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  • Writer's pictureBadriyah

The Raqs Sharqi Museum Collections

The Raqs Sharqi Museum has three collections – Golden Era in Egypt, Pre-Golden Era in Egypt, and Western World & Bellydance. But what does that mean?

Pre-Golden Era in Egypt

This section covers items from the early 18th century to about 1910’ in Egypt. My oldest engraving is from 1737 (the print I own is probably from 19th century), while the physically oldest item from the collection is from 1776. If I get something older, the time period would expand :) But why set the edge around 1910’? Well, we do not have that many materials from 1920’ in Egypt, in general. Also, from 1930’, in my view, the ‘raqs sharqi’ style started to abruptly develop; therefore, I have set 1930’ as the beginning of Golden Era.

But please, do not be misunderstood. The first steps toward raqs sharqi style were set much before 1930’- already around 1890’, when establishments, such as cafés, cabarets, entertainment halls, and theatres started to mushroom in Cairo.

This set a new environment for dance – a stage, where dancers were hired to perform regular shows. This was a completely new development, because until then dancers performed exclusively in the context of social events, such as weddings, or mawalid.

In this category, you can find items related to the dancers performing mostly in Egypt. However, it does not mean that the dancers were exclusively Egyptians. Egypt was still part of the Ottoman Empire, so it is not uncommon, that dancers from Turkey, Morocco, or Syria were frequent between performers. Also, this category includes items from Western world, especially from World’s Expositions: the Chicago Fair 1893, or the Exposition Universelle in Paris 1889. During these world fairs, dance and music troupes from Egypt, Algeria and other countries, were hired to perform within the expositions.

The whole time period, from 18th century to 1910’ is extremely rich in history, but to make it easy and clear within the museum, I call the whole ‘Pre-Golden Era’. Visit the collection here.

Golden Era in Egypt

Let me explain, why I set the beginnings of Golden era in 1930’. There are several factors:

  • First, and easy, I have way more materials from 1930’ than 1920’.

  • Second – the development of raqs sharqi: Although raqs sharqi started to develop already from around 1890’, it experienced a huge development from 1930’ due to a new inclusion – a choreography. Although soloists were mostly improvising or had a ‘broad-view’ concept of their choreography, there was another, new, dance form, which needed choreography – chorus lines (we see them not only in the later movies but also from advertisements and photos from that time)*. Chorus lines consisted of dancers who performed mostly behind or around the soloist. From that moment, the dance elements had to be named and ‘cleaned’, so the whole group of dancers could demonstrate them in the same manner. Suddenly, the Egyptian dance was choreographed, step by step (at least for the chorus lines), including more traveling across the stage. Furthermore, the ‘bedlah’ style of dance costuming (two-piece costume) was fully absorbed into the raqs sharqi style.

  • Third – ‘Cairowood’ movies: From 1930’ onward, we see an explosion of dance scenes within Egyptian movies. Huge and spectacular dance/musical scenes developed, as the inspiration came from Hollywood movies. This set the dance into a new environment, and especially new media – another way how raqs sharqi style was spread between Egyptians.

Briefly, the combination of raqs sharqi development in cabarets, movies, and availability of materials, made me set the beginnings of Golden Era to 1930’. All right, but where does Golden era end? Shortly, without going much into detail, around 1970’. Please note, that although I try to collect as many items as I can, sometimes I have to make decisions if I buy an item from 1940’ or 1970’. Most of the time 1940’ wins, as, in my view, 1940’ was the peak of Golden Era.

This category also includes sources outside of Egypt, if they depict an Egyptian dancer. Visit the collection here.

*The fact that we don’t have that many sources from 1920’ doesn’t mean chorus lines within raqs sharqi didn’t exist before 1930’. They probably did, as Western theaters were common already in the late 19th century in Cairo, and probably influenced the Egyptian dance earlier.

Western World & Bellydance

This is a tricky category and needs a bit of explanation. Most of the dancers depicted in the items from this category were not bellydancers. First of all, they didn’t call themselves that way. The term ‘danse du ventre’ already existed, but usually referred to the dancers in Egypt, Algeria, etc. Most of the Western dancers called themselves ‘exotic dancers’, ‘Salome dancers’, ‘Hootchie Kootchie’, or ‘Little Egypts’. Yes, they were definitely inspired by the native dance of Egyptians, but not only that. It seems that the main drive for their dance was their own fantasy of Oriental world, including everything from African countries, to Indonesia, and back to ancient Greece. Orientalism and Salomania were a huge engine, which produced plenty of these ‘Oriental-fantasy’ dancers. All happening in the same time period as World Expositions, when the native dance, or let’s say ‘danse du ventre’ was for the first time performed by real Egyptian dancers to the broad Western audience.

Western dancers took ideas and developed them in their own fashion and fantasy. As a secondary product, Western dancers came up with a clear ‘bedlah’ type costume. Though, it is worth here to mention, that elements, such as a vest and a belt existed in Egyptian costuming already in the early 19th century. These costuming elements served as seeds, together with inspiration from India, ancient Rome, and probably Tahiti. Although the decorated bra and belt was shaped in 1900’ in the Western world, we cannot say that the creation of ‘bedlah’ was a purely Western invention.

We must not forget that in this Belle Époque, museums had their own boom, inspiring artists and scientists. That eclecticism, the practice of deriving ideas from a broad and diverse range of sources, was typical for that time – from fashion to architecture. We cannot be surprised if the ‘Salome/exotic’ dance costume (later known as ‘bedlah’) was derived from various ideas and inspirations from different cultures.

Furthermore, around the end of the 19th century, several patents on first ‘bra-like’ models for normal usage between Western women were licensed. And what do we dancers, in general, like to do? Put stones, glitters, or any kind of decoration onto various objects, and new inventions. As a recent example, did you notice those covid-19 face masks with stones and glitters made by bellydancers? Well, here you go :)

This topic is extremely broad and it deserves many more articles and research. There are interesting sources to be found, although many times looking only on a particular aspect, such as Belle Époque, Orientalism, Salomania, or lives of prominent figures, such as Maud Allan or Mata Hari. Hopefully, this collection will serve to future researchers and inspire some among you for your own research. Visit the collection here.

If you would like to support the Raqs Sharqi Museum, in searching for antique & vintage items, buying them, archiving them, preparing scans & translations, and publishing them online so everybody can see them for free, you can become museum's PATRON. Thank you for your help!

Recommended books:

  1. Before They Were Dancers by Kathleen W. Fraser - a great book about dancers in Egypt in the 18th and 19th century.

  2. Egyptian Bellydance in Transition by Heather D. Ward - a very important book, based on unique research, about the beginning of raqs sharqi style in Egypt.

  3. Trade Like Any Other by Karin Van Nieuwkerk - an in-depth book based on thesis research on Golden Era in Egypt of 'low class' dancers in smaller clubs & awaleem.


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