Other Egyptian Dancers
Apart from the dancers who perform and teach internationally, there are other examples of Egyptian dancers I found online.
These are the ones who appear on shaabi music videos and I have found references to some of them on an article from a website about culture and events in Cairo (Cairoscene Team, 2015).
This article, in addition to listing some famous dancers from the recent past (Dina, Fifi Abdou, Lucy and Nagwa Fouad) mentions Bardees, Shakira al Masria and Sama el Masry.
They adhere to a certain ‘baladi’ look, which, according to Esposito (2016, para. 3) nowadays is ‘the preferred aesthetic for belly dancers . . . very much about silicone, tattooed eyebrows, perfectly ironed black wigs, and really bad makeup’.
This is also the look that Egyptian raqs sharqi dancers, such as Camelia and Sahar Samara, have adopted.
Also, Bardees, Shakira al Masria and Sama el Masry have all been jailed for being in controversial music videos (Egyptian Streets, 2015), which Diana (Esposito, 2016, para. 3) defines as ‘titty-twerking and broom-stick humping video clips’.
It seems that a certain aesthetic, which is driven by society, influences the way in which professional raqs sharqi dancers in Egypt today dance and present themselves, and the way in which they are judged.
There is, however, in Egyptian society, a sense of nostalgia for the old days of belly dance, the Golden Age, and in particular dancers such as Samia Gamal.
asmina of Cairo comments that (Sullivan and Farouk, 2006, sec. 1:22:15), ‘unlike the dancers of today, those female icons of the silver screen are remembered and revered in a way that only the distance of history allows’.
The Lebanese film director Jocelyne Saab, states that (ibid, 1:23:12):
Golden age of cinema it was a golden age . . . not only for cinema. Citizens were much more open minded than today, we are in a terrible regression. . . . So, that’s why dancing was prosperous and elegant and accepted in a way and they become gods and goddesses.Jocelyne Saab
And the costumier Amera el Kattan stated (ibid, 1:22:23):
The beauty of Samia Gamal . . . everybody loves . . . her elegance, her subtleties, her excellence, excellently trained . . . but she is also excellently presented, so she has always been the perfect lady on stage, the perfect dancer and perfect model, fashion wise.Amera el Kattan
Another dancer mentioned in the Cairo Scene article (Cairoscene Team, 2015) in the list on the Cairo Scene website is Amie Sultan (Mowafi, 2015).
She is Egyptian but was born in Singapore. She used to be a ballet dancer before discovering Raqs sharqi.
She trained with Dina and Raqia Hassan and her aim is to refine belly dancing again, to promote a classier look and ‘revive the golden age of dance’ (CNN, 2016).
Amie Sultan seems to cater to the upper class of Egyptian society as Esposito comments (2016, paras 2, 5):
It’s not that Amie is changing the way dancers are approaching the dance or Egyptians’ tastes– in fact her influence is mostly limited to a rather closed circle . . . she’s found her audience in a certain sector of Egyptian society that’s [sic] already had those tastes. The Cairo ‘posh’. . . . Naima Akef, Samia Gamal, and Souheir Zaki radiated elegance in their day. They simply reflected the classy sophistication of mainstream Egyptian culture at that time.Amie Sultan (2016)
Class Division in Egyptian Society
The class division in Egyptian society is reflected in the dance and this is not a new phenomenon.
From the time of Badia Masabni, there were different classes of dancers who danced for different people and in different settings, with their dancing and costume style adapted to their audiences.
This is the same today. Dancers position themselves in the field of cultural production and use certain transcultural resources (including media, costumes, and make-up) to create their niche. Each presents a specific self-identity, to cater to different audiences.
Luna of Cairo (Esposito, 2011a) (aka Diana Esposito) also laments a drop-in skills level of Egyptian dancers today (also of those who perform in 5-star hotels), as well as the quality of their costumes compared to 30 years ago and she pinpoints social and financial reasons.
According to Diana (ibid), dance is considered haram (sinful) today more than ever, but dancing for a living is still considered lucrative even if dancers only perform in cabaret (the cheaper type of venues), in spite of the general decline of the Raqs sharqi scene in Cairo today.
Skills Level and Training
Diana (Esposito, 2011a, paras 6, 7) explains how many Egyptian dancers today do not train properly, nor do they invest money in costumes and props for a variety of reasons:
The very same women who dance professionally believe that what they’re doing is . . . haram, sinful. . . . Thus, what is haram doesn’t deserve any serious effort. . . . Average Egyptians are too worried about where their next meal will come from to be thinking about art. . . . In a place with no guarantees and no social safety nets, it’s not logical for dancers to spend any of their income on something so frivolous as a dance class.Diana (Esposito, 2011)
In connection to this presumed drop-in skills level (although it is based on observations from an experienced dancer), one might wonder if dancers are actually judged on their skills or on who they dance for.
As discussed by Fraser (2014, sec.A Name for Female Entertainers), European travelers to Egypt in the 19th century identified two classes of dancers: one class performed for the upper classes and another for the masses.
Fraser (ibid.) states that these travelers attributed differences between the two groups on the grounds that the dancers performing for the upper classes were more skilled or those performing for the masses were more vulgar.
However, Fraser (ibid.) argues that these travelers were applying European ideas to explain the differences between the two groups. She suggests, drawing on the position of dancers in the medieval period in Egypt, that instead ‘performers did not dance for the wealthy because they were high class.
They were considered high class because they danced for the wealthy’ (2014, sec. A Name for Female Entertainers). Therefore, it is possible to wonder if the judgments applied to dancers today suffer from the same bias (which derives from the taste/habitus, or schemes of perception (Bourdieu, 2002), of the viewer) and shaabi dancers are judged to be less skilled just because of the type of audience they dance for. This is a possibility worth considering.
Esposito gives another reason for the ‘decline’ of Raqs sharqi in Egypt, which is the change in taste of younger Egyptians:
Whereas belly dancing used to be a popular form of entertainment up until recently, western style discos, alcohol and drugs have become the preferred choice of amusement these days. But the biggest competitor to the dance thus far is the DJ. Compared to belly dancing, hiring a DJ is cheap and easy.(Esposito, 2011a, para. 10)
Indeed, whereas belly dancers always were and still are a big part of wedding celebrations, it seems that today some people no longer hire belly dancers.
The Egyptian entertainment agent Moatsim Orabi, whose father was also an agent and whose clients included Nagwa Fouad, Soheir Zaki, Fifi Abdou, and Sahar Hamdi, once said in an interview to Yasmina (Sullivan and Farouk, 2006, sec. 1:04:55): ‘Most of the people at the weddings they can dance. . . . The brides and the grooms, they are dancing with the deejay, they do not need to see a belly dancer’.
This is another example of how taste in the whole of society can have an impact on Egyptian Raqs sharqi as a field of cultural production.
Attitude Towards Belly Dancers
Throughout history, Egyptian society has always had an ambivalent attitude towards belly dancers.
Depending on social and economic trends, Egyptian governments have sometimes tried to curb belly dancing (Van Nieuwkerk, 1995, pp. 32, 36, 49):
- from the 1834 Muhammed Ali’s ban of dancers from Cairo (lifted around 1849 by Abbas Basha, in order to recover the profitable taxes imposed on dancers)
- to the 1952 regulation forbidding dancers from showing a naked midriff (hence the adoption by dancers of transparent chiffon to cover the midriff)
More recently, under Nasser (President of Egypt from 1956 to 1970), belly dance was forbidden on television (although old black and white movies with dance scenes were allowed) and more and more rules were issued regarding belly dance costumes, e.g. skirts length or bras straps width (Talaat and Guibal, 2011, p. 100).
However, Raqs sharqi has always been part of Egyptian culture.
More recently, in 2013, the Egyptian TV channel El Tet, which showed only belly dancing performances all day, was closed down on morality grounds.
In 2014, the TV show Al Rakesa, hosted by Dina for the Egyptian TV channel Al Qahera Wal Nas was also halted because it corrupted morals (Al Sherbini, 2015) (all the episodes are still available on YouTube though).
Raqs sharqi, however, still survives in Egypt and this country is still considered the land of this dance, even though it has now spread worldwide.
Practitioners travel to Egypt to find the ‘true’ essence of Raqs sharqi (as investigated by Cooper , training in Egypt is seen to confer authenticity to a dancer’s practice) and Egyptian dancers Randa and Dina are cautiously optimistic with regards to the future of Raqs sharqi in Egypt.
According to Randa ‘this will not be the end of Egyptian stars. The dance is in the blood of Egyptians’ (Zahara and Shahin, 2012, para. 15) and Dina said in an interview (Sullivan and Farouk, 2006, sec. 1:37:29): The base, the master is here. They can’t work without us. Till now, I know, till now. . . .
The music is here, the musician is here, the dancer is here, the heart, the feeling, everything is here.
Hi – I’m Dr Valeria Lo Iacono and I am a dance researcher with a PhD in dance as a form of living heritage. I also teach belly dance and love to travel to discover new dances around the world. I have worked also as an academic and in the UK and in Korea. Thank you for visiting my site.