Exploring the role of Middle Eastern Showgirls in the Latin cabaret
Words by Ficheraz, edited by Sunayah Arshad
There was a moment in contemporary history, somewhere around the mid-20th century, when cabaret, music-hall, varieté, theatrical revues and most importantly, the showgirls reappeared in the artistic scene. While the rest of the world was experiencing psychedelia in the 60s and ‘70s, Latin countries were going through a revival of the belle époque, practically 50 years after its collapse. Almost immediately, these kind of shows went from the stages to cinema, and from there to TV, positioning the figure of the showgirl as the most profitable artist of the time. What isn’t widely known is that some of the most successful showgirls were Middle Eastern.
What is a showgirl? The genre in Latin America is far from that of its Las Vegas’ namesakes, who serve a more decorative purpose; and are much more akin to those of American burlesque performers of the 1940s and Parisian menuses de revue of the late 19th century. A showgirl was an all-round performer. One capable of dancing, singing and acting - or at least having enough charisma and scenic magnetism to capture the attention of the public when on stage.
The arrival of this type of entertainer coincides in time with the start of the Middle Eastern diaspora in Latin America. Both date back to the end of the 19th century, during the peak of the Belle Époque and the progressive fall of the Ottoman Empire. Simultaneously, Mexico and Argentina (primarily) began to receive a significant number of European theatre companies and a large number of immigrants from Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. An unusual cultural coincidence that would end up consolidating almost 70 years later.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, these types of shows experienced moments of glory. But as time went by, they began to fall from the mainstream. In the 60s for example, strippers in Argentina had taken over the night scene, many of them promoting themselves as showgirls. Consequently, it was frowned upon for any type of artist to move into the world of cabaret or the musical revue. Despite this, one of the first to dare was Zulma Faiad. She not only managed to settle the role of the showgirl as what it originally was, an all-around performer, but also became one of the best, recognised throughout the world for her talent.
Raised in an interfaith Lebanese household, since a very early age Zulma was held to Muslim moral standards of her father’s side of the family, but her mother, who was raised Catholic Christian, always supported her dream of being a performer. Zulma was trained in classical dance and dramatic arts, but due to the perception of the genre back then, neither side agreed with her showgirl-aspirations.
Zulma was an innovator. Instead of subscribing to the defunct blueprint of the past, she drew up her own one; incorporating elements of her theatrical and ballet backgrounds into her performances and taking risks by integrating much more elaborate garments to her already extraordinary costumes. Her style became the standard for Argentine showgirls, who aspired to replicate her dynamic, yet subtle and elegant style.
As a trailblazer, Zulma not only paved the way for Latina showgirls, but for those of Middle Eastern descent. Her varieté included a wide cast of dancers, models, and singers, amongst which some of the most popular showgirls of Arab and Jewish descent debuted. For instance, in her 1972 show ‘Fantastica’ (an over-the-top production that revolved around how fantastic she was), Zulma shared credits with Moria Casan, who was just starting her career as a showgirl.
The rise of Moria Casan in the Argentine art scene was a watershed. Initially, she redefined the image of the showgirl, which at the time was extremely influenced by Eurocentric beauty standards: her olive skin, jet black hair, and voluptuous figure shocked the masses. Overnight, Moria got to star in the most important production of each season, acquiring hit after hit. She toured Western Europe and became an icon of nightlife across Latin America, but Moria wasn't satisfied with that. She wanted to use her platform for more than just entertainment, and became vocal about the social and political problems of her native Argentina. She was the first showgirl to perform monologues on stage, a role that was thought to only be played by men.
Along with Moria, and also as a figurant to Zulma Faiad, debuted Wanda Seux, a Paraguayan showgirl of Mizrahi Jewish descent and raised by a Syrian-Lebanese family. She began her career in Argentina but achieved major success in Mexico. Wanda stood out among the rest for the eclecticism of her performances. It’s said that in a single show she went from doing acrobatics to juggling fires, while surrounded by animals. Belly dance and raks al sayf (sword dancing) were her trademark, and she usually alternated with jazz or contemporary numbers. At times she was accompanied by Bluebell girls from the Lido de Paris, and others by a group of drag queens, an art of which she’s credited for making mainstream.
The euphoria for these shows in Mexico increased considerably during the late ‘70s, but since they were aimed to a higher-income audience, a large percentage of the population had limitations to enjoy them. It’s in this period when ficheras cinema came about, a comical/musical cinematographic genre that intended to bring the glamour and excesses of the cabaret to the masses. Multiple showgirls starred in these, including Wanda Seux and Zulma Faiad, but the central figure was undoubtedly Angélica Chaín.
In her prime, she was everyone's topic of conversation. Angélica Chaín in the magazine's covers. Angélica Chaín in the marquees of the cabarets. Angélica Chaín on the posters outside theaters. Never in the history of entertainment in Mexico had another star caused such a stir. In a matter of months she went from being in the chorus line to being the most important cinematographic figure in the country, the quintessential pinup girl and the most successful showgirl.
But behind her peroxide blonde mane, her Middle Eastern roots remained hidden. The ultimate Latina sex symbol of the 70s/80s, was in fact, Arab. Although she was born in Mexico, her parents were Maronite Syrians from the city of Homs and they arrived with the wave of Middle Eastern immigrants that populated the Southeast and North of Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century.
In the ‘80s, the big television networks capitalised on the rage for this kind of show. Throughout South, Central and North America, TV shows starring showgirls began to appear. These were comedy and musical cycles, created with the excuse of bringing variety shows to a much larger audience. Beatriz Salomon a.k.a. La Turca, of Syrian descent, was among the showgirls of most frequent appearances in these emissions. Wanda Seux, Zulma Faiad and Moria Casán were also frequent characters on television.
Despite the success, by the end of the 20th century, the imminent passing of time, the gradual loss of their youthful looks and the onset of much more explicit shows, marked the decline of this, the last generation of great showgirls. Which after playing a significant role in the history of entertainment fell into oblivion for decades, until recently when the rich body of artistic work produced by them has found wider audiences through social media, and are now considered as pioneers and cult figures by the new generations.
Belle Époque: A period (1871-1914) characterised by cultural, industrial and artistic development. Considered as the golden age of the cabaret, music-hall and revue shows.
Revue: Theatrical genre that combines music, dance and humour. Its plots are mainly about contemporary events and political satire. Its main allure is the display of its stars, the showgirls.
Varieté: Show made up of different acts, without a particular link between them (eg cabarets and circuses)
Menuses de Revue: Its literal translation is leader of the revue. During the belle époque this title was only granted to the most virtuous female performers.
Burlesque: Nowadays this term is used to refer to neo-burlesque; productions that combine the art of tease with dance, elaborate costumes and extravagant props.
Bluebell Girls: Troupe of French dancers from the famous cabaret Lido de Paris. They are recognised for their physique, particularly for their height, 5ft 11 being the minimum.
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