical archive. They get more attention because they are different and distinct.

Their real names were Helena (Lyn) and Berta (Lys). Berta had kept mementos from her career, like press clippings and magazine articles.  Berta’s step-daughter wanted to share Lys’s story after her passing in 2016 and donated this ephemera collection to the Jerusalem National Library. The collection is now available for dance researchers.

Read more about Lys and Lyn in this article.
Watch a video clip from the 1954 film “Al Anisa Hanafi”

Dawn Devine ~ Davina, photo by Laura Thompson - Studio DavinaThere’s More To Come

I hope that you’ve enjoyed the first 8 Days of my Woman’s History Month series devoted to belly dance costume and history, I hope you will subscribe to my bi-monthly newsletter where I share my latest blog posts, publication updates, and a selection of blog posts, videos, and articles that I’ve been enjoying from around the web.

Happy International Woman’s Day!
Dawn Devine ~ Davina
March 8, 2019

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