6 - 12 July 2000
Issue No. 489
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region Focus International Economy Opinion Culture Features Travel Living Sports Profile People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Beauty and the beatBy Fayza Hassan
'WHILE DANCE THE ALMAHS...': Primitive religious worship, fertility rites, Bedouin traditions, and cross-cultural influences in the Ottoman empire -- all these, singly or combined, are believed to be at the origin of what has come to be known loosely as Oriental dancing.
Regardless of where and when it all started, as secular entertainment, it has embodied for centuries the dreams of men looking towards the East for the fulfilment of their senses. Researchers concede today that there is more to Oriental dancing than meets the eye, but few have produced serious studies on its various forms. Meanwhile, indigenous varieties have developed. Among these, of course, is raqs baladi, a solo performance originating in Egypt and observed in nightclubs across the Arab world and elsewhere. Because of its association with eroticism, however, this type of dance, commonly practiced in segregated gatherings, in the home -- a reminder of the times when the awalim danced for women in the harem -- has been charged with sinful connotations. Even today, its performance in mixed company is marked with social stigma.
A MODERN TABOO: On the beach of Sidi Bishr, a boy and a girl are walking away from the sea, holding hands. He is barely 15, she almost 12. The white sand is hot under their bare feet and they hasten gingerly across it, helping each other, seeking a spot in the shadow of a cabin on the concrete curb. When they reach it, they stop and look into each other's eyes. Coyly, the girl raises her arms over her head and points her right toe, then lightly goes through the motions of an uncertain pirouette. She is supple and graceful, but somehow, despite the expensive ballet lessons, fails to cut the streamlined figure of a future ballerina. There is too much softness in the profile and roundness around the hips, not enough protruding bones and the laughing blue eyes completely belie the attempt at serious resolve. Unimpressed, the boy gently pulls her by the hand. She giggles and resists, then abruptly snaps her fingers and begins to slowly roll her hips to a silent beat. Her waist marks the quarter tone instinctively, the secret note in Arabic music which has escaped foreign Oriental dancers from time immemorial. She is a natural; "she has it in her blood" as the popular saying goes.
He has stopped and looks at his friend, speechless. In the cabins, holiday makers have interrupted their conversations and card games and are leaning on the railings watching the little dancer, who is by now lost in a private dream, sensually undulating to the rhythm of imaginary sagat (castanets) while humming a popular tune under her breath. Suddenly, the child's mother is upon her. A sharp slap interrupts the performance and the girl is dragged away kicking and screaming.
The year was 1949, and families of the Egyptian bourgeoisie did not take kindly to their daughters' belly dancing talents. Nor had they grown more tolerant 10 years later, when the boy was dispatched on an extended trip to Europe with clear instructions to forget his childhood sweetheart. Upon his return, he married a girl who met his parents' standards of propriety. The girl was married soon after, to a man who was not informed beforehand of his bride's ability.
IMPROMPTU PERFORMANCE: Dancing is one of the favourite pastimes of ordinary Egyptian women who learn the art practically with mother's milk.
In her book Serpent of the Nile, Wendy Buonaventura, who teaches and performs raqs baladi herself, recounts an unrehearsed show to which she was treated on the banks of the Nile in Aswan: "[A] little girl in a galabiya, which reached like a nightgown almost down to her ankles, had been standing there... staring at us. A tiny figure with a tangle of dark hair, she could not have been more than five or six years old. Suddenly she came to life and began dancing, rolling her hips and saucily shaking her bottom at us. Raising her arms above her head, she imperiously snapped her fingers, her face full of glee, while some of the other children clapped out a rhythm for her. Then she came down to the bottom of the steps and held out her hand for money."
TRAVELLERS' DELIGHT: In most conservative societies, female dancing is considered the most shameful form of entertainment, partly for its alleged sensual undertone and partly for its -- usually unjustified -- link with prostitution. It has been practised almost continually in Egypt, however, at weddings and mawalid, in nightclubs, and, for the more popular performers, in concert halls and theatres. "Belly dancing" shows were one of the most important tourist sights from the 19th century on. "Many travellers preferred them to the Pyramids and the Nile," writes Karin van Nieuwkerk in A Trade Like Any Other.
In June 1834, however, Mohamed Ali issued an edict forbidding public female dancers to work in Cairo. Travellers had to journey south in order to see the celebrated almahs. They came with recommendations from their predecessors to look for famous performers such as Kuchuk Hanim, Safia of Esna, Hosna El-Tawila of Luxor and Aziza of Aswan. Several tourists obtained permission to have the dancers perform on their boats. Lucie Duff Gordon recounts in one of her Letters from Egypt that an Englishman had caused problems by insisting that the female dancers at the party perform naked. He roused quite a ruckus when they refused.
Other travellers, however, reported that not all dancers were as shy. One dance, especially popular among tourists, was called the wasp or bee dance. In this variation, according to one discreet chronicler, the bee, supposedly hidden in the dancer's clothes, was "found" before the last garment was parted with. Flaubert seems to have been more fortunate in his quest for the erotic/exotic: he claimed that Kuchuk Hanim and Aziza of Aswan treated him to an authentic striptease after having blindfolded their musicians.
'PIMP PASHA': Earning a living was not always easy for a dancing girl, even after Mohamed Ali's ban was eased. In the 1860s, Khedive Ismail increased the taxes on performers, causing Duff Gordon to comment in 1866: "I saw one of the poor dancing girls the other day... and she told me how cruel the new tax on them is. It is left to the discretion of the official who farms it to make each woman pay according to her presumed gains, i.e. good looks... By instituting this tax... Ismail earned himself the nickname Pimp Pasha."
WHO IS WHO: There has been a great deal of confusion among foreigners as to the terminology designating the various types of dancers, and definitions have been developed by foreign travellers that often puzzled the indigenous population.
From top : ghawazi by E Prisse (1848); dancing girls (circa 1924), from Lehnert and Landrock bookstore collection; Farida Fahmi; Nagwa Fouad; Nahed Sabri; Badi'a Masabni
According to van Nieuwkerk, Chabrol and Villoteau, who visited Egypt in 1822, made the following distinction: "In the first place, there was a group of awalim (singular alma or almah), learned women or female scholars. Their main activity was writing poetry, composing music, improvising and singing... [T]hey also danced, but only for women. They often played instruments to accompany their songs and they were greatly valued for their mawwal [improvised laments]."
Savary, however, seems to have been the first foreigner to adopt this description of the almah in 1787: "They are called savantes. A more painstaking education than other women has earned them this name. They form a celebrated community within the country. In order to join one must have a beautiful voice, a good possession of the language, a knowledge of the rules of poetry and an ability to spontaneously compose and sing couplets adapted to the circumstances."
Foufa El-Fransawi, who began her career as a folklore dancer with the Reda Troupe and now concentrates on teaching the rudiments of raqs sharqi to interested amateurs, comments: "Foreigners got it wrong; the word alma simply means teacher and is used to designate older dancers who train and manage the careers of younger dancers, for a fee at first, and a commission later when they obtain contracts. Dancers in the past came from the lower classes. Girls were traditionally not taught to read and write, let alone compose poetry. Dancers learned among themselves to accompany their dances with simple instruments; as for the mawwal, it is an old song form passed from generation to generation, which children learn at home. How could travellers who spoke the language imperfectly know if they were being treated to an improvisation or to an old folk song whose words were well remembered by the indigenous population?"
El-Fransawi, however, agrees with the travellers' definition of the ghawazi, gypsy-type dancers who followed the mawalid. "They have almost disappeared today," she says, "except perhaps in the very old mawalid in the countryside, where one can sometimes observe a group of them performing."
THE DANCERS' DEN: With the beginning of the British occupation in 1882, a nightclub district developed in Ezbekiya Gardens, complete with theatres, restaurants and music halls, offering various types of entertainment. Some European performers appeared in these establishments, but they were chiefly the province of Egyptian musicians, singers and dancers.
It is ironic that Mohamed Ali Street, named after the ruler who had banned dancing girls from Cairo, became notorious during this period for its pleasure palaces. From there sprang generations of performers who passed the trade from father to son and mother to daughter.
The most famous baladi dancers of the 20th century, such as Na'ima Akef, Tahia Carioca and, more recently, Lucy, were born, or at least went to live there because it was the place to be for a dancer who wanted to work regularly.
DANCING ON THE SCREEN: "As Egyptian movies began to rely on music and dance scenes [in the 1920s], the nightclub and theatre became familiar settings for the film narrative.
Real-life prejudices against dancers, singers and even male musicians were part of the narrative as well," writes Marjorie Franken in Images of Enchantment.
Hollywood exerted a great influence on film nevertheless, and "its fantasy of Oriental dance filtered through and was taken up and unconsciously parodied by Arab dancers in their desire to emulate Western behaviour and modes of fashion," adds Buonaventura.
ENTER BADI'A: The first Egyptian cabaret, the Casino Opera, was opened in 1926 by Syrian actress-dancer Badi'a Masabni, who offered among other forms of entertainment an extremely popular women-only matinée.
With an eye on her Western clientele, Badi'a decided to broaden the scope of baladi dance, comments Buonaventura. "Until then, the upper torso and arms had not played a particular role in baladi. Traditionally, the arms were simply lifted and held. Now dancers began using them to describe flowing, serpentine patterns of movement."
On Badia'a's extended stage, performers also began to explore the use of space, whereas they had previously performed more or less on the spot.
Another of her innovations was the use of veils inspired by the milaya laff, a specialty of Alexandrian dancers. "The manipulation of gossamer veils... was the creation of Western Oriental dancers at the turn of the [20th] century."
Traditional dancers used to perform in their everyday clothes, and the idea of a special dance costume is a purely Western Orientalist creation.
THE DIVAS: Both Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal trained with Masabni before going on to become the most celebrated dancers of the century. Samia Gamal was the first to break with the custom of dancing barefoot. She wore high-heeled shoes on the stage -- perhaps, as one observer commented, "to prove that she could afford them."
High heels gave a different emphasis to the dance, which was further altered by the introduction of choreography (as opposed to the traditional improvisation) pioneered by Masabni's dancers. It is during this period that raqset al-hawanim (the "candelabra dance," a number inspired by Alexandrian folklore, in which the dancer performs with a seven-branched candelabra ablaze on her head) became popular.
El-Fransawi recounts that Tahia acquired her name after seeing a film in which the Brazilian dance Carioca featured. She asked Zaki, her drummer, to practice a similar beat on his tabla, and introduced it in her performance. From then on, she became known as Tahia Carioca and he as Zaki Carioca.
THE DEPRESSION, AND AFTER: Masabni's sala (dance hall) flourished in the 1920s and '30s, and she eventually moved to the famous Casino Badi'a in Giza, a stone's throw from the bridge previously known as the Pont des Anglais and which was promptly renamed Badi'a Bridge.
Even during the depression, nightclubs thrived, attracting a foreign clientele as well as affluent Egyptians, but the persistence of economic hardship seemed to spark a reorientation based on religious principles. A new attempt was made to clean up the nightclubs.
In 1932, the Ezbekiya police used the law prohibiting "scandalous acts in public" to prevent belly dancing performances. Sala owners became very clever at devising ways of evading the police, especially since foreign dancers protected by the Capitulations were not only allowed to carry on normally, but also to sit and drink with clients if they so wished.
A NEW ORIENTATION: By this time, however, dancers were no longer carving their careers out in salas and nightclubs. With the advent of cinema, they became known not only to the Egyptian public at large, but to an international audience as well. Many, like Tahia Carioca, Na'ima Akef, Samia Gamal, Hagar Hamdi, Nagwa Fouad and, today, Lucy or Dina, reached a degree of fame that would have been unthinkable had they remained confined to the old venues.
"Carioca made the transition to the movies in 1940," writes Franken, "and became known for her subtle and elegant style of dancing. She helped establish the cinema dancer as the good-hearted cabaret performer but later moved beyond this stereotype.
"Opposite Tahia Carioca in some of her 'woman of the people' roles, was another dancer who made an explicit contrast between acceptable female social dance [dancing at home for one's husband or in gatherings attended exclusively by women] and dangerous, seductive, illicit dance. Nagwa Fouad brought strength and energy to her roles as the prostitute who dances to seduce the husband of another woman.
"Samia Gamal... had perhaps the most refined screen image. She added more expressive hand movements, almost balletic in form, to the hip and torso movements of belly dance.
"Naima Akef was a dancer's dancer. Born into a family of entertainers, she was more than a belly dancer. Her performance of tap-dance and Latin and European dance forms allowed her to deviate from the stereotyped Oriental dancer role."
A BRIEF REPRIEVE: The second World War brought a new boom to the salas, and to belly-dancing in general. Hikmat Fahmi is said to have danced for Hitler and Mussolini, while Amina Mohamed was rumoured to have travelled to Libya to dance for Goering. Pyramids Road, which had remained almost rural until then, was developed into a new and more luxurious nightlife district.
It was not to live long, however. In 1951, a new article was added to the law on public places, forbidding performers to sit with the clientele, or to eat, drink or dance with them. On Black Saturday, Badi'a Masabni's sala was among the arsonists' first victims. Nasser's socialism, too, brought about a reappraisal of Arab culture. Belly dancers, viewed as a blemish on the image of upstanding womanhood, were to be shunned, while folk art, music and dance glorifying clean-cut, wholesome Arab culture were revived.
A NEW IMAGE: "Farida Fahmi, principal dancer of the Reda Folkloric Troupe, epitomised the sweet Egyptian girl, the bint el-balad... She was extremely popular in Egypt throughout the 1960s and 1970s," writes Franken. "Farida Fahmi presented an image that was the antithesis of the risqué belly dancer so popular in films... [perceived] as a female in an alternative role, suggesting modern images and possibilities for postcolonial Egyptian society."
Blended with local dances, then, and divested of its femme fatale connotations, belly-dancing could achieve respectability. "When the Reda troupe achieved a measure of success," remembers El-Fransawi, a member of the original group of 12 dancers, "Ali Reda scoured the country in search of old dances and costumes. From these inspirations he devised his choreography."
SPIRIT, NOT TECHNIQUE: Foreigners who came to learn Oriental dancing found the folklore-type dance far too difficult, she explains, and it was never a popular form with them. They had heard of belly-dancing, and this is what they had come to learn.
This particular form came to Egypt via the Ottoman Empire and was one of the favourite spectacles of the sultans. The dancers moved only the muscles of their belly and often performed lying down on the floor -- hence the sexual connotations that remained attached to the art as a whole.
Picked up in Egypt, the dance was reinterpreted at various stages. New elements were introduced periodically, many borrowed from Western dances, others from folklore. There were the purists, like Soheir Zaki, and the innovators, like Samia Gamal.
All, however, shared one trait, El-Fransawi believes: "They had Arabic music and dance in their blood. As soon as they heard the music, they began to move as if something very deep inside them was awakened by the beat. Dancing was as normal as breathing to them and it brought them complete happiness. This is something that foreigners will never be able to feel, no matter how proficient they become. I can teach technique, but only the dancer possesses the power to permeate her movement with the ruh (spirit)."
Nor is El-Fransawi impressed by the crop of new dancers, no matter how astronomical the prices they may command. "Only Lucy is a natural. The others may be good, but they don't have the 'feeling'," she concludes firmly.
Wendy Buonaventura: Serpent of the Nile, Women and Dance in the Arab World, Saqi Books, 1994
Lucie Duff Gordon: Letters from Egypt, Virago, 1986
Karin van Nieuwkerk: A Trade Like Any Other, Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt, The American University in Cairo Press, 1996
Sherifa Zuhur, ed.: Images of Enchantment, Visual Performing Arts in the Middle East, The American University in Cairo Press, 1998
Mustafa Darwish: Dream Makers on the Nile, The American University in Cairo Press, 1998