Photos courtesy of Luna, an American belly dancer in Egypt
At the Scheherezade club in Cairo’s downtown district, five paying customers and a dozen staff sat and gawped as the belly dancer shimmied across the stage, amid the peeling paint, chipped murals, and dusty faux chandeliers of what used to be a very grand dance hall. The atmosphere is awkward and sad. When a member of the audience threw a handful of Egyptian pounds in the air, the club owner swiftly appeared and scooped it all up. When someone tucked a big bill into the dancer’s dress, she promptly handed it over to the aging pimp-like crooner on stage.
There’s no glitz or glamor in sight, only a tired and depressed-looking dancer doing one of the few things that might earn an uneducated woman a lot of money in Egypt. (Top dancers can earn up to $2000 to perform at a wedding.)
The past three years have been tough in general for most Cairo entertainers. Egypt’s near-constant state of flux since the January 2011 revolution has deterred most tourists from visiting the capital, while its dire economic situation has made a significant dent in many Egyptians’ disposable income.
But for belly dancers—practitioners of perhaps Egypt’s oldest art—Mohamed Morsi’s yearlong Islamist presidency felt particularly threatening.
“They stole our country,” shrieked Madame Raqia, Egypt’s best-known belly dancing choreographer, in a fit of fury so sudden it sent her pack of Chihuahuas scurrying for cover under my legs.
“They broke our art and wanted to break everything we love,” she said from her gaudy apartment tucked behind the Iranian embassy. A troupe of young dancers arrayed at her feet obediently nodded their agreement.
During Morsi’s conservative rule, all three belly dancing channels were taken off air, including el-Tet (pronounced ‘tit’), which was accused of encouraging prostitution and condemned for advertising Viagra and escort agencies.
Morsi’s ultra-conservative Salafi allies sought to segregate beaches, ban bikinis, and abolish the ballet. It is “prohibited in Islam,” a member of the upper house of Parliament told a state-owned newspaper last year. Belly dancing looked to be living on borrowed time.
“If ballet is not OK, what on earth would they think of us?” asked Scottish belly dancer Lorna Gow, who performs under the name Belly Lorna. She is one of a number of foreigners who moved to Egypt and developed a fascination with the traditional dance.
Even before the Muslim Brotherhood emerged on the political scene, belly dancing’s future looked uncertain.
“Nobody [in Egypt] sees this as an acceptable profession. It’s degrading for them. They go into it for the same reasons as a woman in the US goes into prostitution,” said Luna (whose real name is Diana Esposito), an American dancer and Harvard graduate who originally moved to Cairo to write a book, which she put off due to her successful dancing career.
Egyptian girls still dominate the dancing scene in Cairo, but an influx of Russian and Brazilian dancers in particular has heightened competition in the tourist-reliant Red Sea resorts.
A fierce current of social conservatism over the past few decades has hardened what were once relatively permissive attitudes and cast belly dancers as relics of Egypt’s “impure past.”
Across the Nile, through Cairo’s horrifically traffic-clogged streets and past one of the sites of the now-dispersed Muslim Brotherhood protest camps, lies Giza. The lights are brighter and clientele richer in the cluster of casinos and cabaret clubs that line the road to the Pyramids, but there’s still a vague sense of unhappiness hanging over the place.
The drugs trade is said to flourish here. Some dancers reputedly dosing themselves up to get through their performances, a few dancers confided in me. A couple of passing dancers dropped their business cards garnished with fresh lipstick on my lap, suggesting prostitution has established a foothold too.
Back in August, the Army’s dusk-to-dawn curfew after the bloody dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood camps in August had played havoc with much of Cairo’s usually raucous nightlife, but not in Giza. At 6 PM, club owners locked the doors, dimmed the external lights, and customers partied until the early hours.
Most foreigners dance exclusively in the top hotels and tourist-friendly Nile party boats. Far from the grit and gloom, Scottish Lorna last week performed before a boisterous crowd of well-heeled Cairenes in an upscale club. “This is a high art and all Egyptians like it,” Doaa Sallam, a dancer and teacher, told me soon afterwards.
Regardless of how prosperous the clientele are, few dancers can entirely escape Egyptian society’s extreme prudishness. “They shower you with cheers, but they’d never take you back to meet their mothers,” said Luna, who is careful to conceal her job from most people.
Both Luna and Scottish Lorna have been previously evicted from their apartments by landlords who were fearful that their reputations would suffer were it to be known they rented to belly dancers. Luna’s landlord told her he was a “man of God” as he booted her out of the building, after his family had spotted her dancing at a beach resort several hundred miles from Cairo.
Luna dances in more conservative clothes to comply with the more strict police code.
And as if life wasn’t tricky enough, the fiercely competitive dancing scene has given rise to a number of bitter rivalries. A costume designer quit after she found all her clothes shredded and slashed in her dressing room. A number of dancers were reported to the police on fabricated charges after they had usurped other dancers’ business.
Sexual harassment makes Egypt the worst place for women in the Arab world, according to a recent Thomson Reuters Foundation survey, but female dancers’ problems often pale compared to those of their male counterparts, who are completely banned from performing.
Tito Seif is a star turn in the underground male dancing scene. Unlike his competitors who put on wigs and makeup like drag queens, he performs in a traditional Galabeya robe, but even that’s too much for some. He was once howled offstage by appalled members of the audience at a seaside wedding.
Tito’s family accepted his career (his significant earnings might have softened the blow), but even he recoils at the prospect of his daughter perhaps following in his footsteps. “No, no, no way,” he told me when we met in a Shisha bar. “In Egypt, men see differently.”
Most male dancers spend most of their time touring abroad, and recent events would suggest they’re wise to do so.
Two week ago the police raided a party in 6th of October, a satellite city of Cairo, and arrested several men, including a male belly-dancing teacher. They were accused of “unmanly behavior” (part of the Egyptian code for homosexuality). During a court hearing several days later, the belly dancing clothes were held up as evidence of the party’s debauchery.
Female dancers aren’t safe from the police either. A belly dance inspection unit polices venues to enforce the strict dress code introduced as a salve to religious conservatives in the 80s. Bare midriffs, cleavage, and revealing skirts are forbidden, and many dancers told me tales of hurling themselves into closets and hurriedly changing into more modest clothing when the police arrive.
The police don’t specifically ask for baksheesh (a bribe), but “it’s just understood,” said Luna. She is still facing a court case after a policeman reported her despite having accepted a bribe from her manager. The police aren’t the only ones who keep close tabs on dance sets: the musicians’ union frequently plants moles in the audience to ensure the bands that accompany the dancers’ performances have paid their dues.
It’s hardly a friendly work environment and a far cry from belly dancing’s heyday, when Egyptian King Farouk dated a dancing star and Madame Badia’s Cabaret thronged with German spies and British officers on leave during World War II.
But now, with little prospect of Muslim Brotherhood rule any time soon, belly dancers are hopeful of a return to better days. Madame Raqia, for one, is bubbling with optimism and has even changed her music to reflect the changed circumstances.
“I was just so unhappy before, but now that those people are gone, what could go wrong?” she said.
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