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Gilded Serpent presents...
Cabaret: Is it a dirty word?
by Piper Reid Hunt, PhD.

I grew up surrounded by "cabaret" style belly dancers.

Webster's defines cabaret as either a restaurant providing entertainment, or a floorshow provided by a restaurant or nightclub.

Nowadays, many belly dancers in the U.S. do not like to use the word cabaret because in Egypt, small establishments that we might call dives have taken to calling themselves cabarets, while larger, more expensive, supposedly higher class places call themselves nightclubs.

Back when my mom (Rhea) started dancing on Broadway in San Francisco in the '60s, Arabic clubs with live bands and belly dancers were called cabarets. The cabarets usually had several dancers who did half hour sets back-to-back, and the stage took up a good portion of the floor space. There was a lot of cross-pollination among dancers back then, with Americans sharing dressing rooms with performers from the Middle East, and dancers sneaking in the backdoors of neighboring clubs on their break to catch each other's shows.

Relative to today, there were lots of places to perform, but dancers had to be special in some way to get a job. Baby dancers with promise got to dance on weeknights, and experienced dancers performed on the weekends.

 Any new step or trick that could move a novice dancer closer to the coveted weekend slots was eagerly copied or adapted, regardless of its country of origin!

Musicians played favorite songs from the home countries of the biggest tipping customers, and the dancers had to learn to dance to those songs, be they Saudi, Turkish, Syrian or Moroccan. This is how "American Cabaret," a combination of North African and Middle Eastern dance styles with a dash of American sensibility thrown in, came to life. As the belly dance club scene died and the seminar circuit began to take off in the late '70s and early '80s, specific ethnic dance styles became popular, and American Cabaret fell out of favor.

Being a mere entertainer, a performer, became déclassé, and instead, it became fashionable and respectable to be a "dance ethnographer", a conduit for the art of another culture.

Currently, dancers are becoming interested in fusion again, and decade encompassing the late '60 and early '70s is sometimes called "the golden age of belly dancing" in the U.S. I don't think that it is an accident that, just as attitudes in the dance community are coming full circle, suddenly belly dancing is having another upsurge in popularity among the general public in America. Don't get me wrong! I think that dance scholarship is very important, but it is equally important to remember the spirit in which specific dances were originally done. Dances that were made up by ordinary people utilizing contemporary music with the intention of pleasing an audience (or just to have fun) are what we now consider to be ethnic or folkloric; just like everyone else, whoever made up those dances wanted to wear the latest, coolest fashions available to them, not some politically correct costume.

Whether it is done as a prayer, as a meditation, or as an expression of inner joy to be shared with others like a gift, dance isn't supposed to be locked up in a museum, static, immutable.

American Cabaret, the original fusion belly dance, is accessible and fun for everyone, regardless of one's dance education. Additionally, with today's more solid foundation of knowledge in the U.S. about individual "pure" ethnic dances, fusion becomes that much more rich and varied, allowing dancers to be that much more informed, powerful, and creative!

 So: Go fusion; go CABARET!


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