It’s as American as apple pie.
In fact, it’s as Chicagoan as Redhots and the Ferris Wheel.
It’s belly dancing, and while it is based on a Middle Eastern social dance, what most people recognize as a sizzling art form was probably an American invention, said belly dance historian Marta Schill.
The dance, which has seen a flourish of renewed interest in the last decade, probably gained mainstream notoriety at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair. After the exhibition closed, a woman nicknamed Little Egypt-and several copycat performers-became a staple of traveling fairs visiting cities across the country.
What has developed from that movement is now on the rise again with pop icons such as Madonna, Britney Spears and Shakira incorporating the dance into their music videos, said Roxanne Larcher, a dance instructor in Aurora.
On a recent Saturday evening, the rhythmic dancing of Karen Hersh, 42, of Riverside, and Stephanie Frye, 37, of Oak Park, had the attention of several groups of diners at Khyber Pass restaurant, 1031 Lake St., Oak Park. Taking cues from each other through chants and body motion, their semi-interpretive routine carried through four songs in about 15 minutes.
Dancers from the five-member Gypsy Queens troupe take turns twice monthly performing at the Indian restaurant. The Gypsy Queens, based out of Forest Park, also perform at street festivals and carnivals throughout the Chicago region.
For about five years, veteran dance instructor Donna Kajtsa said she has seen an upturn in the number of women enrolling in belly dancing classes.
“It comes and goes,” she said, adding that this dance form was at its peak in the 1960s and 1970s. “But we are seeing an upswing again.”
When she first started in the early 1990s, Larcher said classes were composed of four or five people; now they have swelled to as many as 200.
And the growth in the Chicago region is mimicking a national fad, said Schill, co-author of “The Compleat Belly Dancer” and vice president of the Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association.
The dance grew in popularity in the middle of the 20th century, she said, in part because of Rita Hayworth, who played a princess in the 1953 movie “Salome.” Classes began appearing in the 1960s.
In 1977, Schill and other dancers formed the Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association with 12 members as an attempt to promote the dance as an art form. It now has more than 1,000 members in 17 chapters throughout the United States. While there are several different types of belly dance forms, the most popular to emerge recently is the American Tribal Style, Schill said.
American Tribal, which is the type of dance the Gypsy Queens practice, is the mutt of belly dancing-stealing from several other types of dance and attire. Dancers are free to wear their hair in any style and can display tattoos if they have them, Schill said. The dance is more relaxed and accepting.
And another way American Tribal differs from a more standard belly dance is by adding spirituality, Kajtsa said.
For Karen Hersh, emotion is an important part of her art form.
“It’s all about being a woman,” she said. “For me, I’m being a part of a community of women.”
She says the dance feels empowering and uplifting.
“When you’re dancing, you’re not the mom at home,” Kajtsa said. “It gets women out of normal everyday activity.”
And Schill said she believes the dance is easier to master because it doesn’t require as much flexibility or long-term training.
But it’s not lazy or easy, said Kajtsa, who holds classes in Roselle, Glen Ellyn and Bartlett.
“We sweat in my class.”