Fahreda Mazar Spyropoulos, aka “Fatima” and later “Little Egypt,” was born in Syria in 1871. She first performed in the United States at age 10 at a saloon called the Bird Cage Theatre in Tombstone, Arizona, but she didn’t rise to public attention until 12 years later, at her performance at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. Though not of Egyptian or Algerian descent, Spyropoulos appeared in the Exposition at the “Egyptian Temple” attraction in a show called “The Algerian Dancers of Morocco.” In complete defiance of standard women’s dress of the period (full skirts, corsets, hair-covering hats…) Spyropoulos appeared on stage in a gauze shirt, vest, and an ankle-length skirt. She then proceeded to move in a way the American public had never seen before – inching her legs very slightly side-to-side and undulating her arms and torso – a dance labeled the “hoochie-coochie” or “danse du ventre” by critics of the day, better known today as the “belly dance.” Her performance was reputed to have been the only attraction at the Columbian Exhibition to garner more money than the Ferris wheel, and after the Exhibition closed, Spyropoulos and her “exotic dancing” became a regular attraction in the “Streets of Cairo” section at Coney Island in New York City.
Though well received by the American public, Spryopoulos’s performance sparked heavy controversy among critics. Anthony Comstock, a government inspector dedicated to the ideals of “Victorian Morality,” deemed the dance “indecent” and demanded that Spyropoulos’s exhibition at Chicago Fair be shut down. In protest, women’s’ rights advocate Ida Craddock wrote a four-page letter (later published in the Sunday edition of New York World) to the president of the Fair’s board, arguing that the dance was not indecent, but rather, its opposite: “a religious memorial inculcating purity and self-control.” Craddock labeled the performance nothing more than a “public dance,” and that public dance, or “prolonged pleasure” goes hand-in-hand with “sexual self-control and spiritual bliss…if husbands and wives engaged in such self-control,” she wrote, “it would end the horrors of accidental or forced maternity, without violating the natural law.” Craddock then advocated that because the “dance du ventre” promoted such valuable marital ideals, it should not only be allowed continue at the Chicago Fair, but also toured across the country. The Fair’s board received Craddock’s letter, and though they remained publicly critical of Spyropoulos’s act, they allowed her to continue dancing – the show was simply too popular for them to allow it to close.
The immense popularity of Fahreda’s belly dance at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago brought about an increasing public demand for this form of “exotic” entertainment. The “hoochie-coochie” dance soon became a standard attraction at carnival sideshows, and many burlesque shows adopted the “cooch dance” into their sets.
Much to her later disgust, however, Spyropoulos was unable to control how her style of dance evolved beyond her own lifetime. The dancer inspired dozens of imitators, all of who went by the stage name “Little Egypt,” and billed themselves as indistinguishable from the original. Their dances, however, were far more revealing than Fahreda’s dance at the 1893 Chicago Fair. These imitators were commonly arrested for appearing nude in public, and over the years, their dances became so provocative that the term “exotic dancing” started to become colloquially synonymous with sexual availability. By the 1910s, Fahreda’s “danse du ventre” had transformed into the substantially nude “Oriental Dance,” and after WWI, the “Oriental Dance” had evolved into today’s “bump and grind” – a dance that doesn’t just involve movement of the hips, but a quick thrust of the abdomen and rotation of the hips– a visual picture that suggested sex in a bolder way than it had ever been represented on stage before. In 1936, Fahreda went so far as to sue the Metro Goldwyn Mayer movie Company for portraying “Little Egypt” in the film The Great Ziegfield as a costumed Oriental dancer with a naked midriff – a costume she never wore, claiming the movie had slandered her reputation and carefully crafted stage persona. Ultimately, however, Spyropoulos lost the suit, and her name “Little Egypt” went on to adopt a lewd sexual connotation that she never warranted or desired.
Overall, Fahreda Mazar Spyropoulos is responsible for introducing the “belly dance” to American audiences, and sexualizing the identity of the “Arabian” and “Oriental” “other.” Though her “hoochie-coochie” dance in it of itself was far less provocative than the variations adopted by later generations of performers, her dance at the Chicago Fair nonetheless set a precedent for the market of the “foreign other,” commercializing the value of exotic culture, and displaying fetishized visions of that culture on the burlesque stage.
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