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The twists and turns of belly dance in Egypt

Traditional belly dancing arose in Egypt in the early 20th century with the rise of evening cabarets and has been declining a century later owing to the lack of suitable public venues

Dina Ezzat , Friday 24 Jan 2020
Gamal
Gamal
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It is a late winter afternoon at a distant ballroom in a Giza hotel close to the Pyramids. About 28 young women, ranging in age from their early teens to their mid-20s, most of them foreigners and mostly dressed in simple dance costumes, are keeping their eyes on the movements of an attractive brunette dressed in leggings and a trunk top and dancing to the rhythms of popular singer Ahmed Adawiya’s 1970s nightclub song Ya Bint Al-Sultan (Daughter of the Sultan).

The song is played on repeat about four times. Then, Sonia, the instructor, stops the music and asks a few girls to join her on stage. “It is time for you ladies to dance with me,” she says. The girls dance with Sonia while she gives them instructions on perfecting their movements. “It is not about one pause. You have to keep the flow,” she says.

Then comes a second and a third group to join Sonia on stage. The three successive groups are of foreign women, predominantly Russians and Ukrainians.

Sonia then looks at the few Egyptian women in the class. They hesitate. She insists on having them come onto the floor. The five, all dressed in conservative training outfits, with one wearing a veil to cover her hair, join reluctantly. At first, they are a bit shy, but with the third replay of Bint Al-Sultan their bodies give an unmatched performance. 

It prompts a smile from Sonia, who adds “bravo,” and an approving nod from Rakiya Hassan, the manager of the belly-dancing training. All the other girls then pick up their smartphones and start recording a video of the sways and twists of the five Egyptian girls who seem to have lost all their earlier inhibition.

“Nobody dances like Egyptian women do. I think it is an inevitable talent,” Hassan comments. “Unfortunately, none of these beautiful dancers will go to the dance floors, though. They will just be trainers, but at least we are keeping some claim to an art that is ours by definition,” she adds.

According to Hassan, it is this association between Egyptian women and belly dancing that makes the training centre, which she has been hosting twice a year for a couple of decades in Cairo and Giza, a major attraction for women from all over the world who wish to take up the profession.

Sonia at her belly dance class
Sonia at her belly dance class photo: Sherif Sonbol

FOR CENTURIES ON END

The literature on the origins of belly dancing offers alternative stories for its evolution. 

But whatever the story, there is an unavoidable reference to drawings on the walls of Pharaonic temples showing women belly-dancing, maybe not necessarily to entertain, but instead to request the blessings of the deities for fertility and prosperity.

There are clear parallels between the overall movement of the body, especially the belly and the lower body, and sexuality, pregnancy, and giving birth. And while every civilisation in the Eastern Mediterranean seems to have had its version of belly dancing, the consensus seems to be that the Egyptian version is the one that has given the art its glory, especially in modern times.

Like many Egyptian authors on the issue, Bigad Salama, the author of a recent volume on the history of belly dancing, argues that it was in the 1920s in Egypt that belly dancing saw the beginning of an evolution that took it straight to its golden years in Cairo in the 1940s and 1950s.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Egypt, particularly Cairo, saw several types of belly-dancing performers. These were essentially the ghawzi and the awalem. There are distinctions that dance anthropologists often make between the two groups, with the second being seen as more upscale and professional in its movements.

Neither group had a particular choreography to adhere to or clear concepts of the movements involved. However, the second group, Salama argues, was more set to dancing to the rhythms of the music and could also sing. While the ghawzi danced in public, essentially in moulids (religious festivals), the awalem danced in private, often for segregated audiences. 

At a time when Egypt was part of a wider empire that saw the emigration of many ethnic groups, the dancers were also never strictly Egyptian. They were also Armenian, Greek, Jewish, and southern and eastern European.

Sultan and Dina
Sultan and Dina

According to Salama, it was towards the end of the 19th century that the solo star belly dancer arose. The names of the time include the dancers Bamba Kashar and Shok, of whom very few drawings survive, but they seem to have been plump ladies whose beauty was compatible with the norms of the times.

Then came Shafika Al-Keptiya, the first true Egyptian diva. A young woman from a conservative Coptic family who was picked out during a joyful dance at a friend’s wedding by Shok and launched as a solo dancer at weddings, she escaped an unhappy life with an abusive husband to be the dancer whose dancing was the dream of many.

Authors who have written on Shafika Al-Keptiya say that she chose this particular name, which literally means “Shafika the Copt,” to assert that being a dancer did not contradict her Christian faith. They also say that she was a nationalist who found hiding places for young men taking part in the 1919 Revolution, used her contacts to get them freed when they were jailed for political activities, and even allowed them to bury English soldiers killed as they were trying to eliminate protesters in a courtyard close to her house. 

An anecdote often attributed to Shafika Al-Keptiya relates her enormous appreciation for Saad Zaghloul, a nationalist figure and the leader of the 1919 Revolution. According to this anecdote, she took to the streets as Zaghloul’s car drove through Cairo upon his return from forced exile in the spring of 1919, dancing on carpets to show her solidarity with the revolution.

Carioca
Carioca

1920S AND BEYOND

It would be hard to miss the association between the rise of belly dancing in Egypt, both as an art and a profession, and the wider historical and political context in which Egypt was becoming modernised and liberalised in western fashion from the rule of the khedive Ismail until after the end of World War I.

Egypt had had to take part in the latter owing to British rule, and after the 1919 Revolution there was the beginning of a more important role for women in public life, as well as in public belly dancing. 

In a recent volume on the association between belly dancing and colonialism, author Shaza Yehia notes that in the wake of World War I, Cairo’s Emadeddin Street was turning into a venue for cabarets that were replacing the dance halls in Azbekiya, now the terminal of the third line of the Greater Cairo Metro.

This change, Yehia argues, was partially about the wish of the British to create an entertainment space for their soldiers. 

However, according to music historian Ratiba Al-Hefni in books she has written on Mounira Al-Mahdiya, a late 19th and early 20th-century singer, and Mohamed Al-Kassabi, a 20th-century musician and composer, this was also because of the evolution of the music industry that came with the introduction of records. 

The 1920s saw the rise of unforgettable divas such as Um Kolthoum, Asmahan, and Badia Massabni.

Um Kolthoum came from the Delta, where she had been performing religious songs, to Cairo where she found a thriving career that eventually took her to be the uncontested top female singer across the Arab world for some five consecutive decades.

Fouad performing during Carter’s visit to Egypt
Fouad performing during Carter’s visit to Egypt

Asmahan had come with her mother and two brothers from the former Ottoman Levant. Her astounding beauty and unmatched voice took her very far very fast before her dramatic death in the 1940s.

Badia Massabni, an actress, singer and dancer who had launched her career in the Levant and Palestine, came to Egypt in the 1920s and became not just a prominent dancer but also the owner of one of Cairo’s most prominent cabarets on Emadeddin Street, the Salet Badia (Cabaret Badia).

According to Sahar Helali, the author of a study on the social history of belly dancing in Egypt, Badia has the credit for launching modern belly dancing, which makes greater use of the upper body. According to Yehia, she should also be credited with launching her cabaret in 1926 – an example that other belly dancers followed in the subsequent years when Emadeddin Street became the jewel of night life in the capital.

 It was Salet Badia that offered a venue for the singing career of Asmahan and her prominent singer and composer brother Farid Al-Atrash.

Salet Badia was only one of two other cabarets she had in the city, including one that was on the site of the Cairo Sheraton at the beginning of Galaa Bridge, then called Badia Bridge rather than the Kobri Al-Ingliz (English Bridge).  

In her memoirs, Badia recalls with pride that the bridge was associated with her name not just in acknowledgement of the role she had played in launching the careers of singers like Mohamed Fawzi and musicians like Al-Kassabgi and Riad Al-Sonbati, but also in recognition of the political role that her cabaret had played in supporting the nationalist movement through the satirical songs of Ismail Yassin and Sorya Helmi.

Most significantly, Salama notes, was the “academy” that kicked off the careers of many women dancers in Egypt, including Beba Ezzeddin, who came from the Levant and who later bought the cabaret when Badia had to leave Egypt, a Greek woman like Ketty, and Egyptian women like Hagar Hamdi, Horiya Mohamed, and Ratiba Roshdi whose careers were more short-lived.

Indeed, the Cabaret Badia saw the launch of the glorious Tahiya Carioca and Samia Gamal, perhaps the uncontested divas of Egyptian belly dancing.

Fifi Abdou
Fifi Abdou

A GOLDEN ERA: Carioca and Gamal, born under different names in Ismailia and Beni Sweif, respectively, just before and shortly after the 1919 Revolution, both escaped from unfortunate households and came to Cairo to find refuge in belly dancing.

Under the strict guidance of Badia and the disciplined training of Brazilian choreographer Issac Dickson, they flourished. Carioca, according to critics Saleh Morsi and Suleiman Al-Hakim, gave Egyptian belly dancing its name and fame. It was about her public persona and not just about her dancing, they say, for she also played a political role in combating the British occupation and later in resisting autocracy during the rule of the Free Officers after 1952. 

Carioca openly criticised former king Farouk as well as successive presidents of the republic in Egypt.

According to Helmi, Carioca should take the credit for liberating Egyptian dance from excessive foreign influences, making it typically Egyptian with a Hollywood allure.

With Carioca and Gamal, writes Noha Roshdi in another study about the history of belly dancing and the evolution of its choreography, there came the development of the belly dance. This, she says, included a more articulated use of the upper torso and the use of veils by dancers. 

Wearing heels, Roshdi writes, appears to have helped realign the dancer’s body upwards in contrast to the traditional style. It was also in this period that the dancers were for the first time observed performing in a two-piece costume that consisted of a top and a long and semi-transparent skirt with side slits. 

The period also saw belly dancing disappearing from public places, though the films of the time show both Carioca and Gamal starring in a series of movies. There was also Naaima Akef, who also appeared in movies in the 1950s.

Nagawa, Halim and farid
Nagawa, Halim and farid

Certainly, this was a period of remarkable duets between dancers and musicians or singers. The most memorable duet was between Gamal and Al-Atrash. The two stared together in a series of successful films that were particularly tailored to fit the songs and songs of both stars. 

One reason that Carioca, Gamal, and Akef are more remembered today than other dancers like Zeinat Elwi, Neimat and Mokhtar is perhaps because the latter never became film stars, despite some brief appearances in a few movies.

Soheir performing during Nixon’s visit to Egypt
Soheir performing during Nixon’s visit to Egypt

A NEW AGE

With the socialist policies that the rule of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser brought to Egypt in the 1960s, the bourgeoisie declined and so did demand for entertainment in cabarets.

It was a time not for belly dancers, but for folk dance epitomised by the famous Reda Troupe. 

Farida Fahmi, the leading dancer of the troupe, performed folk and oriental dance rather than belly dance. She would never wear the traditional revealing costume. Her dances were perfectly composed and choreographed by Mahmoud Reda, who took oriental dance to its fullest shape. 

According to Hassan, who started as a dancer in the Reda Troupe, Reda would insist on teaching all dancers, both men and women, the basics of ballet. “This was about being in command of every single body movement, making the dances a lot more graceful than they might have been otherwise,” Hassan said.

A leading member in Hassan’s belly-dancing training centre is Pierre Haddad, a Lebanese national who started as a folk (dabka) dancer with Lebanon’s diva Fayrouz. He later became a belly-dancing instructor. 

In his course, Haddad includes the basics of ballet, done, he says, to show the dancer what the movement of the body is all about. Belly dancing, Haddad argues, is about spontaneity and dancing to music, but it is also about mastering organised and correlated body movements.

It is the introduction of the concept of belly dancing, Haddad argues, that was essential to the success of Carioca, Gamal, and Akef in Egypt and the subsequent success of Nadia Gamal in Lebanon. One reason why belly dancing still survives in Egypt is because despite the declining interest of Egyptian women, foreign women can come to learn how to dance.

“The learning process of a truly professional dancer is not about memorising a set of moves, but rather is about learning where the moves come from so that she can decide her moves according to the music,” he says.

The only two divas that thrived from the 1960s to the 1980s were Soheir Zaki, a traditionalist, and Nagwa Fouad, who took traditional dance a step towards newer avenues of performing.

“I knew that I wanted to belly dance with a special style, and so I worked on it. I worked hard to integrate some foreign elements, both from the West and the East, in my performances. I worked with musicians and singers to put together the music to which I would dance, and I even worked with technicians to decide on lighting and sound systems that were developing in the late 1970s,” Fouad said.

The wish of Fouad to stretch the confines of belly dancing was encouraged by no other than the legendary singer Abdel-Halim Hafez, who had done so with singing. Fouad made her first cinema appearance in the late 1950s in a film staring Hafez. “And since then it was a good friendship that we had and I learned a lot from him,” she said.

Ultimately, what Fouad ended up performing in the second part of her career was faithful to the traditional belly dancing that she started off with in the late 1950s, but it was also close in concept to the performances in the musicals that she loved to see when she was in New York.

“I did not think it impossible to remain faithful to belly dancing’s authentic concepts and still modernise performances,” Fouad argued.

By the time the dancing careers of Zaki and Fouad were on the rise in the late 1960s and mid-1970s, a belly dancer was still the social butterfly she had been during the golden era of the art. Carioca and Gamal were invited to dance at the palace of king Farouk, and Gamal and Zaki danced at state events. An archival picture reminds us of the two divas dancing during an official dinner that former president Anwar Al-Sadat offered to visiting US president Richard Nixon upon on a visit to Egypt in 1974 to resume long-stalled Egyptian-American relations. Another photo shows former US president Jimmy Carter watching a performance by Fouad.

According to Fouad, this was not just an act of entertainment for a visiting dignitary, but was also an act of showing off Egyptian art. “The state still took an interest in art, art in general and not just belly dancing, and we as belly dancers offered artistic performances that were not designed to be sensational. Those were the days,” Fouad said.

As Zaki and Fouad were nearing the end of their careers, a new milieu of belly dancing was introduced into Egypt. Al-Haram Street nightclubs were becoming fashionable. 

With Egypt opening up to the wealth of the new rich classes, which merged with Sadat’s open door economic policies, and wider tourism flows, including from the Arab Gulf states, it was time for new venues, and for that matter new styles, of entertainment to appear.

The clients of the nightclubs on Al-Haram Street were not those of Emadeddin. And it was no longer the rhythms of Farid Al-Atrash to which Samia Gamal would dance, but rather the songs of Ahmed Adawiya to which Fifi Abdou would dance wearing a costume that was more oriental than Hollywood in style, or maybe even a galabiya, something that Carioca would only wear in a film where she was playing a woman from the popular classes. 

In fact, Roshdi said, it can be argued that the belly dancing of the late 1970s and early 1980s was more representative of the local culture than that of the 1920s that that it had more of a local touch. Salma Abdel-Salam, a performance theorist and instructor, is convinced of the inevitability of this. “Dance is always a reflection of society. All dance is, not just belly dance. Nobody dances in a void,” she said.

Ali Abdel-Fattah, a modern belly-dancing instructor, argues that part of the reason that prompted the decline of belly dancing in the late 1980s was the decline of the interest of the dancers to keep on modernising their style.

Ahmed Samir, a designer of dance costumes, agrees that flair was missing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Most dancers at the time were not looking to be divas, or not in dress, he said. 

“When I started getting into the business in the first decade of the 2000s I tried hard to look for the sewing patterns of the classic dancing costumes but they were all gone; they had gone out of fashion and the artisans who used to do the costumes for the divas of the golden era were gone or long retired,” Samir lamented.

And while belly dancing had found its place in public and was becoming an entertainment for high society like in the 1920s, by the end of the 20th century it was again losing its status for the most part.

Zizi Mustafa, Hayatem, and Sahar Hamdi never enjoyed the status enjoyed by Carioca and Gamal.

Abdel-Fattah argues that while Egyptian society at that time was becoming more conservative and tourists from the Arab Gulf countries were enjoying the more sensual version of belly dancing to be seen in Al-Haram Street, the majority of Egyptians working in the Gulf countries were assuming conservative social principles that were making the presence of a belly dancer at weddings in particular less welcome than before.

Certainly, Roshdi argues, it was becoming less and less likely for talented Egyptian woman to pursue belly dancing as a career.

It was a moment of close to demonisation of women who would venture revealing their arms or wearing a relatively short dress. And it was not just an era for the suppression of all femininity but also a moment of anti-feminism, where the idea of a woman’s right to be in control of her own body was rejected under strong social pressures.  

It was remarkable that in these years Egypt managed to have two of its last dancing divas: Lucy, who stopped belly dancing a decade ago and opted for acting instead, though she still trains, and Dina, today’s ultimate diva.

Soheir Zaki
Soheir Zaki

LOVING TO DANCE

 “Dina is the top name today. She has been for a few years now, and she will continue to be for some more, essentially because she has modernised the dance,” Hassan argued.

“She spends a lot of time deciding on her dances, her music, and her costumes. She does not settle for dancing just anywhere, and she does belly dancing not just as a profession but as a passion,” she added.

Abdel-Fattah agrees that Dina has “revolutionised” belly dancing in the wake of a lull that prevailed for about a decade. “She might be doing the same steps, but she has re-invented the sequence of the movements and put the accent on facial expressions,” he argued.

Samir is also impressed by the attention to details that Dina has put in her costumes. “She is always bringing in new concepts, and this is important because ultimately belly dancing is show business,” he said.

However, Dina herself is worried for the future of belly dancing. “Belly dancing is a very particular and beautiful art that we should not be losing,” she said.

Her fear of its decline is legitimate, however. She is aware that she cannot dance forever and that the introduction of new Egyptian talents to the dancing stage while promising in some cases has not been very strong.

Hadad
Hadad

“Today, there is concern about belly dancing ‘going away’ from Egypt. I think we have to ask ourselves the reason. I guess the obvious reason is that we are not giving belly dancing enough attention,” Dina said.

She sees no reason why the fate of belly dancing, given the continued lack of dedicated attention, will be better than any of the arts that have been lost. “We have been losing so many arts. We have hardly any artists left who can play the traditional baladi drum and oboe. Belly dancing is also an art that if it is not preserved will be lost,” she argued.

For Dina, the issue is not about the presence of Egyptian women who can dance well and love to dance, but rather about giving these women the safe spaces they need to learn and to perform.

In 2014, she presented the popular show Al-Rakissah (The Dancer) that was a dance contest for talents from all over the world. The first phase of the show got a lot of attention, but it was widely attacked by conservative quarters, and it later had to be stopped.

“This was a high-budget show, and it needed strong sponsors, but of course with the huge controversy the sponsors hesitated,” Dina lamented.

Today, Dina is still dancing and teaching belly dancing all over the world. She also makes guest of honour appearances at Hassan’s training centre. But she is not sure that any of this will help to keep the dance business in Egypt where it belongs.

In the mid-1980s, Fouad said, she too had wanted to launch a “proper dance academy to teach dancing methodologically. I thought that the way to keep belly dancing, not just from going extinct, because that was not really a concern at the time, but essentially to keep it from losing its grandeur, was to make sure that new dancers performed an art of grace and not of sensation,” Fouad said. 

She offered a project to the ministry of culture, but “it was never picked up.”

In 2009, Roshdi says, Egypt’s parliament was in uproar over rumours suggesting that Egypt would have a belly-dancing academy associated with the Ministry of Culture. The uproar only ended when the ministry denied any intention to do so.

Today, however, Dina insists that “we need to have a belly-dancing academy just like any other dance academy. It is our signature art, and we should be proud of it.”

Passant, a woman in her late 20s who was present at the Hassan centre, agreed. “I take pride in belly dancing. I absolutely love it, and I have been taking classes in dance studios to acquire the right techniques. I am here today because I want to be a professional trainer. The question for me, though, is whether or not my family will agree with my plan to quit being an executive secretary and to become a belly-dancing trainer.

“I guess for this to happen there needs to be more respect given to belly dancing. We need to stop thinking of belly dancing as just a form of sensual entertainment, as it might have become of late in some parts, and to think of it as it truly is: a signature Egyptian art,” Passant said.

Amie Sultan, the most recent Egyptian star of belly dancing, could not agree more about the need to give credit to belly dancing as a signature Egyptian art. “I am talking about belly dancing and not just folk dance,” she said.

Sultan said it was extremely unfortunate that “belly dancing is now more found outside of Egypt than in it.” She started off as a ballet and modern dance performer, but decided to take up belly dancing upon a visit to Istanbul where she saw Turkish belly dancers performing in the style of the golden era of dance.

“This is a style that is kept up by only very few in the industry today,” she said.

Samir shares Sultan’s worry that the epicentre of the industry could be moving from Egypt to Turkey. Today, he said, some of the most expensive dance costumes are made in Turkey. “They are very beautiful, but it is such a shame that we are losing this part of the industry too. It is ours, and we should keep it.”

Securing the right costumes was one of the many things that Sultan had to do to secure the right shift from modern and classical dance to belly dancing. Beyond the intensive preparations and training needed, Sultan said the shift required a great deal of resolve. 

“I was determined to present an art as it used to be in its glory years, and this was not easy given that the majority of the dancers were already offering a different type of dance,” she said.

Sonia, the dance instructor at the Hassan centre, is also a dancer. A French woman of Moroccan origin, Sonia came to Egypt and left behind a dance school that her mother had established in France to pursue the dream of life as a belly dancer.

“I know that there are many places in the world where belly dancing is performed and celebrated. It is performed and appreciated in Europe, but to my mind if one wants to be a true belly dancer, one has to be dancing in Egypt,” Sonia said.

Ryan
Ryan

TIME TO UPGRADE: What Sonia laments, however, after about five years in Egypt is the lack of interest that most employers have for a dancer’s CV. 

“Obviously a dancer has to have the right figure, look, and spirit, but this does not make you a dancer. What makes you a dancer is the technique and the training. When we stop giving attention to this we lose belly dancing as an art, and we allow it to degenerate into a sensational form of entertainment,” she argued.

A good part of the problem, Sonia argued, is that belly dancing now is less performed in upscale venues than it used to be. Sultan agrees that “the unfortunate image of nightclubs, the degeneration of the environment of many such clubs, and the sad association of belly dancing with venues of excess have all contributed negatively to the image of the dancers and the dance itself.

“We need to think of taking belly dancing to venues of other art performances. I don’t see why we cannot have belly dancing at the Cairo Opera House. I know it is not traditional, but given the challenge the art is facing, we need to think out of the box,” Sultan said.

Hassan agreed that the past few decades had seen an unfortunate stigmatisation of belly dancing, “not just because society was becoming more conservative, or because some belly dancers had decided to quit and take up the veil, but also because the profession was invaded by unfortunate newcomers who arrived to Egypt in pursuit of wealth. They claimed to be just belly dancers, but they were involved in affairs that brought shame upon them and the profession,” she said.

 “They came to fill a void, but the harm they caused was much bigger than anything they did.”

Sonia is convinced that in the near future, foreign dancers will continue to have a big role to play in keeping the industry going.

Rayn, a Chinese belly-dance trainer who comes to the Hassan centre, argued that the demand for belly dancing all over the world makes it inevitable that there will be more nationalities pitching into the business and more varieties of belly dance.

Ryan offers belly dancing classes in 40 cities the world over

“I understand the passion of Egyptians for the classic belly dance, as presented in the black-and-white movies, but belly dancing is essentially about liberating the soul to allow the body to feel the music and dance to it. In this sense, Egyptian and non-Egyptian, eastern and non-eastern, women can belly dance,” he argued.

Ryan added that given that belly dancing is part and parcel of the culture that women in Egypt acquire as they grow up, it might be easier for them to dance than for many others. However, he insisted that this should not mean that Korean or American women cannot dance, even if they do not speak the language or understand the music’s lyrics. 

“I think Eastern and particularly Egyptian women will always have a strength when it comes to belly dancing, but in this day and age when you can learn anything online, from foreign languages to exotic dances, nobody should expect to find a national monopoly on dance,” Ryan argued. 

 “Reviving the art in Egypt and expanding the worldwide appropriation of belly dancing are not exclusive in this day and age,” he concluded.

And according to Hassan, “today the art of belly dance in Egypt stands at a crossroads; we either save it and take it up to its years of splendour or we just allow it to keep dwindling slowly and this would be most unfortunate.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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