By Dawn Devine ~Davina At some moment, long lost in the mists of time, the Meditteranean performance art we call belly dance lept from cultural folk art to organized professional entertainment for travelers.
While we might not know when more formal dance performances began, we do know that after the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution sped up travel. The invention of photography, and later movies, and video, have allowed us to share dance with a broader audience.
But let's take a moment to turn back the clock and look at how dance troupes were depicted by travelers and artists through a brief survey of paintings, illustrations, and photographs.
Egypt: An Ancient Travel Destination
Egypt has also been a tourist destination since the dawn of civilization. Even before the famed Greek historian Herodotus (484 - 425 BCE) crafted his list of the “Seven Wonders of the World” at the great library at Alexandria, travelers visited the famed pyramids on the Giza Plateau.
Travelers and pilgrims, merchants, and traders needed places to stay, food, and drink during their journeys. Simple entertainments were presented to these travelers to enhance the prestige and desirability of the caravansaries and inns along the trade routes along the Nile linking Alexandria, Giza, and Luxor.
Entertainment included everything from music, song, dance, tumbling, and juggling. Even more esoteric entertainments such as snake charming and fortune telling are recorded in the travel writings of more than 2 millennia.
Early Illustrations of Dance Troupes
Professional scholars, archeologists, religious pilgrims, and elite students on the Grand Tour in the 18th century, transformed into a flood of travelers from countries all over Europe in the 19th century. They first trickled and then poured into Egypt to see the last remaining wonder of the world, the Pyramids.
By the 18th Century, illustrations of all aspects of the cultures and crafts of Egypt were finding their way into all sorts of publications from memoirs and travel guides to history books and illustrated dictionaries.
From Sail To Steam
Throughout the 19th century, travel technology improved. Steam-powered boats dramatically cut down on travel times. No longer were large ships heading to the Mediterranean at the mercy of winds. Instead, steamships used propellor power to reliably travel on shorter and more accurate timetables.
On the Nile, steam-powered river boats cut down the time it took to travel from Cairo to Luxor and back down from three months by sail to a mere week. This meant that more middle-class people could easily travel abroad.
While traveling in major metropolitan cities like Cairo and Alexandria, tourists could pop into a photographic studio and order a photographic print to take home and place in their scrapbook or mount and hang on a wall.
More Tourists, More Images
In addition to rapid and reliable travel, the Industrial Revolution gave birth to photography. The new 19th-century middle-class tourist could find photos available starting in the 1850s.
Photographers set up studios in Cairo to produce images that would cater to the tourist's tastes and subject matter. Photos of architecture, landscapes of the Nile, and historic monuments were the most popular. But photos of humble people, from water sellers to fortune tellers, donkey boys, and even our favorite, dancers and musicians, were selling well.
With the development of stereoscopic photography, decks of heavy-duty cards were printed and sold in sets for teaching social studies and world history. Schoolchildren from Europe, the United States, and beyond would learn about the arts and culture of the people of Egypt.
Rise of the World Fair
For people living in the large cities of Europe and the United States, the World Fair Phenomenon exposed millions of people to ethnographic performances. These exhibitions, large and small, provided the entertainment world with expanded opportunities to travel and perform their cultural arts.
Legendary French photographer Nadar was a photographer who was known for his daring innovations in the art of photography. He was one of the first aerial photographers and even bought his own balloon. Nadar was the first photographer to employ gas, and then electrical lighting for photography purposes.
But Nadar’s primary income came from taking society portraits, and the sale of publicity shots for entertainers like this image of Seymour Wade’s Egyptian Performance group. This group’s name changed throughout the run of the Paris Exhibition of 1889, Nadar simply labeled his photos Danse du Ventre.
If you visited the fair and loved this performance, you could visit Studio Nadar just blocks away. You would flip through a catalog and order the prints you liked the most to remember your experience.
Atelier Nadar (Studio Nadar) “Danse Du Ventre” - Seymour Wade's Egyptian performance troupe appeared on the stage of the International Theatre at the Exposition Universelle de Paris of 1889. Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
The art of the postcard to help document and share travels with friends and family back home hit its stride in the 1890s. Tourists could select from dozens, hundreds, if not thousands of postcards available at every tourist site, hotel, restaurant, and corner shop.
Tourists would select cards that reflected their tastes and came closest to capturing their memories of experiences. Did you go on a Nile Cruise? There’s a card for that. Did you take a train ride? There’s a card for that. Visit a pyramid? Did they see a dance show?
Fortunately, dancer postcards were in hot demand. They were made in abundance and many different compositions and styles have survived to show us what dance troupes looked like.
These images of dancers dancing together illustrate the story of the evolution of belly dance groups performing together. There are many more images hiding in publications and periodicals, private and public collections, and stored in archives around the world. As illustrations and photos are unearthed, documented, and shared, our knowledge and understanding of dance history continue to grow.
Dawn Devine ~ Davina is an author, instructor, and archival researcher whose mission is to create an illustrated timeline of Mediterranean dance. She is currently working on the 30th-anniversary revision and expansion of her first book, “Costuming from the Hip” the internationally best-selling book on designing and making belly dance costumes. Davina has ongoing classes in dance history and costume design on Patreon. Visit her website for more information.