Right now, there is a crisis in American belly dancing; in fact, there are several. Spend a little time with any belly dancer and the conversation will eventually turn to controversy.
Highest on the list is the question of cultural appropriation and whether Americans—particularly white Americans—should perform this Middle Eastern dance form. The topic first hit the cultural mainstream in 2014 when the Palestinian-American writer Randa Jarrar published the provocative article “Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers.” Contributing to a series of essays by feminists of color curated by Roxane Gay for Salon, Jarrar did not hold back. She argued that white dancers were guilty of putting on “Arab Face” as they adopted fantasy (often completely meaningless) Middle Eastern stage names, dressed in exaggerated “Arab”-style clothes—diaphanous fabrics studded with glitter and gold—and paraded her culture onstage as entertainment.
The American belly dancing world reacted quickly. Some were angry, some were defensive, others were worried about the ethical implications of their craft. It hurt many to hear their life’s passion called racist. By some interpretations, Jarrar was telling all white belly dancers to quit: “Find another form of self-expression,” she writes in the article. “Make sure you’re not appropriating someone else’s.” (Though in its full context, this quote may not have been directed to every single white dancer.)
Soon, several large national publications picked up the story. In 2014, cultural appropriation was just starting to become a talking point, and Jarrar’s article became emblematic of much more as responses to it appeared in the Washington Post, the Atlantic and the Los Angeles Times. All of them attacked Jarrar’s premise and celebrated the benefits of cultural exchange—Korean tacos, Jews playing Christian music, Yo-Yo Ma, etc. In the darker recesses of the internet, Jarrar was called fat, stupid, and racist (and that’s only what people said on public forums). There was so much ire that Jarrar wrote a follow-up, “I Still Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers,” in which she held firm. Belly dancing unwittingly found itself at the center of a national debate.
There have been other kinds of controversies beyond cultural appropriation. In the fall of 2019, a Russian dancer posted a video of herself on Instagram with dark coloring on her face, and a comment saying she had always wanted to be a Black woman. In recent years, social media gave belly dancing an increasingly international audience and it did not take long for dancers of color in America to see this post. Their responses were unequivocal: this was blackface and it was racist. Although the original poster removed the post and apologized, not everyone in the dance community was satisfied. The issue snowballed, and before long, other incidents of blackface in the belly dancing world were uncovered. It was clear that this problem would not just disappear.
In 2020, belly dancing began a reckoning. First, COVID shut down live shows. That summer, America rose up in protest after the murder of George Floyd. Gradually, lists of names started to appear on Facebook, posted by belly dancers concerned about problematic people in the community. In June 2020, someone outed promoters and festivals that continued to support the Russian dancer who had posted the blackface video the previous year. A few months later, a longer list appeared naming several dancers who were accused of a variety of racist affronts, including but not limited to blackface.
Through the fall of 2020 and into 2021, these lists took on a life of their own. Rumors circulated that an 11-page blacklist of problematic belly dancers existed, one that included a variety of accusations, from supporting Trump, to denying COVID, to attacking the Black Lives Matter movement. Some dancers pushed back against the lists, calling them defamatory and potentially illegal, while a few worried that it was turning into a witch hunt. In spring 2021, as if there were not enough lists, a blacklist of blacklisters appeared with the names of people who had actively or passively participated in the creation of a blacklist. It was starting to get ridiculous.
In the midst of this chaos, a group of belly dancers of color decided that something had to be done. They launched a “call to action” that would address the many issues facing their community, from racism to cultural appropriation, in a more comprehensive way. In June 2020, they started an open online forum in which dancers of color could share their experiences, such as being denied gigs because of their race, being belittled or ignored because they did not fit people’s preconceptions about what a belly dancer should look like, and more.
One of the major forces behind the movement was Valerie Poppel, a clinical sexologist who runs the Jewels of The Orient festival in Delaware and who dances under the name Nefertiti. She explained to me that their movement “was designed to give those that are in the marginalized communities a chance to be heard regarding the discrimination and racial bias that they had encountered in the art of belly dance.” They developed a list of action points that would help the movement advance, such as supporting BIPOC venues and performers, refusing to dance at events with racist themes, and learning more deeply about Middle Eastern culture. In June 2021, they organized another community event to air some of the issues that had arisen over the past year and to find ways to move forward.
Some have assumed that there is a connection between this “call to action” and the so-called blacklists. When I asked Poppel about it, she said she knew of the existence of two different lists but, as far as she knew, they were made by two white women with no direct affiliation to the call to action. She added, “I'm a black woman in America, I don't need to write down where I’m safe and where I'm not safe. I know it … you can quote me on that.”
From the outside, it might look like the belly dancing world is on the verge of implosion. But throughout its almost 150-year history in America, belly dance had gone through multiple scandals and controversies. Dancers have always questioned who should be dancing and how they should do it. The seeds of these current controversies were planted long ago. To understand the uncertain future of the art form in America, we need to look to the past.
Belly dancing in the US was born in sin, or so most people agree. It first exploded into the public consciousness after the 1893 Chicago World’s Exposition, one among many stereotyped displays of other cultures. Performers from the Middle East or North Africa went on stage in “oriental theaters” in acts carefully marketed to titillate American audiences fascinated by myths of the “sensuous East.” These were more like sexualized freak shows than a genuine attempt at cultural exchange.
Many Americans were scandalized by these performances. One group of women involved in the Exposition’s administration was so taken aback that they demanded the whole show be stopped: “Can you endure the thought that your sons and your daughters should witness such spectacles?” After debuting at the Chicago Exposition, belly dancing shows toured the country, attracting approbation wherever they went. By the end of 1893 they had come to New York City, where three Algerian dancers were arrested for “immoral conduct” after a show in the newly-built Grand Central Palace in Midtown Manhattan. Their trial was extensively covered in the press, as was their so-called “exhibition of barbarian indecency.”
The nascent Arab-American community worried about the growing notoriety of belly dance among white Americans. As recent immigrants, Arabs were conscious of what was being said about them and had no desire to be portrayed as over-sexed deviants. Arabic-language press in New York largely disavowed the displays. If anyone was to blame, some said, it was lustful American audiences. One writer claimed to have interviewed one of the belly dancers, who told him she was only giving attendees what they wanted; people in Chicago clapped only when she ramped up the sexuality in her performance to a ridiculous degree.
For the rest of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, belly dancing became a carnival sideshow entertainment largely marketed to a white audience. Ask just about any American belly dancer about these shows and they will likely react with embarrassment or an eye roll. You will get the same response if you mention the next phase of belly dancing in America: the 1920s and 1930s Hollywood films with their stereotype of a seductive belly dancer at a desert camp or in a harem.
These shows were extremely popular and have undoubtedly left their mark on American society. But the belly dancing we see in America today has roots in the smaller music and dance scene that thrived in Middle Eastern immigrant communities, far away from the gaze of white America. By the mid-twentieth century, many places with significant Middle Eastern populations—Boston, New York, and elsewhere—put on popular entertainment nights, first in hired halls and restaurants, and later, gradually, in designated nightclubs. In 1940s New York, for instance, the Turkish-Jewish immigrant Jo Levy ran a small Turkish bar and nightclub on the Lower East Side.
By the 1950s, this world was expanding rapidly. Many more nightclubs opened across Boston, Detroit, and New York. Celebrities began to emerge from this scene, including dancers like Najla Ates, Amira Amir, Lorraine Shalhoub, and the charismatic Princess Yasmina, who was arrested in 1959 when, after a night of heavy drinking in a hotel room, she accidently shot an off-duty officer from the morals squad with his own gun.
Then, in 1960, white America rediscovered belly dancing. There is a tidy explanation for this (maybe a little too tidy). In that year, the Greek film Never on Sunday, which featured several raucous scenes in the dance bars of Piraeus, became a surprise hit. Americans began to look for places where they could experience a slice of the film’s atmosphere. New York audiences headed to the Greek clubs on Eighth Avenue concentrated between Twenty-seventh and Thirtieth Streets. When they arrived, they found something completely different. They were called “Greek clubs,” but the music and performers came from all over the Middle East—Turkey, Armenia, Egypt, Albania, Syria, Lebanon.
Hence it was by accident that white Americans started to experience Middle Eastern dance and music on its own terms. Those who liked what they saw kept coming. The clubs thrived; many more opened. Belly dancing was back. In December 1960, Variety published a front-page article about New York’s “Casbah on the Subway,” reporting that this was “becoming one of the faster growing forms of nightclubbing.” The author counted at least twelve clubs on the small stretch of Eighth Avenue above Twentieth Street.
One dancer still survives from that this golden age. Her stage name is “Morocco” and she has spent the past six decades immersed in America’s Middle Eastern dancing scene.
The first thing I heard about Morocco—Aunt Rocky to her friends and admirers—was a warning. I was giving a webinar to a group of belly dancers about the history of Cairo’s 1920s nightlife and was told it wouldn’t be a conventional lecture with a Q&A at the end. The event organizer assured me that while she would try to keep things orderly, people liked to interject along the way. If Morocco decided to speak up, everyone always just let her talk.
This was not surprising; Morocco was a legend in the American belly dance community. Now in her 80s, she had danced on countless stages, released songs, taught classes, run tours of the Middle East, and established herself as one of the queens of New York’s belly dance scene. Over her life, she has traveled, read, and watched performances with the keen eye of a professional dancer, and is as revered for her historical research as for her dancing. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Morocco became a prolific contributor to a popular Middle Eastern Dance listserv. One dancer remembers that she “rule[d] the belly dance listserv with an iron mouse” and was known to destroy other members with her “rapier tongue and inexhaustible knowledge of Oriental dance.” If I said anything during the webinar she did not like, I would certainly hear about it.
The second thing I heard about Morocco came in the form of an invitation. She hadn’t felt the need to interrupt my webinar, and afterwards the convener wrote to me to tell me she liked it. Morocco suggested a meeting—we both lived in Brooklyn—and I rushed at the chance. Morocco was also very keen—apparently she said “Are you kidding? I'd run naked through Union Square to do that!”
So I went to her apartment, the whole second level of a small building in Midwood. It was a sprawl of wooden floors and long corridors with large windows looking out across the street. We sat in the lounge, where she displayed a few souvenirs from her travels, then moved through an elegant dance studio to a study packed high with the books, videotapes, and papers that comprised Morocco’s extensive archive of Middle Eastern dance history.
Morocco has an undeniable aura. The rhythms of her speech are like a dancer performing. Her distinct turns of phrase feel well-practiced; she throws them in like moves that are part of her muscle memory. Talking with her can feel more like watching a show than having a conversation. Morocco is also a consummate (and proud) Brooklynite who punctuates her sentences with New York references; “it’s that and my subway card that gets me into the subway” is a line she frequently uses after discussing some of her more impressive achievements. She happily noted my phone’s Brooklyn area code.
Morocco was never supposed to be a dancer; she was meant to be a Spanish teacher. Born Carolina Varga Dinicu in 1940 in Transylvania, of Romani heritage, her family settled in Crown Heights after the war. She grew up a precocious child, telling me that by eighteen she had a BA from Brooklyn College in Modern Languages and Education with a Spanish major. As a young woman, she worked as a translator and English teacher to Spanish speakers. But when she, a self-described “chicklet,” stood up in front of classes of adult men, she felt uncomfortable. “They were expecting a Sister Mary Ignatius and I didn’t look like Sister Mary Ignatius,” she told me. Her “paranoid cop” father used to drive her home from every lesson to avoid unwanted advances.
The young Carolina quickly decided that teaching wasn’t a good fit for her. But she loved Spanish culture. In the late 1950s, she entered the world of flamenco dancing, quickly landing a job with the prestigious Ballet Español Ximenes-Vargas. But her flamenco career was soon derailed for a career in Middle Eastern dance.
Morocco has told the story of her momentous entry into this new dance scene many times in the decades since. At its center is the Greek Orthodox priest Spiro Avlonitis, a dedicand of her 2011 self-published book, You Asked Aunt Rocky. Father Spiro was running a dance studio in Manhattan where Morocco was rehearsing for her flamenco troupe (I have not discovered exactly why a priest was running a dance studio). At rehearsals, Father Spiro noticed that Morocco was tired and losing weight. Worried she wasn’t making enough to eat, he said he knew someone offering a job that paid $125 a week. She immediately took it.
It was December 1960. Dressed in a flamenco outfit and accompanied by a guitarist, Carolina arrived at the Arabian Nights nightclub where she met the Greek owner Marianthe Stevens. Confused, Stevens told her it was a Middle Eastern nightclub, not a flamenco club. She agreed to hire her anyway, giving her the stage name “Morocco” (because, apparently, she looked Moroccan).
In those early days, Morocco knew next to nothing about Middle Eastern music or dance. But as soon as she heard the tunes she knew that she could never go back. “Some of the music I was hearing in this restaurant touched my soul in a way that flamenco hadn't… There were singers there that could sing the birds down out of the trees,” she reminisced. The musicians at the club were not professionals, she told me. They were immigrants with hard day jobs who wanted to hear some music from their home countries, and the only way they could was to play it themselves. Performing on alternate nights, they stayed up until four in the morning and went to work a few hours later. “These were people who were happily sleep-deprived to hear their own music.”
The early 1960s was a formative time for Morocco, and she repeatedly returned to them in our conversations. The Eighth Avenue nightclubs became Morocco’s school. During shows, she would ask the musicians questions about the rhythms, the melodies, and their culture. When she was not performing, she went to see different acts on the strip. Each venue had its own atmosphere—one was Albanian, others were Greek, Syrian, Lebanese, or Egyptian. The clubs had large windows fronting the street so people could peer through, and they would either enter or move on depending who was on stage. Morocco went to them all, saw what different dancers were doing, and tried to assimilate their moves.
She even took lessons from audiences. New York cabaret laws forbid her from interacting with customers, but if she saw a woman in the crowd doing an interesting dance, she would follow them to the restroom and ask them about it—“nobody can stop me talking to somebody in the john,” she reasoned.
The 1960s were a good decade for Morocco, and her career flourished. She got a regular gig at the high-class Roundtable on East Fiftieth Street, which she later described as “the best place for Oriental dance in the US.” She even appeared in a Broadway show. Morocco was riding the belly dancing wave to success.
When Morocco first started, there was so much demand for dancers that clubs began recruiting anyone who was interested, not just people from the Middle East. Morocco often jokes that Godzilla would have been hired if he had shown up in a belly dancing costume. For a variety of reasons, not least the American visa system, a huge number of dancers at the New York clubs were Brooklyn natives—usually of Italian, Jewish, Latinx descent. They were given exotic Arabic-sounding names, but many had never even seen belly dancing before.
At the time, “cultural appropriation” was seen as more of a joke than a problem. The newspapers mocked the women from Brooklyn that appeared onstage as Middle Eastern dancers. Their Arabic stage names, newspapers noted with raised eyebrows, belonged to people born Carol Ann Goldberg or Tina Leone. But no one questioned whether they should be there at all.
In the 1960s, Morocco was having different kinds of arguments. She fought with feminists over whether belly dance objectified women. She fought with her parents, who did not want their daughter working as a dancer at all. When she first floated the idea with her father, he “had a whole herd of cows.” The family thought being a dancer meant living a dissolute lifestyle, and no matter how much she tried to convince them that dance was serious, honest, hard work, they did not believe her. Eventually, Morocco left home to pursue her dream. “It was many years before we became reconciled enough to be able to socialize with each other,” she told me.
Morocco reacted to the opposition she faced by delving deep into the history of belly dancing. She was determined to convince people that this was not just random hip-wiggling, but a complex and rich art form. In 1964 she told a journalist, “you have to use brains to do a beautiful belly dance. Stupid dancers perform vulgarly … They don’t know an Oriental dance from a twist.”
At first, she had little scholarship to build on. She rejected the prevalent Orientalist fantasies of European travelers, dismissing Gustave Flaubert’s description of the dancers he saw during his travels in Egypt as “racist, sexist, and bullshit.” So, just as she had done when first learning to dance, she studied by observation. She made trips to Morocco, Egypt, and elsewhere, developing theories from what she saw. In 1964 she contributed an article to Sexology magazine, contending that Oriental dance had evolved from childbirth rituals. In the 1970s, using her then-husband’s Soviet family connections, she even managed to conduct a research trip in Central Asia, something few people could do at the time.
The more Morocco learned about the art form, the more she came to hate the superficial reaction that ordinary Americans had to it. She resented the clichéd, “hotsy totsy harem cuties” from Hollywood films who turned the dance into a seduction ritual. She also hated journalists that constantly made the same jokes about it: “’in charge of navel maneuvers’… If I heard that one more time, I was going to barf on the dance floor, which wouldn’t have been nice.”
Morocco particularly came to despise the term “belly dancing,” an encapsulation of everything that was wrong with America’s perception of it: corny, sexualized, and inaccurate—dancers didn’t use their bellies at all, they used their hips and their whole bodies. Morocco prefers the term “oriental dance” (the direct translation of its Arabic name raqs sharqi). But since word “oriental” now has its own connotations, others use some variation on Middle Eastern dance or MENAHT—Middle Eastern, North African, Hellenic, and Turkish—dance. I apologize to Morocco for using the term “belly dancing.” Hopefully, in the future, I won’t have to.
Although Morocco had little respect for the American press, they loved her. She was articulate, intelligent, and willing to banter. Billing her “the best educated belly dancer in the world,” journalists reported that she “spoke 10 languages (11 if you count profanity)” and had an MA from Columbia. (When I asked Morocco about this MA she did not seem to know what I was talking about.) In the mid-1960s, she took an IQ test on a bet from a member of a Broadway audience. She ended up scoring so highly that she became a member of Mensa (and used the money she won to buy a fur-lined winter coat). From then on, newspapers claimed, Morocco carried her Mensa card wherever she went.
The obsession with Morocco’s intellect reached a peak in the early 1970s when she appeared on The David Frost Show as a test subject for the Neural Efficiency Analyzer, a device designed to measure intelligence using a helmet filled with electrodes. “They attached me to this machine where some numbers are going upward in one direction. And some others are going backwards in another direction. I'm trying to figure out if it's going to explode.” By the time the readings came in, Morocco said, she had registered the highest score the machine had ever recorded.
Looking back on all this now, Morocco finds it a little stupid, probably offensive, to think it was abnormal for a dancer to be educated or speak intelligently. But it certainly gave her publicity. “It was reaffirming some of the things within the patriarchy of the culture that I don't appreciate. But you know, you live in it … and you find ways to deal with it either positively or negatively. I'm still breathing so I think I dealt with it positively.”
By the early 1970s, the fevered energy of the 1960s belly dancing world was subsiding, but the scene continued in good health, albeit with slightly less interest from the American mainstream. In the 1980s and 1990s a new generation of performers and audiences appeared in New York.
Among this new wave of dancers was Nina Costanza (stage name “Amar”), who started performing in the late 1980s. By then, the scene looked quite different. The Greek clubs of the 1960s had been overtaken by largely Arab-run nightclubs and restaurants. The three most popular hotspots were the Cedars of Lebanon on East Thirtieth Street; the Egyptian-run Ibis, which started at the same location as the Roundabout, where Morocco had danced in the 1960s, before moving a few blocks from Times Square to West Forty-fourth Street; and the Darvish in Greenwich Village, the “only Persian nightclub in New York.”
Like Morocco, Costanza had little experience of belly dancing but immediately fell in love with the music and the late-night scene: “the shows were never before eleven and maybe I was scheduled to dance at three in the morning. So, I would go to bed as the sun was coming up. But I loved it. It was a very interesting time in New York.”
The Ibis was New York’s premiere club. “Once you auditioned at the Ibis, and you got in, that was your card … Like if you go to an Ivy League school, that’s your card.” The entertainment was run by the indomitable Samiha Koura-D’Aiuto, the Egyptian wife of a famous cheesecake-maker. The band was Egyptian and the audience was largely of Arabic heritage but the dancers were, in Costanza’s recollection, almost exclusively “Jewish, Italian, and Spanish.” Samiha oversaw the dancers as a tough micromanager, down to the color of their nails (always red).
Many people looked down on her dance career, Costanza said, including her parents, who “perceived it as something very sexual.” She largely kept it a secret. “I didn’t tell people in my outside world for a long time.” Like Morocco, she pushed back against the idea that belly dance was a kind of burlesque by dedicating herself to dance research, joining the magazine Arabesque as a writer then editor. Ibrahim “Bobby” Farah started Arabesque in the late 1970s as a “journal of Middle Eastern dance and culture.” Costanza recalled its mission “to give the dance more value to a wider public, to show that … it had a history.” Much of the story of belly dancing in the second half of the twentieth century is about its battle to be taken seriously.
As the 1990s came to an end, some of these efforts began to look futile. The New York cabaret scene, which had been going since the 1950s, was slowly dying as nightclubs and restaurants started to close. Costanza, who was present through its slow demise, has a few theories about why. There is an urban myth that 9/11 put an end to the scene as Arabic entertainment declined and Arabs were nervous to be seen in public. But Costanza doesn’t buy it. “I was in New York at 9/11 and it had nothing to do with it whatsoever … it was already over, the nightclubs had already gone.”
The causes of the decline are likely more prosaic—rising rents, gentrification, assimilation of immigrant populations, competition from the Atlantic City casinos. Whatever you choose to blame, one thing is clear—“vaudeville is gone forever,” wrote Costanza in a 2008 article,“ and so is the Middle Eastern cabaret in New York.”
In the wake of this decline, Constanza is pessimistic about the state of the scene. “I would not get involved now; if I was just starting out, I wouldn’t bother,” she admitted. With no clubs and no live bands to interact with onstage, she believes that everything is fizzling out, “it’s very dispersed, I don’t think there is a center anymore. Dancing is almost always to canned music … It’s not anything I see as a real art form that’s developing.”
Today, belly dancing is completely different, and full-time professional dancers are a rarity. Mahin Sciacca, a dancer from Phoenix, Arizona and one of the few who continues to earn a living from belly dancing, recalls a past when it was common for dancers to survive primarily by performing: “people like Rocky earned their money in the clubs because it was good pay and they made huge amounts of tips.” Nina Costanza, too, earned most of her money from nightclubs: “as dancers, we could make our living in New York performing because we danced every night. And on the weekends, we had two or three shows.” Sciacca speculates that most professional dancers performing today supplement their income with another job.
In the twenty-first century, Middle Eastern dance in America has become more of a hobby (or, at best, a side hustle) than a career. For those who do make any money from it, teaching is their bread and butter. So, the dance style is often marketed as a fun way to exercise and get in touch with your body—something closer to Zumba than to a night out in New York’s nightclubs.
But not all is disaster and gloom. The new era has brought its own innovations. Sciacca is one of the many people who have gone online to expand their reach, a trend that has revolutionized the business. Information about the dance, something that American performers previously found so hard to access, is now readily available. People can watch dancers from all over the world and some, Sciacca says, use online videos to teach themselves. Even before COVID hit, Sciacca had been running a series of webinars and tutorials; during the lockdown, they became increasing popular, attracting world-wide participation.
In the late twentieth century, American belly dance was lucrative but provincial. It had grown out of Middle Eastern immigrant communities and it still largely catered to them. The center of the business remained in the Middle East, particularly Egypt. Large audiences came to see touring artists from abroad. Dancers from America knew the biggest dancers in Egypt and made pilgrimages to see them perform in Cairo, but the same could not be said in reverse.
Now America is starting to become more independent. As the clubs closed, a “competition scene” was born and events like “Bellydancer of the Universe,” based in California, and “USA Belly Dance Queen” in Phoenix, Arizona, gave new spaces for dancers. These were insider events, where dancers performed to a panel of expert judges, and they have their critics. Mahin Sciacca believes they have spawned a new type of dancing, implicitly encouraging over-the-top, showy displays of skill that wow the judges but are not designed for a paying audience. “That style is not necessarily a good representative of the true art in its authentic form,” she says.
Since the twentieth century, the world of Middle Eastern dance has been reconstituted. It relies much less on audiences and much more on its own community—whether students or fellow dancers. This has led to some difficult questions about who belly dancing in America is for, who is allowed in, who can speak for the art form, and who calls the shots. The scandals provoked by Randa Jarrar’s article on cultural appropriation and the blackface Instagram post may just be symptoms of larger problems.
But dancers are still looking forward. The old days were wild, fun, and vibrant, but they admittedly excluded many people. As Morocco told me, there could be times when, perversely, a Middle Eastern dancer would not get a job because they didn’t conform to the people’s idea of what a dancer is—“because they’re not a hotsy-totsy blond cutie.” For Black dancers, things were even worse. In her book, Morocco says she partly started her dance troupe—The Casbah Dance Experience—to give gigs to four of her African-American students who were not being hired in New York clubs. Nina Costanza told me that in the 1980s and 1990s, she knew of no African-American dancers working on the scene. In the past decades, belly dancing may have lost a lot, but it also has had a lot to gain. The question now is what the future of the dance in America will look like.
Morocco’s dancing days are almost certainly over. She recently developed Parkinson’s—a cruel disease for a dancer, seriously affecting balance and motor skills. At eighty-one, though she has been writing her last will and testament, she certainly isn’t finished. Now that she has a lifetime’s experiences of dance moves and the vocabulary to describe them, she will continue the research that she started in 1960s. She told me that she planned to write up some of her theories about the history of dance, giving this rich art form more of the respect it deserves.
For the community as a whole, the next steps are unknown. Valerie Poppel, one of the organizers of the belly dance call to action, ended our conversation by saying “all we can do is hope for change. Whether it happens or not, I don’t know. We can hope for it.” When I talked to Mahin Sciacca, she was preparing for her first gig since the pandemic started, an outdoor event in Phoenix. “I’m curious to see what will happen,” she said. “The world’s been shaken upside down and we’re not going to land back where we were. We’re going to land in different places and in a different way, whether we like it or not.”
Award-winning editor and translator Raphael Cormack has a PhD in Egyptian theater from the University of Edinburgh. He has written on Arabic culture for the London Review of Books, Apollo Magazine, and elsewhere, and is co-editor of The Book of Khartoum and editor of The Book of Cairo (Comma Press, 2016; 2019). He is the author of Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt’s Roaring '20s (Saqi Books, W. W. Norton & Company, and AUC Press, 2021). He lives in Athens.