Film History Essentials: Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance (1896)

What it’s about:

Fatima twirls around a few times and then begins gyrating and clapping her finger cymbals together, performing the famous “muscle” or “coochee-coochee” dance. The dance then repeats, this time with most of her chest and waist areas partially covered by fence-like white bars.

Why it’s essential:

Sometime in the spring of 1896, James H. White began to fill the role previously occupied by William Dickson and Alfred Clark as producer and director of Edison’s films, with William Heise continuing as the company’s designated camera operator. Once a phonograph salesman, White had just spent the previous few years promoting the Kinetoscope. He would spend the next few, the last of the century, as the man responsible for many of Edison’s most popular films. Some of these have aged quite well, while others, films like Chicken Thieves and Watermelon Contest, are among the more overtly-racist titles to have survived from that time.

Wherever it may fall on that spectrum, Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance certainly shows White’s eye for a subject that would sell. The film was released in early May of 1896, but I can tell you very little else that is for certain. Discussions of the film are rife with speculation, poor research, contradiction, and outright misinformation.

The dancer, Fatima, likely also performed under the name “Little Egypt,” and also was likely a performer in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Many performers either launched successful stage careers, or gained increased national fame (or notoriety) from their appearances there, and Edison’s films drew regularly from that pool throughout the mid-1890s. There are a number of sensationalistic stories about Fatima’s performances at the World’s Fair, their popularity, and the scandal they may have caused, including possible police intervention. There are also some rumors that some of those performances may have involved a man performing in drag, and it’s an interesting rabbit hole to go down, but ultimately one that is short on solid confirmation.

A depiction of “Fatima” in the media . . . but of which one?

The Chicago World’s Fair included several exhibits featuring orientalism or oriental subjects. One of these, the “Persian Palace,” did have a contingent of actual Persians who had traveled from Shiraz with artifacts of their trades and culture to demonstrate and sell. However, they were overshadowed by an invasion of lascivious dancers from Paris, which local authorities attempted unsuccessfully to shut down. There apparently were authentic Middle-Eastern dancers featured in the Turkish, Egyptian, and Algerian exhibits, and at least a few women performed at one (or more) of these who would also go on to appear under the name “Fatima” and/or “Little Egypt.”

The name Little Egypt gained a great deal of notoriety at the end of 1896 when Ashea Wabe, a Canadian dancer who performed under that name, agreed to perform in the nude at a high-society bachelor party in New York City that was raided by police. The party was reported to police by the step-father of dancer Annabelle Moore, who had been approached with the same proposition. The name was subsequently adopted by a number of performers, several of whom claimed to be “the original Little Egypt,” and the title also became something of a by-word for the suggestive displays that Wabe was famous for. Wabe, however, was not the dancer who appears in this film.

Neither, it seems, was it Fahreda Mazar Spyropoulos, who also performed under both stage names, and also appeared at the Chicago World’s Fair. Spyropoulos was possibly Syrian, and was married to an immigrant from Greece. She is often credited (although others are, as well) with popularizing the style of dance seen in the film, what we would now call “belly dancing” (from the French “danse du ventre”). Such performances were also variously known as a “muscle” dance, or “hoochie-koochie” or “coochee-coochee” (with seemingly endless spelling variations for the latter two). Spyropoulos may also have been one of the first to associate this type of dancing with “The Streets of Cairo,” a song whose title you may not recognize, but whose music I guarantee you have heard many times in this and similar contexts.

The woman who appears in Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance is most likely Fatima Djemille (or possibly Djamile, but likely not her real name anyway), who may have been working as a performer at Coney Island and in other places around New York City in the years after the World’s Fair. If she is indeed the woman White and Heise filmed in 1896, surprisingly little else is known about her for certain, but it’s not difficult to see how the details surrounding these contemporary dancers who shared so many things in common have gotten confused over time. Similar errors are common even when the details are not murky and overlapping.

Whoever the woman in this film actually is, and whatever the details surrounding her origins and her career, she was part of a trend in popular entertainment that seems to have begun in 1893 with the introduction of raqs sharqi and similar North African and Middle Eastern dances in Chicago. The trend ultimately stripped these dances of their context within those cultures, exoticizing and fetishizing the dancers for a (mostly male) Western audience. This may explain the odd censorship bars that appear across the second half of the film, though the reality there is perhaps more complex as well.

A bank of kinetoscopes inside a bar, mostly showing rounds of a boxing match. “Muscle Dance,” an alternate title of this film, appears on the 2nd from right.

Just like everything else about this film, the origins and purpose of that apparent censorship are shrouded in uncertainty. It’s possibly that it may be exactly what it appears to be: An attempt to cover up Fatima’s suggestive movements imposed by an outside authority or authorities. However, if that’s the case, it is strange that the uncensored and censored versions continue to exist side by side. Furthermore, at this time it was far more common for would-be censors to pursue the outright banning of a film they considered offensive rather than adopt such ineffectual half-measures. Also, if this were the case, surely some record or account of that fact would exist.

Some have also suggested that the bars are meant to satirize calls for censorship. This is a joke that the film’s target audience (e.g. the male patrons of a bar stocked with kinetoscopes) might certainly have appreciated. The very fact that the “covering” is so ineffective would certainly seem to support this possibility. Again, though, there isn’t really anything in the way of evidence for or against this explanation, which seems curious.

A third, and I believe quite compelling, possibility is that this is an example of self-censorship. By adding the bars themselves, the company could have helped forestall objections to the film that they must surely have expected. The film industry would, a few generations later, fully embrace self-censorship as a necessary measure in order to avoid the threat of outside censorship.

In this case, they may also have provided exhibitors with an alternate version upon request, to screen in more conservative areas. By offering a fig leaf of plausible deniability that would still allow an audience to enjoy a titillating spectacle, it could open up markets for the film that would otherwise have remained firmly closed. This, too, could explain why both versions remain paired in this way: because they were both products of the company itself. Still, this is as much a matter of speculation as the other two, and ultimately the correct explanation remains as mysterious and elusive as the film’s other details.

Why you should see it:

Other production companies were beginning to slowly innovate and evolve throughout 1896, but films released by Edison were slower to deviate from what had worked in the past until other, more daring producers had shown the way. Also, it was only around this time that Edison’s technicians successfully produced a portable camera, and just a few weeks after the release of this film, Heise and White began putting it to use on a trip to Niagara Falls.

The most notable evolution of this Edison production is the painted backdrop, a significant contrast to the blank vacuum of the Black Maria. Otherwise, this is still the same very confined, static shot of a stage performance that had been typical of the company’s films for over two years by this point. Despite a lack of innovation in the filmmaking, the dance itself is very dynamic and engaging. The dancer’s motions of course draw the eye, but also her costume is designed in a way that emphasizes and heightens the rhythms of the dance. The choice of subject was clearly a good one, and guaranteed to attract an audience.


~ by Jared on February 23, 2023.

2 Responses to “Film History Essentials: Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance (1896)”

  1. […] oblique [way] of displaying female sexuality,” in contrast with serpentine dances, the coochee-coochee, or even kissing. As tame as it appears now, a scene of girls frolicking in their nightgowns after […]


  2. […] like Carmencita and Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance were certainly targeted primarily at an adult, male audience. Their subjects flirted with the edge […]


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