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Boy Brothels, Yes; Belly Dance, No

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Andrea Deagon wrote a thoughtful piece(Almee or Salome?) on the difference between the reception Oriental dance got in Chicago at the 1893 Exposition and in New York City several months after. She attributed the immediate slap-down in NYC to the usual suspects: context, Orientalism, fear of moral chaos, etc. However, Cait Murphy, in her book Scoundrels In Law, had a much simpler explanation: a very public exposure of the connection between Tammany Hall, organized crime, and the NYC police was in full swing, and Police Inspector Williams was feeling a need to prove himself committed to his duties.

1893: A Controversial Cop seeks a Distraction

The Midway, especially the concessions with Oriental dancing, were the most profitable ventures at the 1893 Chicago Exposition. Following the Exposition's close, several of the exhibits, including A Street in Cairo, moved to the Grand Central Palace in New York. 1893 also happened to be smack in the middle of the scholarly Reverend Charles Parkhurst's remarkable - and effective - exposure of Tammany Hall and its interconnection with organized crime and the city police force.

Cait Murphy, in her book Scoundrels in Law: The Trials of Howe and Hummel, describes what happened next: a swift and veritable slap-down.

When the World's Fair closed, the shakers and shimmiers headed east. Gotham, in the guise of Inspector Alexander 'Clubber' Williams, was not ready for them. The tenderness of Williams's feelings was something of a surprise, given his reputation for brutality and his support for boxing. But in December 1893, he was in a spot of bother. This was the time when the Rev. Charles Parkhurst was going after the police for corruption and indifference to duty. Williams, who was one of the city's best-known and most controversial cops, was in trouble.

So it is likely that Clubber was looking for a high-profile bust to display his dedication to morality. Four foreigners [the dancers] made a good target.

When he went to the Grand Central Palace to see the danse du ventre, he was duly outraged. The first dancers ( three Algerians named Zelika, Zora, and Fatima) passed muster. But then the Egypt-born Ferida started to crouch and writhe and wriggle, to general acclaim. "Stop that! There can be no more of this thing here tonight or any other night." He and his sidekick, Captain Berghold, the commander of the precinct, hustled the women offstage. Williams later explained his reasoning: "It is indecent, and offends the morals of our citizens."

The latter assertion was dubious. People were filling the Palace several times a day to be offended. But New York's Finest were not to be deterred. When the performers went back to work the next day, Captain Berghold and two beat cops were ready.

The three dancers who performed despite Williams's warning on the previous day were arrested. (Ferida, whose dancing seemed to trigger William's outburst, did not appear on stage that night.) Their hearing was reported by the New York Times in a rather irreverent tone that did no credit to the Police.

The Police Demonstrate the Problem

The Police Demonstrate the Problem.

The management of the 'Streets of Cairo,' formerly exhibited at the World's Fair, and now showing in the Grand Central Palace, defied the police yesterday afternoon. The danse du ventre, which Superintendent Williams stopped Saturday night, was performed again.

Capt. Berghold of the sub-precinct in the Grand Central Station was present, and at the conclusion of the performance arrested three of the dancers. They were charged with a misdemeanor, in violating by immoral conduct Section 385 of the Penal Code ... They [the dancers] were taken in carriages to the sub-station in the Grand Central Station. There the usual formalities were gone through and, escorted by Captain Berghold and Detectives McMahon and Archibald, the prisoners were taken to the Yorkville Police Court.

Justice Burke was having a busy day, and Lawyer Hummel had to wait some time to get his clients at the head of the line of drunks, brawlers and other offenders who were being hurried through the mill of justice ... Finally the case was called, but the girls were not obliged to face the Justice. Mr. Hummel [their lawyer] spoke for them, and Captain Berghold listened until he saw a chance to get a word in. The charge was misdemeanor, in performing a dance contrary to good morals ...

"We waive examination," said Mr. Hummel. "We want to get this case settled as soon as possible... We want to get the case into Special Sessions, and will try to get it on Wednesday's calendar... pending trial in Special Sessions, we propose that the dance shall go on."

"Well, it won't go on," shouted Captain Berghold.

"I tell you it will, though," snapped the attorney, "and that you can't stop it."

"I'd like to get the Judge's opinion about that," was Captain Berghold's reply.

"Oh, it won't harm anybody for a few days," said the Justice. "Out in Chicago I saw it myself. Bail will be $300 each."


If the New York Times coverage of the hearing was irreverent, the Herald's coverage of the trial was a comic masterpiece, complete with illustrations. The Herald described a police inspector who claimed not to know where the stomach was, a fat Irish policeman who attempted to demonstrate the objectionable dance as evidence, and the effective silencing of the too-officious Mr. Comstock.

From the Dec 5, 1893 Herald:







It was a fifty dollar wriggle which Police Captain Berghold and his ward detectives saw in the Midway Plaisance annex of the Grand Central Palace on Monday afternoon last -- afternoon of awful recollections that it is. And it was a sinful wriggle at that.

There was some doubt about the nature of that wriggle when Justice Burke on that fateful afternoon held Zora of melting eyes, Fatima the sinuous and Zelika the meekly wicked for trial, and fixed yesterday as the date for their appearance.

But doubt exists no longer if the law be final, for yesterday morning, in the Court of Special Sessions, Police Justices McMahon, Koch and Divver, with the aid of the original wrigglers, a coterie of imitation wrigglers in the persons of Inspector Williams, Captain Berghold and a few ward detectives, Lawyer "Abe" Hummel, Anthony Comstock, a blushing interpreter and two experts on art as distinct from wickedness, wrestled at length with the danse du ventre in the presence of a wide-mouthed audience and set upon it the stamp of the law's disapproval.

Only Justice McMahon's repeated threat to have offenders ejected at the first sign of levity kept the crowd inside in order. It chuckled audibly at times, but the gnawing fear of being thrown out and losing such a show as this awed it into silence again. For it was a stirring spectacle from the moment Captain Berghold began his imitation of the horrifying things he had seen until the last wriggle was over and Anthony Comstock's shout of victory rose above the noise of retreat as the crowd reeled out into the open air.

No, the offence alleged in Captain Berghold's complaint against the dancers was that their exhibition was immodest to the point of indecency; so the burden of the inquiry was as to the precise nature of the dance. The evidence consisted of flat-footed assertions and extremely novel illustrations by the prosecuting witnesses, together with an attempt to draw the line sharply between the coldly artistic and the wickedly suggestive.

So it was that the dance was denounced one moment as a wholly degraded exhibition and defended the next as the representation of a state of ecstatic bliss, due to the frenzy of a religious devotee.

"Captain Berghold!" Justice McMahon called sharply, and the gray haired Captain, looking like a man on the way to the dentist's, climbed into the witness chair. He identified the prisoners, said he had seen the show on three occasions, told of the inroad it made upon his ideas of propriety and said it was unquestionably too immodest to be permitted.

"You saw this performance on a Friday and Saturday?" Mr. Hummel asked. The Captain pleaded guilty to both counts.

"You were then an officer of the law and recognized an offence against that law?"


"Make any arrests?"


"Why not? Was it worse on Monday than on Saturday?"

"No; about the same."


"Well, you've spoken about the stomach. Do you know which part of the anatomy it is?"

"No," the Captain said vehemently, "I'm not a doctor."

"Well," Mr. Hummel rejoined, "It's not so very violent to assume that you might be able to locate the stomach. Didn't they move their arms and heads as well as their bodies?"

"Not at the time I have described. They held a veil in their hands so that it partially hid their eyes, and bending backward looked out from under it and moved their bodies."

"Didn't you know," Mr. Hummel said in affected horror, "that this dance originated with the Phoenicians and Greeks? As a matter of fact, isn't it only a rhythmical swaying of the whole body while the performer's feet are stationary?"

The Captain didn't know.

"Was the dress objectionable too?" asked Mr. Hummel, and, without awaiting a reply, he turned to the dark-eyed Zora, the most comely of the wrigglers, and said: -- "Won't you step up on this chair and give the Court an idea how you were attired?"

Seven men fell from a seat far in the rear in their anxiety to see, but the unseemly clamor was quelled on the instant.

Zora's brown arms swept away her white wrap and she bounded upon the chair in dancing costume, winked unconsciously at the Court and then became timid and doleful in an instant.

"There was no objection to the dress," the witness said. Zora stepped down and the spectators sank back into their seats.

Captain Berghold, before leaving the chair, gave a feeble imitation of the contortions which he had considered ground for the arrest.


The Captain lacked abandon, but Dennis McMahon, the ward man who succeeded him on the stand, after a brief statement about the unseemly "extorting" of fair forms, which elicited an exclamation of horror from Lawyer Hummel, illustrated the dance with greater freedom. He stood up, pulled the skirts of his coat out of the way and executed a slight twist. Fatima laughed outright, and the other young women shook with ill concealed mirth. Mr. McMahon blushed. The Court thundered the crowd into silence.

"Their arms moved too, then?" Mr. Hummel suggested.


Inspector Williams proved the heavy gun of this prosecution. His illustrations were few, but his language was plain. He insisted that the performance was immodest in the extreme and said that when the dancers began their swaying and contortions many women fled in horror and disgust from the building.

"I have some letters here from respectable persons who were shocked beyond measure," the Inspector said and attempted to hand them to Justice Koch.

"Stop!" thundered Mr. Hummel. "The time when women may be assailed by letters here has passed."

The letters were ruled out and the Inspector stepped down. Captain Berghold at once climbed back into the witness chair un summoned, and Mr. Hummel stormily drowned his attempts at speech until the Court formally recalled the Captain as a witness. Captain Berghold merely wished to explain that he had rambled through anatomy and had finally trailed the stomach to its lair. He wanted to state definitely what he had meant by "stomach" in his previous testimony.

Justice McMahon's mallet stilled the rising tumult, and the Captain gave his little lecture on anatomy, glanced at Mr. Hummel in triumph and retired.


A.F. Delacroix, the manager of the Little Cairo, testified that he had seen the danse du ventre in company with the Khedive of Egypt, and said the exhibition was considered in excellent taste in Egypt. In Chicago the dance had been witnessed by many women of good position and some clergymen as well.

"Even by lawyers?" Mr. Hummel asked. "Yes," Delacroix said, "even by lawyers."

Then Lawyer Hummel called Zora. Now, Zora had been in a sort of dreamy brown study and had been viewing every one within range with wide eyes, but contemplatively. She started up at the sound of her name, wrapped the white wool about her as if to ward off staring eyes and stepped toward the witness stand. Then, with a sudden gasp and cry, she threw the white wrap over he head and sank back into her seat in a fit of stormy weeping.

Zelika was not so easily scared. The blushing interpreter said something about Allah and Zelika looked heavenward, kissed the Good Book daintily and was ready. She was coolness itself until the questioning became so pointed that the interpreter was visibly embarrassed. Then she became embarrassed too. Zelika was sorry for the interpreter.

"I am seventeen and a half years old," she said, as she gave the crowd back its bold looks. "I have danced this same dance in Egypt and in Chicago. I was never charged with immodesty." The interpreter whispered, then he translated:--

"There is no thought of impropriety about it. We done it as a natural dances. It is only evil to those who have evil in their hearts. it is a rhythmic movement of arms and body."

"Have you any objection to showing the Court exactly what you did on the occasion in question, how you dance it?" Mr. Hummel asked.

"We will proceed without that." Justice McMahon interposed. "We do not care to see it."


There was a moment's pause and then Anthony Comstock suddenly arose and began to address the Court from a place near Mr. Hummel. "Your Honors," Mr. Comstock said loudly, "I have seen this dance in Chicago, too. I know and I can prove" --

"Oh! oh! Now this cannot be allowed," thundered Mr. Hummel. "I insist that the Court needs no instruction. You mustn't. Mr. Comstock."

"But," Mr. Comstock resumed in a still higher key, "if evidence to show" -- "That will do," Justice McMahon said decisively. "The Court has already made up its mind."

"Yes?" from Mr. Hummel.

"I am the friend of American womanhood!" shouted Mr. Comstock. "So am I," rejoined Mr. Hummel as he dodged Zora's grateful glances.

Bang! went the court's order hammer, and there was silence.

"The Court finds you guilty," Justice McMahon said, "and fines you $50 each."

"The stenographer will note my intention to appeal," remarked Mr. Hummel.

Then the crowd hurried away and four sinuous wigglers in four white wraps went out into the cold, unwriggling world.

Ahmed Hamouda, late of the Egyptian Army, writes to the Herald to say that the danse du ventre is not practiced in Egypt by women of good repute, that it is not a representative national dance and would not be countenanced there. It is, he says, distinctly immodest.

Mme. Delacroix was instructing the dancers in a new dance last night when Captain Berghold appeared and ordered the proceedings stopped. Mr. Delacroix refused and ordered Captain Berghold out, saying he had no business there, as it was not a public performance.


Ticket sales were boosted by the arrests and subsequent publicity. Delacroix made some modifications to the costumes and the dances, the police declared themselves satisfied (or unwilling to be the object of more sarcastic news coverage), and the show went on.

Meanwhile, carnival and vaudeville producers had taken note of the ease with which the danse du ventre attracted both attention and ticket sales. In 1895, another Streets of Cairo concession (unrelated to the one in the Grand Central Palace) opened up on Coney Island, featuring sword dancers, camel rides and candle dancers as well as the 'danse du ventre' which had caused such a ruckus in 1893. How authentic the dancing was at this concession is doubtful; authenticity was not essential to drawing an audience.

Other groups decided to cash in on the notoriety of the danse de ventre, and things quickly went from bad to worse. In 1896, three years after the original trial, the 'danse du ventre' had become the 'coochee-choochee dance' and many of the dancers were untrained American vaudeville and burlesque performers.


In July 1896, two detectives arrested 'Oriental' dancers Adjie Costello, Dora Denton, Fatima, May Asher and Lou Mattin at three different Coney Island theatres. The New York Times was present at the trial of the first dancer arrested, during which a detective (once again) essayed a rendition of the offensive dance. Excerpts from the published article follow.



He Wins Applause at the Seaside Resort -- The Jurymen Convulsed with Laughter -- Adjie Costello, the Prisoner, Discharged -- Judge Nostrand Thinks the Dance is an Immoral One -- Dora Denton to be Tried Soon.

If Policeman Antonio Vachris, one of the guardians of Coney Island, cares to give up his shield and club and accept an offer from some one of the purveyors of pleasure in that wonderful section of seashore where he now patrols, there is not the least doubt that his picture...would soon appear on all the billboards and dead walls of the State. And below the picture, of a certainty, great letters would flame out this announcement:


When the case was called the jurymen, some of them in their shirt sleeves, took their seats in a good deal of expectancy. There were builders, horsemen, ice peddlers, and grocers among them, and for the most part they had never seen the dance ... Vachris was the first witness for the prosecution, and he had not been on the stand five minutes when he made a reputation that gossip will distribute broadcast over the land.

"You have charged this women with having given an immoral and indecent dance. Can you describe it?"asked the Judge.

The witness described the movement of the dance in detail.

"What do they call that dance?" asked the Judge.

"The coochee-coochee," said Vachris.

"Can you do it?" was the Judge's next query.

Vachris said he could, and the Judge remarked: "Well, then, you had better show it to the jury."

Vachris bounded to his feet. He gazed languidly about the stuffy courtroom and rolled his eyes in wonderful simulation of a bacchante getting inspiration for a revel. Then, daintily clutching the skirts of his uniform coat, he began the first lazy movements of the dance.

Backward he bent, and forward. Now he stood on one foot, and now a might policeman's boot went toward the ceiling. Now he swayed to the right, now to the left, and in a trice he was almost on the floor, wriggling and twisting until he was red in the face ...

At last it was over, and the policeman dropped limp and gasping back into the witness chair, and the courtroom rang with applause that nobody cared to check. Katen, in the jury box, looked as if an apoplectic fit might in a minute be the cause of a mistrial, and the other jurors could not control their hilarity for fully ten minutes....

Several more witness testified, and some of them thought the dance decidedly improper. The jurors then began a consultation, but Judge Nostrand called them sharply to order, placed them under the charge of a policeman, and ordered them to retire in order to consider their verdict. They were gone exactly half a minute, and returned with an unanimous verdict of Not Guilty. Adjie was in consequence discharged.

Politicians and reformers continued to tour Coney Island and protest the fake Oriental dance-houses filled with fake Oriental dance. In order to attract the money of the respectable pleasure-seekers, well-heeled developers began building self-contained pleasure parks featuring first-rate, exciting and wholesome rides and entertainment, marginalizing concessions like Streets of Cairo. By 1901, a mere eight years after first arriving in Manhattan, Hoochie-Coochie Oriental Danse du Ventre had been so exploited, over-exposed, bastardized and picked over that it was no longer a Sensation, but just one of a number of titillating entertainment options for jaded New Yorkers. The long lines of paying customers dried up. The Streets of Cairo concession was replaced by a roller coaster. Streets of Cairo in Coney Island in 1900


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