Chicago, Illinois-1893, Legend says that the dance known as the “Hoochy Coochy” was brought to America by a Middle Eastern dancer named Little Egypt performing at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. While it is true that the fair provided Americans with their first glimpse of this particular form of dirty dancing, there is no evidence that anyone danced at the Columbian Exhibition under the name Little Egypt. But, though she didn’t dance at the fair, by the turn of the century there were at least five Little Egypts dancing in American nightclubs.
The World’s Columbian Exhibition was, at the time of its opening in 1893, the most magnificent spectacle ever witnessed in North America. Nicknamed the “White City” for the dominant color of its main buildings, the fair encompassed 630 acres, exhibiting art, industry and culture from 146 countries and playing host to 26 million visitors.
While the fair as a whole had its financial ups and downs, one section, the Midway Plaisance, was a consistent money maker. The Midway Plaisance was an amusement area that included the world’s first (and largest) Ferris wheel, concessions, sideshows, restaurants and performances from all over the world. The most popular exhibit in the Midway Plaisance was the Algerian Village with a show that included acrobats, scorpion swallowers, glass eating torture dances, and the exotic danse du ventre—better known today as “belly dancing.”
The Algerian Village was brought to the fair by a twenty-two year old promoter named Sol Bloom who had seen the show at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle and was so impressed that he negotiated a deal for exclusive rights to book the Algerians in the Americas. The Chicago World’s Fair provided the perfect venue to introduce them.
Bloom held a preview of the dancing girls at the Press Club of Chicago but, for some reason, did not bring their musicians. The girls needed music to dance, so Bloom picked out an oriental sounding melody on the piano:
This tune, popularly known as the “Hoochy Coochy Song” or “The Snake Charmer Song” has been used in countless cartoons and B-movies to provide a Middle Eastern motif. The song became part of American popular culture and soon picked up a set of lyrics
There’s a place in France where the ladies do a dance
And the dance they do is called the hoochie-coo
This evolved into:
There’s a place in France where the ladies wear no pants
And the men go ‘round with their ding dong’s hanging down.
To his everlasting regret, Sol Bloom did not copyright the tune and it was published several times by others. The most successful version was “The Streets of Cairo” by James Thornton.
In addition to the Algerian Village, the Midway Plaisance featured a Turkish Village and an Egyptian exhibit called Cairo Street - both also featured belly dancing. Critics panned the dancing, clergymen and other blue-noses called the performances obscene, but the public loved it. For many the exotic dancing was the most enduring memory of the fair.
For years after, old-timers in Chicago swore they saw Little Egypt dance at the fair, but, though The World’s Columbian Exhibition had an abundance of belly dancers, none of them performed under the name Little Egypt. In his 1948 autobiography Sol Bloom said:
“I most emphatically deny that I had anything to do with a female entertainer known professionally as Little Egypt. At no time during the Chicago fair did this character appear on the Midway.”
This fact has been confirmed by researchers who have pored over programs, advertisments, reviews, and other documents from the fair and have not found any mention of Little Egypt.
The term “Hoochy Coochy” actually predates the Chicago fair. It comes from the French word hochequeue (literally “to shake a tail”) which refers to a small bird that shakes its tail feathers. It is not clear exactly when the word became associated with a dance but one theory says it was picked up by slaves in Louisiana who did a dance they called “hooch-ma-cooch,” also known as “the Congo grind.”
The origin of “Little Egypt” is even harder to pin down. The first, or at least most notable, mention of a dancer called Little Egypt came from an event known as “The Awful Seeley Dinner.” The dinner was a bachelor party thrown by one of P. T. Barnum’s grandsons, Herbert Barnum Seeley, for his brother Clinton Barnum Seeley in December 1896. Part of the entertainment was to be a parody of the popular novel Trilby, in which the main character, Trilby, poses nude for Parisian artists. A dancer named Little Egypt was hired by Seeley for two numbers - a dance and a pose.
The party was held at Sherry’s restaurant on 5th Avenue in New York and all was going well until 1:30 AM when police captain George S. Chapman decided to investigate. He had come in after Little Egypt’s first number but before the pose. Two men whisked her into another part of the club where she drank champagne until the captain left. On advice of her agent, Little Egypt never did the pose.
The Seeleys were later questioned by Captain Chapman and Chapman himself was investigated for abuse of power. Little Egypt, a French woman whose real name was Ashea Wabe, testified at a police board hearing and later in front of a grand jury investigating the incident. She denied that there was anything wrong with her dance. The New York World quoted some of her testimony:
“How thin was the gauze draping the lace bloomers?”
“Oui, oui, tres thin.”
“Could the guests see through it?”
"Oui, oui, monsieur; but only just my little leg.”
“Do you mean your little leg, or a little of your leg?”
“Oui, oui, monsieur, just my little leg.”
The press, of course, had a field day with the story and Oscar Hammerstein I took advantage of the publicity to produce a “burlesque spectacle” called “Silly’s Dinner,” lampooning The Seeley dinner, in his Olympia theatre. He hired Little Egypt to appear in his show and before long the name became a household word.
Soon Little Egypts began popping up all over the country. In addition to Ashea Wabe, those calling themselves “the original” Little Egypt included Saida DeKreko, Catherine Devine, Frahreda Mahzar Spyropoulos, and Gertrude Warnick. Though largely forgotton today, by the turn of the twentieth century “Little Egypt,” whoever she was, personified the hoochy coochy.