The Wasp or Bee Dance

Duvet

Member
I always thought that this was a strip-tease dance created to meet European tastes (ala Flaubert and Kutchuk Hanem), but I've recently read three first hand accounts from the 1840s-50s of it being danced in Egypt by men, with or without the strip tease element.
It was performed by the crew of the Nile boats hired by the writers, and these crew men are predominantly given as being Egyptian or Nubian. There is no suggestion of female impersonation, and its done purely to pass the time or provide entertainment, as if it was a normal, frequently repeated occurence.

Does anyone know the history of this dance?
Was it a normal dance everyone did, or were the boatmen parodying a female dance (as the cane dance is meant to parody the male stick dance)? If it was a parody, does that imply it was an established part of the culture, and therefore not a very recent introduction? The arghul does make a buzzy sound, so I don't see why a dancer wouldn't interpret it as a buzzing insect at some early date, and perform a dance accordingly.
I have found five travel accounts during the same period of women performing the wasp or bee dance (one of which I think is made up). And of those (including the suspect one) three were performed at private parties and resulted in nudity. So maybe there were two versions, depending on what the audience demanded or paid for. Was it danced equally by both men and women, but social prejudice saw the women as sexual and the men as fun?

Has any modern dancer performed or seen the Bee Dance? Is it predominantly a comical performance? I tried looking on Youtube, but keep seeing nature programs on honey bees, or cute kids dancing in bee costumes!!
 
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Kashmir

New member
I always thought that this was a strip-tease dance created to meet European tastes (ala Flaubert and Kutchuk Hanem), but I've recently read three first hand accounts from the 1840s-50s of it being danced in Egypt by men, with or without the strip tease element.
It was performed by the crew of the Nile boats hired by the writers, and these crew men are predominantly given as being Egyptian or Nubian. There is no suggestion of female impersonation, and its done purely to pass the time or provide entertainment, as if it was a normal, frequently repeated occurence.
What were the sources?

Hard to know if the dance has any connection with the "famous" Bee Dance. Think of this, my grandfather in Hungary did the Horse Dance at weddings - but I can guarantee it is nothing like the Reda Sa`iidi Horse Dance - just that both places have horses and dancers.
 

Duvet

Member
These are the traveller accounts of boatmen performing the Wasp or Bee dance, or something similar.

1. Isabella Frances Romer. In Nov 1845 she watches the crewmen eat their supper, after which they sit in a circle. “In the midst of the circle was one of the crew with a long stick in his hand, performing one of those extraordinary dances (in this country called the wasp dance) which used to be peculiar to the (now banished) Ghawazees, or dancing-girls of Cairo – evidently of the same origin as the Mosea, or Fly Dance, which I saw performed by the Gitanas of Granada, and like it characterized by all those strange attitudes and gesticulations of the body which form the base of Oriental dancing.” A Pilgrimage to the Temples and Tombs of Egypt, Nubia, and Palestine 1845-46; Isabella Frances Romer; Elibron 2005; Vol.1, pp.116-117

Isabella Romer also saw the Ghawazee dance on a few occasions. The Fly dance she witnessed in the summer of 1842, performed with other dances at a special show put on by the Gitanos of Granada, Spain. She called this dance, performed by a soloist, "really a beautiful pantomime” but all executed with “an abandon of look and gesture which assimilates them to the wanton exhibitions of the Eastern Bayaderes," and compares it to the dances she saw in the Turkish Harems. (I haven't found her account of Turkey yet, if she left one - nor anything about this Fly Dance).


2. William Furniss. In early February 1848, “At mid-day, we had a matinee dansante by the crew, and found no little amusement in witnessing the exhibition of the novel, and extraordinary dances of the country. To-day, also, we had exemplification or amplification of two kinds – the Wasp Dance, by Hadji-Bab, and the Hunting Gallop, by old Ossan Hassein Mohammed, a venerable sexagenarian, who saw fit to revive the gayety of his boyhood for our especial gratification.
The old man performed some curious gyrations and evolutions, which were evidently in imitation of some of the dances of the Ghazee of Cairo – men who are often substituted for women at the nuptial celebrations of the rich.
Hadji-Bab, in his turn...gave us some most extraordinary exhibitions of his powers in the dances of the country. He added some curious points and pirouettes, which would have even astonished the dancing girls of Esneh; and after a series of feats, in which he varied his multitudinous motions with several supernatural and convulsive leaps, the scamp suddenly dashed off his nether garments, and disappeared with a plunge into the Nile.”
Waraga: or The Charms of the Nile; Wlliam Furniss; Baker & Scribner 1850; pp.328-29

William Furniss had already seen the dancing-girls of Esneh, and watched them perform the "Wasp or Bee dance", so he was comparing it with something he had already seen. The "mid-day matineees" were frequent occurences.


3.Bayard Taylor. In 1851, one of his crew is a good singer, who adds to the crews' general chorus and on some occassions performs a pantomime. "The favourite pantomime is that of a man running into a hornet’s nest. He stamps and cries, improvising all the while, the chorus seeking to drown his voice. He then throws off his mantle, cap, and sometimes his last garment, slapping his body to drive off the hornets, and howling with pain. The song winds up with a prolonged cry, which only ceases when every lung is emptied.”
A Journey to Central Africa; Bayard Taylor; Putnam 1859; p.90

Bayard Taylor does record performances by dancing women, but not anything like the Wasp dance. His account implies he saw the men dance a few times. The violent slapping, howling and leaping also appear in accounts of women performing the Wasp or Bee dance.


Admittedly the first account has nothing to connect it to the Wasp dance other than the name, and Mrs. Romer says next to nothing about how it was performed. The stick might suggest a different dance entirely, or a variation, or more likely more than one dance was performed. But she associated what she saw with the Wasp dance, and a Fly dance, so presumably it involved a small insect irritating the dancer in some way.
The other two accounts are very similar, except one involves a wasp, the other a hornets nest. The travellers' accounts of women performing the Wasp/Bee dance involves them walking in a garden or picking flowers, and then disturbing a stinging insect. Perhaps these are all are just variations in the situation, but the actions and end result would be the same - frantic and frenzied motion, with removal of some or all of the clothes.
 

Kashmir

New member
Thank you. I just wish these old time travellers were a little more switched on and described more clearly what they saw. Sigh!
 

Ariadne

Well-known member
I don't know anything about the history of the dance but Egypt does have a long history of bee symbols/association in their society. It pretty much traces back to the very beginning. You might enjoy looking into it.
 

Tarik Sultan

New member
Just something to consider. These people were visitors who knoew nothing about the society or people. How well can you really understan a people under those circumstances? Just look at our own societies and consider some of the stupid antics people get up to. Type in ass rocket on youtube and see what you come up with. A lot of dumb kids sticking skyrockets up their butts and lighting them. Now lets suppose there's a foreign visitor who witnesses this. What does he or she really know about our society, nothing but what he se's and how much of what he ses does he understand? Now said traveler goes back to his or her country and writes about the sport of assrocketing they witnessed. Did the guys really stick rockets up their butts, yes. Is it something representative of the culture? No. Just a couple of dumb guys with a strange sense of humor and too much time on their hands. Every country has their example of stupid human tricks. Doesn't represent the societies as a whole in any way form or fashion.
 

Ariadne

Well-known member
...and yet Japanese kids really do Kancho their friends.

When you have multiple first hand accounts of witnessing the same behavior then, without cause to disregard it as an anomaly, it is a valid observation. Nor does it have to represent society on a whole to be any more or less valid. Just because you may not approve or like it is insufficient cause to disregard it. Egypt was/is a large country with a wide variety and varied history.
 

Tarik Sultan

New member
...and yet Japanese kids really do Kancho their friends.

When you have multiple first hand accounts of witnessing the same behavior then, without cause to disregard it as an anomaly, it is a valid observation. Nor does it have to represent society on a whole to be any more or less valid. Just because you may not approve or like it is insufficient cause to disregard it. Egypt was/is a large country with a wide variety and varied history.
Have no idea what a kancho is. Anyway, how I may or may not feel about it is irrelivant. The fact that several people saw something is irrelivant when discussing whether or not it represents the culture as a whole or a fringe element. A few guys clowning around is a few guys clowning around. Prostitutes entertaining their guests in a brothel is not the same context as family and friends enjoying each others company, nor is it even if they hire a dancer to perform at a wedding.

All societies have their highs and lows. It should not come as a surprise that if one went slumming in Egypt way back then one would find bawdy entertainers. They exist in every society. The point is, is it correct to hold up the lowest elements of a society as being its representative? In my humble opinion, no. There were raunchy dancers in the 19th century and there are raunchy dancers now and there are raunchy dancers in every country on the face of the earth. Why hold Egypt out there as if they somehow cornered the market on sleaz? Why the morbid fascination?

All I'm saying is that these things have to be put in the propper context. People do all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons and so what? Every hous has a sewer. Do I really need to have guest in my house run down to the basement open my septic tank and wax on and on about how bad it stinks? I just find it hypocritical and annoying how quick people are to jump on the seamy underbelly of Eastern societies and play those images up. So some women in Egypt for god only knows what reasons and under what circumstances took it off..... meanwhile there were places in Paris you could go and watch live sex acts being performed. Should we call that an example of the French performing arts tradition?
 

Duvet

Member
Not only can an honest and liberal traveller's perspective be wrong, but there are some really awful accounts published that are laden with racist superiority, wealth arrogance and moralising blustering, not to mention a good yarn or two that sound too convenient to be true. But there are also other accounts out there that do try to understand and accurately portray what was seen.

I think its easy to forget that a traveller in Egypt (or anywhere) wasn't there alone. They had servants, boat crew, travelling companions, friends, local contacts, casual aquaintances, all of whom could be consulted for explanations of what was being seen. A lot of the travellers also knew Arabic or Turkish or both, and almost all employed a dragoman to help with the language and local arrangements of hiring a boat, finding accommodation, obtaining supplies, etc.

If a traveller writes an account that is confused or wrong, it could be the result of misinformation from those around him or her, and not always the result of personal prejudice or ignorance. Yes, they could still be judgemental and moralising, but as a reader you can try to be aware of that, and make up your own mind about the writer's opinions.

Regarding the bee dance in my post - there are multiple accounts of a similar event in different times with different people, so the dance was there, and was part of the culture at that snap-shot time (even if it hadn't been there ten years before - it was there at that moment).
 
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Duvet

Member
Tarik - I don't understand what you're arguing with in my post.

The quotations I gave don't mention, or suggest, anything sleazy or low class - just, as you say, a bunch of men fooling around.
You made the leap to prostitutes and brothels, not me, nor the people I am quoting.
 

Tarik Sultan

New member
I always thought that this was a strip-tease dance created to meet European tastes (ala Flaubert and Kutchuk Hanem), but I've recently read three first hand accounts from the 1840s-50s of it being danced in Egypt by men, with or without the strip tease element.
It was performed by the crew of the Nile boats hired by the writers, and these crew men are predominantly given as being Egyptian or Nubian. There is no suggestion of female impersonation, and its done purely to pass the time or provide entertainment, as if it was a normal, frequently repeated occurence.

To answer you questions directly, based on the accounts you gave later we really don't know what they were doing. Guys clowning around is what it sounds like.

Does anyone know the history of this dance?

There is no history. People never documented mundance things. Its like asking who made the first falafel. Who the hell knows, who the hell cares as long as you don't over cook it.

Was it a normal dance everyone did,

No it wasn't.

or were the boatmen parodying a female dance (as the cane dance is meant to parody the male stick dance)? If it was a parody, does that imply it was an established part of the culture, and therefore not a very recent introduction?

Have you ever hung out with a bunch of frat boys when they get wasted? You see a lot of strange s*** happening. Sometimes they don't even have to be drunk, just boared and stupid. Guys have a tendency to do weird things, Egypt has guys, therefore..... Doesn't mean its "a representation of the culture".

The arghul does make a buzzy sound, so I don't see why a dancer wouldn't interpret it as a buzzing insect at some early date, and perform a dance accordingly.

Context is everything. You must never forget that dance in these countries is primarily a social expression. Performers are the minority. Most dance happens spontaniously in social settings. It is not performance.

I have found five travel accounts during the same period of women performing the wasp or bee dance (one of which I think is made up). And of those (including the suspect one) three were performed at private parties and resulted in nudity.

Look. Even today if you go to Cairo, Lebanon, Syria, there are houses where men go to be "entertained". Since the dance is something that everybody grows up doing, everybody knows how to do it. However, in the context of a bawdy house, they'll do it in a neglege or a slip or they toss it all together. There are tons of clips all over youtube of this sort of thing. This was not the kind of thing you would find in normal settings. Keeping in mind that the normal occasions for hiring entertainers were weddings, birth, circumcisions. You hired them and they performed in your home. Your not going to have people stripping off in front of your kids and the women of your family.

Were there men who danced the Bee for pay. Were they parodying women when they did? Some did, some thought they really were women again, nothing different than what could be observed anywhere else in the world. Man in a dress, no, we never had anything like that happen in the civilized West.


So maybe there were two versions, depending on what the audience demanded or paid for.

In all likely hood it was some sort of parody where someone pretended to have a bee in their clothes trying to get it out and getting stung. What happens after that depends on if its a family gathering or a private party where "company" has been paid for.

Was it danced equally by both men and women, but social prejudice saw the women as sexual and the men as fun?

Who know, wo cares, there really isn't anyway to full know without having been there and understanding the context of what wa going on. If there are men and there are women around who are not under the protection of a father, husband, the men will always seek to take advantage of them, whether they comply willingly for pay or they can be coerced and intimidated into doing it. It all depends on the circumstances and the context.

Has any modern dancer performed or seen the Bee Dance? Is it predominantly a comical performance? I tried looking on Youtube, but keep seeing nature programs on honey bees, or cute kids dancing in bee costumes!!
Whatever it was its not something that is done today, nor is it something that is performed. Women stripping off you can find that in any brothel anywhere in the world, Egypt is not special in that regard.
 
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Ariadne

Well-known member
Tarik - I don't understand what you're arguing with in my post.

The quotations I gave don't mention, or suggest, anything sleazy or low class - just, as you say, a bunch of men fooling around.
You made the leap to prostitutes and brothels, not me, nor the people I am quoting.
This is why I responded as I did. Tarik, all this is is a description of one of many dances that was witnessed by people at a period of time. A dance that like any could be taken as far or as little as wished by the dancer whether it was socially or "professionally". Why then would you jump to a comparison with shoving rockets up... seriously? No one but you has drawn some kind of connection with overall culture. Why are you even defending something that was never attacked?

For your perusal -> Kancho - Wikipedia
I have never heard anyone hold it up as an icon of their culture or society. People outside of Japan do ask if this is for real though. Yes, it is.
 

Duvet

Member
Thank you Tarik for taking the time to answer my post. Your view of what is of value seems to be different from mine, but life would be boring if we all thought the same, and I’d like to come back on a few points.

You seem to be saying that because it is men clowning around it has no value; because it wasn’t recorded by one of the dancers it has no value; because it is recorded in the past it has no value. The only thing that’s important is what we do now.

I agree that what we value and do today should not be dictated by what went on in the past, but then you say context is everything – so how can you have context without knowledge of past occurences or expectations?

Your argument about the frat boys actually does say something about the culture of college life, and of male behaviour. It doesn’t represent all men, all situations, or the whole of society, but it can be used to gauge an idea of what the expected behaviour might be in that situation, and therefore the social idea of what young men behave like – just as you yourself later give an expected behaviour of what goes on in a bawdy house.

Clowning around is an important part of a culture. What people do when they are relaxed and entertaining themselves can tell us about what they value or aspire to, or what they view as appropriate for themselves or for others. The boatmen dancing and singing means that that was something they enjoyed, valued and thought was the right thing to do at the time. They didn’t sit around drinking alcohol or playing with fire works. What they did might not be acceptable in another context, or amongst other people, but it doesn’t mean that what they were doing was unimportant, or that it couldn’t have parallels in other stratas of society.

As you said – dance was a social event that people learnt as they grew up. These boatmen were dancing spontaneously in a social setting, and must also have learnt the (bee) dances from somewhere.

Near the end you make comments on transvestism, dancing for money, and women as sex objects. There is nothing about that in the accounts, nor is that part of my question. The witnesses, in this context, didn’t think the men were trying to be women, and there is no asking for payment afterwards. References in other parts of the books would suggest that if either were the case, then it would have been recorded.

I did not start this thread because I want to watch a woman perform the bee dance while she takes her clothes off. As my post suggests, the removal of clothing was by no means a universal part of the dance, and so that prompted me to wander whether the strip-tease element was actually not the ‘normal’ version, and if there was, or once was, a fully clothed version that was generally acceptable for public viewing. I asked if anyone had seen the bee dance performed because I would like their impression of the tone of the dance. I can only think of it as predominantly a comical pantomime, as a person leaping and crying and slapping at an imagined insect would, in me, create hilarity rather than arousal. If comedy is the aim of the dance, then the removal of clothing is an irrelevant factor in it, and therefore something done only according to the setting.

History is one of my enjoyments, just as dance is one of yours. I’m glad you took the time to answer my post in full.
 
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Tarik Sultan

New member
Tarik - I don't understand what you're arguing with in my post.

The quotations I gave don't mention, or suggest, anything sleazy or low class - just, as you say, a bunch of men fooling around.
You made the leap to prostitutes and brothels, not me, nor the people I am quoting.
I'm not arguing with you about anything. I just answered your questions and put them in context. Stipping off clothes is not something that happened in ordinary social setting back then nor now. Did things like that happen, yes they did. Well then if so, what context circumstances would it happen? It would happen in the contexts and circumstances I described. Nobody's angry at you about anything.
 

Andrea Deagon

New member
Kathleen Fraser of Toronto has an interesting paper on the Bee that i hope she'll put together for academic publication. It containes both accounts and pictures of various bee dances in Egypt prior to the Suez canal.

One thing to bear in mind is that there is also a long tradition of dance-clowning in many parts of the Middle East -- as well as the notion that dancers should be able to sing, do comedy sketches, maybe a little bit of acrobatics, and run the gamut between dynamic physical feats of virtuosity, and far more subtle modes of performance. I personally think the bee is supposed to be funny; I can see a bunch of ordinary gals or guys getting nice and relaxed and saying the equivalent of "Uncle Joe/Aunt Mary, do your bee dance. Come on, we all want to see it .. oh, come on ...." till the dance is performed, with symbolic transgressive elements, to great hilarity among one's same-gendered family & friends.

OTOH, as everyone acknowledges, in the average brothel the bee dance was probably a little racier and maybe not so humorous. Though hard to see it as all that serious.

Just as a note, Theophile Gautier (author of the ballet Giselle) put a bee dance in his ballet La Peri in about 1842. Carlotta Grisi, the ballerina, performed it once and then refused to do it again, replacing it with a Spanish number in which she, like all the other leading ballerinas of the day, played killer castanets.
 

Duvet

Member
Tarik, I enjoy your posts. We all have different perspectives, experiences and knowledge, which this forum allows us to share. I know you are not angry with me.


Andrea, your comments are similar to what I'm coming to perceive - dancers were often all round entertainers, who sang, danced, acted, told stories, etc. Extremely versatile. Its this kind of behaviour that the boat men seem to exhibit in the travellers' accounts I've read (and not just the ones I've quoted).
I hope you let us know when/if Kathleen Fraser publishes her paper.

As to the ballet - it premiered in Paris in July 1843. The 'Peri' of the title, and who dances the bee dance, is the Fairy Queen, whom the mortal Achmet falls in love with, and she with him. The Fairy then inhabits the body of a slave girl, Leila, who had just been shot trying to escape, so that she (the Fairy) can exist in the mortal world with Achmet. But Achmet then falls in love with Leila (who he doesn't realise is the Fairy Queen), renounces the Queen's love and is thrown from a high window for not given up the run away slave Leila (who isn't really Leila, and is actually dead) to her owner. :shok: All a bit weird.
Not only did Grisi later refuse to dance the bee sequence as originally choreographed (despite getting rave reviews), but the shooting of the slave girl was also removed.
Gautier might have got his idea for the dance from a work by Alexandre Dumas, and there was a growing theme at the time of including "character dances" in ballet - the tarentella, fandango, waltz etc.
 
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Andrea Deagon

New member
Hey Duvet -- do you know where I can find reviews of Grisi in La Peri? I could try combing through La Presse online but I'd rather not have to ... I'm interested in Gautier for various other reasons & these reviews (esp. if they include something descriptive) would be interesting to see. Thanks --
 

Duvet

Member
Andrea, my sources are;
1."Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle" by Marian Elizabeth Smith (Princeton 2000). She quotes Gautier's description of Grisi dancing, and the footnote references La Presse July 25th 1843.
2."Dance Pathologies" by Felicia M. McCarren (Stanford Uni Press 1998). She mentions the 'rave reviews' and adds the detail that Grisi wished the choreography to be changed. Her footnote refers to Ivor Guest (below) and she mentions Andrew Gann's "La Genese de Peri" (1983), quoting in brief his visual symbolic take on the dance.
3."The Romantic Ballet in Paris" by Ivor Forbes Guest (Pitman 1966). He gives a short account of the dance, the plot of the ballet and some comments on its performance.
4."The Oxford Dictionary of Dance" by D.Craine & J.Mackrell (Oxford Uni Press 2000). This states the ballet's popularity, and its premiere dates.

Reviews I know of (but have not read - I'm not familiar enough with French to trust my interpretation of the blurry images online) are;

Journal des Debats Politiques et Litteraires July 19th 1843
La Presse July 25th 1843
Journal des Debats Politiques et Litteraires March 31st 1845 (when Miss Plunkett debuted)
La Presse May 12th 1845
available at Gallica digital library - Over a million books and documents accessible for free

La Peri also premiered in London in Sept 1843, so maybe the London papers have accounts.

I hope this gives you some positive leads. I would be interested to hear what the newspapers say.
 

Andrea Deagon

New member
Thank you, Duvet! I love the Gallica Digital Library (except for the 75% word recognition for searching) and I'll send you the translations of the reviews from La Presse when I manage to get to them -- soon I think. I may have trouble with Le Journal des Debats Politiques et Litteraires though. Come on, Gallica! Digitize everything!

Thanks again --
Andrea
 
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