THE DANSE DU VENTRE
It was the summer of 1893, and Ida C. Craddock was in the Cairo Street Theatre at the Chicago World’s Fair, watching the belly dancers. There were about twelve of them, all in their late teens to early twenties, and as each one performed, the others sat behind her on divans to watch. Musicians played drums, woodwinds, and strings. The Algerian and Egyptian dancers wore ornamented headdresses, tiny cymbals on their fingers, knee-length peasant skirts, fringed epaulets, hip belts with vertical fabric flaps, and long beaded necklaces. Black stockings covered their legs. They had white muslin drawers to the knees, and high-heeled slippers. Their skirts’ waistbands, shaped like coiled snakes, rose only to their hips, and their netted silk undervests were semitransparent. Spectators could see their navels—as shocking as a camel ride, another attraction at the World’s Fair. American women were never seen in public without corsets, much less with their abdomens exposed. Victorian-era dances were led by dancing masters, who directed steps and patterns—no improvisation or gyrations.
The dancers moved their bellies coyly, clicking cymbals and swaying the upper part of their bodies. Some held bottles of water on their heads. Their gyrations grew more agitated and spasmodic as they rang their cymbals faster. Very few made direct eye contact with male audience members. When the performances reached a climax, the women would stand stock still, as if seized by something violent, and then visibly grow exhausted.
Viewers took in the belly dance with bemusement, horror, and titillation. Some cried out “Disgusting!” and fled the theater. Some men who stayed had looks on their faces that, as Craddock put it, “they would have been ashamed to have their mothers or their girl sisters see.” To her, those people were philistines.
She was a thirty-six-year-old teacher with brilliant blue eyes; her complexion was clear, her features cameo-cut, and her fingers delicate and tapering. She was living in her domineering mother’s Philadelphia living room behind a partition she called “the cubicle.”
After having tried and failed to be the first woman admitted to the University of Pennsylvania’s liberal arts program, she had become a lay scholar of comparative religion, reading voraciously at Philadelphia’s Ridgway Library. She was at work on two manuscripts, one on the origin of the devil, and one on “sex worship,” or sexual symbols in ancient world religions. She taught stenography at Girard College, a school for orphaned boys. By the time of her World’s Fair visit, she had taught herself, and written a book on, a form of shorthand, which she believed could help ambitious men and women work their way up in business.
In the danse du ventre, Craddock saw a visual fusion of her two passions: sex and symbolism. While a teenager at Philadelphia’s prestigious Friends’ Central School, founded by Quakers, a lesson on botany ignited her curiosity about sex. As she recalled in a short memoir titled “Story of My Life: In Regard to Sex and Occult Teaching,” the instructor, Annie Shoemaker, told the class, “Girls, whenever I take up this subject, I feel as though I were entering a holy temple.” As Craddock learned how plants were fertilized, she felt “all on fire with the delight of my discovery, intellectually keen and eager … From that hour, dates the birth of my idealizing of sex.”
In Chicago, twenty years after that lesson, she understood that the belly dancers’ thrusts were simulating a woman’s movements during intercourse. The bottle of water was an erect penis on the verge of ejaculation. And the extreme self-control was a reference to male continence, or coitus reservatus, a better-sex and contraceptive technique in which a man orgasms without ejaculating. When three women behind her at the show made sarcastic comments, she turned and said, “If you knew what that dance signifies, you would not make yourselves conspicuous by laughing at it.” She believed it was a religious memorial of purity descending from ancient days. To serve God was not to choose asceticism but to experience self-controlled pleasure. After a gentleman overheard Craddock’s rebuke, he was so impressed he vowed to return with his wife. This was the highest compliment she could be paid: he had been listening, he had taken her words seriously, and he was coming back.
* * *
The World’s Fair, or Columbian Exposition, had opened three months earlier, on May 1, 1893. The economy was uncertain; beginning with the collapse of a major railroad that spring, the Panic of 1893 was in full swing. The U.S. Treasury was bankrupted; Americans had rushed to withdraw money from their bank accounts. By the end of the year, more than fifteen thousand banking institutions would declare bankruptcy and hundreds of thousands of Americans would be out of work.
The fair drew half the nation’s population—28 million people—and introduced such marvels as ragtime music, Cream of Wheat, Pabst Blue Ribbon, the dishwasher, and the Ferris wheel, which took 2,160 people 264 feet above Lake Michigan and the city. A visitor could see a fluorescent lightbulb and eat an omelet made from the eggs of ostriches that lived at the fair.
The Woman’s Building, a showcase of women’s achievements, was installed in an Italian Renaissance–style villa. It was an optimistic moment for women, despite the fact that the suffrage fight was still raging, forty-five years after the Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, had launched the movement. The Woman’s Building was managed by a Board of Lady Managers, who also hosted important dignitaries and addressed the concerns of women visitors and performers.
Radicalism was flourishing in the nation, and the International Anarchist Convention, which coincided with the fair, was banned by the police but held secretly at the offices of The Chicago Times. Several years earlier, at a rally for an eight-hour workday in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, a bomb had detonated in the middle of a group of policemen. Eight anarchists were arrested and eventually convicted; four of them were executed, igniting fury among radicals. During the fair, on June 25, about eight thousand people attended a dedication of a monument to the Haymarket Square anarchists in the city’s Waldheim Cemetery. A day later, the governor of Illinois unconditionally pardoned the remaining Haymarket anarchists on the grounds that they did not have a fair trial. Later that summer, in New York, a rising anarchist activist named Emma Goldman would give speeches advocating for labor rights and rights of the unemployed. She would be arrested and charged with incitement to riot.
The centerpiece of the fair was the Midway Plaisance, a mile-long stretch from Jackson Park to Washington Park conceived as a living outdoor museum of the world. Curated by a Harvard ethnologist, its highlights included an Algerian village, a Samoan settlement, an Eskimo camp, a Lapland village, and an Austrian village—but the hottest attraction was A Street in Cairo, which featured camel rides, donkeys, bazaars, snake charmers, fakirs, and child acrobats. Up to four hundred performers of Egyptian, Nubian, and Sudanese descent, and their dogs, donkeys, camels, and snakes, lived on Cairo Street for the six-month duration of the exposition.
The belly dance, or danse du ventre, was the Cairo Street Theatre’s most controversial show, performed for forty minutes every hour on the hour. The Midway Plaisance general manager Sol Bloom called it “a masterpiece of rhythm and beauty.” He had discovered the dancers at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris and bought the rights to bring them to the Americas. He claimed to have composed the song associated with belly dancing, which would be called the “Hoochy-Koochy,” “Koochy-Koochy,” “Huta-Kuta Dance,” and “Muscle Dance,” performed at burlesque shows and dance halls around the country, and which may even have inspired the hokey pokey. The term hoochy-koochy derived from the French word hochequeue—to shake the tail—from a bird that flutters its tail feathers while standing. At a press preview of the dance, only a pianist was provided, and to give him an idea of the rhythm, Bloom hummed a tune and then sat down at the piano and picked it out with one finger himself. A score was arranged from that improvisation, and the melody became better known than the dance. Children still sing it today, with the lyrics “There’s a place in France / Where the naked ladies dance.” In his 1948 memoir, Bloom lamented that his failure to copyright the song cost him at least a few hundred thousand dollars in lost royalties.
When the public learned that danse du ventre meant “belly dance,” Bloom recalled in the memoir, “they delightedly concluded that it must be salacious and immoral. The crowds poured in. I had a gold mine.” The Princeton Union (a weekly newspaper published in Princeton, Minnesota) and The New York World called it an “abomination” and “veiled wickedness.” The Chicago Tribune pronounced it “a depraved and immoral exhibition.” As one reporter described it, “The dusky beauties, with a clatter of cymbals, execute the dances, more peculiar than poetic—somewhat more gross than graceful, til one feels a touch of sympathy with the chap near us who, after wondering observation, turned to his mother with the query: ‘What ails the lady, is she sick?’”
* * *
It was only a matter of time before word of the belly dance reached the nation’s chief vice hunter, Anthony Comstock, who served as a post office inspector (a federal position with law enforcement power) and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV). Forty-nine years old during the fair and rounding out his second decade in power, he had red muttonchops covering a scar inflicted by an irate smut dealer who stabbed him in the face. He had enormous shoulders, a big chest, short tree-trunk legs, a dome-like forehead, light blue-gray eyes, a broad brow, and the build of a fighter. Walking on the balls of his feet, he was short and stout, resembling “a New Englander who eats pie for breakfast, dinner and supper.” He favored starched shirts with bow ties. Beneath his clothes, no matter the weather, he wore red flannel underwear. His shoes, which he bought from a police and fireman supply store, were size thirteen heavy-soled boots. While crossing the street in New York one day, he was nearly run over by a mail wagon. He shook his badge at the horse and cried, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Anthony Comstock!” A reporter once called his office and asked an assistant whether Comstock had been punched in the face that morning. The answer was concise: “Probably.”
Comstock learned about the belly dance while in Wisconsin for the Monona Lake Assembly, a religious revival. On July 27, Comstock delivered a talk called “The Foes of Society.” Three activities, he said, were crime-breeders: intemperance, gambling, and evil reading. Each degraded people, wrecked homes, impoverished women and children, and created and fostered crimes. A foul story or tainted picture was a stain on children, at first imperceptible but soon filling their imaginations with corrupt influences as dreaded as smallpox or scarlet fever. He concluded by telling of his good work at the NYSSV.
After a lawyer at the revival told Comstock that he and his family had visited the fair’s Cairo Street Theatre, only to discover the obscene show, Comstock took action, deciding to make a detour to Chicago on his way back to his summer home in New Jersey. He was a moral scold wherever he went; in the sleeping car, a man accused a Black porter of stealing his wife’s watch after he made the bunk bed, but Comstock intervened, finding it in the pillowcase lining. “That’s one of the cases where I’m sorry I got the property back,” Comstock said later, “for the man hadn’t the decency to apologize to the porter.” Comstock arrived at the fair on August 1, but did not announce his plans; as he wrote in the NYSSV Annual Report for that year, “It was thought by the agent best not to be known until the blow was struck.” Insofar as a nationally famous, two-hundred-pound man with red muttonchops could be incognito, Comstock was going to try.
* * *
Anthony Comstock was one of the most important men in the lives of nineteenth-century women, a product of his upbringing, religion, and time. Growing up before the Civil War on a farm in New Canaan, Connecticut, he was raised to believe in the Victorian ideal of womanhood—a saintly, pure wife and mother whose domain was the home. When he arrived in New York as a young veteran in search of a dry goods job, he was shocked by the sounds, smells, and mores of the new American city, with its streetwalking, gambling, saloons, and brothels, and pornography peddled openly on the street. He became convinced that obscenity, which he called a “hydra-headed monster,” led to prostitution, illness, death, abortions, and venereal disease.
After he joined the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), then a nascent group in the United States, he befriended the Anglo-Saxon scions of New York. They had last names such as Morgan (finance) and Colgate (soap), and with their support he went to Washington and passed the 1873 Comstock Act, which made the distribution, sale, possession, and mailing of obscene material and contraception punishable with extreme fines and prison sentences. It was the first federal obscenity law to link obscenity and contraception, the latter of which was defined as “any drug or medicine, or any article whatever for the prevention of conception or for causing unlawful abortion.” After the law’s passage, state legislatures enacted “little Comstock laws” modeled on the federal legislation. Connecticut’s was more restrictive than the federal law: it criminalized the act of trying to prevent pregnancy, which could even include withdrawal (coitus interruptus).
In the twenty years between the 1873 passage of the Comstock law and the World’s Fair, nearly two thousand people had been arrested under the law, more than half of whom had been convicted, and a hundred thousand dollars in fines had been imposed. Eight hundred thousand obscene pictures and photos had been seized, as had one hundred thousand “articles for immoral use,” meaning sex toys and contraceptives, plus more than four thousand boxes of abortifacients—pills and powders purporting to induce miscarriage.
Comstock altered American reproductive rights for nearly a hundred years, until long after his death. Though today his name is not widely known, in his tenure he was feared and reviled. Comstockery and Comstockism came to connote prudishness, control, censoriousness, and repression of thought. The NYSSV was nicknamed “Mr. Comstock’s Society.” Even those who agreed with him questioned his nefarious methods. Though he was an extremely pious Congregationalist, he frequently brandished his revolver in his work. Many of his victims were impoverished, uneducated, or old. And though he pursued far more men than women, he delighted in punishing those radical, intellectual women whose views on contraception stemmed from liberal ideas about women’s rights.
For someone as powerful and well-connected as he was, Comstock was extremely sensitive to criticism. Radical newspapers filled their pages with anti-Comstock screeds, and he attended atheist and freethinker meetings to shout at these detractors. He was a zealot who drew no distinction between sex workers and sex radicals, between dealers of lewd postcards and gynecologists. His interest in women’s health and well-being stopped at contraception and abortion, which he often conflated. The man who did more to curtail women’s rights than anyone else in American history had nearly no understanding of reproduction; he believed a fetus could form seconds after unprotected sex. Though he revered his mother, and all Christian mothers, he despised the midwives and abortionists who helped women in trouble and who saved them from destitution and death. To his mind these practitioners were evil, manipulative, and in it for the money. He did not believe he was a man who hated women. He believed his work was to save the young and innocent from those out to get them.
Sitting in the Cairo Street Theatre watching the dancers, he was as transformed as Craddock had been. He felt that he was seeing “the most shameless exhibition of depravity” he had witnessed in his work. Calling on the Board of Lady Managers, he insisted that they visit the “pestilential places.” Three managers toured the Middle Eastern theaters. The board issued a report to the fair’s director-general, George R. Davis, requesting that he shut down all the belly dances. One manager, Mrs. Barker, wrote, “I would sooner lay my two boys in their graves than that they should look upon the sights I saw yes’erday.” An investigative committee was formed, with Comstock at the head.
In an interview with Joseph Pulitzer’s popular and salacious New York World, Comstock said the dancers defiled “the magnificence of that Columbian Exposition” with their “nastiness.” He rose from his chair and began to demonstrate, waving his arms above his head. As the journalist described it, “He is a pretty stout man and the performance was very interesting, but not at all libidinous. He writhed his shirt-sleeved arms over his head and made his ginger-colored side-whiskers shiver in the air.” As Comstock bent back to demonstrate further, he nearly fell over. An attendant in the room shook his head and clucked.
On August 5, Davis ordered the shuttering of all of the Oriental dances, which were performed at a few other theaters in addition to Cairo Street, until new regulations could be established. The manager of the Persian Palace demanded an order in writing, and informed the press that he would ignore such an order even if he received it. The dance could be stopped only by force, he said, and then he would get an injunction and sue for damages.
Despite national controversy and Comstock’s intervention, ultimately the only alteration made to the fair’s belly dancing was costuming: the dancers swapped their gauze blouses for thin woolen undershirts. The vice hunter had lost in Chicago. But he would not forget the dancers, and would have four of them arrested and fined when they came to New York that winter. New York, after all, was Comstockland.
* * *
By the time Ida Craddock traveled to the World’s Fair, there was plenty of sex information for progressive, curious young people. The German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, which coined the terms sadism and masochism, had been translated into English a year earlier. In 1894, Havelock Ellis, an English psychologist and doctor, would publish a volume on human sexuality titled Man and Woman: A Study of Human Secondary Sexual Characters. And the Illinois physician Dr. Alice B. Stockham’s popular Tokology: A Book for Every Woman (1883) provided anatomical details about male and female bodies, and promoted strategies for coping with labor pains. Physicians and free lovers wrote manuals on hygiene, child-rearing, pregnancy, and better sex—many advertised in radical journals such as New York’s Truth Seeker, edited by D. M. Bennett, and the Kansas-based freethinker and free love journal Lucifer, the Light-Bearer, edited by Moses Harman.
Ida C. Craddock
Beginning before the Civil War, utopian communities for Separatists, Shakers, and Transcendentalists had thrived in the United States. Oneida, in upstate New York, was one of the most visible free love communities, featuring a system of polyamorous “complex marriage.” Couples could choose to have “propagative” or “amative” sex. During the latter, men practiced male continence, or coitus reservatus, which the Oneida founder John Humphrey Noyes considered more pleasurable, contraceptive, and generally healthy for men, as semen loss was thought to provoke anxiety. Of male continence, in which men abstained from ejaculation through self-control, Noyes wrote that it protected women “from the curses of involuntary and undesirable procreation” and stopped “the drain of life on the part of man.”
Most free lovers, however, did not believe in complex marriage as practiced by the Oneidans. Instead, they advocated for looser divorce laws and self-generated marriage contracts. Less concerned with free sex than with equal rights, free lovers supported egalitarian marriage, with fair division of work, and consensual, sometimes non-procreative sex. The free love movement, which had taken off in the 1840s, grew out of abolitionist principles: women were not to be enslaved by men, the church, or the government. From its inception, free love was closely linked with Spiritualism—the idea that living people could commune with the dead. As for sexuality, Spiritualists believed that a man and a woman could have a spiritual affinity for each other, an attraction based on complementary auras. To free lovers, this bond was superior to the marital bond.
Opposite the free lovers and Spiritualists were the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Protestants active in the YMCA. As they had in their rural communities, they wanted to protect young men from temptation in the city, guiding them to lead pious lives among pious women. These “Comstockians” opposed prostitution, into which many young women were driven by poverty and alcohol. Social purists—a strange alliance of women’s rights advocates, conservative women, and temperance organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union—similarly believed that marriage and the home were the backbones of society, that the family was more important than the individual, and that intercourse was only for reproduction. Interestingly, social purists (social being a euphemism for sexual) aligned with free lovers on certain issues. Both opposed the sexual double standard, which held that women were expected to be faithful but men were not, though the one side proposed male fidelity and the other polyandry as the solution.
Once Craddock returned to Philadelphia after seeing the belly dance, she felt inspired to write an essay in its defense. She sent it to The New York World, where it was published as part of a roundup of commentary on the dance. Other contributors included the American modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller, who called it a “graceful pantomime.” Even the third archbishop of New York, who admitted he had not seen it, seemed supportive: “Perhaps Mr. Comstock was too sensitive in the matter, he and the good old ladies who were so shocked. They might have seen worse dances on a Saturday night in New York, dances where real evil is meant.”
Craddock’s essay stood out from the others. She was writing as a representative not of dance or Catholicism, but of phallic worship. Popular with European religious scholars, this area of scholarship examined the use of priapic symbols in world religions. Craddock defended the dance as the continuation of phallic worship, which taught “self-control and purity of life,” meaning male and female continence. Sex, she said, was “the chief educator of the human race in things material and things spiritual.” Far from shutting their eyes to the belly dance, young couples ought to learn from it. If husband and wife moved their hips like belly dancers during sex, and orgasmed spiritually, they would have heightened pleasure and fewer unwanted babies. As though that notion was not incendiary enough, she also took aim at Comstock: “Let the real significance of this dance as a religious memorial of purity and self-control be spread broadcast, so that Anthony Comstock and his helpers may be enlightened on the subject and may refrain from their attacks.” It was a declaration of war on Comstock, and an advertisement for herself as a “sex-ologist.”
The Cairo Street Theatre was the first place where the marriage reformer and the post office inspector would cross paths, but not the last. Their confrontations would span another nine years. The Quaker-educated, Philadelphia-born Craddock and the Congregationalist, Connecticut-born Comstock, only thirteen years apart in age, represented two poles of the rapidly changing American identity: woman and man, modernist and traditionalist, urban and rural, feminist and guardian of the family. That summer in the White City—the nickname given to the fairgrounds for the color of its buildings—they may have sat in the Cairo Street Theatre for the same performance and not known it. He would go on to circle her in three other states. Their dance would end in bloodshed, and only one would survive.
Copyright © 2021 by Amy Sohn