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{June 17, 2010}   The Forgotten Victorians

It’s usually modern art that aims to overturn preconceptions, but a new show of 19th century paintings delivers more shocks than Tracey Emin.

One revelation is embedded in the title — “Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800-1900.” The very concept of “black Victorians” may surprise.

There had, of course, been Africans in Britain long before Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, but in the 19th century they were a familiar sight — not that you’d know that from most accounts of the old Queen’s reign. Yet Victorian art depicted many black subjects — not only servants, but also soldiers, sailors, actors, musicians and pugilists. “I began to look more systematically and discovered hundreds [of these images],” Jan Marsh says. “It both reveals Victorian art as not as white as we imagine, but also Victorian society as not as white as we imagine”….

Of course, many black Victorians did still occupy subordinate positions. In Thomas Faed‘s Visit to the Village School (1852), set in Scotland, a local bigwig and his wife listen to the youngest students reading, while some of the older pupils taunt their young black servant.

Such story pictures were put together from studies of professional models. Jamaican-born Fanny Eaton often turns up in the background of biblical subjects, but later in the century black models appeared on the losing side in topical battle pictures. Prints like Lts Coghill and Melville Saving the Colours, Zulu War, 1879 (1882), after Adolphe Alphonse de Neuville, may look stagey to us, but even back then not everyone found them convincing. A critic commented: “[We see] the ordinary Parisian negro-models, reproduced in more or less warlike attitudes”….

For the most part, Victorian society was one in which most thought black people inferior. Yet Marsh observes: “Although Victorian society was racist through and through, this is not reflected in the art.”

Source: Time.com
Image source:   popculturepost.com   



During the Second World War, nearly a million women fought alongside their male counterparts and in October 1941, women’s aviation regiments began to be formed. Marina Raskova, already an ace pilot and member of the ‘People’s Defence Committee’, was allowed to organised three female aviation groups authorised by the Soviet high command. They were the 586 IAP (Fighter Aviation Regiment), the 587 BAP (Bomber Aviation Regiment) and the 588 NBAP (Night Bomber Aviation Regiment).

After being accepted to the training program, the young women underwent a rigorous six month flying and navigation course, fitting in to that time an amount of training that would normally take around a year and a half. In September 1942, Valerya Khomyakova of the 586 IAP’s or ‘Fighter Aviation Regiment’ became the first female Soviet pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft at night when she downed a Ju 99.

A month later, the 586 IAP assisted in Operation Saturn and Uranus, which was successful in eliminating the German 6th Army at Stalingrad, after which, they were given the task of defending some important military logistical facilities and strategic locations. In 1944, the unit took part in the Soviet offensive in Hungry fighting with Yak-9 fighters and they finished the war on one of the captured airfields in Austria.

The 588 NBAP unit or ‘Night Bomber Aviation Regiment’ arrived combat ready in the Ukraine on the 23rd May 1942. They quickly earned the respect and fear of their enemies being given the nick name ‘night witches’. The decorated German Commander of II. /JG 52, Hauptmann Johannes Steinhoff, wrote of the 588 NBAP’s;

“We simply couldn’t grasp that the Soviet airmen that caused us the greatest trouble were in fact WOMEN. These women feared nothing. They came night after night in their very slow biplanes, and for some periods they wouldn’t give us any sleep at all.”

On 25th October 1942, a bomb strike by the 588 NBAP set alight a fuel depot at Armavir airfield. The fire spread and destroyed all but one of the planes on the airfield, leading to the quick withdrawal of the German fighters situated there. In January the following year, the regiments achievements were acknowledged and it was given the new title of 46th Taman’ Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.

It was the most highly decorated regiment in the whole Soviet Air Force, with twenty-three of its pilots being awarded with the Gold Star of Hero of the Soviet Union, with a former navigator of the regiment becoming the twenty-forth to receive the award in 1995.

Marina Raskova took command of the third regiment herself, the 587th BAP or (Bomber Aviation Regiment). The regiment finished its training on 22nd November 1942 and was moved to the Stalingrad front line. After helping to liberate the town of Borisov, the unit became known as the 125th “M. M. Raskova” Borisov Guards Dive Bomber Aviation Regiment.

In one celebrated incident involving a pilot from the unit, Mariya Dolina flying a Pe-2 bomber, managed to shoot down two enemy plains at the same time. The regiment finished war operations in May 1943 after flying a total of 1134 combat missions dropping 980 tons of bombs in the process. A tribute made to the women of the unit by the Free-French pilots of the “Normandie-Niemen” Fighter Regiment who often fought along side them stated;

“Even if it were possible to gather and place at your feet all the flowers on earth, this would not constitute sufficient tribute to your valour.”

The 587 BAP and the 588 NBAP were involved in the fighting in the Kuban area of Southern Russia where they came up against some of the best fighter pilots the German air force had to offer including Erich Harmann of the famous JG 54 fighter group, who was the highest ranked fighter ace in the world with 352 confirmed combat kills.

Throughout the war, the Soviet female fighter pilots were involved in some of the heaviest aerial combat operations in history. They earned the fear and respect of enemy combatants and were often highly decorated for their efforts by their country.

More articles at Triond
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Women’s History Magazine



{June 13, 2010}   The History of the Bikini

Although the word ‘bikini’ has only been in existence since 1946, the two piece swim-suit that it represents has been around much longer, since around 1600 BC. Minoan wall paintings have been discovered in recent decades showing images of women involved in gymnastic exercises wearing skimpy two piece costumes that look a lot like modern day bikinis.

The Romans have long been known to have worn similar out-fits based on depictions on mosaics and murals. The Villa Romana del Casale, situated about three and a half miles from the town of Piazza Amerina in Sicily and built around 330 AD has a well-preserved mosaic, entitled “Coronation of the Winner”.

It features trim young women wearing bikini like garments exercising with balls, discus, and hand weights and the winner is holding a palm leaf and a crown of roses (shown above).

In modern times, the two-piece swimsuit made its first appearance in the summer of 1946, designed by Jacques Heim, it was displayed in a beach shop in France. He named his creation ‘The Atome’, after the Atom bomb, and advertised all over Cannes beaches that the world’s smallest bathing suit was now available to buy.

Three week after the ‘Atome’ was released, Louis Reard engineer turned swimsuit designer, brought out a similar swimsuit which he sold along the French Riviera. Reard named his creation the ‘Bikini’ after a small island in the South Pacific where the atomic bomb was being tested. Like the ‘Atome’, it was made up of two small pieces of cloth and for the first time in the modern era, women were publicly revealing their backs and navels.

A year after it was released in France, Reard’s bikini was released in America causing an amount of curiosity but very little in the way of sales and was even outlawed in some states as a result of its scantiness.

For the next twenty years, the bikini was little more than a side show in the fashion industry but by the late 1960s, the ‘Sexual Revolution’ took hold in America and the rest of the western world and the tiny swimsuit became a success. Today, the bikini is world famous and by far the most popular form of swimwear for women worldwide and is an $811 million industry in America alone.

Read more articles at Triond
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Recent evidence has come to light that reveals a man by the name of Andrew Watson was the world’s first black football player. Starting his career in 1874, he was successful at all levels of the game and set the path for those that would follow him.

Until recently, it was believed that the world’s first black football player was Arthur Wharton, who played for Preston North End in the late nineteenth century. However evidence has recently come to light showing that a man by the name of Andrew Watson was playing in Scotland around ten years earlier than Wharton.

Watson was born in British Guiana in 1857 and later came to Britain, attending public school in Halifax. In 1875 he enrolled in Glasgow University, were he studied Maths, Natural Philosophy, Civil Engineering and Mechanics.

Wharton, who played on either side of defence or in midfield, began his playing career with Maxwell in Glasgow, followed by a stint at Parkgrove in 1874. Later, he played for Queens Park, the top team in Scotland at the time, spending seven years there from 1880-1887. According to the ‘Scottish Football Association Annual’ of 1880-81, he was;

One of the very best backs we have; since joining Queen’s Park has made rapid strides to the front as a player; has great speed and tackles splendidly; a powerful and sure kick; well worthy of a place in any representative team.

He is also known to have represented the London Swifts in the English Cup Championships (FA cup) in 1882, becoming the first player of African descent to play in an English cup competition. Watson won four Charity Cup medals and two Scottish Cup medals, the earliest of which was another milestone in football as he became the first non-white player to be in the winning side of any major football competition.

Watson also holds the distinction of being the first black international player. Acknowledged in the ‘Who’s Who’ for his international performances, he represented Scotland three times from 1881 – 1882, in the International Challenge Match.

In his first international on the 12 march 1881, Watson was captain and led Scotland to a 6-1 mauling of England at Kennington Oval in London, with a crowd of 8,500. In his second, two days later, 1,500 people saw his side beat Wales 5-1 at Acton Park, Wrexham. His team again hammered England a year later on 11 March 1882 in the same competition, beating them 5-1 at First Hampden Park in Glasgow, in front of 10,000 fans.

Watson was not only a pioneer on the field; as club secretary at Queens Park, he was probably the first black member of a football club’s boardroom. Watson spent most of his career as an amateur and was a seasoned and valued player at Queens Park when football officially went professional in 1885, although it is unclear whether he himself turned pro. When his playing days were over, he and his family emigrated to Australia, where he remained the rest of his life.

After his death, Andrew Watson fell into obscurity but has now reemerged to claim his place in both football and black history. As a successful black sportsman living at the end of the nineteenth century, it is easy to speculate on the difficulties and prejudices he would have undoubtedly faced. However despite the obstacles put before him, he had a successful career in a previously all white sport, and deserves to be remembered as one of histories true trail-blazers.

More Articles at Bukisa
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 Shorinji Kempo traces its origins back almost 5000 years to India.

From India, Buddhism spread to many countries, including China. Bodhidharma, the sixth century founder of Zen Buddhism, introduced Kempo to the legendary Shaolin Temple (“Shōrin-Ji” in Japanese), located in Honan prefecture. Here kempo became the main form of spiritual training for the buddhist monks and the monastery became famous for its fighting arts.

Wall paintings can still be seen today in the Shaolin Temple of dark-skinned (Indian) monks practicing and teaching kempo to light-skinned (Chinese) monks.

The Imperial Chinese Government, feeling threatened, destroyed the temple and persecuted the monks. The techniques however continued to be taught and practiced by various secret societies as a means of protection against bandits and corrupt officials. Many different forms of kempo were developed and kept alive by these secret societies.

Born in 1911 in Okayama prefecture, the eldest son of a customs officer, Doshin So was sent to live with his grandfather in Manchuria upon the death of his father.

From the age of 18, he travelled extensively in China and studied many of the scattered remnants of Chinese kempo. In Beijing, Doshin So studied under Wen Laoshi, the 20th Master of the Northern Shorinji Giwamonken School. At a ceremony held at the Shaolin Temple in 1936 Doshin So became Wen-Laoshi’s direct successor, the 21st Master.

On the 9th of August 1945, Doshin So was in Eastern Manchuria when the Russian army broke their treaty with Japan and crossed the border. On the 15th of August, the war ended in Japan’s defeat. During the next year, under the occupying Russian army he experienced the misery and suffering of defeat in a foreign land, where the interests of nations had come before the claims of ideology, religion, and morals. Nations had fought, and victory went to the country best able to organise its people to defeat and kill others. The strongest ruled, and the defeated Japanese in Manchuria were on the wrong side of that rule.

Amidst this bitter reality, Doshin So found a lesson which shaped the principles of Shorinji Kempo. He realized that it was neither ideology, religious differences nor national policies which determine the course of events, but rather the character and the way of thinking of the people involved. He put words to this realisation saying, “The person! The person! Everything depends on the quality of the person”.

The defeat of Japan in the war brought about the repatriation of Doshin So and indirectly became the cause of the transmission of kempo to Japan. On his return, in June 1946, he found a people in turmoil, confused and lacking any hope or sense of purpose. Doshin So could see that they were lacking in morality and pride, so he set about teaching the arts he had learnt.

Source:  Oxford University
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During the Hanoverian era, Britain experienced considerable demographic growth, the birth of an industrial economy, and extensive social change.

The British population doubled in the century after 1721, from 7.1 to 14.2 million people. Most of the growth occurred after 1750, and particularly after the 1780s.

Between 1810 and 1820, average family size reached five or six children per family, the highest rate in any decade in modern British history.

This surge in population was to some degree the result of falling mortality, which itself was partly the result of widespread smallpox inoculation in the early 19th century.

But it resulted more from a rise in marital fertility, which came primarily from more people marrying and, moreover, marrying at a younger age, thereby maximising women’s childbearing years.

Improved material circumstances in industrialising parts of the nation explain the trend towards earlier and more extensive marriage and larger families. Britain already had a thriving economy in the early 18th century, with productive agriculture, scientific ingenuity, a strong commercial and middling sector, and extensive manufacturing.

After 1760, a gradual but continuing rise in the rates of industrial and economic growth led to Britain becoming the world’s first industrial nation. Britain built factories and canals, extended agricultural productivity through parliamentary enclosure, experienced rapid urban growth, manufactured and patented new industrial techniques, achieved a breakthrough in fuel sources for energy and traded extensively along its own coasts and with Ireland, Europe and the wider world.

Industrialisation did not affect all parts of the nation equally. It was particularly strong in south Lancashire, Yorkshire, Birmingham and the Black Country, the Edinburgh-Glasgow corridor and London.Though industrialisation brought disruption to communities, pollution, booms and slumps and unequal gains, it led in the long term to a better standard of living for most workers.

Read more: bbc.co.uk



In the late nineteenth century, Arthur Wharton (1865-1930) was an athlete of legendary proportions, competing at the top level in many sports including cycling, rugby, cricket athletics and football.

It was previously believed that Wharton was the first ever black football player; however new evidence has recently come to light that shows this distinction goes to Andrew Watson, who played in Scotland in the 1870s. Despite this, Wharton was a pioneer in the sporting world, competing in arenas almost universally occupied by white people. He was a well liked, well respected competitor but unfortunately, his life story did not have a happy ending.

In 1886, at the age of 20 Wharton entered the Amateur Athletics Association (AAA) Championships at Stamford Bridge. As well as becoming the first black athlete to win an AAA championship, he also set a new world record at the event becoming the first man ever to run 100 yards in 10 seconds flat. Later that year, Wharton signed a professional contract with Preston North End football club, one the top teams in the world at that time. Ironically, despite being the fastest man on earth, he was to become a highly respected goalkeeper.

Wharton had a reputation as a hard man on the field and when he unleashed his trademark ‘prodigious punch’, it was said that he always connected with ether the ball, or an opponents head! In those days a goalie could handle the ball anywhere in his own half and players could barge him whether he was on or off the ball, which explains the logic of having a fast, powerful goalkeeper. Wharton seems to have relished the more physical side of the game and like many goalkeepers, he seems to have had an eccentric streak. In a letter to the Sheffield Telegraph and Independent (12th January, 1942) T. H. Smith wrote;

“In a match between Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday at Olive Grove I saw Wharton jump, take hold of the cross bar, catch the ball between his legs, and cause three onrushing forwards – Billy Ingham, Clinks Mumford and Mickey Bennett – to fall into the net. I have never seen a similar save since and I have been watching football for over fifty years”.

Wharton stayed at Preston North End for three years before signing for Rotherham United in 1889. Five years later he moved to Sheffield United were he spent a miserable year, finding it difficult to hold a regular first team place. In 1895 he went back to Rotherham United, were he played in only fifteen league games in six years.

During his time at Rotherham, Wharton was also a pub landlord, running the Albert Tavern and later the Plough Inn in Rotherham then the Sportsman Cottage pub in Sheffield. During this period, he developed a drinking problem, causing his career to nose dive and eventually forcing him to retire from football in 1902. He spent the rest of his life as a colliery haulage worker and by the time he died, on the 12 December 1930, of epithelioma and syphilis, he had fallen into obscurity and was a penniless alcoholic.

Source: socyberty.com



In 1868, a man and a new dynasty were born.The Meiji restoration brought many reforms to Japan and it’s provinces,seeking to ensure that in the future Japan would adopt a more westernised way of thinking. 1868 was also the year that Gichin Funakoshi was born in Okinawa. He was a sickly baby and his parents agreed that he was not likely to lead a long life.

At primary school, Funakoshi became friends with the son of one of Okinawa’s greatest experts in Karate, Yasutsune Azato, and through his friendship with the master’s son Funakoshi was introduced to the art. The Japanese government had continued it’s ban on the practice of Karate, so sessions had to take place in secret and pupils were forbidden to discuss the art with anyone.

Once his interest in Karate had taken hold, Funakoshi’s health began to steadily improve and his night time walks to Azato’s home became ever more frequent over the years. Night after night, Azato watched as Funakoshi would practice kata, sometimes each night for months until the master approved. As dawn approached, so Azato would lead Funakoshi into discussions on the essence of Karate and, like a kindly parent, ask about Funakoshi’s life as, first a pupil and then a school teacher. On occasion, Funakoshi would practice under the instruction of one of Azato’s friends, another Karate master, Itosu.

In Okinawa the martial art was known as bushi no te (“warriors hand(s)”) or, simply te rather than karate (“Chinese Hand(s)”).However, the Japanese pronounciation of kara could cause confusion since it either means “Chinese” (referring to the Tang dynasty) or “Empty” Funakoshi took the view that the art he practiced was more appropriately called Dai Nippon Kempo Karate-Do, or “Great Japan Fist-method Empty-Hands way” making use of the Japanese characterfor “empty” rather than that for “Chinese”. At first Funakoshi’s suggestion brought cries of outrage from practioners in both Tokyo and Okinawa, but he stead fastly stood by his way of thinking until it gained widespread acceptance.

As his skill in the art of Karate developed and after gaining the approval from his two teachers, Azato and Itosu, Funakoshi began to instruct. At the start of the twentieth century Funakoshi’s school was visited by a Commissioner of the Japanese goverment for whom he arranged a karate demonstration with some of his pupils. As a result, the Commissioner wrote a report to the ministry of Education and the practice of Karate was legally allowed to raise it’s head into the Japanese way of life. Indirectly it was the reason for Funakoshi’s promotion to a school in Naha, a port, and capital of Okinawa. The realisation of Funakoshi’s dream was comingto pass and at last he was able to bring the art of Karate before a wideraudience.

Some years later in 1921, the Ministry of Education announced that a demonstration of ancient Japanese martial arts was to be held in Tokyo. Funakoshi was invited to introduce his art tothe Japanese capital and his demonstration turned out to be a great success. Jigoro Kano , the founder of Judo, asked Funakoshi to lecture on karate at the Kodokan (Judo hall) Suddenly he was besieged by people wanting him to teach them karate and his planned return to Okinawa and his family, was postponed time and time again.

Students from the local universities, white collar workers and many other aspiring martial arts pupils came to study with Funakoshi – his audience required a reference book, and in 1922 Funakoshi’s first work, “Ryukyu Kempo: Karate” was published. 4 years later a revised version of the same book was re-issued under the new title of, “Renten Goshin Karate-Jitsu” (literally, strengthening of will power and self-defence through techniques of Karate). In 1935, “Karate-Do Kyohan” was published, and was concerned with the various types of kata.

In the same year, 12 years after the great Kanto Earthquake it became apparent that the temporary dojo used by Funakoshi, was no longer in a good enough state of repair for training in, but within a year a nationwide committee of Karate supporters had donated sufficient funds for the erection of the first dedicated Japanese karate dojo. The dojo was called Shoto-kan. Shoto (“Pine waves”) being the pen name used by Funakoshi to sign the Chinese poems that he wrote in his youth. With the completion of the new dojo, Funakoshi set about drawing up a set of rules and a teaching schedule for karate, including formalizing the requirements for grading (dan and kyu).

Karate was now well founded and widely practiced in the universities of Tokyo as well as in the Shoto-kan dojo, however Funakoshi was, by this time, nearly seventy years old and overseeing each class was impossible without the help from his third son, and appointed advanced students at each university.

In 1945, after years of the Great Pacific War which waged a steady attrition on Funakoshi’s youthful students, the Shoto-kan dojo was utterly destroyed during an air-raid. Knowing his country faced defeat, the Japanese Emperor issued his decree surrendering to the American forces. The chaos in Tokyo after the surrender forced Funakoshi to leave for Kyushu, where his wife had fled when the battle for Okinawa had begun. There the living conditions were extremely poor and before long, Funakoshi’s wife fell ill and died.

In 1947, Funakoshi made an emotional return to Tokyo where he restarted his karate tuition. Through a new friendship with an American airforce officer, Funakoshi was able to spread the wings of karate by teaching American airmen the art during an invitational visit to the US mainland, thereby ensuring that the knowledge of karate had begun it’s journey world-wide.

Source: Southampton University 

Image Source: labmassiv.com



The gin of the 18th century bore no relation to the respectable expensive spirit of today. A Dutch import, Madam Geneva (as she was called) was cheap and lethal. ‘This new drink from Holland suddenly arrived among a people who weren’t used to drinking spirits,’ says Patrick Dillon. ‘The strongest thing they had drunk before was strong beer, and suddenly for a penny a dram they could get this fantastic new drug.

Stronger than anything they’d tasted before, it would instantly get them drunk. There was a famous signboard over gin shops that said: “Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence, straw for nothing” – of course, you got the straw to crash out on once you had drunk too much.’

The government fuelled London’s gin craze by removing the restrictions on distilling, and soon the city was awash with gin shops. If you couldn’t afford a glass of the spirit, you could buy a gin-soaked rag. It was estimated that a quarter of the buildings in St Giles were drinking dens. Its residents were infamous for guzzling vast quantities of gin and for a few hours escaping their miserable lives.

‘The real villains of this debauchery, drunkenness and destruction of human life,’ says Professor Dabydeen, ‘were the landowners who made tons of money by selling their corn for the purposes of gin distillation. So there was an economic stranglehold on the poor. They were encouraged to consume something that would destroy their lives – a kind of a drug, the equivalent of crack cocaine.’

According to Patrick Dillon, ‘London was seen as a town spinning out of control. There was a crime wave, and gin was seen to be associated with crime and prostitution. In addition, the spread of syphilis, which was the big health scare at the time, was seen to be associated with gin because women were thought to be turning to prostitution to fund their drinking habits.

‘Gin was also seen as attacking the economy. At the time, the wealth of the nation was thought to depend on how much poor people could make. If poor people, instead of working hard, were lying slumped in the doorway of a gin shop, then they weren’t making anything.’

Backlash against the new drug

Gin was assumed to be a London problem, and in the 1720s, a backlash against it began, led by Christian reformers. In 1729, the government took the first official step towards clamping down on this new urban drug. The first Gin Act increased the duty paid on gin from five pence to five shillings and forced gin sellers to buy licences. But Londoners soon found a way around the rules. The law only applied to flavoured spirits, so distillers simply removed the juniper from the gin and renamed it ‘Parliamentary brandy’.

By the 1730s, tales of gin-induced crime and depravity were again dominating the papers. One story in particular rekindled gin hysteria – the case of a poor woman, Judith Defor. Her child was cared for by the parish in a local workhouse. One Sunday she took the infant out for the day, strangled it and sold its clothes to buy gin.

The artist William Hogarth was so moved by the devastation wreaked by gin that he produced his most famous engraving set in the slum of St Giles: Gin Lane. ‘One of the most powerful images of social degradation in all of 18th-century art is in the foreground – the drunken woman with a leg full of syphilitic sores,’ says Professor Dabydeen. ‘As she tries to get her snuff, her baby falls from her arms and topples to its death. It’s an extraordinary image because there’s an echo of a Madonna and child. And when the baby falls with its arms spread wide, it looks like an upside-down crucifixion and the woman like a drunken Mary. So it’s showing how Christian values had been absolutely depraved and destroyed by this addiction to gin.’

Controlling the gin craze

Over the next 30 years, the government introduced a series of measures aimed at controlling the gin craze. First, they tried the radical step of prohibition, which simply drove gin underground. People set up illegal stills, women sold drams from underneath their skirts, and there was no let up in gin-fuelled violence. So the authorities brought in a series of acts that gradually brought distilling back within the law, and slowly raised the tax on gin.

But the gin craze only finally fizzled out because the world was changing. In the 1750s, the economic boom came to an end. The poor couldn’t afford a drink that was becoming increasingly expensive. And, in the second half of the 18th century, there was a new mood of zealous social reform abroad in the capital.

‘People write tracts about how to improve London,’ says Patrick Dillon, ‘and express shock that the greatest city in the world, the city of the world’s greatest power, should be full of these terrible sights – of prostitution, of people drinking too much and lying drunk in the gutters, and all the things that parliamentarians, writers and reformers say have to be cleaned up.’

Poverty and excess would never leave London. St Giles remained a notorious slum into the 19th century, until it was finally knocked down to ease the congestion on London streets caused by the arrival of the railways.

Source: Channel4.com



{May 17, 2010}   Feminism and Belly Dance

Both feminism and belly dance enjoyed an upsurgence in the early 1970’s, suggesting that there is a community of interest between the two.  When “women’s liberation” was pushing for more job opportunities, more personal freedom, and more sexual freedom for women, belly dance offered freedoms that seemed to exemplify these goals.  

It encouraged self-expression, it freed women from constraint in their physical movement and it encouraged taking center stage – a liberating combination for women who had begun to see the demureness and agreeable blandness expected of them as restrictive and wrong. 

There is no doubt that the dance was liberating to women.  Those of us who taught in the 70’s saw it time and time again: women whose stiff, introverted body language showed lack of confidence were suddenly opening up, shaking their hips, performing, expressing. Going to belly dance class was, for some, a subversive act.  

Teaching in the South in the late 70’s, I knew several of my students lied about where they were going on Tuesday nights. I also knew of several women who danced themselves out of restrictive relationships.  Through belly dance, many women found a way to escape, for the class hour or on a wider scale, from societal bonds that restricted them from power, adventure, exploration of their own sensuality, and claiming a public voice.

Over the past thirty years, Western belly dancers have come to an interpretation of their art that builds on these early liberating self-discoveries.  While many individual philosophies of dance exist, and while there is often heated discussion about them within the community, on the whole dancers take a more or less feminist view of what they are doing.  Most dancers feel that they are dancing for themselves and for a wide audience, rather than to please and seduce men.   

Most dancers, while aware of sometimes unpleasant professional competition, have a sense of sisterhood with other dancers.  Most dancers feel that this dance is particularly feminine, that what it says is said best by women, and that it is a valuable form of self-expression for themselves and for women as a group. Dancers tend to discuss belly dance history in terms of goddess worship and childbirth rituals, though other myths (harems and slave dancers) still dominate the consciousness of non-dancers.  Dancers also tend to embrace archetypes that embody central issues of their own dancing: earth goddess, gypsy dancer, sensual queen, sweet young nymph.   

Through these images, dancers create feeling, move their audiences to new perceptions and ideas, express who they are, and open the door to something deep and powerful in themselves and in their audiences.  Dancers love this ability in themselves and rightly see it as a power, a gift, a voice.  On the whole, dancers’ experience tends to support the notion that this dance is good for women: it is valuable as self-expression, and it is at heart a woman’s dance, reflective of women’s essence, skills, power, sexuality, and spirituality.

Read more: uncw.edu 

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