Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Looking For Little Egypt by Donna Carlton

After reading Emily Leider's biography of Mae West, which mentions that she saw Little Egypt dance at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (World's Columbian Exposition), I started thinking about how many times the famed belly dancer's name has cropped up in my reading, yet I knew nothing about her beyond her stage name and that she was a star attraction at the above mentioned fair, so I decided to go on a fact finding mission. That search led me to Donna Carlton's slim but fascinating volume.

I was surprised to learn that Little Egypt and her association with the famous fair is a myth, a popular oft-repeated American legend, as are most of the stories told about her. For instance, Mark Twain did not suffer a coronary after seeing her dance, Thomas Edison did not film her, and she did not popularize the zipper. There is not one contemporary shred of evidence, no newspaper articles, photographs, advertisement, or souvenir book from 1893 to prove that Little Egypt danced at the Chicago World's Fair. It is inconceivable that if she had been the star attraction we have been led to believe she was that she would not have been prominently featured and promoted. All stories linking her to the fair date to years after that world famous event.

In fact, there were dozens of women, both serious practitioners of the danse du ventre (belly dancing) and bastardized hootchy-cootchy versions, who billed themselves as "Little Egypt." The name was practically a generic term for dancers of this type. After one such dancer, Ashea Wabe, who is pictured at the top and bottom of this review, became an overnight sensation after performing at a notorious bachelor party, the number of Little Egypts plying their trade on the various carnival, circus, sideshow, burlesque, and vaudeville circuits skyrocketed; every sideshow and amusement park midway had its own Little Egypt, they seemed to breed like bunnies.

Donna Carlton presents all the details known about that notorious bachelor party, hosted by a nephew of the great showman P.T. Barnum, which became notoriously known as "that awful Seely dinner" and the two trials it spawned and the theatrical parodies that made "Little Egypt" famous. Though it is not known if Ashea Wabe ever danced at the Chicago World's Fair, or when she began using "Little Egypt" as her stage name, she is undoubtedly the one who made the name notorious with risque connotations. Ashea Wabe was a petite, pretty Algerian who spoke a mixture of French and English, beyond this and the role she played in the scandalous Seely dinner and her starring role in Oscar Hammerstein's parody "Silly's Dinner," nothing else is known about her. I did an Internet search after finishing this book in the hope of finding out a little more about her, but found nothing, not even a birth or death date.

Ms. Carlton also presents a rival contender for the title of "the original Little Egypt," one Fahreda Mahzar Spyropoulos, who most likely did dance at the Chicago World's Fair, but not as a star, or under the name of "Little Egypt," but just one of the many dancing girls; in fact, she seems to have only claimed the name as hers after the Seely scandal made it famous and myths about "Little Egypt" being a star attraction at the fair began to crop up.

Though it is always a trifle sad to learn that a good story is just that a good story, Ms. Carlton's book is nonetheless a fascinating journey to the past, taking readers back to the fair, which did indeed introduce the art of belly dancing to the American public, and that esteemed Middle Eastern art form's evolution into the bawdy shimmy or hootchy-cootchy.

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