[Ads-l] Kouta Kouta, Coochie-Coochie and Hoochie Coochie

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Wed Jul 6 17:03:32 UTC 2016

There was a discussion about hoochie-coochie here in 2005 in which Douglas Wilson and Ben Zimmer provided numerous citations to the expression "kouta-kouta" or "koota-kouta".

Douglas Wilson 
wondered whether it was from Bengali, Turkish or Arabic; or whether it 
was modeled on Hula-Hula; and Ben Zimmer speculated that it could have 
been a made up exotic sounding word, and that it may have been a 
precursor to coochie-coochie and hoochie-coochie that came later. 

I did a bunch of looking into hoochie-coochie a couple years ago and put it on the back burner, because, although some of the stories were interesting, I didn't have much to say about how it transitioned from kouta to coochie to hoochie that hadn't been said before.  I knew that "kouta-kouta" was first, and was sure that it was a precursor to coochie-coochie and hoochie-coochie; and that the transition may have been influenced by earlier songs with kutchy-kutchy and hoochie, coochie coochie in the lyrics.  

But recently, Ben Zimmer made some comment about rhyming reduplication words starting with "H", like Heebie Jeebies; and that gave me the impetus to go back to "hoochie-coochie," because I could at least tie the transition to hoochie-coochie into that linguistic template; similar to words like hurdy-gurdy, hula-hula, and honky-tonk that were all "h"-words related to dances or dance halls.  I also found a couple more interesting facts.

I've found a specific connection to the Kannada or Canarese language of Southern India.

I traced "kouta-kouta" to a dancer named "Vita" or "Avita" who introduced the dance in a play called, "Elysium" that debuted in New York City in May 1892.  Douglas Wilson provided a reference referring to that play:

>_Chicago Daily [Tribune]_, 22 May 1892: p. 30:
><<A humorous feature of the production of "Elysium" was the
>widely-advertised dance of a woman whose name I have forgotten, but who, it
>was gravely asserted, had been famous in India for several years. .... She
>performed what was known as the "Koota-Koota" dance. This is a series of
>postures of such a nature that even in Calcutta the dance was considered
>infamous.>>The earliest reference to that play and dance I could find was a few days earlier:

A novelty in dancing, it is announced, will be seen in "Elysium" at Herrmann's Theatre next week.  It is called the "Koota-Koota," whatever that may mean, and is danced by Avita, an English character actress [(she was actually an American from San Francisco)], who is said to have performed it before the Rajah during her visit to the East Indies. Isn't that real nice?

The Evening World (New York), May 13, 1892, page 5. 

Other newspapers made similar claims that Vita had learned the dance in India, but it was very vague; and sounded more like press-agent puffery than actual biography.

But Vita gave an interview to a magazine in London in 1894, when she brought the "kouta-kouta" dance to England.  In the interview, she says that she learned the dance in India while touring with the Stanley Opera Company:

The "Kouta-Kouta" Dancer. . . . "I [Vita] learnt it in India when I was with the Stanley Opera Company.  The favourite dancing girl of one of the Rajahs taught me all about it, and when I danced it in the Chicago Exhibition you cannot imagine what a furore it caused.  In England I am sure it will excite just as great interest. Don't you think so?"  

Today (London, Volume 1, January 20, 1894, page 21.

Contemporary British newspapers confirm that a "Stanley Opera Company" was active in India and the Far-East during the 1880s and 1890s. (free snip cites available at britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

A Canarese-English dictionary published in 1858 lists the word, "kouta," as meaning "a quick kind of dance."  The word Kuta (sometimes spelled Koota - spelled with a different vowel in Canarese characters) now means a social club, a horoscope for arranging marriages, or sexual intercourse; but I do not know if the two words are related.

Vita's kouta-kouta dance appears in print several times during the year before the Chicago World's Fair.  The expression "kouta-kouta" also pops up shortly after the fair, in reference to dancers who claimed to have danced in Chicago.  But I could only find one reference to something like "kouta-kouta" during the run of the fair.  It is in an advertisement for an X-ray machine to be used to make money at the fair - the ad claims that the machine is "a thousand miles ahead of the Kota dance" and that you "can give a hot speil on it." The New York Clipper, September 12, 1893, page 449.

(This may also be an antedating of "spiel".)

All of the other references I've seen with dates during the fair call it danse du ventre, mussel dance (as in musselman - a muslim; but sometimes spelled muscle dance), or Midway dance.

The earliest coochie-coochie I found was in September 1894, nearly one year after the fair closed. I'm not sure whether this is an ante-dating or not:

Vice and Vulgarity at a Fair. Unworthy Features of the Somerset County Agricultural Show. Somerville, N. J., Sept. 13 (Special). - "Come, gents, walk right up and see the 'Couchee-Couchee Dance.' For gents only, remember, no laides allowed."

New York Tribune, September 14, 1894.

The earliest hoochie-coochie I could find is a Cornell yearbook that appears to have been published before the Winter Term of 1896 (which started in January), but is undated.  The song, "When I Do the Hoochy Koochy in the Sky" bears a copyright date of 1896. 

I have posted Part I of two planned parts on my blog: 

Peter Reitan

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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