Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Liberal Studies


James Wilson

Subject Categories

American Popular Culture | Dance | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Theatre and Performance Studies | Women's History


danse du ventre, belly dance, Little Egypt, World's Columbian Exposition, burlesque, vaudeville


Structured as a biography, this thesis investigates the origins of Little Egypt—a stage name assumed by multiple women performing either the danse du ventre or the hoochie-coochie—and considers the character’s cultural legacy. The work draws on nineteenth and twentieth century newspapers, advertisements, photographs, and official publications and archival records from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Chapter one takes a new look at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and shows how the presence of dancers performing the danse du ventre on the Midway Pliasance was turned into a flashpoint of controversy by the popular press. This controversy would be key to the development of Little Egypt in the years to follow. Chapter two follows the newly controversial danse du ventre to New York City. Here is where the name Little Egypt first appears and quickly becomes permanently linked with notoriety. Chapter three explores the various Little Egypt origin stories that developed in the early twentieth century. It also considers how the character came to represent a simpler time when audiences were more easily scandalized.

Created in scandal and transformed into a kitsch amusement, Little Egypt may not often be remembered today, but elements of her legacy are still present in current popular culture. She helped create the immediately recognizable image of the belly dancer in her two-piece costume, and Little Egypt is linked to the creation of an eroticized, monetized, and consumable female sexuality. She is also an early example of an individual capitalizing on sexualized scandal for monetary gain.