As mentioned by Dina at the end of the previous section, the musicians, the feeling and the heart of raqs sharqi are still in Egypt.
This is why many raqs sharqi practitioners (those who want to discover the roots of this dance) from around the world travel, at least once in their lives, to Egypt. Some of them, all women, decide to stay and dance professionally in Egypt for a few years.
The sources that have allowed me to know more about what it is like to live in Egypt as a foreign professional dancer come from interviews (with dancers who lived and worked in Cairo for at least 10 years before going back to their countries of origin), as well as from textual sources such as blogs (Esposito, no date; Gow, no date), books (Saahirah, 2014) and DVDs (Sullivan and Farouk, 2006) produced by foreign dancers who work or have worked in Cairo for a long time.
Living and Working in Egypt as a Dancer
From these sources, it has emerged that living and working in Egypt as a dancer is not easy. There is the culture shock to deal with, from living in a place that is culturally so different from the countries where most foreign dancers originate from.
For those wanting to work as dancers, there is an additional stigma associated with this profession in Egypt.
Furthermore, it is not easy to get hired to perform in good venues, women who do not stand their ground risk being exploited and sorting out the paperwork is a long and tedious process.
Despite the obstacles, some foreign dancers are successful in dancing in Egypt professionally. These women are usually from middle-class backgrounds, well-educated and they do not dance in Egypt out of necessity, but because of passion.
The reasons that have emerged for them wanting to perform in Egypt, are mainly two: the musicians and the audience.
Additionally, the full immersion in the culture helps to further understand the local dance. For example, Yasmina (Sullivan and Farouk, 2006, sec. 03:17) recalls how, in 1994, she fell in love with Cairo:
The Hollywood of belly dance . . . on that cold November evening, with the smell of spices, tangerines and roasting sweet potatoes by the roadside, the curious and exuberant smiles of people in the street and the sound of shaabi music blaring from the passing taxis.Sullivan and Farouk (2006)
Cairo was already well-known as the cradle of belly dance in the 1980s among dancers worldwide who, like Yasmina, had watched videos of famous dancers such as:
Nagwa Fouad, Mona Said, Fifi Abdou. They shimmered in magnificent costumes, backed by enormous orchestras, commanding audiences, who were at home in the knowledge that this was their dance too. Most of all, these dancers appeared powerful women, exuding a strong sense of self, belonging in their bodies and, at the same time, clearly enjoying themselves.(Sullivan and Farouk, 2006, sec. 03:17)
Living in the land of Raqs sharqi helps dancers to learn by observing the people and how they move. Joana recalls (Saahirah, 2014, chap. Lesson # 3, paras 12-14):
I observed people everywhere I went – Egyptian and Arab women, in particular. The way they breathed, stood, walked, talked, loved, fought and celebrated with each other; the way they cried and launched their expressive (heavily jewelled) hands towards the sky; how the weight of their hips swayed from one side to the other (like floating boats) when they walk and how earthy (sensual and maternal) they can be. . . . Women were relevant for obvious reasons but men too: how they stared at women (and why), how they . . . rearranged their “gallaleeb” (long, loose typical cloths) every time they sat or needed to perform any particular movement out of the slow motion cadence that belongs – so dearly – to them; how they enjoyed to flirt with their eyes in a country where sexual segregation is the rule.Saahirah (2014)
The Desire to Study Belly Dance in Egypt
Even before moving to Cairo, Lorna found that observing people was a vital lesson:
Every time I went, even if I didn’t watch a dancer, even if I didn’t have a lesson, at all, in the week I was there, I still felt I came back a much better dancer. And that’s because even just watching the way the women specifically speak to each other, the way they sit, the way they walk, the way they hold themselves, the way they talk with their hands. . . . And when you start putting that into your dance, then you understand where a lot of the dance movements have come from.Lorna (Research participant in the PhD)
When American dancer Morocco first visited Egypt in 1964 she found ‘a peace and a reality that I find nowhere else in the world’ (Sullivan and Farouk, 2006, secs 02:37, 12:41).
Indeed, as I travelled through Cairo when I went in 2013, I found a strange combination of chaos and peace, along with a feeling of musicality that permeates both the environment and the people.
Beata and Horacio Cifuentes (a couple of professional dancers based in Berlin), also picked up the same vibe:
[Beata] I’m sometimes exhausted by the noise and by the dirt, but there’s something here that is more flowing. . . . [Horacio] sometimes, I’m sitting in a taxi and I’m stuck in a traffic jam and I see a woman walk by, with a big thing of bread on her head and she walks and she sways her hips so beautifully. This natural pride that these women have. . . . People here are very dancy . . . when they speak they move their hands and all these things that are part of the dance.(Sullivan and Farouk, 2006, secs 03:00, 37:33)
International Community of Egyptian Raqs sharqi Practitioners
These observations are the perceptual interpretation of Egyptian movement habits by non-Egyptian travellers, so they may be biased (as based on the observers’ own schemes of perception), even if some of these observers lived in Egypt for several years.
However, insofar as the international community of Egyptian Raqs sharqi practitioners is concerned, these comments are recurrent and accepted within their discourse.
Dancers who move to Egypt to pursue a dance career, have the opportunity to dance to live music with professional Egyptian musicians and perform for Egyptian audiences.
The bands of musicians that dancers perform with, these days, are nowhere near as big as the orchestras of 30 or 50 musicians who played for Nagwa Fouad, Soheir Zaki, Lucy and Fifi Abdou.
Dancing to Live Music and Musicians
However, even performing with a small band of good musicians is a great feeling. I had the opportunity to perform a dance solo with a live Egyptian band, during a belly dance holiday in Luxor (Lo Iacono, 2013a) and I can understand why some people are motivated to work in Egypt so that they can perform to live music every night.
Although Egyptian Raqs sharqi has spread across the continents, the musicians who can play the music that goes with it are still mainly located in Egypt.
At some point, between the 1960s and 80s, there were clubs and restaurants with live Arabic music and dancing in America and in London, as mentioned previously (5.4.2 and 5.4.3).
However, these opportunities in America and in London have dwindled, if not disappeared completely, and I do not think they are easy to find in other countries outside of the Middle East either. Francesca, a practitioner based in Italy, for example, said ‘there is no live band around here.
It’s almost impossible. If you dance with people that are not really good musicians, then it’s better to dance to a CD’.
Professional solo dancers in Egypt also manage their own band.
The dancers choose and hire the musicians and arrange contracts and ‘in a society in which women are seen to be repressed, it’s interesting that the dancer works closely with and, ultimately has authority over, a group of men’ (Sullivan and Farouk, 2006, sec. 19:52).
Luna of Cairo summarises her motivations, as a foreigner, for wanting to dance in Cairo (Esposito, 2011b, paras 8, 9):
Little by little, so many of the things I value have been taken away from me. Certain freedoms, financial security, independence, at times even happiness, self-respect and sanity. Not to mention I miss my family and friends back home. So why do I do it? I do it because nothing compares to the joy I get from performing to a large band in front of an appreciative audience. I do it because I love creating my entire show from choosing musicians to choreographing dances and everything in between.(Esposito, 2011b, paras 8, 9)
And Lorna (Gow, 2006b, para. 12) states that ‘it’s lovely working with musicians – for my saaidi number at a wedding on Saturday night I had a drummer and Mizmar player follow me out into the hall and follow me around the tables- fantastic feeling’. Dunya, from Finland, said:
I wanted to come to dance here because it’s great . . . possibility to work, to learn about dancing, about the culture, about the people, dancing with a band, because in Finland, we have some musicians but it’s not the same. . . . The challenge that I have had is when I see the Egyptian audience, especially the women, how they react to dance and the music, you have to see it and feel it and be there.(Sullivan and Farouk, 2006, secs 11:03, 35:55)
Joana, in her interview, said that in Egypt ‘you still have the best musicians. And the essence comes from the music, you cannot have that language without the music, that corresponds to it’.
Joana gave some insight into her relationships with Egyptian audiences and musicians, and how much she learned from them:
Working daily, listening to my musicians, seeing how the Egyptian audiences react to my dance . . . I didn’t like to dance for foreigners. . . . I always preferred to dance for Egyptians, because I feel they understand me and they inspire me and they are a barometer. The barometer at the back is your orchestra. And these are guys I chose by myself. They know more than me about music and dancers. So, they are my teachers. And they are my first audience.Joanna (Interview participant in the PhD of Dr Valeria Lo Iacono)
As mentioned in 5.4.3, dancing to live music is so valuable for dancers because it fulfils them emotionally, it constitutes another resource for them to express their creative agency and it is a form of cultural capital that confers prestige or symbolic capital in the transcultural field of Raqs sharqi.
Foreign Dancers Working in Cairo
Over the decades, there have been alternate fortunes for foreign dancers working in Cairo.
Shareen el Safy, from the USA, for example, from 1988 to 1992 performed in 5-star venues in Cairo, opening the show for stars such as Soheir Zaki and Lucy (El Safy, no date a).
From the late 1990s, however, dance jobs dwindled due to nightclubs closing down, because of a lack of customers from Lebanon and the Gulf, as discussed in 5.6.
With fewer jobs available, it was felt that foreign dancers were making life even harder for local dancers.
So, in 2004, a law was passed forbidding foreigners to perform Raqs sharqi in Egypt. However, in 2006, the law was repelled (Varga Dinicu, 2013, p. 281).
Living in Egypt has deepened the understanding of Raqs sharqi for foreign dancers and changed the way they dance. However, their presence in Egypt has also affected the dance scene there. Lorna told me that competition from foreigners has affected the dance in Egypt because:
When the foreign dancers came back it wasn’t enough to be pretty and shapely, you had to actually have the steps and be prepared to sweat and work, as well. So I think that the foreign dancers pushed that, which is good in some ways but it has changed the dance. Professional dancers don’t dance the same as the average Egyptian woman . . . you have to fill the stage, you are entertaining. . . . So it’s a different scenario than dancing baladi at a wedding.Lorna (Interview participant in the PhD of Dr Valeria Lo Iacono)
Egyptians (at least people who work in the Raqs sharqi sector) have mixed opinions about foreign dancers in Egypt.
They agree that competition has pushed local dancers to raise their standards, but they also think that it does not matter how good a foreign dancer is, s/he will always miss something because s/he is not Egyptian. For example, Raqia Hassan once said:
I like it when the foreigners come here to dance. First, she comes here because she loves this dance, and not for the money . . . The famous Egyptian dancer knows what she is doing, but the small Egyptian dancers don’t know how to dance.Raqia Hassan
They come to the dance only for the money. And they don’t get better. But, when the foreigners come and take good jobs at the five-star clubs, they push the Egyptian dancer — competition. (El Safy, 1995, paras 14, 15)
Monir Naseef, Yasmina’s agent in Cairo, stated in an interview that for some jobs:
It was far better for me to hire a foreign dancer, very well dressed, pretty, nice body . . . very interested in her job, punctual, she is ready to spend more money to get a better orchestra . . . The foreign dancers there’s only one handicap. No matter how good she is . . . there’s something missing . . . you still can feel a sense of imitation, not the real thing.(Sullivan and Farouk, 2006, secs 17:04, 18:47)
In an interview in 2010 for an Arabic programme, Nagwa Fouad said about foreign dancers that:
They take the dance very seriously. But unfortunately . . . they just imitate Dina, they imitate everything else they see. They don’t know anything. They are foreigners.(Adum, 2010, para. 19)
Authentic’ Egyptian Spirit
Regardless of how close or not foreign dancers are, or strive to be, to the ‘authentic’ Egyptian spirit, they have absorbed some of the elements of Egyptian culture but also developed their own style, sometimes drawing from their own cultural background.
For example, Soraya is from Brazil and her style is quite influenced by her Brazilian origins and samba moves. In a drum solo where she dances in Cairo (Kyria Dance, 2014), the rhythms that the drummers play, in particular from 3:48, remind of samba and the shimmies that Soraya performs are different from any shimmies seen before in Egyptian dance.
For instance, she does shimmies moving around and going backwards and sideways (4:46). The Brazilian influence can also be seen in the artefacts, as she wears shoes with very high heels to dance, like samba dancers in Brazil.
For other dancers, the influence from their own cultural background may be subtler, but they still develop their own styles, just like Egyptian dancers do (as a result of expressing their own habitus in the dance).
Other dancers who perform (or used to perform) in Egypt are:
- Almaz from Japan
- Asmahan and Magda Monti from Argentina
- Caroline Evanoff from Australia
- Dalila from Italy
- Diana Tarkhan from France
- Dunya from Finland
- Katia Eshta and Nour from Russia
- Leila and Luna (aka Diana Esposito) from the USA
- Lorna and Yasmina (aka Francesca Sullivan) from the UK.
These dancers, and probably many more, have become ambassadors for Egyptian dance worldwide.
As Raqia Hassan once said, ‘I love the foreigners who come to dance in Egypt because after a while they can go back to their countries and teach the dance there . . . as a true art’ (Sullivan and Farouk, 2006, sec. 1:36:46).
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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.