Egyptian dancers who performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Credit: Unknown photographer via Wikicommons.
I’ve already shared a little about the Cairo Street attraction at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, but today I’d like to elaborate on the Egyptian women dancers, along with Egyptian men musicians, who were hired to perform in the fair’s Egyptian Theatre.
An important thing to know about these performers is that they weren’t ordinary Egyptians. They were people from a distinct tribe called the Ghawazee, and they lived on the fringes of even their own society.
These were families who supported themselves by performing at weddings, saints day festivals, and other celebrations, and within the Egyptian society, this wasn’t considered an honorable profession. These people — these performers — professed the Muslim faith and spoke the same language as the larger Egyptian society, but they occupied the lowest rungs of their country’s social hierarchy.
Also, the Ghawazee social rules were quite different, not only from the Americans but also those of Egypt at the time.
These women made their living as dancers, and, if they took a husband — and they weren’t required to — he might drum for her or play some other instrument to accompany her dancing. He was a subordinate part of the act and the family structure. The women were the breadwinners, which gave them the power in the household. They made the decisions, and this afforded them a level of independence that very few American women enjoyed at this time.
An Egyptian dancer who performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Credit: Unknown photographer via Wikicommons.
Another important thing to know about the Ghawazee is that in 1834, about 60 years before the fair, the government banished them from Cairo to Upper Egypt. Officially, it was in response to their practice of dancing without veils covering their faces and in a manner that wasn’t considered proper for a lady. But many have suggested it was primarily because these women simply didn’t follow the government’s rules, and in a male-dominated world like Egypt and most other countries at that time, that just wasn’t tolerated.
By the time the fair rolled around, these women were already outcasts in the own country, so I can’t imagine it surprised them when they faced more trouble in Chicago about the way they dressed, the way they danced, and basically the way they led their lives.
This is something that was written about their performances by a Mr. Hubert Howe Bancroft in “The Book of the Fair,” which published the same year as the fair.
“The dancing … is merely a series of writhing and contortions offensive to taste and disgusting to look upon.”
Strong words, but I think it’s fair to say they’re untrue.
If they were true, the Egyptian Theatre wouldn’t have been one of the fair’s biggest money-making exhibits, which it was. And, even more importantly, the legacy of what those ladies did upon that stage 120-plus years ago wouldn’t have captured the imagination of millions of men and women, and endured as a thriving art form even to this day.
It has been an amazing experience for me to research these women and to learn about them, and it was important to me to honor their legacy and share at least some of their story with readers.
In THE GIRL ON THE MIDWAY STAGE, I wanted to make the Egyptian dancers come alive for the reader and to share their unique story.
Thank you for spending some time with me and taking an interest in my work. If you’d like to see how all these influences come together, please check back tomorrow, when I post The Girl on the Midway Stage’s opening chapter.
In the meantime, check out my Inspiration board on Pinterest.
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THE GIRL ON THE MIDWAY STAGE is a lush historical novel rich with authentic period detail, discovery, and romance that will sweep you up in Dora’s struggle to understand herself, her quickly changing world, and her own unique journey to happiness.