Monday, November 5, 2012

American Vintage Oriental Belly Dance

In the 1960s and 1970s, Middle Eastern night clubs were opened by immigrants across the U.S. in places such as New York City, Detroit, and San Francisco. Middle Eastern dancers were brought in to perform in these clubs, bringing the “Oriental” styles of belly dance to American audiences.

Belly dance originates from three main branches—Egyptian, Turkish, and Lebanese/Syrian. Each of these styles comes from the folkloric, social dances of the people of various regions in the Middle and Near East, Mediterranean areas, and North Africa. In the night clubs of Cairo in the 1920s, ballet was incorporated into the traditional, cultural dances to polish them up for the stage. Along with glitzy, glamorous costuming invented by Hollywood, a professional, Oriental version of belly dance was born.

American women interested in learning belly dance picked up what they could from the dancers coming through the Middle Eastern night clubs. While the three main branches of the dance share the same, basic movement vocabulary, Americans could not distinguish between the nuances of music, style, and presentation. They blended what they learned together into a distinctly American version of belly dance. A 5-part format developed, with sections of the performance to include an entrance, a slow segment, a drum solo, floor work, and a finale. The prolific use of props such as zills, veils, and swords became distinctive features of the American style, and there was a strong flavor of Greek and Turkish influence. 

 Elena Lentini

Today this style is known sometimes as American Cabaret. This label is problematic, as it leaves out the fact that this dance, though an American “fusion” form, is composed of authentic Middle Eastern dance. Perhaps a more accurate term is American Vintage Oriental, which reflects the Middle Eastern roots while at the same time acknowledging the contribution of American dancers at a particular point in history.

In the U.S., American Vintage Oriental belly dance has evolved into two main “camps,” typically referred to as Tribal and Cabaret. The Cabaret version reflects the glamorous night club style, with its heavily beaded and sequined “bra and bedlah” costuming, usually worn with a skirt. It also retains the airier ballet influence with much dancing done on the balls of the feet, and is most often performed as a solo dance, although group choreographies are sometimes used.

The Tribal style descends from Jamila Salimpour’s troupe, Bal Anaat, in the San Francisco Bay area. Salimpour brought her version of the dance out of the night clubs, to be showcased instead at outdoor Renaissance fairs. She used folkloric style costuming and an earthier interpretation of the blended Middle Eastern dance forms. Individuals performed within the context of a large group of background dancers and musicians. 

 Aida with Bal Anaat

These categories are very general and are meant only to provide a broad framework for understanding the evolution of American belly dance, and in fact many dancers today use a combination of both Tribal and Cabaret stylistic elements and costuming. The dance has continued to develop in various ways in the United States, including the study of specific forms as performed in Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon and other countries of the overall region, returning the dance to its original, distinctive cultural roots, in more “pure” variations. A movement in the polar opposite direction champions personal interpretation and an “anything goes” fusion mentality over the preservation of traditional representations of the dance.

While Vintage Oriental is still performed, it has become something of a dying art. Perhaps it is this forgetting of the Middle Eastern roots of the dance, and the specific blended form that developed in the 1960s and 1970s, that has contributed to the disintegration in some sectors of authentic forms of belly dance in the U.S. Yes, belly dance is a living, evolving art form that welcomes personal innovation, but its cultural roots are inherent to any true understanding and representation of this beautiful, feminine expression.

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