I mentioned the Egyptian dancers yesterday, and before I say anymore about them, I’d like to give you some context because at this time in our country’s history, American women dressed very differently than they do today.
They were expected to wear corsets and floor-length dresses. Skin was to be covered, and to allow a man to see even one’s ankle was to invite scandal. So, you can imagine what Americans must have thought when they saw the Egyptian dancers.
Although their costumes were downright modest compared with the costumes we associate with belly dancers today, the attire was scandalous in 1893.
At this time, America was still very much anchored in the Victorian Age. As you can imagine, polite society was shocked that these foreign women didn’t wear corsets, that their skirts rose above their ankles, and that you could see much of their natural form.
By contrast, proper Western women were expected to wear clothing that obscured nearly every inch of their natural form. The “proper” silhouette was something along the lines of a full, floor-length skirt, a minuscule waist (wrestled into shape by a corset, of course), maybe a bustle, and big, poofy, exaggerated sleeves.
While this American idea of fashion was extremely modest, it was quite an unnatural shape, if you think about it. But anyway, that was the expectation of the time.
So, when the Egyptian dancers appeared in their ankle-baring skirts and their tiny vests over thin little blouses and no corsets, that alone was enough to cause a great deal of outrage among the locals.
Add to that the dance itself, with its shoulder shakes and hip wiggles, the hip drops and rotations, the undulation and jiggles — all these vigorous, earthy movements — and it was simply too much for most citizens to bear.
Many people considered it downright vulgar, and you can imagine the public outcry that followed.
Complaints were lodged with the fair’s authorities, and the local newspapers were filled with letters to the editor calling for these dancing entertainments to be shut down.
And the criticism was pretty widespread – it came from regular folks, as well as the religious and civic leaders of the day.
The Board of Lady Managers, the fair’s women’s auxiliary group that is an important part of my novel, also opposed the performances and tried to ban them, but it’s worth noting that the board’s leader, Bertha Palmer, who was a very powerful woman in Chicago’s social circles (largely because she was the wife of Potter Palmer, one of the most powerful businessmen in Chicago), was quoted in the Chicago Daily News as wanting to work with the dancers, and not simply shun them.
This is her quote from that newspaper:
“In some ways they [the foreign dancers] are ignorant and I think we owe it to our cause that we visit these women and invite them … and spend time and money on teaching them our ways and manners.”
Those were her words and that was also the mind-set I borrowed to open the door for the heroine in my novel to get close to the dancers. It becomes the basis of her relationship with them.
I was also interested in exploring the lives of the Egyptian dancers. As a fan of belly dance and as someone deeply interested in its history, I wondered what could have happened if these women really had taken the time to get to know the Egyptian dancers.
I believe the American women would have discovered that the dancers had at least as much to teach, as they did to learn.
I’ll share more about that tomorrow 🙂
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