BEAUTIFUL, SEXY, SILLY, SAVVY: Unearthing Missing Black Muses & Founders
Updated: Mar 17
Toward the end of Black History Month, when I became inspired to write this post, I had sooooo hoped to complete it in the week I had left, because--whoooah, me?! Actually hitting a societal marker? But no, these topics are too important to half-ass, and I kept tumbling deeper and deeper down this rabbit hole. It's so huge that I keep having to cull topics and only scratch surfaces.
Ultimately, it's better that I missed that deadline. Kinda like my beef with reserving all our romantic demonstration for that one annoying day in February. For several decades, I have chosen to boycott Valentine's Day. Instead, I celebrate Anti-Valentine's Day on February 13. Sometimes on the 15th. Occasionally on the 14th just to be a contrary little shit. It's super cool. It's a 365-day holiday, all about love and kindness and affection and... I know. What a concept.
That's probably why The Monthly Focuses aggravate me and I almost never play. "Oooooh, shweet! I did my part. I thought about Black people for a whole month! I'm awesome! Now I can move on to..."
I am glad the honoring and celebrations are there. I am glad the reminders are there. I am hacked off that we need to make special reminders and apologetic hat-tips of "so sorry for the centuries/millennia of devaluing and abuse."
But we do need it.
So since we're coming out of Black History Month into Women's History, I'm going to deviate from my chronological timeline of dance Muses, and open this next segment with my newest dancer crush who should have been one all along. This illustrious performer had immense influence on the styles I've inherited, but I've only just discovered her. Why? I doubt it was because she danced topless in a banana skirt. If I had been exposed to this woman's dancing in the past, that's probably all I would have known about her.
In contrast, I've heard the name Mata Hari since I was a kid. (19) These two women had many things in common. They were both exotic dancers in Paris and spies in a World War. Mata Hari wasn't as successful in either role, but she's the one I've heard tons about, read books about, seen movies and documentaries about for decades.
I have no doubt that my belated clue has to do with my upbringing and education in predominantly white communities (18), and my boycott (for...reasons) of the Vintage and Roaring 20s wave that struck the fusion belly dance world shortly before 2010. (16) The dancers who participated in those fun escapades probably know all about Josephine Baker.
But my study of dances like the Charleston took place in the 90s, way before YouTube, even before Google when I only had dial-up email, in cultures dominated by that "quintessential look" of the 1940s-50s white kids. Back then, nobody I learned from was talking about the controversial roots of these dance forms. They only talked technique and tricks.
As such, there is no doubt in my mind that the diminishing of Josephine Baker's importance in my dance education had a lot to do with the fact that she was Black, bisexual, interracially married at a time when Americans "just didn't do that", and a sexually liberated female ex-pat who broke through an iron ceiling.
The HIStorical repression, denigration, and shaming of women's sexuality is a topic we will come back to over and over on this blog. (10, 11) The particular slants that it's taken regarding African-American and other Black women in the US is something greatly on my mind these days.
So let's kick off these topics by hearing from some individuals who know way more about this subject than I do:
Perhaps the name Josephine Baker was mentioned in my university Dance History course. If so, she was probably listed among "many other" famous entertainers in (that dastardly scene we Twue Dancers only talk about through the corners of our mouths while squirming and moving swiftly along:) Parisian vaudeville, although her name is pretty much synonymous with that scene. (1, 2, 19)
Alas, in the United States--the country of her birth--her reception was quite different. This was the early 20th Century, so even when she was invited to star in a Broadway revue after making a huge success in France, she couldn't even sit down in a restaurant and order a flippin' cup of coffee.
But this was a revolutionary era and she was one of its movers and shakers. In performance dance, the rebellion to expand beyond the rigid code of ballet took two main tracks. The first was the classical track which opened the way for such forms as Modern, Free Dance, and Expressionism--definitely my dance great-great-grandmothers on one side. (17, 19)
The other side of my inheritance revolves around the entertainment industry of the music hall, circus, vaudeville, and burlesque. Not only have I personally gravitated toward the humor, characters, and showstopper dramatics of this scene because it fits the Entertainer aspect of my personality, but belly dance in the United States got its start on those types of stages, rather than classical stages and theaters designed for so-called "real art." (3)
For many years, that was my dance mission: to raise awareness and appreciation of my chosen dance forms up from the gutters of "only a little folk dance" and "what icky sluts do." But my dance lineage is rather like that rebellious, self-made New Money infiltrator marrying the ribald saloon dancer. And let me tell you, theirs is a pure love-match that refuses to be parted in spite of being disowned and exiled for it. Then the dastardly duo decided to become openly polyamorous with martial arts.
As such, twelve hells broke loose.
"Dance with your body, not with your face, Izzy!"
In the first half of the 20th Century, while belly dancers in British-occupied Egypt were filtering in ballet and choreography, and bringing their performances to the stage, nightclubs, and cinema in costumes more appealing to the "Western eye," (3) audiences in the United States and Europe were thirsting for the "Exotic East" and the "Erotic Savage."
We'll be diving into all sorts of Orientalism in future segments. (5-6) These issues and their black-skinned variants still cause problems to this day. As such, along with all the sexy & silly, we'll be making frequent descents, because they exist hand-in-hand: the awesome, fun, gorgeous art and entertainment...and its ugly undercarriage that too often gets swept under the rug.
For example, Black erotification--specifically the hypersexualization of Black women--has a version of nastiness particular to the United States. Did you know that once upon a time, it was propagated by the American judicial system that "the Black female was unrapeable"? They didn't prosecute interracial rape either. Highly convenient for slave owners if it was "impossible" to commit this felony upon her because she was, "by her very nature, so licentious" and "always wants it".
For a long time, I didn't know that. Now we do.
That doesn't mean the stigma has--POOF--disappeared. (7-9)
With that in mind, there is pain in my heart as we dive into this type of covetous dehumanization that has been thrust upon the stage and slathered in glitter for entertainment purposes. It's called the "Jezebel" stereotype, and my Muse today was one of its icons. All too often, being pigeonholed into this single-dimensional portrayal is one of the only ways a Black woman could even be an entertainer anywhere outside of segregated stages for "her own kind." (The other roles are the "sweet ole Mammy" or eventually the "raging, roaring Sapphire".) (8)
Simultaneously, we get the opposite types of abuse in erasure.
Therefore, today I want to tip my top hat to a population that gets sorely overlooked in their contribution to what belly dance became in the US. You can't study this aspect of dance history without acknowledging the influence of vaudeville, burlesque, and the faire/circus scenes on both the American Cabaret styles that I learned, and the Renaissance Faire legends who would give birth to the many Tribal Belly Dance styles that came out of California. (3, 4, 12, 17, 19)
You also can't study Modern and Jazz Dance history without acknowledging those same roots. As we've previously covered, both those dance forms carve swaths of influence upon American belly dance, from the wing, skirt, and veil dance inheritances of artists like Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan, through the Orientalists like Ruth St. Denis and Maud Allen, to the footwork, isolations, shimmies and pizzaz of Jazz. (4, 17, 19)
Finally, you can't study Vaudeville and Jazz without acknowledging the descendants of African slaves in the United States. (12, 14, 19)
Oh, wait. What am I saying?
Of course you can. We've been doing that for more than a century.
Which is why, when I went hunting for the earliest ways in which I filled in the gaps left by the belly dance instruction I was missing--specifically while researching the cross-pollination between flappers, vaudeville, and belly dancing--I found myself tumbling down a rabbit hole that ended up where it always ends up: Orientalism, Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, exotification, erotification, appropriation, the Big White Weenie, and we white dancers.
My journey started here:
Did you see that? It was right there, amidst all those flying legs, flapping knees, and hot-hot-feet. Just a little flash here and a little flash there, but that's what I was looking for. The Flapper Fringe Addiction. In other words, the quintessential cross-pollination dance: THE SHIMMY.
"A dance so naughty it had to be banned!"
In my video search, the Shimmy led me to this fringe-licious, booty-shaking number by Mildred Melrose:
As I was watching, I got to musing. Once Miss Melrose had finished, I got to scrolling. And scrolling and scrolling and scrolling fruitlessly. Because seeing the name of this dance--the Black Bottom--paired with the words "real" and "original" had raised my Spockly eyebrow. After all, this chick is as pasty as my peachy-white bottom. With all the booty shaking and cheeky bum-slappery, combined with the segregation and erasure practices of the era in question, I wondered if the name referenced literal Black bottoms, some other reference I didn't know, or a coincidental hue in the crayon box.
As it turns out, it comes from a song by Jelly Roll Morton referencing an area of Detroit. (19)
But it is originally an African-American dance that later became a mainstream craze that even overtook the Charleston and appeared in Hollywood movies. The Charleston itself has a similar history. So does the Lindy Hop. Wouldn't you know it, so does the Shimmy. Because all those flappers didn't only start shaking their stuff after watching Little Egypt and her descendants from the 1893 Chicago World Expo. (3, 17, 19)
Although many of my belly dance teachers mentioned people like Loie Fuller, Ruth St. Denis, and Isadora Duncan as having contributed to the divergent ways Americans forwarded belly dancing on this side of the pond, not one of them ever mentioned this type of American soil inheritance in a belly dancer's bread & butter, the Almighty Shimmy.
But in the US, other people were shakin' it besides the Hoochie-Coochie belly dancers from the "Exotic East." Turns out that, yes indeedy, our shimmy does have a double inheritance. We also learned it from...you know..."ahem, those people we don't like to call 'Artistic Founders'" whose ancestors were yoinked against their will from a little further south in the same continent as Egypt. (12)
The Puritan-hangover, turn-of-the-20th-century era had voracious needs. The ones who shed their corsets and raised their hemlines (16) were wrestling with many damaging restrictions to human expression that still plague us to this day. World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 had demonstrated just how short and precarious life could be. They needed to shake--it's a biological response to stress, not limited to humans. (13) They needed to move and stretch and breathe and jump in so many ways they "weren't supposed to do"--not in ballet, not in the waltz, certainly not off the dance floor. They needed the rights to learn and grow and speak and work. They needed mobility and the freedom to choose their own path. They needed to express their luscious, sexual cores without shame, fear, or loathing.
They also needed to acknowledge and treat with celebratory gratitude those shunned, segregated, oppressed members of their ranks who had the solutions they so desperately needed and took advantage of: the healing power of dance and music.
Unfortunately, some European guys had decided to classify their scientific discoveries according to "race" and divvied humans up by skin hue. Some other people who wanted free labor and land so they could cash in on AllTheCrops and acquire AllTheMoney wielded those findings as weapons to continue that ancient fallacy: Dark = Bad, Light = Good. Because if individuals are "inferior"? Well, sheeeee-it. Weren't they born for our exploitation, just like all the other animals, plants and resources of this planet? No harm, no foul, right? (Have no clue what I'm talking about? Please. Do. Your own. Research.)
So alas, even though American slavery was technically no more in the Roaring 20s, there was still the way things actually functioned. Beyond lynchings and segregation signs, there were things like the unofficial "two-colored rule" whereby Black artists could not appear onstage alone. (15)
Therefore, it is no surprise that this is the closest I could find to any Black dancers of the period doing the Black Bottom (and oh, how the racist snark abounds):
Alas, I couldn't find any original footage for the Mess Around either. But check out this Charleston move!
Look just a little familiar? This is a move I was taught as a standard of belly dancing, only with a closer stance. Sometimes the emphasis is on the heel drop, and sometimes it has heavy pelvic drops with it. Yet this is not a move that dominates Egyptian silver screen belly dancing. So did we get it from other influences like Turkish Oryantale or Egyptian folkloric? Or was this another add-in from our local dances? Perhaps both like the Shimmy? I'm curious now.
But that's a Scheherazadean topic for another time.
Back to 1930s Harlem. The clip below shows a few more Black dancers, but the ratio is still glaringly disproportionate (ahem, especially in the Cotton Club seating). (19)
For today's cross-pollination hunt, I am most interested in the second dance clip, around six minutes in. The twists, the hip circles and bumps, the scarves, and that little foot flick reminiscent of the one I learned in Egyptian cane dance. Seeing things like this always makes me curious if they come from a dance out of context, a fusion of styles, or if they were developed in different places of the world like scientific discoveries that simultaneously occur continents apart.
I soooo wish I knew how they introduced this number and what music they're dancing to.
Here we go! Here we can see some of our original Black shimmy-shakers in this Harlem Renaissance number. (14)
So no shit, there I was, making my eyes bleed as I collected all this black-and-white footage when I stumbled upon my newest dance Muse, the performer who inspired this entire post and the next one. She is a rare example in the mainstream arts and entertainment of the 1920s: a Black, female soloist. Know why I was able to find a boatload of footage of her?
Because this is the legendary Josephine Baker, and she had gotten out of the United States of Jim Crow--she was in Paris when she made it big.
Now, true, I've known her name, but mostly as a singer, which is what her later career revolved around. Seeing her dance this way in her early days...
That smile. The humor. The immense personality. All that goofy vaudeville play wrapped around fabulous dancing in the form of a sexy, gorgeous woman...
All I could think was--holy banana-skirts, I'm looking at one of my great-great-dance-grandmothers, and someone who should have been an inspiration to me for all these years.
My acting exploits had always slanted toward musical theater. While it's true that, as the years passed, I grew into my sacredly sensual side and later allowed myself to express the darker and more painful tales of my heart through dance, my first love since I was very young was melodramatic, over-the-top, comedic shtick. Extra bonus if it could be done through dancing and singing.
Later, once I hit puberty and especially after I left my parents' house, I began looking for ways that females could be powerful and smart, plus feminine and sexy. Hence, why I tried belly dancing when I was nineteen. It really would have made my day to have seen dancers before me proving that I could throw goofy in there, too.
So upon seeing that Charleston clip, I HAD to know who this glorious woman was as a dancer. In a documentary about her, The First Black Superstar (1), Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, Author of The Black Dancing Body, described Josephine Baker as "beautiful, sexy, silly, and savvy all at the same time.”
As I was about to discover, La Baker was so much more...
HERE ARE A FEW MORE LINKS TO GET YOU STARTED IF YOU WANT TO BRANCH FURTHER DOWN THESE RABBIT HOLES:
1) The First Black Superstar - documentary on Josephine Baker
4) The Salimpour Legacy that branched in both the American Cabaret and Tribal Belly Dance directions, and which has roots in both the circus/faire scene and in classical Western training like Ballet and Jazz Dance, as well as Tap and Boogaloo. (much more on this topic soon)
--Black Women's Sexuality: Dance & Sex, Shame & Celebration, Sexual Ignorance & Self-Love, Religion & Respect, Owning Power & the Abuse of It. Good advice no matter who you are.
10) When God Was a Girl - a documentary about the repression of ancient goddess-worship, the systematic obliteration of its history (HERstory), and the impact that these religious changes had on women's sexuality.
I kept hoping there was a segment that covered boys in big boats with Bibles, and the cultures of the Pacific, the Americas, and the rest of Africa beyond the northern coast. Alas, not in this series. It doesn't cover much past the "dark ages." Trying to squeeze this entire topic into three hours? Yeah, it's a quick and cherry-picked overview. But if this is a new concept, even Part 1 should get you started. This issue is directly related to the other one we're talking about today: Dark = Bad; Light = Good.
11) Are you a word-nerd like I am? Do a search for this article that I can't link to because it only pops up from Google as a PDF: "Shedding Light on Denigration: Its Etymology and Uses" by Kaitlin Anne O'Neill. Think about that for a second..."de-NIGRA-tion." So when I use that word here, I mean it quite literally as well as semantically.
12) The Shimmy: long before the Harlem Shake
13) Shake It Off, Shake It Off - Why human bodies need to shake for their health & sanity
15) A dance legend who broke through the "two-color rule" and pushed the bounds of racism further toward the bottomless cliff that it needs to be booted off, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
16) History of the Flapper - a call for freedom
17) My previous posts about the influence that Ballet, Modern & Jazz dancers, including Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller, had upon me can be found in the Making of Bella & the Beast section of my DANCE Table of Contents
18) The birthplace of my dancing, where even my pasty bottom wasn't white enough and where they fed us the Kool-Aid of, "All that race-stuff was handled back in the 60s."
19) The Wikis to scratch surfaces:
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: CHAIN BREAKER, TREND MAKER, MIND WAKER: Falling in Love With La Baker
--OR if you missed my series about the Great "White Belly Dancer" War of 2014, that adventure starts HERE as I was recovering from the seizures that rendered me incapable of joining in that conversation back when it exploded.