DINA at the MENA!
by Shareen El Safy
“Dina! You should see Dina. She’s the best!” Within the past six years Dina has become a prominent dancer, highly visible in Cairo’s finest hotel nightclubs. She has joined the ranks of the handful of elite, highest paid Oriental dancers — one of the popular “stars” of dance who somehow become an extension of the public’s consciousness, the carrier of the culture’s myths, history and national character. Invariably when asked, most people have a strong opinion on who the top dancer is, and they don’t all agree. But Dina’s persona has grown, she is now on the list of the “must see!”
There are several reasons for her growing popularity, but Dina claims it is “only luck.” We all know the popular adage, “Success strikes when opportunity meets preparedness.” Dina has paid her dues, so to speak. She began dancing publicly at the age of nine for the Ghazira Club in Zamaleck. At that time there was no objection to her dancing by her family. Dina credits Farida Fahmy with elevating the status of dance through her dignified, graceful, intelligent and respectable behavior both on and off the stage. And Farida had come from a “good family”, her father was a doctor, so Dina could also dance folkloric and maintain her standing in the community. Twelve years of training and performing Raks Shabi gave her a strong foundation on which to build her unique expression of oriental dance.
I had seen Dina perform over several years time. There were noteworthy elements in her show, including her many costume changes — sometimes five within an hour, her short “mini” dresses worn incongruously during the last section of her show which included classic favorites by Mohamed Abdel Wahhab and Abdel Halim Hafez.
Now, at the age of twenty seven, she is the youngest “super star” in Cairo. She does attract a younger audience, where a girlish enthusiasm and coquetry woo her admirers. And if there is a birthday celebration that night, she will personally sing “Happy Birthday,” cut the cake and serve the honored guest with the first fork full. Of course there is a down side to being so young, and that is “feeling.” Feeling is the subtle and rich flavor that gives emotional substance to the dance; in its shared expression, audience rapport becomes a state of communication between the artist and the audience — the real “meat” of a performance. Life experience has shaped the styles of Nagwa Fouad, the powerful, consummate entertainer; Sohair Zeki, intuitively musically responsive; Fifi Abdou, passionately earthy, energetic; and Lucy, delicate, refined and intricate. Dina’s growing development of “feeling” is evident, as is her commitment to the dance, which I came to appreciate during an interview with her in the summer of 1991.
I was staying with my Dance/Study Tour at the Mena House where Dina was performing. After her show I caught her getting into the driver’s seat of her new, black BMW sedan. She gave me her phone number, and agreed to an interview. A few days later, waiting in the hotel lounge, I heard giggling and laughter. Dina and her dresser were coming in from an earlier show and an even earlier wedding performance, exhausted but buoyant. She was wearing a sleeveless yellow cotton blouse and knee-length pants. She greeted me warmly and invited me to join them in their trek through the labyrinth of kitchens and workers. Secluded in her dressing room, we talked about her life while she prepared for her show.
Here, in the familiar backstage buzz of musicians tuning their strings and warming the drums, I had Dina all to myself, that is except for the half dozen or so friends who came into the room to exchange two-cheeked kisses, handshakes and a joke or two. Within the anticipatory excitement provided by the nearly forty musicians, hairdresser and costumer, I was able to direct some questions, at first towards the tangible: “Do you always wear this ?” I asked of the large turquoise scarab hanging from her neck. “Yes”, she answered, “blue is good for the evil eye.” I noticed the ever-present gold chain around her waist, and the gold bracelets on her arms.
How did she get started as a solo performer? I had heard a rumor that her career had been launched by a former manager of Nagwa Fouad. “No, …my boy friend, food and beverage manager at the Cairo Sheraton, told me what was the right way. He advised me on which clothes and which musicians…I was too young, with no experience.”
“And now,” I said, “you are very successful. Your parents must be very proud of you.”
All of her family refused to speak to her. “When I started belly dancing it was a big problem. Now my mother and father speak to me after three years, but until now all my cousins, my grandmother, my grandfather, they don’t talk with me.”
I was incredulous: with all of her family living in Cairo, and no one except her parents accepting her and acknowledging her success? She took such a big chance, leaving the comfort and security of her family to pursue her career. She must be very dedicated to the dance! Family is very important in the Middle East. One rarely ventures away from the strong traditional social roles. As an American woman, I can hardly appreciate the difficulties of being a dancer in Egyptian society — the paradox of being financially independent, adored almost as royalty, but shunned as a respectable woman. For a moment, our eyes met in silent empathy.
The male hairdresser was expertly brushing, teasing and spraying her soft brown shoulder-length hair into an arching wave to one side. A very animated and charming man walked into the room, taking a quick look and nodding approval while the hairdresser lifted her hair back, holding a long brown pony-tail fall to be attached during her first costume change. Dina whispered that he is a very famous hairdresser, and a good friend as well. They obviously enjoy each others company, but “just as friends,” Dina explains, holding up her right hand with a large diamond ring on her finger. She and Tewfik Tewfik, brother of the Lebanese singer Walid Tewfik, were engaged.
Did she have plans to continue with her career, or put her dancing on hold while she had children? “No children now. I love children. You know, we are in Cairo. I can’t dance when I have babies because in school the baby would be ridiculed. I can’t walk around with my baby and have people call me dancer, sharmuta (prostitute). No, I don’t want it.”
Putting on blusher, lipstick and a mist of French designer perfume, Dina turns to her dresser who is holding her costume — a short carnelian red satin skirt with built-in jeweled belt and bra. The men have disappeared from the room before Dina unceremoniously steps into the costume. “Helwa?” she asks. “Yes, beautiful, pharaonic,” I answer. Why does she wear such short (above the knee) skirts? Because she has beautiful legs? (Dina is a slim 5’8 or so.)
“I want to create something new, something different (as indeed every artist must). Now there is hardly any art; you have to make a change. Every ten years the whole world changes, why not the art of dance? It has to change, something new. Now I am changing the costuming of oriental dance.” Sometimes there is an obvious omission of the body-stocking, especially when her girdle is placed higher up on the hip. How can she continue with this practice when it is “forbidden” for any dancer to have an uncovered torso? “No one has asked me not to, and until they do,” she shrugs. “Then I will.”
Stylistically, an observer can appreciate Dina’s individual expression of each movement. Her arms and hands are graceful extensions of the balletic form introduced by the Russians and adopted by the folkloric troupes in the early 60’s. Many of her movements have been developed with a strong folkloric reference but with distinctive oriental tones like the shimmy overlay she places upon each step, and the pelvis tucked and upper torso lifted to present a lengthened line of tension-controlled hip work. Virtually all of the movements are on the balls of her feet, although she will deliberately tap her heels flat on the downbeat of the driving saii’di rhythm. She knows her stuff! She has an extensive vocabulary and graceful ease with the music. Her choreographers include Ibrahim Akef and Raqia Hassan who must enjoy working with her natural rhythmic and melodic sensibility.
“What does she hope to accomplish in the future?” I ask, somewhat hurriedly now, having heard the musicians taking their positions on stage. “I want to make dancing respectable. I am a respectable woman. I go to school (she is getting her Masters degree in Philosophy at Cairo University). I don’t do anything wrong. I don’t go with men. I love the dance very much. I want to lift up the image of dancer. Dance is an art! Woman is beautiful.! The dancer is beautiful!”
Slipping on her gem-red satin heels and taking the chiffon veil held out to her by the costumer, she takes a last look in the mirror — exotic hazel brown eyes, a generous mouth . Does she see what I see, I wonder? Does she see an intelligent, talented young woman with clearly defined ethics and moral commitment, a successful artist who conveys a dignified sexuality, who wrestles with cultural contradictions in order to become whole?
Her opening music now filling the air, she gives me the customary two kisses. “Ma salema”, she says in her warm, throaty voice, “Ciao.” Taking a few turns on the kitchen floor, she gathers her persona and steps through the curtain, and onto the stage.
Shareen El Safy is an award-winning instructor and choreographer who has performed and taught Egyptian dance in sixty major cities on five continents, including many states throughout America. She has made numerous trips to Egypt, researching dance, studying with renowned artists there, and leading her Dance Study Tours. As one of few westerners, Shareen performed raks sharqi in Cairo nightclubs during the 1988 to 1992 summer seasons. She has released a number of instructional DVD’s focusing on Oriental dance technique. Shareen presented at the 1999 World Congress of Sports and Dance, and taught and performed at the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival (2001), and the Nile Group Festivals (2009 and 2010) in Cairo. Shareen co-produced the First and Second International Conferences on Middle Eastern Dance in 1997 and 2001. She was Publisher and Editor of Habibi from 1992-2002 and Editor-in-Chief in 1993. www.shareenelsafy.com.