Review: Looking for Little Egypt

Dear Constant Reader,

Looking for Little Egypt by Donna Carlton (1994).

In almost every book on the history of burlesque, there a mention of Little Egypt and how she saved the Chicago World’s Fair with her scandalous hoochy coochy dance on the “Streets of Cairo” exhibit. Her legend is huge — she used the newly invented zipper to shed her costume, her performance gave Mark Twain a heart attack, she was filmed by Thomas Edison. But who was she? Did she even exist?

Donna Carlton takes us back to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and explores the eastern entertainment on the Midway Plaisance that might have spawned Little Egypt. There were 3 places fairgoers could see authentic dance — the Algerian and Tunisian Village, the Turkish Village, and A Street in Cairo. There was also pseudo-oriental dancing at the Persian Palace. There’s no doubt the dancing was popular with attendees and horrified the more proper members of society. Oriental and orientalized dance spread across America.

So what does this have to do with burlesque? After the Chicago Exposition, most burlesque, vaudeville, and carnival shows featured a middle eastern-style dancer, often called a hoochy coochy (a corruption of the French hochequeue meaning “tail shaker”) or cooch dancer, and often billed as “Little Egypt”. These were usually western women in a fantasy version of eastern dance costume presenting an “exotic” dance. One can see the influence of the cooch dancer on stripper’s costumes and dance moves, or maybe it was the other way around.

So, was there an actual Little Egypt? Who was she? Ms. Carlton separates myth from history and makes a well-researched case for the identity of the original Little Egypt, but I will not reveal the results.

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Published in: on 24 October 2012 at 4:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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