“On with the Dance!”, by Ambrose Bierce

vi

Cairo Revisited

Having glanced, briefly, and as through a glass darkly, at the dance as it existed in the earliest times of which we have knowledge in the country whence, through devious and partly obliterated channels, we derived much of our civilization, let us hastily survey some of its modern methods in the same region — supplying thereby some small means of comparison to the reader who may care to note the changes undergone and the features preserved.

We find the most notable, if not the only, purely Egyptian dancer of our time in the Alme or Ghowazee. The former name is derived from the original calling of this class — that of reciting poetry to the inmates of the harem, the latter they acquired by dancing at the festivals of the Ghors, or Memlooks. Reasonably modest at first, the dancing of the Alme became, in the course of time, so conspicuously indelicate that great numbers of the softer sex persuaded themselves to its acquirement and practice, and a certain viceregal Prude once contracted the powers of the whole Cairo contingent of Awalim into the pent up Utica of the town of Esuch, some five hundred miles removed from the viceregal dissenting eye. For a brief season the order was enforced, then the sprightly sinners danced out of bounds, and their successors can now be found by the foreign student of Egyptian morals without the fatigue and expense of a long journey up the Nile.

The professional dress of the Alme consists of a short embroidered jacket, fitting closely to the arms and back, but frankly unreserved in front, long loose trousers of silk sufficiently opaque somewhat to soften the severity of the lower limbs, a Cashmere shawl bound about the waist and a light turban of muslin embroidered with gold. The long black hair, starred with small coins, falls abundantly over the shoulders. The eyelids are sabled with kohl, and such other paints, oils, varnishes and dyestuffs are used as the fair one — who is a trifle dark, by the way — may have proved for herself, or accepted on the superior judgment of her European sisters. Altogether, the girl’s outer and visible aspect is not unattractive to the eye of the traveler, however faulty to the eye of the traveler’s wife. When about to dance, the Alme puts on a lighter and more diaphanous dress, eschews her slippers, and with a slow and measured step advances to the centre of the room — her lithe figure undulating with a grace peculiarly serpentile. The music is that of a reed pipe or a tambourine — a number of attendants assisting with castanets. Perhaps the “argument” of her dance will be a love-passage with an imaginary young Arab. The coyness of a first meeting by chance her gradual warming into passion their separation, followed by her tears and dejection the hope of meeting soon again and, finally, the intoxication of being held once more in his arms — all are delineated with a fidelity and detail surprising to whatever of judgment the masculine spectator may have the good fortune to retain.

One of the prime favorites is the “wasp dance,” allied to the Tarantella. Although less pleasing in motive than that described, the wasp dance gives opportunity for movements of even superior significance — or, as one may say, suggestures. The girl stands in a pensive posture, her hands demurely clasped in front, her head poised a little on one side. Suddenly a wasp is heard to approach, and by her gestures is seen to have stung her on the breast. She then darts hither and thither in pursuit of that audacious insect, assuming all manner of provoking attitudes, until, finally, the wasp having been caught and miserably exterminated, the girl resumes her innocent smile and modest pose.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31