Belly dancing, like almost everything else, has a history; and like so much else in recent centuries, it has been deeply influenced by contact with the West. The very term "belly dancing," translated from the French danse du ventre, only came into use a century ago. As early as 1834, Muhammad `Ali, the ruler of Egypt, banished female dancers (and prostitutes) from Cairo, in the vain effort to keep them out of sight of foreigners. Vain, because the women migrated to the south of Egypt, and so did their foreign admirers, making such towns as Esna, Luxor, and Aswan the centers of a racy night life. Until the 1920s, dancers wore simple clothes; the cabaret costume of "spangled bikini top, low-slung gauzy skirt with side slits, and bare midriff . . . owed its inspiration largely to Hollywood." In the late nineteenth century, a select few dancers made their fortune by travelling to Europe and the United States and performing at world exhibitions; most famously, Little Egypt (actually a Syrian) was the sensation of Chicago in 1893, in part because she on occasion would lift her skirt above her left knee. Little Egypt spawned many American imitators, who subsequently traveled East, bringing with them Western dance innovations. One renowned dancer reportedly performed for both Hitler and Mussolini. In recent years, the dreary hand of professionalization has fallen on the dancers; legally to dance for the public in Egypt, a woman must have a degree in dancing from a dancing school.
Van Nieuwkerk concentrates on the sociology of the female entertainers; Buonaventura provides the pictures that make the academic analysis come to life. In all, a pair of fascinating books on a delightful topic.