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  • Lisa Lumina

Vintage American Style

Updated: Feb 21

Post 5 of 11.


Our next style goes by many names! Sometimes called "American Cabaret", or "Am Cab" for short, "Vintage American", "Vintage Oriental", "American Restaurant", "Vintage Restaurant", "classic American", and even "Anatolian Cabaret" by those wishing to emphasize the influence of Greek, Turkish, and Armenian immigrants and artists on the style.  Each dancer usually has their preferred term but be aware that the term "cabaret" does NOT have a family friendly connotation outside the USA. So when speaking to someone from the Middle East, or Europe, it's better to pick one of the other terms. ​


The vintage American style had its hay-day in the 60's and 70's. It started with the immigrant nightclubs which centered around DC, NYC, Detroit, and San Francisco. Bands would be a mix of national backgrounds, ranging from Greek to Moroccan and everywhere (geographically) in between. The music was a mix from these regions and so was the dance. For this reason, Am Cab is sometimes called the original fusion style, however it's important to note that the dance was shaped by the owners, musicians, and audiences who were from these cultures, rather than by the dancers as the fusion styles we'll discuss in another post were.

It's often said that Am-Cab had a very heavy Turkish influence, but it would be more accurate to say a heavy Anatolian influence. Ionian-Greek and Armenian communities, who fled genocide from the Turkish government during world war ONE set up communities in the US with Boston being a hot spot, and the nightclubs they opened from the 50s onward were community centers, including places to enjoy dancing. After world war 2, many immigrants left the Levant, as western-drawn borders inflamed conflicts. Detroit became a center for many of these immigrants and refugees, and the style popular there leaned more Arabic.

Because there was a higher demand for dancers than there were natives willing to perform, Americans started learning by going to the clubs and watching, asking questions, and absorbing everything they could. Also, because there weren't so many dancers, the pay was good. "Aunt Rocky" talks about that phenomenon with her characteristic spunk. Dancers also left places like Turkey for the states during the countries frequent economic downturns, and venues would sometimes bring dancers from Egypt and other countries to perform.

LA, Boston, and NYC more Turkish/Greek/Armenian leaning

The East coast and West coast styling differed, and Persian nightclubs are still common venues for bellydance in places like San Francisco. On the West coast, Jamilla Salimpour was a very influential teacher, she taught some amazing dancers of the era, including Aida. Jamila would be the great grandma of tribal style, which we'll get to in a few weeks.

During the sexual revolution of the 60s, Orientalist tropes were used as a shorthand for hedonism. It should be noted, that feminism at the time was in a very different place. Coming from the 50s and before, women's sexuality was viewed through the lense of "marital duties" and the idea that a woman could move her body for her own enjoyment was a liberating thought. For example, the female cast of Star Trek had to fight censors to be allowed to wear the short skirts that, from our modern point of view, come across as demeaning. (Incidentally, I like to think of each series of Star Trek as something of a time capsule for what was considered "progressive" at the time.)

Although dancers in the cultures of origin wear (and wore) shoes when performing, the hippie culture influencing the dance in the US removed shoes, or at least their heels. Some dancers leaned into the orientalism, some into myths of goddess origins, and some did what little research was accessible to them in a time before cheap flights, instant global communication, and youtube. It was also common in these days for dancers to be given or take a stage name from any of the cultures of origin. In some cases, restaurant and supper-club owners or bands would give dancers a name that was easier for them to remember, sometimes dancers picked a name that helped them get into character as a dancer, and sometimes the choice mirrored what dancers in MENAHT countries do: using a stage name to protect their off-stage activities from prejudice against their profession.

Finger cymbal playing was a requirement for pros. Partly because of expectations and partly because they really do help get the audience's attention in a loud restaurant. The shows were adapted to fit an American attention span, and would be 30-45 minutes long with 5-7 parts, starting with a lively entrance.

Veil work is also quite extensive in this style, usually done to a rhumba or bolero rhythm, and the dancer would start wrapped in her veil, then use the entire second song to unwrap and dance with it. Today, silk is the preferred fabric, but all sorts of chiffon and striped lycra were popular in the past.

After picking up the audience with a faster middle song, where the dancer might go into the audience to get tips in her costume (tips on the dance floor sometimes went to the band, so tipping in the costume meant she could keep them.) a second slow section would come, where the dancer would do floorwork. usually performed to a chifititelli rhythm or to a rhythmless taxeem. This section is a driver in the fashion for full skirts. Corey Zamora has called the floorwork song a time to "nail your soul to the floor", and it can be introspective and magical if you're tuned into it. One thing it's not, is a rest! Lots of strengthening and flexibility training go into performing it well and safely.

Tricks like sword dancing, which was inspired by Tunisian pot dancing, and tray balancing, presumably inspired by Moroccan tradition, were added for spectacle. They became arts in their own right, and added drama to the floorwork section.

Many gigging dancers today still rely on the stylization of am-cab and/or the show format. Mariyah is a full time performer and teacher in NYC.

One reason for going fast-slow-fast-slow-fast format is because American audiences aren't familiar with the music and need help knowing when one song stops and the next starts. (This is a normal thing for any music we are unfamiliar with.) The contrast also adds drama, a fast piece following a fast piece can become tiring, but a fast piece after the audience was primed with a slow one is that much more exciting! This clip includes a full set, danced by Delilah.

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