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Hoochie Coochie: The Lure of the Forbidden Belly Dance in Victorian America

Posted on 05/04/2012

“It was downright indecent.  I saw women go out after the creatures had begun what they call their dance.  I did not stay it through. I just couldn’t.”1

(A woman’s indignant account of her visit to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893)

From America's Historical Newspapers

Danse du ventre, oriental dance, the hoochie coochie, coochie coochie, muscle dance, or better known to us as belly dance, was almost unknown in the United States until 1893 when brightly colored dancers dressed in exotic garb from the Middle East appeared at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Their dancing both fascinated and scandalized Victorians.  The Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, commemorated the 400-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World.  It was the first world’s fair with an area of amusements set aside from exhibitions.  This area was known as the Midway Plaisance.  One of the most popular attractions on the Midway was “A Street in Cairo,” where the dancers performed.  Over 27 million people attended the Exposition during its six-month run.2 "The Streets of Cairo” was one of its more memorable attractions for many visitors, as well as one of its most controversial. Victorian visitors often viewed the dancers, now identified from the published descriptions of their costumes as gypsy ghawazi from Egypt3, with a mixture of fascination, amusement and moralistic revulsion:

Fatima, the girl in blue, doesn’t prance up and down the stage, or go into mad gyrations, or try to kick a hole in the ceiling.  She keeps time in timid little steps, and occasionally sidles about the stage in slow, gliding circles.  It seems to be her pet ambition to disjoint herself at the hips, though a man in yesterday’s audience thought she was suffering from an overdose of green apples.  At any rate, her anatomy below the waist and the knees performs a series of violent tremors, spasms and contortions.4 A heavy footed and heavy featured girl, who takes a few, short, labored steps, snaps her fingers and accomplishes a muscular contortion not unlike that of the Newfoundland when, after a swim, he shakes his shaggy coat, is, to our eyes, an absurd and ugly spectacle.5

Bellydancer, circa 1893. Photographed by Benjamin Falk.

Unlike the tightly corseted ladies of the age, the dancers dressed in loose-fitting costumes, their skirts hanging low on their hips. In the words of one reporter, “the skirt and the waist are not on speaking terms, and the yawning breach is bridged by an unmentionable nether garment, which permits a free play of the abdominal muscles.”6  Like today’s dancers, early belly dancers often exposed their midriffs to demonstrate isolation of the muscles so key to the dance (see photo).  Their legs and arms were often exposed as well.  But what was likely so shocking and also entrancing to Victorian visitors was the joy and freedom that found its expression in belly dance, which is mostly improvisational—very unlike the formalized steps of most dancing of the time.  The direct gaze and uninhibited happy smile of the dancer (as seen in the photo) was something fresh, unexpected, and frankly scandalizing to a society where the rules of decorum and modesty for women were firmly established. 

From America's Historical Newspapers

The girls were brought to the fair by a 22-year-old opportunist named Sol Bloom.  He had seen the dance performedto acclaim a few years before at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, and hoped to duplicate its success in America.  Bloom is also credited with writing a tune for his Exposition dancers that has since become emblematic of belly dance: “The Snake Charmer Song.”7  The song was also known as “The Streets of Cairo” or “Little Egypt” after a dancer who supposedly was one of the attraction’s biggest stars.  Unfortunately, no record exists of a dancer known as “Little Egypt” at the Expo, although numerous dancers later took the name, hoping to relive her legendary success. The show’s popularity soon drew the eyes of the censors.  The act of Congress that had originally awarded Chicago the fair had mandated that a Board of Lady Managers be created as part of the Exposition's governing structure.  Their role was to make sure that women were properly represented.  Unofficially, they set moral guidelines and the tone for the fair.  Scandalized by what they had heard of the performances, the Board asked for an investigation “to be made on behalf of public morality.”  They were supported in their efforts by Anthony Comstock, the nation’s self-proclaimed moralist and censor.  Comstock is most famous for creating the New York Society for Suppression of Vice and for convincing Congress to pass the Comstock Law.  This law made the delivery or transportation of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material, as well as any methods of, or information pertaining to, birth control illegal.  Comstock labeled the dance “hoochie coochie” and called for it to be shut down.8  A full investigation into the performances was launched. Several of the Lady Managers went to inspect the performances for themselves.  Some returned many times, much to the outrage of the show’s manager, Mr. Debbas, who complained to The Philadelphia Inquirer

They go to the park and say my entertainment is vulgar. They say no good woman should countenance the dancing of my lovely girls. But they come again the next day and sit for hours in the best seats in my theatre and drink my coffee and applaud my dancers… Then they go out, and when they get to the entrance of my theatre they put into their looks disgust and outraged modesty.9

From America's Historical Newspapers

It appears that while some women appreciated the dancers, they also feared the social repercussions of publicly enjoying performances that went against Victorian ideals of feminine decorum, modesty and restraint. The dance did have its bold defenders, including Kate Field, a prominent female journalist and lecturer. Field touted its health benefits:

Such development and control of abdominal muscles as are exhibited by the dancing girls in Chicago-Cairo would, if possessed by American women, be the salvation of the race. Invalidism would be impossible, and children would be born healthy.10

Ultimately, the spectacle of belly dancing for Western audiences proved too commercial an attraction to ban but the performances at Midway Plaisance were somewhat modified.  Attempts to take the performances to New York failed, largely due to the efforts of Comstock who lived in that city. After the World Fair ended, similar performances were held all over the United States despite the efforts of local “vice hunters”  to stop them.   A number of dancers, both Middle Eastern and American, of varying skills, also adopted the name “Little Egypt,” trying to capitalize that dancer’s mythological success at Midway.  “Hoochie coochie,” or belly dance, eventually became an accepted part of art and entertainment in the United States.

To learn more about the early history of belly dance in the United States, search on “danse du ventre,” “oriental dance,” “muscle dance” or “hoochie coochie” in America’s Historical Newspapers.

Notes: 1“Lady Managers Shocked,” The New York Herald (8-5-1893), p. 10. 2The World’s Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath Accessed 2-22-2012. 3Dance scholar Donna Carlton identified the dancers as gypsy ghawazi (traveling dancers) in her book, Looking for Little Eqypt (Bloomington, Indiana: IDD Books, 1994). 4“Poetry of Motion: Exhibition of Dancing in the Midway Plaisance,” The Sunday Inter Ocean (6-4-1893), p. 13. 5 “La Danse du Ventre: Its Continuance and Suppression a Problem of the Hour,” The Charlotte News (8-21-1893), p. 2. 6“Poetry in Motion,” ibid. 7See “Streets of Cairo: That Snake Charmer Song” Accessed 2-22-2012. 8The term “hoochie coochie” comes from the French word hochequeue (“to shake a tail”) which refers to a small bird that shakes its tail feathers. It is not clear exactly when the word became associated with a dance. 9“Mr Debbas and the Lady Managers,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (8-7-1893), p. 4. 10“The Danse du Ventre: Kate Field on the Oriental Style of Dancing,” The Evening Times (9-9-1893), p. 6.

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