In my lecture-demonstrations, I often begin with an entrance in what we in the Middle Eastern Dance scene call the “American Cabaret” style, or AmCab. It’s a natural and logical place for me to start, as I am, culturally, North American, and it is the style that many of my teachers and their teachers before them learned and performed in the great heyday of the 8th Avenue clubs in NYC and other large urban centers in the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s.
What sets the AmCab style apart from the other styles? A lot or a little, depending on your point of view. Although the dance, regardless of style (and there are several) is composed of many of the same root steps, it is the style the steps are done in, the music the dancer is using, the props, and the style of the costume he or she has chosen to wear that determines what style the audience is seeing performed. There are a few other differences as well, but these are the main ones most folks will recognize.
Do the styles blend and overlap? Of course they do. Can these differences in style be sometimes confusing and debatable? Absolutely. Do some of the more influential leaders in the Belly Dance world have some very strong opinions on this topic? You bet they do!
But that’s not important right now and right here. For now, just know that the conscientious dancer will work toward interpreting the root steps as best they can with the music they’ve chosen or that–if they’re especially lucky–the live band is playing.
Two of the visual touchstones of the AmCab style are the costumes and the props used. The costume that most Westerners think of as Belly Dance, the full, circular skirt with a bra and belt, often with coins or fringe, is the look usually associated with this style. A full skirt, rather than a more form-fitting design, makes the floor work—another element that features prominently in this style—possible. Artfully getting down and up and managing the skirt while simultaneously balancing a prop and doing sinuous movements of hips, torso, and arms is a skill seen less and less today; many venues just don’t have the space for floor work to be seen. The use of props became a standard and expected feature in an AmCab show. While it’s not clear exactly when and where the veil as a prop originated, it was certainly in America that it came into its own as a central feature with a section of the show and an entire song devoted to it. And while dancers had historically been known to dance and do balancing with swords and trays, again, the standard practice of doing an elaborate routine during a particular section of the show is a primarily Western development.
But the idea of going to nightclubs to see entertainment in the first place … that is certainly a Western idea. Immigrants from the Middle East, homesick for their music, their food, their language, and away from an extended network of family members with whom they would have traditionally socialized, had to go out to fill this need, and the whole family would go. All entertainment in those days was live, and it was common for many nicer venues to have a floor show. In their home countries, going out to a restaurant or club would have been unheard of … their society just wasn’t set up that way. But in America, life was different, less home-oriented. For this reason, the whole Middle Eastern nightclub scene arose, drawing from both Middle Eastern music and dance traditions and the American entertainment aesthetic to make an art form with elements of all.
Of course, there is a lot more to it than just that, but hopefully I’ve piqued your interest enough to do some investigation of your own, or even just to look at Belly Dance just a little closer and a little differently. Enjoy the journey!