The History of Belly Dance in the United States
A personal statement from Jamila Salimpour
by Jamila Salimpour
The first successful club to open in Los Angeles which had an Oriental flavor was the Greek Village on Hollywood Boulevard. It was around the early 1950's, a time when Italian actresses dominated the American screen... Sylvia Mangano, Anna Magnani, Gina Lollobrigida... well-endowed to overflowing with padded bras which propped up the likes of Jayne Mansfield and Jane Russell. They all wore off-the-shoulder blouses, which as far as nudity was allowed in those days. Baring the midriff was considered 'risque' and still a no-no. So when my musicians were hired by the Greek Village and they asked the owners if I could join them, the answer was no. They didn't want a dancer in a cut-down costume! The husband and wife who bought the restaurant had a daughter who was a beautiful prop. I think they were Greek from the East Coast, heavy on Turkish music. The wife was a hostess and sang in Greek, Turkish, and some Arabic. The daughter, who looked like Jane Russell, wore off-the-shoulder, revealing blouses. She would play a conga drum which came just below her bust. In an age of innocence this was a feature attraction and a topic of conversation among many of the predominantly male customers. And so, I went to the Greek Village as a customer, occasionally getting up to dance at the insistence of my musicians, but still no offer of employment.
Originally the Greek Village was divided into two parts, the back closed off when business was new. As business increased, the partition was moved farther and farther back until the entire store was revealed as a large rectangle. Word got out to Greek sailors about the Greek Village and when their ships came to port, we were treated to some of the finest Greek dancing I'd ever seen. At first the stage was front-center, but as the new audience of customer-entertainers grew, the stage was moved to the middle of the rectangle on the right-hand side. A bare lightbulb hung directly over the stage and it became an international weekly contest to see which dancer could kick high enough to hit the lightbulb. The favorite exhibition dance was Zabek. The Uso flowed freely as one eagle after another spread his wings in the ritual dance. Greek men love to dance. Now and then a woman would get up and do a demure Cifte Telli. Still no job offer to me. Business, however, was beginning to boom.
My musicians would be replaced by professional musicians imported directly from Greece. The first contingent included the scandalous Betty Daskalakis, singer, temptress, and designer of strange dresses slit in all the wrong places, all of which was bound to generate the kind of indignant gossip among "moral people" that aroused the curiosity of what seemed to be the whole of Los Angeles. Just as in the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 when the dancers from the midway offended the sensibility of what was considered the "norm," the customers to the Greek Village came in droves to view the offender first-hand in order to more effectively pass judgement. The cash register rang from the profits of the protestors who stayed most of the night to watch Betty and make sure they saw what the gossip was all about. She never disappointed them.
It's interesting to follow the changes in the Greek Village as time went on. It wasn't until the club was sold that I finally had the chance to dance there.
Copyright © Jamila Salimpour
About the author: Jamila Salimpour began her performing career at the age of sixteen in Ringling Brothers Circus as an acrobatic dancer. She studied Middle Eastern music and dance, and in 1947 began appearing at cultural events and ethnic clubs in Los Angeles, and later in San Francisco, where she owned the Bagdad Cabaret. She began teaching in 1952, developing a unique method of verbal breakdown and terminology for her movements that most of us use today. She has trained innumerable teachers and performers from all over the world (including Shareen el Safy, Horacio Cifuentes, and John Compton), and produced week-long seminars and festivals, often co-teaching with her daughter, Suhaila Salimpour. In 1969 she created the tribal Bal Anat, performing and touring with the forty member troupe. Jamila has several personal works published including a “Finger Cymbal Manual”, a history of Middle Eastern dance “From Cave to Cult to Cabaret”, a photographic collection of Middle Eastern dancers at the Chicago World’s Faire, the Dance Format manual, and numerous articles.
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08-03-2011 09:42 AM #1
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The History of Belly Dance in the United States
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