Little Egypt: Nothing But a Button and a Bow [wo wo!]

Wed, 01/30/2019 - 16:02 -- Audrey
01/23/2019 to 02/24/2019

by Sarah Nesbitt

“And here she comes, the little lady that does the dance to the Pyramids. The one, the only, little Egypt! There she is folks! She walks, she talks, she crawls upon her belly like a reptile; watch it now! That’s enough honey, don’t give away too much. You there young man, step right up, get yourself a ticket. There you go, you just bought yourself a trip to paradise. Who’s next?”

In the 1964 music video for “Little Egypt” Elvis buys a ticket to see Little Egypt perform at the 1893 Chicago World Fair. As he steps into the frame the scene transitions into a palatial courtyard with dramatic arched two-tone stone windows, and metal balconies constructed with arabesque designs that look out onto golden-domed rooftops and spires in the distance.

A spotlight follows Elvis on the stage positioning him outside the scene; he watches Little Egypt re-enter, joining her entourage of female dancers. They all have black cropped hair in the manner of ‘Cleopatra’ and wear thin veils over their nose and mouth. Prancing across the stage in high heels and bikinis the performers gesticulate sensually, occasionally moving their arms in the style popularized by The Bangles’ 1986 song “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

By the time Little Egypt appears in the song written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in 1961 she has become a deeply hybrid, Americanized trope. She does triple somersaults, winks, wears tattoos of cowboys on her spine (ouch?), “a ruby on her tummy” and a “diamond big as Texas on her toe, wo wo.” Over the course of 3 minutes and 33 seconds, Little Egypt moves from a base and dangerous performer who “crawls upon her belly like a reptile” but also promises to be a “trip to paradise,” to a burlesque caricature, to a domesticated wife who Elvis proclaims doesn’t even dance [the hoochie koochie] anymore. Instead Little Egypt mops and shops for their seven kids who, all day, long crawl around the floor and sing:

“Yeah, but let me tell you people, Little Egypt doesn’t dance there anymore, wo wo. She’s too busy mopping and a taking care of shopping at the store, wo wo. ‘Cause we got seven kids and all day long they crawl around the floor, wo wo, singing, ‘Yeah yeah! Yeah yeah! Yeah yeah! Yeah yeah!”

In a move of perfect absurdity, Little Egypt is assimilated and domesticated by Elvis, an American Icon who’s hip gyration created its own moral panic. Largely produced by and for the American people, Little Egypt was initially performed by three different women, none of whom were Egyptian, as part of the Streets of Cairo Pavilion at the 1893 World Fair, challenging Victorian modesty and allegedly saving the Eurocentric spectacle from financial ruin. Referencing modes of cultural and economic exchange, in Little Egypt Doesn’t Dance Here Anymore artist Nahed Mansour uses repetition and semi-blind tracings with carbon transfer on paper and American dollar bills to reflect a process of translation, mutation and exaggeration that occurs through the act of copying and commodification, while her use of archival video and text traces the history of Little Egypt’s lasting cultural influence, consumption and circulation.

The mix of fascination, desire and revulsion produced by the phenomenon of Little Egypt is teased out by Mansour, offering a concise entry into a nuanced history of contact and its reverberations in contemporary socio-cultural Arab-American relations. Like any good trope, repetition, commodification and assimilation of Little Egypt makes her at once omnipresent and unfindable.

Participating artists: 
Sarah Nesbitt

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