Saturday, March 11, 2006

Belly Dancing is Diminishing in Egypt and Thriving Abroad

I have a Czech friend who told me she is taking belly dancing class and that she so thrilled by the experience. I smiled with happiness and amazement. I had never heard of belly dancing classes in Egypt. I guess we grow up with, never thinking about it too much.. And it just happens to be in our blood or genes. I had three experiences with belly dancing in the United States.

Let me tell you first about this class. My friend told me why do not you come as an observer and watch how we are doing it. She talked to her instructor for permission. Her instructor welcomed me. I sat at the corner as the class was beginning. To be honest, I did not have high expectations. I saw so many non-Egyptians dancing. They dance nicely but there is always something missing. I always thought Egyptians are the masters of the art.

I talked to the instructor before the class after she put on a very nice glittery outfit. It is not the traditional outfit that Egyptian belly dancers wear, but I guess it was something to fit the class that is meant for exercising. She asked me where did you take your belly dancing classes. I looked at her with surprise and I told her I had never had one. I am not an instructor or a professional belly dancer. I am just an Egyptian.

The class started. There were about six or seven students and all had a scarf around their hips. I was mesmerized by the instructor. She is doing it like one of the best Egyptian belly dancers that you would hire for a party and wedding…etc. She is so professional and serious. It is so apparent that she took the belly dancing so seriously that if I did not look to her face I would think she is an Egyptian one. Every job in the Unites States is taken so seriously including belly dancing classes.

I had never thought how belly dancing can be very difficult until, I saw others are trying to learn it. I could tell that the students who are of different ages are struggling to get one step or a movement right. It is such an effort, not to mention that they are completely out of rhythm. Belly dancing is not only about the movements but about mastering these movements with the music, while combing them together to present a nice dance at the end.

My second experience with the belly dancing was with one of best friends from Latin America. Everyone knows how Latin Americans are so good when it comes to dancing. I have never thought that belly dancing has sensual connotation in the sense that talking about in social gathering is not a very decent thing to do. That’s what my friend believes in. Well, I cannot agree with that 100% that depends on how the way it is done. But at the end of the day I am a woman and I only think about it as a dance, nothing else. One thing I know for sure that Egyptians start to dance it when they want to express their happiness and joy and this usually takes the form of some movements influenced by the belly dancing.

The last story here is about some male American colleagues. Celebrating the end of a fundraising event, there was a DJ. As a courtesy from all my colleagues, knowing that I am Egyptian, they asked the DJ to play Arabic songs so that the music not to be dominated by American or Latin American music only. Diversity is always respected. So many people of them cannot get the idea that belly dancing is for women only. It is not very much appreciated that the men shake their hips or move their belly. They tried to dance the belly dances. I tried to explain that you cannot really do that. It was too late because everyone wanted to do the belly dance. I did not know that it so popular and that everyone knows about it until that night. Everyone wants to dance it. I was watching with surprise. This does not mean that men do not dance, they do it but with different movements. However, I saw many Egyptian men doing the belly dancing but I had never thought that this is a very wise move or idea. That’s only my opinion.

I am a bit classical when it comes to belly dancing so my favorite Egyptian belly dancers are Samia Gamal, Tahia Karioka, Naima Akef and Soad Hosni (though she is an actress rather than a dancer). I believe they took their work seriously and that appeared in the way how they mastered it. And belly dancing in Egypt has different schools. There is the one that is influenced by the urban cities and that is a mix between the Egyptian and western music. And I believe that Samia Gamal could represent this trend. Such dancers are usually slim. There is also the belly dancing that is influenced by the rural areas. Belly dancers are not necessarily slim and they dance on more folkloric music. I like the latter school as well, it is just so Egyptian and full of art.

Belly dancing in Egypt is used in the movie industry since it started in Egypt. Egyptians bring professional belly dancers into their parties as a sort of a celebration. Some conservative families refuse to have belly dancers in their parties because they believe that the dancers’ outfits are too revealing and that they are not decent or “haram”, meaning forbidden in Islam. From their point of view, she is a whore, because women should be hiding in scarves not belly dancing outfits.

The modern wave in Egypt includes so many over weight belly dancers. I am not really fond of them but I do not mind them at all. I like to see them in Egyptian weddings.

I believe that belly dancing is an art, regardless of the fact that there are so many vulgar dancers who tried to impose themselves. Belly dancing has been always a source of joyfulness for Egyptians. The part of the belly dancing at any party is always critical. It is the only time you find the invitees stuck to their chairs in silence or clapping to the dancer. I am afraid so many are trying to kill this art as part of the Islamization wave that is attacking all aspects of life in Egypt. We (Egyptians) took belly dancing for granted until Egypt was invaded by foreign belly dancers from all nationalities that they left no room for the Egyptians. Foreign instructors as I have seen myself are proving themselves to be excellent instructors and they are earning their living and make a great business. If an American instructor is finding a Czech student. I guess that says it all. It is so simple, women are encouraged to work out in an entertaining way with exotic music. However, we are not losing it to all those foreigners, because foreigners will find their market anywhere in the world, but we (Egyptians) are losing the art to the Islamists who are totally against it in principle.


At 6:24 AM, Anonymous Hany said...

From other perspective

We r living in a country with 50% of population under poverty line, belly dancers get stunning wages in weddings, parties, etc... Egyptians r spending millions of pounds on belly dancers every year just to shake their hips or move their belly instead of doing other useful things for their fellow citizens who r living in miserable conditions.

There r a lot of university graduates (some of them graduated from faculty of medicine) r now working as belly dancers and more on the way!! this is not a good indicator...

At 8:21 AM, Blogger Freedom for Egyptians said...


Perserving this art should not be only done through weddings and parties. I did not really think of belly dancing through weddings but through movies and songs that's where I knew that there are some people who are exerting huge amount of effort for the music, outsfits, trainings on the dances...etc What is happening in Egypt that is art is turning to be a commercial thing as you said dancers are very expensive now. And I have doubts that they are trained in the first place. Probably, they do it because their circumstances allow that. There is no shame for doing business. As I said many fitness centers are giving belly dancing classes for women to exercise and lose weight.

Chinese people are perserving their festive dances and there people are not rich at all.

My idea is that Egyptian belly dancing is world famous and I think socially so many people are trying to kill it.

At 10:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not egyptian, so maybe I am as a foreigner not the right person to contribute to the thread, but I will do it anyway.

In my opinion belly dancing is an art and a beautiful example of control of the body.
Like ballet.
Ballet dancers perform in revealing clothes, but are not ashamed of their profession and are not considered immoral performers.

Not to cherish a cultural inheritance would in my eyes be a loss.

There are many things that are not useful. Watching football games, diving, hiking, attending gatherings with friends and family, reading books, listening to music, practising an instrument, going to museums, attending parties with your colleagues, watching movies....

At 11:08 AM, Blogger Freedom for Egyptians said...


You are absolutely right.

Attacks on belly dancing in Egypt is made because these are women who are revealing their bodies. It is getting so religious. I guess it is a matter of art appreciation. But the question why are we losing appreciation to an art to part of our lives that we were so proud of all our history. This is a deterioration that makes me feel sad.

At 11:11 AM, Blogger Egypeter said...

That would be really sad if the Islamists destroy another aspect of culture in Egypt.

Is there ultimate goal to destroy every single thing that doesn not glorify Islam? What kind of sad pathetic country will Egypt become if they succeed in sucking ALL OF THE LIFE out of poor Egypt? *sigh*

At 1:28 PM, Blogger Shaykhspeara Sha'ira said...

Even in sweden belly Dancing has reached a high. there are classes all over teh place and live dancing at restaurants (turkish and lebanese mainly).

I suppose when you are "born" with something you don't view it the same way. Like a non arab learning Arabic...they are most likely gonna view the language differently, but should you study it from their perspective it would indeed look very different.

At 8:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

virtually every little communtity in DK has a bellydancing course.

At 10:17 AM, Blogger KNL said...

I am not fond of belly dancing personally, I always thought of it as sort of old fashoned, but there is no problem preserving it or doing it for fun. I agree with hany though it is better for a woman to practice medicine than to belly dance for a profession. It's more useful.

At 4:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in Egypt as a foreigner, and although I do not often go to bellydancing shows, when I have done so, I have only seen one Egyptian dancer and all the rest have been foreign. But I have heard from people who know some of the top dancers and teachers that Egyptians are just not interested in pursuing belly dance as a career anymore. Personally, I can't say that it would interest me as a profession, but I was suprised to see so little interest by anyone Egyptian, especially since it can be a lucrative occupation.

Geraldine Brooks's book Nine Parts of Desire has a chapter on the decline of belly dance in Egypt under Islamist pressure in the '90s, when many of the top dancers were being paid vast amounts of money to publicly renounce the profession and take the veil on national TV. She includes a joke that goes something like this: The second-richest women in Egypt are belly dancers, because rich Saudis are stuffing $100 bills into their costumes. The richest women in Egypt are retired belly dancers, because rich Saudis are stuffing $1000 checks into their bank accounts.


At 11:50 AM, Blogger Egypeter said...

Thanks anon foreigner living in Egypt.

I remember my parents talking about how there had been a wild upsurge in women entertainers denouncing their former occupation and donning the hijab. It wasn't a secret back then that they were getting paid either. My folks new it and were laughing at the hypocrisy of it all.

This silliness all goes back to one common denominator. And it is Saudi Arabia and their Wahabbi brains. Not only do they wanna continue to screw their country but they're intent on screwing every other country in the region as well. Their ideology is definitely spreading and the masses seem completely blind to it. Don't Egyptians see what's happening to their society all around them?

At 3:16 PM, Anonymous Alif said...

I appreciate the artform but I have a problem with the English name, which I think is more associated with the Turkish school. I prefer the Arabic name رقص بلدي; simply 'local dancing'.

At 4:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to correct your information that Egypt has many classes in belly dancing. Akmost most of aerobics centers in Egypt offer belly dancing classes as well the availability of belly dancing schools. However, females prefer to learn belly dancing and practice it at home than to take it as a profession. And by the way, being religious is not a stigma. The woman who protects and respects her body should be given a due respect. This has nothing to do with the wahabi school nor the islamists. I think Christians and Jews are more conservative than us. For your info, there is a group of extremists in Israel who call for woman veil and prohibits relations outside marriagae wedlock. Also, under the Christian Canon woman must modest. The best example are nuns. Aren't they veiled? moreover they are deprived from living a normal life? isn't that a form of extremism? does Islam call for abandoning all forms of life entertainment and enjoyement? Islam respects woman and stops looking at her as a good used for pleasure and sexual relations. She is a human being whose needs and minds are respected. I think you should stop being fanatic and bias against Islam. Isnt your policy and the committment of all the taboos behind AIDS disease and all other dangers that threat our lives?

At 6:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear anon 4:19

I'm foreigner, anon 10:23.

You're of course right that many religions urges women to cover themselves. And yes the nuns chooses not to marry, as a personal choise not to be extended to others.

I read in your post that it's for the woman to protect and respect her body. In the context I understand that your opinion is, that women should cover themselves.
Please forgive me if I misunderstand you.

But when I hear you say that, I think that the other side of your opinion is implying, that women who do not cover themselves, are not protecting and respecting themselves.

I disagree.

I don't flirt or dress inappropiate and I expect the people I work with to respect my brain not my clothes.

What women choose to wear is absolutely non of my business. They don't deserve pity or admiration. It's a personal choice, which I of course respect for what it is - a personal choice.
But when the choice is extended, so it judges me for not acting likewise I must object.
It doesn't make me immoral. It's just my personal choice not to do the same. I expect that the people I work with have exactly the same respect for me no matter how I dress.

In my country the majority of women are infected with HIV because their spouses are having sex with other (sometimes male) partners.
It has nothing to do with the way she dresses but all to do with the behavior of the spouse.

Again forgive me if I misunderstand your post.


At 6:41 AM, Blogger Keyword said...

dear Freedom for egyptians, very nice article, and very beautiful blog.
concerning this post. first of all, there are belly dancing school in egypt, and I know one of them. Yet, when you go there you will be surprised to find so many nationalities than egyptians; Russians, Germans, British, Africans, ..etc.
Another thing, this year I travelled for a week to Sharm Elsheik on the red sea, at one night they held a cometition to choose the best belly dancer from all the audience guest, believe it or not, not even one egyptian girl participated although most of the guest were egyptians !

Finally, in my opinion the reason goes back to the radical way of thinking in Egypt, putting into concederation Islam and orthodox christianity. Most of the Egyptians deal with dancing not as an art but as a sin.

p.s. if u can read arabic please visit my blog and give me your opinion. ciao ;)

At 10:13 AM, Blogger AngloGermanicAmerican said...

"Islam respects woman and stops looking at her as a good used for pleasure and sexual relations. She is a human being whose needs and minds are respected. I think you should stop being fanatic and bias against Islam. "

I started respecting woman and stopped looking at her as a good used for pleasure and sexual relations when I viewed her as a person, someone's wife, mother, sister or daughter. I suspect that if I was able to insist that women cover their hair, their face, their legs, their ankles, their arms, I never would have learned to view them as persons. Rather, I suspect that deep down, I would still view them as "goods" to be unwrapped for their pleasure purpose on the "appropriate" horizontal occasion. I have nothing negative to say about those who choose "modesty" for whatever reason and however they choose to express it, but to force it on others who would choose otherwise is objectionable to me. Belly dancing is an art form, its beautiful, and the truth for me is that those who would eliminate it because it is too revealing, are revealing something about themselves. They don't view it as an artform, and they are incapable of viewing woman as persons.

At 10:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 4:19,

I am a European. I find you taking the liberity to speak on behalf of the west on behalf of our societies. This image of the west is only in your brains. You need to experience some freedom in Europe and U.S. to know what is the west that you are talking about from your extremely narrow perspective that exists only where you live.

A Dutch

At 11:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And by the way, in the west where all the donor countries that help AIDS/HIV research and patients and give billions of Euros to others to surive. I wonder what are you doing to help a disabled person in your streets of Cairo. You do not have public transportation that supports the disabled persons. I have been there. So please give me a break and stop talking about big things like AIDS and HIV.

The same Dutch

At 10:25 AM, Anonymous Rick said...

Hey everyone,

   My wife is a dancer and teacher and I have been performing with her as a drummer since 1981. Whether you call it Bellydance, Danse Oriental or Raks Sharki it is still a wonderful art form that empowers women.
   While it's now practiced around the world with many variations Egypt is considered the home of Bdance. While many Egyptian dancers are slowwing down their performing in Cario they are teaching more and more around the world.

   Take care, Rick Fink

At 5:18 AM, Blogger gonk said...

love your article - As a dancer who lives faw away i am hoping to pilgramage to egypt this year, i would like to see good dancers but hate tours- can you do a follow up article on egyption born bellydancers who are still dancing in cairo

At 1:47 PM, Anonymous Woodrow Jarvis Hill said...

wow, what an excellent blog! I hope you don't mind me adding you to my daily reading. In addition to dancing, I do a great deal of layperson research into Middle Eastern historical culture...which leads, of course to a lot of discussions w/folks about the current situation "over there".

Explaining about Egypt, about the issues and experiences you appear to talk about, is hard for a Westerner to do, esp. when I'm not as steeped in the modern culture as I'd like to be. It's going to be a pleasure to read, and absorb, your viewpoint on these matters!

as to your post, ironically, I just wrote something about it on my blog last week:

I think I echo much of your point regarding the core of raqs as a "joyful" social dance, while trying to acknowledge some of the offshoots that take it in different artistic directions. It's a hard balance.

I'll have to say that men do do raqs, and have been since at least the 'Abbasid era -- there's a reference to Haroun al-Rashid dancing, for one. Totally understand it's not your thing, but just wanted to provide that tidbit.

Thanks, again!

At 9:41 PM, Blogger Ron Larson said...

Belly Dancing doesn't hurt anyone, and some women really enjoy it. So what is the problem? Perhaps is it cause the militants can't stand the idea of someone enjoying life.

It scares me to see where Egypt is headed. I wonder how much longer it will be before they blow up the pyramids and Luxor like they blew up the Buddha statues in Afghanistan.


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