What is American Cabaret belly dance? Is it authentic? How is it different from other belly dance styles? Who are the main influencers in this style? Let’s explore the topic in depth.
American Cabaret style belly dance is sometimes called AmCab for short. It’s also sometimes called Vintage Oriental or American Nightclub style. Usually when we talk about American Cabaret, we’re talking about the period from the 1960s until the 1980s, and the phrase defines the era as much as the style.
Current American dance that isn’t Egyptian or Tribal in nature is sometimes called “modern American Cabaret” but is less well-defined.
Can you see the roots of all American belly dance styles in this performance, from Aziza to Rachel Brice?
Defining characteristics of the style
The classic American Cabaret performance is characterized by:
- Wrapped Entrance: Dancer enters wrapped in a veil (sometimes multiple veils or a cape, but the fabric draping and hiding part of the costume is important) and performs a fast, lively dance with finger cymbals.
- Veilwork: After the first number, she removes the veil and dances with it. Traditionally, a chiffon veil framed movements, accented spins, or partially covered the face or body. Modern dancers use silk veils to create shapes and movement in the air around them.
- Finger cymbals: Zills are considered essential, often played with a high level of musicality, and might be worn for the entire show even when they’re not being played.
- Floorwork performed to slow music (often chiftitelli rhythm) is characteristic. Might be done kneeling, side-lying, reclining on the elbows or fully reclining. Can include various figure 8s, undulations, armwork, shimmies, and belly rolls.
- Dramatic moves in this style include fast spins, belly rolls and flutters, Turkish drops, skirt kicks, and a cappella zilling.
- Props (in addition to the zills and veil) might include cape, sword, candles, candle tray or cane
- Music could be from anywhere: Lebanese, Egyptian, Syrian, Arab-American, Turkish, even Greek.
- Exoticism and Orientalism were common in America until the 1990s, and this was true among most dancers as well. The Orientalist idea of the day was that women of the East are passionate, primitive and wild beneath their demure veils and the dance often incorporated these concepts. It was common to put a “sultan’s turban” on a male audience member, for instance, and then dance for him. It was also common for the dancer to use her veil to mimic hijab while dancing.
- Overall: Dancers strived for fluidity and control while going for a look that seemed wild, free and unrestrained.
Floorwork is viewed as sexual by some audience members, but the dancers perceive their floorwork as spiritual, graceful and a showcase for their strength, flexibility, and emotional range. The legendary Delilah epitomized the art of floorwork in American belly dance:
- Many, if not most, dancers in the US made their own costumes until the 1990s
- Multilayered looks that conjured images of ‘The Mysterious East’ were popular
- It was the fashion to wear circular skirts that were split all the way to the hip in front, showing the full leg (some dancers wore harem pants underneath for modesty)
- Fringe and/or coins were important costume elements
- Veils were transparent chiffon or lamé and were often trimmed in sequins or beads. They could be much heavier than today’s silk veils because they were used much differently.
- The circle skirt was ubiquitous, usually cut in panels, with a narrow panel in front, a wide panel in back, and slits all the way up to the waist. Less common skirt styles included tulip, mermaid, and straight skirts. Skirts were always long.
- Belts were often narrow and worn very low on the hip. Bra bands were frequently sewn in narrow pieces with the sides left open. Sequins, coins, beads, pearls, and jewels were used extensively, with rhinestones less common than they are today.
Here’s the magnificent Elena Lentini showcasing the elements of American Cabaret-style belly dance and costuming:
Roots of the style
Imagine you are an American who is now living in Hong Kong. You spend your days eating unfamiliar foods, trying to communicate in a foreign language, and living in a culture not your own. Now imagine there’s a restaurant (let’s call it Rick’s Place) where other English speakers gather to eat hamburgers, fried chicken and mashed potatoes and listen to rock and roll music. Those people might be Australian, British, Scottish or Canadian, but wouldn’t you be drawn together by familiar food, music, and language? This is what happens in Middle Eastern and Arab communities in US cities. Perhaps the closest thing to home is a Greek restaurant, or a Lebanese nightclub, or an Egyptian hookah bar. But people from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt might gather together to eat, play music, talk, and dance in ways that feel comfortingly familiar. It was in these melting pots of culture that American Cabaret-style belly dance was born in the mid-20th century. Here’s an amazing glimpse into that time — A mini-documentary about Serena, an early pioneer in American belly dance, narrated by her son.
In its heyday, American Cabaret was simply called Bellydance. It had not yet separated into a variety of styles that needed more specific names. The dancers learned from native dancers and musicians, and a variety of Arab and Turkish styles came together; authentic, but mingled. If you look at Turkish Oriental from the same era, though, the two styles are often indistinguishable.
The 60s & 70s: Seduce your Sultan
During the sexual and feminist revolutions, belly dance was perceived as an exotic, sensual activity that was perfect for the newly free-to-be-sexy American woman. Although dancing to ‘make your husband a sultan’ may seem anti-feminist now, it was a massive step forward for women to be able to openly admit to wanting and enjoying their husbands’ physical attention!
The women who participated in this movement were brave pioneers. Classes sprung up at YMCAs and community colleges across the country. By the 1970s, influential teachers were arising. Morocco (Aunt Rocky) became a major player in New York and the East Coast. Ibrahim “Bobby” Farrah taught workshops and brought Nadia Gamal from Lebanon to teach (his followers call themselves Bobby Dolls and continue to influence the dance in North America). Jamila Salimpour (and later her daughter Suhaila) became very influential in California. Here’s some wonderful footage from Jamila Salimpour’s classes. Note: Jamila’s beliefs about the ritualistic history of the dance were widely held at the time but are no longer accepted as factual by the larger dance community. Jamila’s classes definitely leaned toward dance as sisterhood rather than dance for seduction, and she did her best to connect the dance to its ethnic roots as well.
During this time bellydance lived on the edge of mainstream entertainment in America and was a symbol of hedonism, epitomized by the “harem fantasies” in men’s magazines and pornography at the time. Bellydancers appeared in several James Bond films (here’s a clip but I can’t embed it on the page) and the Starship Enterprise rarely visited a “pleasure planet” that didn’t feature some bellydance-influenced entertainment. Bellydance was a confusing symbol of hedonism and sexuality at the time.
You could also have seen bellydancing on TV series ranging from I Dream of Jeannie to Charlie’s Angels.
After the 1970s, bellydance’s brief surge in popularity waned and bellydancers would spend decades working to recover their now-tarnished image as symbols of hedonism and sexualty. It was a confusing time to be a woman, much less one who had fallen in love with bellydance!
Freed from its role as a tool in the sexual revolution, bellydance in the US began to move in two different artistic directions.
On the West Coast, Jamila Salimpour and her students were dressing in folkloric costumes so they would be welcome to perform at ethnic festivals. The hippy aesthetic lent itself to a more earthy, less sparkly presentation and more of a feeling of sisterhood among the dancers. From those movements, American Tribal Style and later Tribal Fusion evolved.
But the mixed Pan-Arabic and Turkish style continued to develop as well, and picked up the name “Cabaret” to distinguish it from the folkloric and tribal styles.
By the 1980s, technology was changing. People of ‘average means’ were beginning to travel overseas, and videotape wasbringing actual footage of dance from its native lands into students’ living rooms. It was through travel and video that American bellydancers began to discover Egyptian-style bellydance.
By the late 1990s, everyone was watching Golden Era clips, attending workshops with former members of the Reda troupe, and learning to interact with their music in this new, more subtle, more emotionally evocative and less flashy way. The dance community began to speak disparagingly about American Cabaret, saying it wasn’t accurate or authentic.
Americans were still thinking of the ‘Mysterious East’ as a homogenous place and not acknowledging the vast regional differences. For nearly a decade, American Cabaret style bellydance was labeled inauthentic and treated as a Hollywood bastardization of Egyptian style dance. American dancers tried to defend themselves, insisting that they had learned their dance directly from native teachers, but until Turkish and Lebanese video clips started turning up, they were simply not heard. American Cabaret, or AmCab, fell out of favor during American’s infatuation with Egyptian dance.
Here’s the legendary Cory Zamora defending Cabaret style in an interview and showing us how it’s done:
American Cabaret style today
Modern American Cabaret dancers may depart from the finger cymbals/veil wrap/floorwork pattern, but they still blend the movements they’ve learned from Egyptian, Turkish, Lebanese, Tribal, and American Cabaret teachers with movements and aesthetics from ballet, jazz and modern dance. Props have expanded to include Isis wings, fan veils, veil poi, and fire props.
Ansuya (whose mother, Janaeni Rathor, was a classic American Cabaret dancer), is still performing in American Cabaret style, fusing Indian elements into her dance, wearing multilayered costumes and incorporating zills, floorwork and props in her shows.
Aziza, formerly of the US and now living in Canada, offers a melting pot of Western and Arab/Turkish elements in her dance. Her performance here begins with a reading from a 1960’s ‘How to Bellydance’ album insert, lending the perfect retro vibe to Aziza’s modern American Cabaret style. Aziza is the current icon of modern American Cabaret style belly dance.
Suhaila Salimpour is still influential, and the Bellydance Superstars brought Jillina Carlano’s slick choreographies to a wide audience of American dancers and had a profound influence on troupe dancing in the early 21st century.
While teachers on the workshop circuit and in Internet discussion groups embraced Egyptian style, hardworking dancers on the American nightclub and restaurant circuit never stopped dancing in the showy blend of Turkish and PanArabic styles that has become Modern American Cabaret style. Today the style is beginning to make a comeback, as the dance community embraces its boldness and power.
Here’s Karma Karmelita dancing an almost pure American Cabaret style set in 2015.
copyright 2015 by Lauren Haas for Belly Dance U. If you want to share this article, please do so by providing a link to this page. You’re more than welcome to print yourself a copy, but copying and distributing this article is prohibited.