Dubai and Kuwait

It’s Rough in the Gulf

Dancing in Dubai and Kuwait

By Nuria Tahan

A popular T-shirt sold to tourists in the Gulf area says “It’s Rough in the Gulf!” It is not hard to believe it in the summer, when temperatures are over 120 degrees in the shade, and humidity seems like 200%. But I had visited Dubai before, and knew that it was the kind of place I would enjoy living in. It is actually a wonderful country, with something for everyone: duty-free shopping that outshines Singapore, camel safaris in the desert, scuba diving, nightclubs catering to any nationality, and, of course, belly dancing.

I have lived here since right after the Gulf War ended in 1991, and have managed to get through the bureaucratic hassles necessary to obtain a business license in Dubai. With the help of my Kuwaiti boyfriend, I am now the owner/manager of a successful tailoring shop which caters to all nationalities, including Westerners, Arabs, and Indians, with my personal specialty being belly dance costumes.

Kuwait: Hush Hush Parties for the Rich and Powerful

I visit Kuwait quite often. Kuwait is much more restricted than Dubai: drinking is forbidden, there are no nightclubs or discos of any kind. This makes for a very bored local population who were delighted to find an Arab-American belly dancer in their midst. I am originally half Arab, but adopted at birth by a normal American family. Because I resemble Kuwaiti women, and can do “their” dance, they couldn’t believe that I was American. The people are very friendly, one introduction led to another, and I soon had a lucrative private party dance business (tips are very generous!). Of course, this was very discreet, since parties are also forbidden. The people I perform for are mostly professional, educated Kuwaitis, many who studied in the USA. Kuwaiti women who accompany their boyfriends to these parties are often wary of me as a potential rival, but they relax when they discover I am only there as a professional dancer and not out to steal their men.

Dubai: Five Star Glitz and Glamour

I have danced at weddings in Dubai, although this is unusual since it is not the custom to bring belly dancers to weddings as in Egypt. The vast majority of the dancers in the local clubs are brought from Lebanon on special contracts, although there are also a few excellent Western dancers. Most dancers are chosen for their youth, beauty, and slim figures – dance ability not being required. Nightclubs are mostly managed by Lebanese who hire girls who live up to their standard of beauty. Most Khaleejis prefer the voluptuous Sophia Loren type of woman and Egyptian style of dancing, but they are not involved in the hiring of dancers.

Fortunately, there are several very talented dancers in Dubai, coming from England, Australia, as well as Lebanon. The most famous Lebanese dancers who come regularly are Hueida Al Hashem, Amani, Samara, Ranine, Nariman Aboud, and Nabila Metwalli.

Yasmina in Dubai Desert

Yasmina is a particularly fine dancer from England who dances in Dubai. In London, she was a student of Sheherazade, a dancer of Dutch/Indonesian ancestry who had worked extensively in the Middle East, and Suraya Hillal. Suraya was raised in a traditional Arab family which shared the commonly held belief in the Arabic culture that belly dancers are not respectable. Suraya shuns the night club scene, with its glamorous beads and sequins, and the sexy image most Europeans have of belly dancing. She aspires to elevate the dance to an art form, referring to it as “raks sharqi,” and performing only in London’s most high class venues. The classes were very strict, focusing on back-to-basics technique. This training is evident in Yasmina’s dancing in Dubai, where she stands out as an artist. “Most of the dancers here in Dubai wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in Suraya’s classes,” says Yasmina.

Yasmina has had a very enviable career. Her first overseas engagement was a series of performances in India (Madras, Bombay, and Bangalore). She then spent several years dancing in nightclubs in London, interspersed with tours to Italy (one year) and Morocco (five months). Finally, she met a Lebanese agent named Touros who got her lucrative contracts in the Middle East. She has performed in Syria, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, and performed in Oman in November, 1994. She spent time in Lebanon, but only as a tourist, as the clubs are only open on weekends and are therefore not very lucrative. She found the Lebanese dancers to be very hostile to foreign dancers.

In Dubai, Yasmina performs for a mixture of Khaleejis, Arab expatriates, and Westerners, and has also performed in Iranian, Turkish, and Greek nightclubs. When asked what type of audience she prefers, Yasmina said she feels most comfortable when there are lots of Egyptians in the audience. “They really appreciate the dance for what it is, for its pure essence. They’re not out to impress people by being in the nightclub, they just want to have a good time.”

Although some dancers in Dubai are very flirtatious on stage and rely on relating to the audience for their success, there are others who keep themselves a little aloof. Some Lebanese dancers are actually snobbish with the audience, but they get away with it because the Lebanese audiences in five-star nightclubs are also snobbish and appreciate a dancer with that aura about her. The Lebanese don’t like Egyptian dancers, finding them too earthy and sensual in a provocative way, sometimes even vulgar for their tastes.

A large part of the challenge of dancing in an Arabic country is to learn to live within the Arab society, understanding the rules of the culture. For instance, tipping is forbidden in five star hotels in the Gulf, although less classy establishments will have flower girls selling “leis,” which is a form of tipping. The five star hotels have very high standards for their dancers, and don’t want any hint of scandal. Maintaining your job as a dancer in Dubai, as well as in other Middle Eastern countries, depends on your reputation. Yasmina says, “You really have to adapt. You can’t be like you are in your own country. You have to accept the rules and social standards of the country you’re working in…Your job depends a lot on your image remaining untarnished.” Yasmina has learned to enjoy her own company, and usually knows no-one in the country where she is performing. She usually declines the frequent invitations to go out which she receives unless she knows someone very well. Dancers overseas have to be very self-sufficient, and guard against any need they might have to be around people all the time.

There always seems to be a potential for sexual harassment in our dance form, and Dubai is no exception. However, the hotels have very good security guards to protect the dancer. Yasmina says that you really need a degree in diplomacy, because “the creep who is harassing you may be a very important creep…he may even be your boss.” Girls who refuse may find themselves out of a job, or being allowed to finish their contract, but not invited back. Girls who give in may keep the job for a while, but when the manager tires of her, she is back out in the street, not being invited back because she is an embarrassment because of her bad reputation. Yasmina’s approach has been very successful, which is always to maintain a professional distance, letting her talent speak for itself. Favorable audience reactions have insured her a steady stream of contracts, and she has been well-respected and invited back for repeat performances.

Nuria Tahan was born and raised in Southern California. She has traveled to over 200 countries in the world, most extensively in the Middle East. Currently, Nuria resides in Dubai where she owns and operates Gypsy Tailoring, and designs belly dance costumes. She performs frequently in Kuwait, and plans new and exotic adventures around the world. tara@emirates.net.ae

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