By Shareen El Safy
For many months I had been vigilantly searching the TV guide listings for shows on Egypt. While staying at the Oberoi Mena House in the summer of 1991, I had heard through the grapevine that there was an American film company in the hotel which was documenting the tradition of belly dancing in Egypt. I was delighted when I finally tuned into the National Geographic Explorer series on the pyramids of Giza and discovered a segment entitled “Cairo Unveiled,” featuring the famous Egyptian dancer, Lucy.
The segment was done by partners and independent New York filmmakers Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon. The Simon and Goodman Picture Company has been nominated three times for an Academy Award, and won two Emmy Awards for television documentaries. True to their excellent reputation, the documentary was artistic and sophisticated, combining a compelling and sensitive perspective with technical filmmaking expertise. The storyline, footage and editing were superb.
Middle Eastern culture enthusiasts will be delighted with the sensitivity and perceptivity with which the documentary enters into the dance world of Cairo. From young girls in the poor sections of the city aspiring to grow up to achieve super-star status, to the glamour and success of Lucy’s career, the story demonstrates the importance of dance in the culture. From street corners, to weddings, to five-star hotels, music and dance are seen as being embedded in the fabric of the society. The film’s visual, verbal and audio blend of everyday existence with the music/dance culture is truly representative of all levels of modern life in Cairo.
The story begins with Lucy’s emotionally charged statement: “In Egypt it is sometimes said, ‘You can take away the pyramids, you can take away the Nile, but you could never take away raks sharqi.’” As noted choreographer Ibrahim Akef states later in the program, “Belly dance is in the blood of every Egyptian…No matter how modern our country becomes, we cannot forget about belly dancing.”
Lucy grew up in the Old City of Cairo near Mohamed Ali Street, famous for its resident artists, musicians and dancers. Lucy had always dreamed of becoming a dancer, and a fortuneteller predicted that she would become famous and sign autographs. Now when Lucy returns to her old neighborhood, she is instantly recognized and greeted by everyone on the street. Her accomplishments encourage other young women who may also dream of stardom.
While she clearly enjoys her stardom, Lucy most appreciates being recognized by her fans as a true artist. “Most of my admirers are women,” comments Lucy, “and I prefer it that way, because a woman does not want anything from another woman. I don’t care much about the man’s judgment because he’ll never look at me as a whole…Belly dance is feminine, which is different from sexual. I don’t go on stage just to show my body. I do something which I truly feel is an art.”
While instructing an aspiring professional dancer in his Cairo studio, Ibrahim Akef speaks of the difficulties of being a dance artist: “The dancer has to love this art. She has to believe in raks el sharqi, because it is one of the most difficult dance forms in the world.”
Anyone who has danced in the Cairo nightclub scene becomes acutely aware of the sensitivity to artistic expression in music and dance which is commonplace among Middle-Easterners. The dancer is perceived almost as another musician in the orchestra, adding her own expression to the musical outpourings. Has this growing awareness of the dancer as artist, combined with the fame and wealth achieved by successful dancers, had an effect on the perception of the status of women in the Middle East? Although Lucy might not make this connection directly, she does state, “A woman in the Middle East, not just Egypt, used to be treated as a lowly being. Now the woman has her place in society.”
In Egyptian culture paradox and contradiction are embraced, complexity is the norm, and embellishment is expected. Perhaps it is these national characteristics that allow a predominantly Islamic population to admire and celebrate their ancient roots in the expression of womanhood in the belly dance.
When approached about the apparent conflict between her dance and the Koran’s directive that a woman’s hair and body should be covered, Lucy says, “I say God is forgiving and merciful. I think that he knows that I don’t hurt anyone, that I don’t do anything bad or cause harm…On the contrary, I dance at weddings and nightclubs and give people a good time…Our religion is based on what is inside, not outside. You can have a relationship with God and still have fun!”
The documentary demonstrates this blending of the dance and religious cultures in Egypt at a wedding party in the Mena House’s sumptuous gold-lacquered and crystal-chandaliered ballroom. Although weddings are sacred rites in all of the religious traditions in Egypt, it is customary to have a dancer at every wedding, and no wedding is complete without one. Nothing adds more weight to the occasion and registers social status as much as being able to hire a famous dancer to perform at a wedding. I attended one wedding party in which a string of superstars performed continually through the night, not an event which was easy on the budget, I am sure.
The adulation afforded great dancers in Egypt is in sharp contrast to the status that dancers of any kind enjoy in America. Following Lucy’s life through the eye of the camera evokes images of the lives of American movie stars, rather than dancers. Actually, dance success often leads to film and singing opportunities in the Cairo entertainment industry. In fact, Lucy is an accomplished film actress and recording star as well as an excellent dancer.
This piece could easily have been entitled “The I Love Lucy Show!” Lucy was clearly the centerpiece of the program. She was elegant, dignified, charming and humble. Her hectic performance schedule was filmed with philosophical and personal interjections about her life. Her animated and spontaneous personality was well presented in the film, a side of her which I have personally enjoyed at several private functions.
However, there is another important side of Lucy which was missed in the story line which I have experienced while working as a dancer at her Pyramid Street nightclub, Parisianna: that is, Lucy as the intelligent and shrewd business woman and self-motivated perfectionist. These qualities are as important to success in the competitive dance world of Cairo as the artistic skills which Lucy so obviously displays.
This film was an excellent showcase for Lucy’s incredible talent as a dancer. The photography and editing managed to display the variety of costuming, music and choreography without losing touch with the flow and feeling of the music and dance. Lucy’s talent and love of the dance is evident in the subtle, soulful nuances of her expression of the music. Her shows are rich in the diversity of the Oriental tradition.
It was very evident in this documentary that Lucy enjoys the affection and respect of the Egyptian people. Lucy deserves her super-star status.
Mabrouk and Soukran, Simon and Goodman! Thank you for your educational and inspiring documentary on raks al sharqi. For further information on “Cairo Unveiled,” please contact:
National Geographic Television
1615 M St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036
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.