Coney Island belly dancer Fatima showcases her performance for the Edison motion picture cameras… But was this one of the first films to be censored? We investigate the mysterious case of Fatima’s Hidden Hips.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
Poor Little Country Maid
Most of the fun and frustration in reviewing early films springs from just how much we do not know. The surnames of performers are lost to time, we don’t have proper distribution records in many case, release dates are theoretical and the sheer number of copycat productions means that we could be calling a film by the wrong title—or attributing the wrong cast to a movie with a shared title.
Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance (or, Fatima, Muscle Dancer, Fatima’s Couchee-Couchee Dance or, simply, Couchee Dance) is no exception. It was likely filmed in late July of 1896 (per Charles Musser’s Edison Motion Pictures, 1890-1900: An Annotated Filmography), possibly for the Kinetoscope peepshow machine, and released in 1897 and we’re not entirely sure who Fatima was, it was a common stage name for belly dancers and even at least one dancing bear.
This Fatima was likely Fatima Djemille of Coney Island’s Streets of Cairo exhibition. Certainly, photographs of a dancer in the act taken circa 1896 are the same woman who appears in Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance. To make things even more fun, the dancer in the film is sometimes identified as Little Egypt, another common stage name for belly dancers. I’m exhausted and we haven’t even gotten into the movie itself.
(The Streets of Cairo; or, The Poor Little Country Maid, was released around this time, though the melody was far older. You will recognize it as the cliched belly dance, snake charmer, generic faux Middle Eastern ditty used in movies and cartoons.)
Belly dance became a craze in North America following the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which featured performers emulating the dance movements of North Africa and the Middle East. Coochee-coochee, couchee-couchee, hoochie-coochie or whatever label westerners wanted to slap onto belly dance, was packaged to appeal to male desire when it was introduced to American audiences and the skill and extensive training of traditional dancers was conveniently lost in translation. This must be viewed in the context of the wildly popular trend toward Orientalism in western art and its portrayal of Eastern women as the exotic, erotic Other.
The origin of the term coochee-coochee as it applies to this dance style is as murky as anything else we’ve talked about so far. The term was already in common use as a synonym for canoodling in polite company and became associated with a considerably more NSFW topic but it was still considered suitable for mainstream news publication at the time.
Whether or not Thomas Edison caught a belly dance performance in 1893, his film company was always on the lookout for new celebrities to feature. Dance was particularly well-suited to early cinema because the star power of the performers could be exploited and the rapid movements concealed any flaws in the hand-applied colors so popular at the time.
Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance plays for just a few seconds, capturing the signature muscle movements of the performance and giving audiences a taste of the dance everyone was talking about. But how accurate was this performance?
Questions about Fatima’s identity and, therefore, cultural origins remain but in the book Egyptian Belly Dance in Transition: The Raqs Sharqi Revolution, 1890-1930, Heather D. Ward points out that the dancer used shoulder and hip shimmies, as well as finger cymbals, which were elements of Egyptian performance. However, her dance was likely more representative of the highly Americanized style of “oriental” dance that was popular on Coney Island and vaudeville.
Unfortunately, no silent era filmed examples of Egyptian raqs sharqi performances are known to exist and dance scholars are obliged to rely on written accounts and filmed examples from the 1930s onward. So, it is difficult to definitively pinpoint certain developments in the art and dissecting Fatima’s technique remains a challenge.
Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance is most famous today as an early symbol of film censorship. Presentation of the film usually starts with the uncensored version, all shimmies intact, and then we see fence-like mesh bars over Fatima’s breasts and hips, covering some (but not all!) of the movements. Just about every book on film censorship will declare that this was the start but actual sources seem a bit thin on the ground. In short, my suspicions were aroused.
I was digging and trying to make sense of the censorship quandary (who, when, where) when I ran across a brief review of the film by Eileen Bowser in the 1969 edition of Film Notes. At the time, the provenance of the Fatima film was even more foggy and it is listed as an International production rather than an Edison film but Bowser brings up a point that completely turns the censorship matter on its head:
“The censored version that follows, surely intended satirically, perhaps appeared during one of the many cries for censorship that arose in the early days of the movies.”
Bowser seemed to back away from this stance later on. In the 1981 edition of The Movies, which she contributed to, treats the censorship as sincere, if a bit odd. (“Compassionate censors of those early days, not wanting to deprive their audience of the lady altogether, simply blotted out the offending portions of her Egyptian shimmy.”) Still, the 1969 theory got my brain turning.
Now, there are several details that argue in favor of satire. First, the bars censoring Fatima are doing a pretty poor job of it. Her undulating midriff and the underwear peeking under her skirt are both clearly visible, both of which would have been offensive to the more pearl-clutching elements. Second, considering the anger directed at belly dancing, it strikes me that this compromise would not satisfy those calling for the censorship. Banning was simpler and likely more popular with the pro-censorship crowd.
Third, satire often gets lost in the sands of time. When I was researching another “scandalous” 1896 release, The May Irwin Kiss, I discovered that most of the books discussing the film’s alleged censorship based their claims on a misreading of a single satirical magazine piece. Bits of this sardonic article were taken out of context by Terry Ramsaye in his 1926 history of cinema and from there, the myth metastasized into historical fact. In fact, The Kiss was not considered particularly scandalous at the time it was released and many complaints revolved around the film not being considered sexy enough.
Fourth, censors were regularly held up for ridicule. For example, an 1897 item in The Jersey City News discusses a church group visiting Coney Island on a fact-finding mission. After careful examination of the belly dancers (nudge nudge, wink wink), Reverend Russell offered to hold a prayer meeting in the dancehall that Sunday. (Russell also led the early battle against motion picture smut, smashing peepshow machines at Coney Island and subsequently jumping bail after being charged with extortion and was never heard from again.) A similar article published in Alabama in 1898 poked fun at the “fact finding” mission of aldermen trying to determine if belly dance was obscene.
Bowser was onto something in 1969, in my opinion. Hyperbole was a common way to make fun of censorship, bringing the slippery slope argument in. In 1915, Moving Picture World sarcastically claimed they were handing an award for “censorial idiocy” to Pennsylvania but an indignant reader wrote to claim the award for Ohio. The reader backed their claim with the fact that in the Ohio cut, spicy Carmen was “a decorous, peaceable and even demure little maiden, opposed to cigarettes and cultivating the most friendly relations with the other factory girls. Done Jose is not allowed to do any bodily harm to Carmen. As for the embraces of Jose they are simply barred.”
However, I should note that while the original sources for both Carmen and The Kiss were generally considered to be harmless when the films were released, belly dancing was indeed a source of scandal. Reverend Russell was not alone in his desire to pray over the souls of these allegedly wayward women. We come back to the fact that exotification was intrinsic to Orientalism and after the novelty wore off, the art was treated with even more unveiled contempt.
The dance was banned in multiple locations, a 1903 exhibition in Kansas City, Missouri promised a replacement act that was “equally interesting but not at all improper.” In 1907, the Chicago Examiner condemned the “obscene posturing that accompanies the danse du ventre.”
I also found an 1897 anecdote in Phonoscope that I will reprint in its entirety because it is quite amusing and helps paint a picture of the reaction belly dancing received in more conservative circles.
“Some time ago there was a veriscope exhibition advertised for Worthington and it came off. Scenes of Biblical interest were, it is said, to have been depicted, and also views of old ocean were to be thrown upon the canvas. The matter was thoroughly advertised by means of notices and by word of mouth, and finally the eventful evening arrived. So did the operator with his veriscope.
A comfortable audience gathered, composed of deacons, their wives and families, young men and maidens. The lights were turned low, and then, it is said, there flashed upon the canvas two rounds of a regulation prize fight, with its cross-counters, straight arm jabs, uppercuts and clinches. Of course everyone was horrified; but this wasn’t a circumstance, for the next instant a skirt dancer was pirouetting before the eyes of the elect, displaying numberless yards of silk and plump feet and ankles. A shiver of horror permeated the atmosphere when with dazzling distinctness one of those naughty couchee-couchee dancers from Cairo wriggled across the canvas. This was followed by a horse race upside down, and the deacons made a rush for the operator, while it is said a blush that almost lit up the edifice ran around the room. It was then that the operator remarked that he was giving that show and he proposed to proceed with it. It is also alleged that he had stopped several times while en route to the town. The spectators were loath to let any of the exhibition matter out, but gradually the facts are coming to the surface.”
Boxing was considered to be as low and uncouth as belly dance. In 1897, The New York Times wrote: “It is not very creditable to our civilization perhaps that that achievement of what is now called the “veriscope” that has attracted and will attract the widest attention should be the representation of a prizefight. Moralists may deplore this fact, and the kindred fact that the fight in question “sold more extras” than would be sold by a Presidential election.”
The Veriscope was Enoch Rector’s motion picture brand and its 63mm films had in fact been designed with boxing matches specifically in mind. Prizefighting was banned in much of the United States and motion pictures were a way to evade such a ban. This was the company that pioneered feature-length entertainment with The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight the same year, so the audience’s horror at seeing a bloodsport on the screen seems to be at least a little disingenuous. Surely some of them knew what this heavily advertised machine was designed to screen.
The dance with plump ankles was likely some form of serpentine or butterfly dance, both of which relied on voluminous costumes for their effect and were extremely popular subjects for early films. Edison’s Annabelle films had been early hits of the peepshow circuit. Again, the audience’s shock was likely for the benefit of their neighbors.
In the November, 1896 issue of Phonoscope, the editors took their stand against bathing and dressing scenes with belly dance thrown in:
“The disappointment depicted on the faces of the audience of Miner’s Bowery Theater, when Venus was forbidden to take her bath, and the couchee couchee dance stopped, fully proved the degeneration of the taste of the present age. How long will it last?”
Talk to Mack Sennett about that. Venus most assuredly bathed in Keystone Comedies. By January of 1899, Phonoscope itself was singing a different tune. Its capsule review of Fatima’s Coochee Coochee Dance:
“This is the lady whose graceful interpretation of the poetry of motion has made this dance so popular of recent years.”
So, what we have established is that belly dance performances were wildly popular and vehemently condemned and that the dance was both censored and banned but remained an in-demand entertainment. In short, anything was possible.
I have no doubt that Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance was censored or, more likely, banned outright. I just was not able to find conclusive proof that the film was given the bar censorship treatment in this particular case sincerely or humorously, just that it was censored. Essentially, there is every possibility that we are dealing with pre-internet examples of Poe’s Law: “It is impossible to create a parody of extreme views such that it cannot be mistaken by some readers for a sincere expression of the views being parodied.”
The fight against censorship was vicious and quite often hilarious, so creating a clumsy and impractical censorship device would certainly be in keeping with the humor of the era. But then again, censors could be clumsy and impractical, so there is still a possibility that someone, somewhere thought this was a good idea. And, of course, it’s possible that this was the work of an over-zealous theater owner or private collector.
Unlike The Kiss, there’s no hard proof to close the book on Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance. It remains a tantalizing mystery, as unknown as the lady herself seems to be. All we can do is watch her twirl and wonder.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of Edison: The Invention of the Movies box set from Kino.
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