Years of Grace and Glamour
The Story of Egyptian Dance
By Helen Miles
It’s night, and the lights are low at the Belvedere Nightclub.
Far below, through the wall of windows, the Nile, ruffled and glittered, slides past. From here Cairo is served on a silver platter, quiet, gentle, distant. A woman in a red dress croons Spanish love songs into a microphone while tables of suited men and jewelled women are served by waiters in white jackets. There is a clink of glasses, the murmur of voices and occasional, dutiful clapping.
The diners are waiting for Lucy, the latest success story, the rags to riches belly-dancer turned movie star. The star of Violets are Blue and Love in the Refrigerator, beautiful and adored, pampered and worshipped. The woman in the red dress doesn’t have a chance.
There is a pause, the lights dim, and Lucy’s orchestra strikes up. First the violins play soft tea-on-the-lawn tunes and then the trumpets and drums join in, whipping up a wild cyclone of sound. Then comes Lucy, running like a child in bare feet with a chiffony robe billowing behind her. The performance begins.
Meanwhile, in a Mohandesseen sitting room, a bride and groom sit stiffly on Louis Quatorze chairs in front of a screen of fading flower heads. The room is bursting with family and friends — the men on one side, the women on the other — drinking Sport Cola and eating squares of brightly coloured cakes. A cassette player blares out Mustafa Amr and a plump child, egged on by her parents, starts to dance.
The wedding couple relax into smiles and soon a matronly figure joins the child. Her face flushed with pleasure, the woman lifts her arms to shoulder height and moves her lower body in perfect timing with the music. At once the years vanish. She is triumphantly, breathtakingly beautiful, her movements as much an expression of irrepressible joy as the ululating of the women which accompanies the dance.
The tradition of dancing in Egypt goes back a long way. Paintings of women in filmy transparent dresses can be seen in the tombs of ancient Egyptians, leading some people to believe today’s dance was passed down from Pharaonic times. Others suggest that the Egyptian dance may be a survival of ancient fertility rites, or perhaps simply a long established and well-loved form of entertainment.
Whatever the case, dancing in Egypt has always been a ubiquitous and important element of the country’s social fabric. No wedding is complete without a dancer, whether a hired professional or a willing guest, perhaps because the age-old idea that dancers bring good luck has never fully died. Young girls learn to dance at home, copying their mothers, improvising to the radio, and dancing at family gatherings and special occasions.
But the distance between the Belvedere nightclub and the Mohandesseen sitting room is not just a question of a few kilometres. It is a vast gulf, full of ambivalent attitudes and prejudices, revolving around an uneasy mixture of social approbation and appreciation.
Mahmoud Reda, who formed the internationally famous Reda Troupe in 1959, was the first to tackle this ambivalence head on. In the early days of the troupe, Reda toured the country studying traditional dances from the countryside. Sometimes the dancers would perform only for other women, so in these cases Reda sent a female dancer to watch and record the steps.
“When we started, dance had a very bad reputation in Egypt. It was a terrible thing to say you were a dancer. Dance was only performed professionally at nightclubs and cabarets, and we were the first troupe to perform it on stage,” Reda said.
The idea that dancing publicly or for strangers is frowned on, while domestic dance — whether it be women dancing for their own sex or for the family circle in mixed company — is generally accepted, goes back a long way. In the 1830’s, E.W. Lane wrote in his Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians about the difference between the awalim, who were professional and highly respected female entertainers invited to perform in the highest social circles, and street artists, or ghawazi, who, although often highly skilled, were considered inferior.
The contempt for public dancers was taken to extremes by Mohamed Ali in 1834 when he forbade female dancers to perform in the streets with a punishment of 50 lashes of the whip if they flouted the law.
Using his skills as a choreographer, Reda resolved to overturn this attitude, making the public dancing profession respected and respectable. “I did this by avoiding the exaggerated sexual movements of the belly, which anyway only accounts for ten per cent of the whole style of folkloric dance, and focusing instead on the other movements,” he said.
“I want to make it clear that I have nothing against belly-dance but it doesn’t lend itself to theatre. A belly-dancer can dance on or near the same spot for hours but on stage you have to use the available space and different steps to vary the dance.”
Reda’s success is legendary. He has been showered with honours, and his troupe has toured the world four times, dancing for countless world leaders and dignitaries. Moreover, more than 20 similar troupes have sprung up in the Reda Troupe’s wake, proving the popularity of his approach to traditional dance.
But in spite of the apparent split in the professional dance world, between folkloric dance which is widely regarded as wholesome family entertainment, and belly-dance which is still professionally restricted to clubs and cabarets, there still remains a link between both.
Rakia Hassan, 46, a member of Reda’s troupe and a teacher of folkloric dance and belly-dance, said the stigma attached to belly-dancing was so strong when she started her career that she felt obliged to concentrate on folkloric dance before eventually taking up belly-dance.
“I started dancing when I was 16. I was able to dance Oriental very well,” said Hassan. “But I joined the Reda Troupe because people looked down on Oriental dance.”
Hassan spent 15 years with the Reda troupe before Azza Sherif saw her dance, recognized her natural flair for belly-dancing and encouraged her to pursue her original talent. Now Hassan wants to start her own belly-dancing school but fears a possible reaction from religious extremists.
Nevertheless, the government has done its bit to keep public disapproval at a minimum. Dancers must get a licence to perform and a licence is only issued after the women have passed an examination proving that they are real dancers. Moreover, there are strict laws regulating the business, ranging from what the women can wear on stage — the midriff, for example, must be covered — to what hours dancers under the age of 21 can work. The law is backed by police inspections of nightclubs.
The fantasy of Oriental dance as perceived by the West grew up in the 19th century with such European travellers as Gustave Flaubert and David Roberts who, through their writing and art, placed the dancer at the heart of the romance and mystery of the East. The cabaret acts of the 1920’s continued this tradition, while Western Oriental dancers popularized the belly-dance through Hollywood.
The attraction of belly-dancing in the West still persists today. Elewa Omar, who runs a belly-dancing costume business in Khan El-Khalili, said the majority of his customers are foreigners. The outfits, hand-made from thousands of sequins, beads and costume jewels, can take up to 18 days to complete and range in price from LE120 to LE5,000 (1 U.S. dollar equals approximately 3 Egyptian pounds) . They are exported all over the world, particularly to Germany and America.
Karin Messerschmidt, one of Omar’s customers from Germany, said: “Belly-dancing has been popular in Germany for five or six years now. It’s really big with housewives and with all kinds of people of all ages. I started because a dancing school nearby was offering lessons and I thought it would be fun. I like the movement and the feeling it gives you.”
As for modern belly-dancing in Egypt, the first Egyptian cabaret, the Casino Opera, was opened in Cairo in 1925 by Badia Masabni, a Syrian actress-dancer. Egypt’s most famous belly dancers, Tahia Karioka and Samia Gamal, trained with Masabni, combining the modesty and earthiness of baladi dance with the more sensual, glitzy elements borrowed from the nightclub style.
With the help of the movie screen, Karioka and Gamal moved belly-dancing from the fringes of the entertainment world to the main stream, from the cabaret floor into almost every Egyptian household. According to Gamal, who is now retired, dancing is no longer what it was. “Thank God I am not dancing any more, because what I am seeing is not dancing. There is a big difference between art and amusement. What we were doing in the past was really art, because we treated the dance with respect, and with love, too.
“Right up until the time when I stopped dancing, I was practising all the time; not only me but everyone like me, the musicians and singers as well. Now everything has changed and people seem to be only interested in money,” said Gamal.
Rakia Hassan, whose clients include the belly-dancers Mona El-Said and Fifi Abdou, agree, blaming the change on the fact that formal training for belly-dancers is now the exception, not the rule.
“I think it is very important for belly-dancers to be properly trained. That way they know the right steps, how to move exactly the way they want and how to portray the story of the dance,” Hassan said.
A lack of formal training, however, has not held Lucy back. “No one taught me to dance,” said Lucy. “I am my own coach and my own director. Everything you see I am responsible for. I just watched other people and copied them.”
Nonetheless her climb to the top has not been effortless. Lucy’s mother was a dancer from the Mohamed Ali district of Cairo, a once-famous entertainer’s quarter where performers established their own community, frequently intermarried and even used their own language. But still Lucy’s mother didn’t want her daughter to dance.
“My mother was afraid for me; she didn’t want me to dance because she knew it was tough. I told her I knew it would be hard work but that I knew how to look after myself. All I wanted was a chance to try,” said the 29-year-old actress.
Lucy achieved her ambition, but the fight isn’t over; she still faces the challenge of persuading her audience to take her art seriously. “I can’t interfere in the mind of every man who watches me. It’s very important for me to deal with my art as art. That way my audience should see it as an art too and not as a sexual performance.
“I am very happy when I see these feelings in their eyes, when I see that they really admire the way I am dancing. I realise I have a really good body but at the same time they appreciate the art itself.”
Lucy is certainly paid handsomely for her efforts. She and her 25-strong orchestra receive a salary of LE4,500 a night — the kind of riches that most dancers only dream of.
In a downtown club a woman stands on a stage beneath a cobweb of balloons, tinsel and tinfoil streamers. The dancer, spilling out of a green body stocking, is bored and 40ish. She chews gum and walks around the stage wobbling a little every now and again, and frequently stopping to chat to customers.
Backstage, her manager, Sami Salah, 55, wearing a trench coat and thick gold rings, concedes that most of the dancers are only in it for the money. “The dancers aren’t so good nowadays,” said Salah. “In the old days the dancers considered themselves artists, but the reputation has gone down. Now they just think about the money.”
In a profession riddled with drawbacks, from the long and antisocial hours to the enduring social stigma, money is at least one plus point. Salah claims the dancers can earn between LE50 and LE500 a night. Part of their income comes from customers who put money on the stage in order to have the country saluted by the compère, or, if the money is right, to dance with one of the girls.
Whether you find it in night club cabarets or movie screens; whether you see it in wedding processions or chance upon it behind closed doors, Egyptian dance is here to stay, and the debate about its propriety and artistic merit will doubtless rage on. The final word should go to Reda who said: “You can’t blame the dance itself. All art by its very nature is good. But whether it is art or not depends on the person who does it.”
Reprinted with permission from Cairo’s Al-Ahram weekly English newspaper, April 8-14, 1993. Submitted to Habibi by Leyla-Lois White.