By Amira Mohsen First Published: December 12, 2008 at Daily News Egypt
I’ve always been puzzled by belly dance in Egypt. It is such a characteristic feature of the culture and yet most Egyptians tend to regard the art as a skeleton in the nation’s cupboard, not daring to utter a word about it in polite conversation.
At parties and henna nights, girls vie over who’s the best dancer and little girls are encouraged to dance in front of the guests at weddings and parties. Though when asked outright if she can dance or simply enjoys dancing, the very same girl may completely deny it. So what are the reasons for such contradictions?
I imagined that by attending one of Cairo’s largest oriental dance festivals, I may gain some insight into the complicated culture surrounding this art. So when the organizers refused outright to allow Egyptian media to cover the event, my curiosity was further piqued.
To the ancient Egyptians, dance was an essential part of their culture. People from every social class were exposed to music and dancing. The laborers worked in rhythmic motion to the sounds of songs and percussion, and street dancers entertained passersby. Dance troupes were available for hire to perform at dinner parties, banquets, lodging houses, and even religious temples. Some women from wealthy harems were trained in music and dance.
Today, Egypt is considered by many modern dancers to be the source of the art of belly dance. A young man from Syracuse, who visited Egypt at the end of the 4th century BC, may have given one of the earliest descriptions of a belly dance from Pharaonic Egypt.
After its appearance at the Chicago Exposition at the turn of the century, Americans discovered it, and the French name, danse du ventre, was translated into the "belly dance." It has traditional associations with both religious and erotic elements. This ambiguity has caused belly dance to be disdained, scorned but still loved by many.
The dance now referred to as "belly dance" went by many names in the past. The French dance du ventre, literally meant “dance of the stomach”. It is known in Greece as the cifte telli (also the name of a Turkish rhythm), in Turkey as rakkase and in Egypt as raks sharki (eastern dance).
Middle Easterners also call it "danse orientale" to distinguish it from the baladi, or country dance. It developed through the regions and over time, continuing to develop to this day.
So what exactly is it that makes the term ra’asa (dancer) an insult?
Some of the ways to attain fame are hardly respectable and this can be seen clearly in the stories of some of the most famous Egyptian dancers through the ages.
The Ottoman occupation of Egypt from 1517-1804 and the Mohammed Ali Dynasty lasted until 1952, ending with the reign of King Farouk. At the end of this era, legal prostitution flourished. During that time, the majority of dancers entertained weddings, but there were also a few nightclubs in Cairo.
Whether a dancer was a nightclub dancer or a wedding dancer, and even when a dancer could support herself financially, she couldn’t refuse sex with a pasha (a representative of Turkish authority) or a king. If she refused, he could have her imprisoned. To add confusion to the reputation of dancers, many prostitutes danced, and there was an abundance of prostitutes during that time, so dancers typically had a bad reputation whether they deserved it or not. Tahia Karioka was popular at the time of King Farouk from the 1930s to the 1950s. She introduced very slow movements and used her body in a way that was in complete harmony with the music. She set new standards in Egyptian dance and people loved her style. He started by dancing at the weddings of the upper class, but she also danced in nightclubs and then later in movies. It was through film that Egyptians became familiar with her.
Dancers were still performing in the big palaces of the pashas and the King, and were often obliged to have sex with them. It is often said that she had refused to give herself to the pashas or King when she performed, but rumor has it that she married the King for a week to bypass this situation. During her time, many belly dancers were involved with influential people and politics.
Samia Gamal gained major fame as an actress by playing small roles in movies. Her first movies were in the 40s with one of the most famous Egyptian singers and composers Mohammed Abdel Wahab. Her dancing talent was discovered in these movies and her career exploded.
Gamal had a different dancing style which was very well received, she used her arms in a way that no one else did and was physically different from other dancers. Her tall, slender body, combined with the graceful use of her arms, distinguished her. She was also the alleged love interest of musician and singer Farid El-Attrach, which also boosted her popularity among the Egyptian public. Dancers such as Nagwa Fouad, Soheir Zaki and Sahar Hamdi also added their mark to the genre. Rumors circulated about Fouad’s notorious reputation, further tampering the image of belly dancers; yet Zaki was much admired for her ability to dance and rise from a poor village background. Hamdi’s dancing to music of the nation’s beloved Om Kolthoum gave the public even more reason to love her. Yet it is today’s Fifi Abdou that gives many Egyptian tongues cause to wag and gossip.
Abdou has been famous since the 1980s. She left home at 13. During the late 1970s, Arabs from Gulf countries began flocking to Egypt to vacation and Abdou was the most sought after dancer in five-star hotels and nightclubs throughout the capital. Egyptians initially loathed her for primarily focusing on Arab audiences.
A huge question mark stands over the rumored astronomical wealth of some dancers. Dancers are encouraged to have as many varied and elaborate costumes as they possibly can. Lucy, for instance, is reported to have as many as 600, nothing compared to newspaper reports of Abdou’s 5,000.
Last year, papers buzzed with reports that Abdou bought an apartment overlooking the Nile River for $14.5 million. She denied it, yet such stories cause many raised eyebrows and trigger much gossip.
The London-based Al-Hayat daily recently reported that Egypt's 12,000 registered belly dancers paid $250 million in income taxes last year, making them among the richest people in a country where teachers make a mere $90 a month.
Newspapers report Lucy’s earning to be up to $4,400 for a 45-minute performance at a party or wedding. She says her costumes cost $900-$1,500 apiece.
These days, Egyptian belly dance has a bad reputation that forces women to stay away from this art form. It’s now rare to find an Egyptian-born professional dancer. Foreign dancers come to Egypt innocently hoping to find "authenticity" in the art, are shocked when they find men trying to paw them during their performance or proposition them after the show.
It's not surprising, then, that Western belly dance teachers and performers seek to distance themselves from these realities by trying to elevate the “danse oriental” to a higher plane. Part of this perhaps explains why the event’s organizers isolate the foreign dancers from their Egyptian counterparts, shunning the light and publicity of the Egyptian media.