Ridgefield show presents belly dancing’s full history in U.S.

Show, workshops, more featured at Ridgefield theater

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter



If you go

• What: The Story of Belly Dance in America, with workshops, fashion, videos, music and a show.

• Where: Old Liberty Theater, 115 N. Main Ave., Ridgefield.

• When: 7 p.m. Friday, March 8, fashion show and pre-party with film screening; 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday, March 9, Workshop: Vintage Turkish Cabaret; 2 to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 9, Workshop: The Vanished Steps; 3 to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 9, Workshop: Whirling Without Hurling; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 9, Belly Dance in America Show.

• Cost: $10 for Friday events, workshop prices vary, $20 for Saturday show.

• Info: Jenza.com/bellydanceinamerica

You might think the most skilled belly dancers in the world hail from countries like Egypt, Turkey and Syria, where the styles originated — but actually, they come from America, said the organizers of a special show this weekend in Ridgefield.

To fully understand why the United States became a nexus for belly dancing, you have to look back at the style’s history, said Suzanne McNeil and Ilia Wilken, who have organized a weekend of fashion, workshops and dance presentations called “The Story of Belly Dance in America” at the Old Liberty Theater.

“In the 1890s, there was an explosion of interest in the Middle East (from Americans),” McNeil said. “It was a very romanticized notion, with painters, stories, newspaper articles and ideas spreading across the country.”

The dance boom started in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition Midway in Chicago — essentially the 1893 World’s Fair — where three performers calling themselves “Little Egypt” put on a popular show and demonstration at the fair’s Egyptian Theater. The dances subsequently spread nationwide through a series of short flip-card films (or peep shows) put out by the American Multiscope Company.

Back then, at least one of the dances ended up being called the “Hoochee-Coochee” or “shimmy and shake,” because the term belly dancing hadn’t been invented yet.

The phrase “belly dancing” came into the English language soon after, though, as a translation for the French name of the phenomenon, “danse du ventre,” which means “dance of the belly.”

The dances — which are mostly free form and involve movement of the mid-section — hail back to tribal and social practices from individual countries in the Middle East. And even today in the Middle East, each country tends to have its own dance, style and music, McNeil and Wilken said.

By the early 1900s, belly dancing in the United States had been added to many traveling cabaret shows. But audiences here wanted more variety, so dancers learned as many styles as possible to please crowds and sell tickets.

And that added a complexity to dances in America that is not seen in Middle Eastern or European countries, McNeil and Wilken said.

“American cabaret (belly) dancers are the best in the world because the musicians come from all over the world, and no matter what they throw at you, you have to be able to dance to it,” Wilken said.

Wilken, who lives in Ridgefield, and McNeil, who lives in Los Angeles, met during the country’s second big belly dance boom. Both women worked in Hollywood through the ’70s and ’80s in what was called the golden age of Middle Eastern dance, they said.

“In Hollywood at that time, you had the really high-class supper clubs, with a stage and a whole lineup of acts, just like they did back in the 1940s and earlier, but with a Middle Eastern focus,” McNeil said. “We worked at some of those places, and it was really a blast. It was huge crowds, lots of people loved the music, loved the dancers, loved the singers.”

Some of the hip clubs in Hollywood at that time were The Fez, Ali Baba’s and Coco de Ville, which served a variety of Middle Eastern dishes and hosted Middle Eastern cabaret shows, she added.

“There was a great interest in Middle Eastern culture, dance and food at that time,” McNeil said.

The two will talk about their experiences during that era in their show, which will also feature 12 dancers performing several styles and the history of the dance from 1893 through 1979.

There was another subsequent belly dancing boom in the 1990s, but “there are so many more styles that came out of that boom that we’d be there for a few days if we wanted to go over them,” McNeil said.

The show came about when the two women, who hadn’t seen each other in years, got in contact on the Internet, they said.

“Ilia had moved up north, found the little town of her dreams and we had lost touch,” McNeil said. “But we talked last year and she said ‘why don’t you come up and do a show?’”

The idea originally started out as a series of workshops, but as the pair started talking, it turned into a larger show, they said.

“It’s going to be rock ’em sock ’em,” said Wilken, who will narrate the main Saturday night performance. “The dances will be from all over the world. The performers are fantastic. People will have a marvelous time.”

Sue Vorenberg: 360-735-4457; http://www.twitter.com/col_suevo; sue.vorenberg@columbian.com.