The dance of the almées - 1889 translation

Here is a translation of an article ‘The dance of almées’ from the journal L’Exposition de Paris from 1889. The cover page features an engraving of a dancer and musicians performing in Egyptian Café, on Cairo Street, within the exposition in Paris. From the article it is obvious, that the reporter was not very impressed by the famous ‘danse du ventre’ (belly dance). Most of his writing consists of quotation from the book ‘L'Orient, journal d'un peintre’, by George Rodier, who describes the dance he witnessed in Cairo during his visit in 1886. At the end of the article, the reporter mentions Ouled-Nail tribe; here I want to note that Algerian theatres were featured at world expositions as well, and the term ‘danse du ventre’ was connected with both Algerian and Egyptian dance (and other dances, such from Tunisia or Turkey). However, it seems that both G. Lenotre (author of the article) and G. Rodier (quoted author) described the dance from Egypt.




The dance of the almées

The East is fashionable and the craze of the visitors of the Exposition about the Algerian and Arabic theaters, where they can experience the Belly Dance, is delirious. Is there some meaning I have missed? I have to confess, I don’t share that same excitement, and if I am slow to give my impressions on this strange spectacle, it is because I was waiting to get some pleasure from it. Here is what it is: You are under a vast tent of oriental fabrics, enlightened by a few lamps of style - seconded by electric light globes. At the bottom, on a platform furnished with large cushions, stand the almées, and behind them, legs crossed in Turkish fashion, lay down the musicians of the orchestra. One of these girls gets up and steps forward, the cheers burst out. Covered in brightly colored wool and silk fabrics, she bows down, lengthens the arms as if to stretch out flabbily, then brings them closer to her head, making the finger cymbals in her hands to ring. Then begins a series of the most bizarre movements, and - let's admit - the least pleasant. The belly is restless with tremors, of repeated vibrations, the whole chest agitates and shivers, the head alone remains impassive... But listen instead to the description of almées given by M. G. Rodier, a young artist of merit, writer in his spare time, in the book on the Orient, which he has just published with his own illustrations:


"Their hairstyle is the same as that of certain dancers of antique paintings: their hair are separated into a thousand little braids, which are mixed with sequins. They are covered with large necklaces and countless jewels; they are always golden, it seems; they never wear fakes. Their little profits are immediately transformed into gems, they always wear their entire fortune on their shoulders. They are clothed with very large satin trailing dresses of the most conspicuous colors, with short waist, a bit like the dresses of the first Empire.


They begin with a slight swinging of the hips. They flee, greet, and brush against each other; they run after each other, maintaining always, even at the moment when their dance is the most inflamed, a surprising impassiveness of figure; they almost look like priestesses of a voluptuous goddess, solemnly performing religious rites. They end up with stamping the ground, turning around the three crouching musicians, who accompany them. One of them (almées) collapses, as if broken, on the lap of one of the spectators, appointing him with the end of a small cane, which she kept in her hand during the whole dance. Another almé executes, with prodigious swaying of the belly, a dance, while keeping on her head, all the time, an uncorked bottle, full of a mint liquor, of the most highly spiced taste.”


Another traveler reports that these dancers mostly belong to the Ouled-Nails tribe, and leave their families early to travel the world; when they earned their dowry, they return to the homeland, they make exquisite spouses and honorable family mothers. It is possible: but I doubt, however, that the various exercises of belly dancing follow a very effective preparation for the functions and duties of maternity.


G. Lenotre

Translation: Badriyah & Lou Pradas


Photography: Isabelle Hanneuse

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