Hoochie Coochie dancers first made their appearance in the nineteenth century in the US during the era of the Side Show. The term cooch was a colloquism for female genitalia in the southern USA. Although travelling circuses were popular these was short lived because of high maintenance costs and absence of financial backers. To maintain public interest, side shows were introduced featuring menagerie animals then later human oddities.
Side shows drew large crowds but not without gathering a certain reputation. Perhaps the most famous showman was Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-91), the man attributed to have said, "There's a sucker born every minute."
One of the main attractions of the travelling carnivals was the girlie shows, where young women danced the Hoochie-coochie. This was described by the New York Journal (1893) as "Neither dancing of the head nor the feet." and was thought to have originated in Eastern Europe. The romantic myth was the girls were Ghawazi (or Gypsy prostitutes).
Who could forget Esmeralda in Victor Hugo 's classic Hunchback of Notre Dame The book was written in 1831 and as Quasimodo was bewitched by the gypsy dancer, so too was Joe Soap in the States and it has to be said more than a few Aussie blokes, too.
Artists were billed with exotic names like Fatima, Farida, and Maryeta and would appear wearing a small vest fastened low on the bosom, and above the short skirt a tantalising bare midriff. Their bodies were heavily ornamented with jewellery, beads and finger cymbals.
The girls danced a type of belly dance with rapid shaking of their head. At a time when most women covered up with corsets and long skirts the invitation to see hoochie coochie was just too much to resist and men flocked to the side shows. In 1893 the Hoochie Coochie was even danced at the Chicago fair and the honour fell to Little Egypt.
The popularity of the hoochie coochie was such it began to appear in vaudeville, burlesque theatres, saloons, and smokers, around the world. In 1896 a New York dancer by the name of Ashea Wabe was engaged to entertain at a private stag night. When the police were called to the ensuing disturbance the event was widely and somewhat inaccurately reported. Ashea or "Little Egypt” was reported to have danced, au naturel. This was gross sensationalism, but none the less sealed her reputation as a cause celebrity, and more importantly meant the hoochie coochie became synonymous with hot sexy dancing in the public eye. Later the term hoochie coochie was replaced by "strip tease."
Stencell AW 1999 Girls Show: Into the canvas world of bump and grind Toronto: ECW Press.