|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
21 - 27 February 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Foreign movesSeductive and expressive, Egyptian belly dancing is imitated across the world, but can foreign dancers ever make a serious impact here? Mukul Devichand looks at how a small number of intrepid foreigners are carving out a niche in the most Egyptian of arts
A quiet Sunday evening in suburban Doqqi. I meet Ionella, a slender 21-year-old Romanian woman, in the lift of an apartment building. Dressed in a white jumper, jogging bottoms and wearing thick black glasses, she looks like any other young expatriate in Cairo. She arrived from Romania that morning, she told me, for five days of intensive oriental dance classes with a French instructor, Madame Deyana Mahiou -- one of very few foreigners who teach the art in the city.
Ten minutes later, and Ionella could not look more different. The glasses and the jumper have come off, replaced by a flowing yellow muslin cloth which she waves delicately behind her as, under the watchful eye of Deyana, she shows off her ideas for a dance sketch. Ionella's movements are clunky but nevertheless have an unmistakably Eastern elegance and coquettishness, totally at odds with her tall Eastern European frame, striking green eyes and pale complexion.
A moment later and Deyana, too, is dancing. They face an enormous, brass-framed mirror covering a complete wall of the apartment, which is filled with expansive houseplants, moody lighting and many mirrors. The junior imitates the teacher as she combines effortless yet complex hip movements with graceful pirouettes and turns.
Bit by bit, Deyana introduces a specialised vocabulary. "Keep your knees together and find your own specially powerful gesture when you turn," she explains. "You cannot simply swing your hips mechanically, you have to do it with a certain accent of your own." Deyana explains that never mind all the choreography in the world, this will always be an improvised dance which absorbs the character of the dancer and the influences around it. She then critically watches her student's performance, pausing occasionally to stroke her exquisitely well-groomed cat, Kashka.
Foreign belly dancers have been a feature of Cairo nightclubs for centuries, but in recent years a few pioneers have managed to become recognised as a growing niche in Cairo's starry sky of serious dancers and instructors. For most of this new breed, dancing in Cairo is a dream that comes at the apex of careers in music and dance which have spanned several countries. Deyana has danced in France, Morocco, Tunisia, the UAE, Ivory Coast and Senegal. "But Cairo is something special and amazing," she told me after the lesson. "Being here is the only way I can keep in touch with the source of this dance, which is the Egyptian people themselves." Later, I met another of Deyana's students, Liza 'Laziza' -- an Iranian dancer who grew up in Britain and has danced for Prince Charles and George Bush senior. She is in Egypt for similar reasons. "I am a student of Egypt but I'm also here to be acknowledged here," she told me.
Liza performs under the stage name 'Laziza' (the delicious), dancing regularly on the opulent Nile Maxim boat at Zamalek's Marriott hotel, where her act combines elegant movement with spectacular and sometimes risqué twists. She is a born performer. One moment she is absorbed in an elegant rhythm with heavy emphasis on her slowly gyrating hips, the next moment she is engaging the audience with a twirling baton which she teasingly balances on various parts of her body. She manages Eastern sensuality to a tee, juxtaposing wide-eyed innocence with confident, maternal warmth. But she wants to learn from Deyana's freedom of movement, which is why she wants her as a teacher. "She is one with the music and the rhythm, she's in her own space."
Liza, Deyana and Ionella are all beautiful women who approach their dancing as a popular art and not -- as is the stereotype in the West -- as a vulgar display of flesh. "Only the seductive aspects of the dance have been picked up in the West," says Deyana. "It is a new discipline there, and they haven't yet grasped its meaning or the depth of its technique." How does Egypt differ? "The audiences are different," she explains, gently stroking Kashka who is looking me up and down suspiciously. "In other countries, dancers have to dance alone, not as part of a full entertainment programme. When Egyptians go to a cabaret, they are going to see a whole show."
Ionella, now back in her androgynous Western garb, explains that she started oriental dancing after training in ballet and choreography in Romania. She worked as an entertainer in Hurghada and Sharm Al-Sheikh, teaching herself the moves and dancing each evening for tourists and Egyptians. She has come to Deyana to improve her routine. "I want to be able to dance like an Egyptian dancer," she says. But Deyana gently interrupts her student. "You don't know enough to do that; it would take a lifetime," she says.
Deyana has very Levantine looks, with curly reddish brown hair and shining brown eyes. She is attractive, lucid and expressive -- both in dance and in conversation; her whole body and face talk. She was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique to an Algerian father and French mother, and later moved to Paris where she studied piano at the city's prestigious International Academy. It was not until she was 20 and beginning to seek out aspects of her Arab roots that she ended up at her first Arabic nightclub on Paris' Champs Elysees.
"I instantly loved the whole atmosphere and scene," she told me. It was a time when Arabs from oil-rich Gulf countries had begun to spend their summers in Paris, and their overflowing pockets sprouted an entire new industry of Middle Eastern nightclubs like Yil Dizlal, Beirut and Al-Pasha. Egyptians had been imported to run the entertainment, and Deyana became friendly with famous names such as composer Baligh Hamdi. Then, one day, she started dancing.
"I didn't know what I was doing," she confesses, giggling to herself as Kashka looks on, bemused. "For four years, I just danced for fun. I would dance alone in front of the mirror in my bedroom for hours." Her love of the dance brought her to Egypt to see the world's most famous dancers for herself. "On the night I arrived, I ended up at the El-Leyl nightclub during a special birthday party for the Lebanese singer Sabah. All of Cairo was there. Sherifa Fadhel was singing and Nelly Fouad was dancing. It was amazing. I consider it the first time I saw a true oriental dancer. When I saw her, I realised how beautiful Egyptian women are."
Belly dancing worldwide -- a timelinePre-1700 It is thought the dance was brought to Egypt by the ghawazi, a Gypsy-type tribe. Both male and female ghawazi performed the dance.
1779 The mulid (saint's day) of Sayyid El-Badawi lasts an entire week in Cairo. By this time, dancers have become a regular sight at mawalid and weddings.
Early 1800s In addition to the ghawazi, the awalim develop as a second branch of the profession. Awalim danced veiled or for female audiences only.
1834 Mohamed Ali, the founder of modern Egypt, issues an edict banning all female dance in Cairo and the north. Dancers seek out new homes in Aswan until Khedive Abbas lifts the ban 20 years later.
1851-93 Dancers taken to world expositions in Europe and America. Dance clubs open in Paris, New York and London. Meanwhile, Western-style cabarets begin to open in Cairo.
1920s The era of famous dancers begins. Dancers like Shafiqa Al-Qibtiyya begin to open their own salah (clubs). Meanwhile, the awalim of Mohamed Ali street enjoy a golden era of weddings and mawalid.
1940s-60s Star dancers like Dina Helw, Fifi and Samia Gamal begin to develop spectacular cinematic styles of dancing. Their legacy is taken up by stars like Dina and Lucy today.
1960s -- today Instructors like Cairo's Yusri Shant (of the Mohamed Rida group) and Beirut's Bobby Farra begin to teach oriental dancing in the USA. The movement spreads from the US to Germany, then to Scandinavian countries and finally France, Britain and southern Europe. Today, big and medium sized dancing schools can be found in every Western city.
Source: Karin van Nieukerk 'A trade like any other': female singer and dancers in Egypt
It was a time of personal reflection for Deyana. "I kept asking myself what I really wanted out of life. Then, a small voice in my head whispered 'oriental dance.' And that is how it started." Deyana took the decision to be a dancer at 10pm one Paris night. "By 2am, I had found a dress and a job dancing in a small Lebanese restaurant," she says nostalgically.
She danced all over Paris before she was approached by an agent who offered her a dancing job in Dubai's Carlton Tower. "The Gulf seemed to be a mysterious place, and my family were afraid of me going," she recalls. Her smile betrays an exhilarating memory. "But me... I loved the risk, and I went." Her subsequent dancing career spanned many parts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Then, nine years ago, she felt she was ready to move to Egypt.
"Egypt is a whole different ball game," she says. "There is so much more music and you must have so much more knowledge of the dance." After a two-year stint in Alexandria, where she picked up fluent Arabic, Deyana moved to Cairo. Here she met Raya Hassan, famous instructor and organiser of Cairo's world- renowned oriental dance festival. "Raya is my mentor. I trained for two years with her." It must have been a strange experience after years of dancing without instruction, I suggest. "Not really," she replies. "Dance is about improvisation and not having a teacher at first gave me an incredible freedom."
Improvisation is very much in evidence in Liza's dance in the glitzy atmosphere of the Nile Maxim boat. She is not dancing in her own world, but instead is very much tuned into the audience, feeding them her rhythm and matching their mood. In her various costumes (red and veiled one moment, purple and minimal the next) she moves around among the guests, engaging the lucky few with a short, specially tailored performance. She is not shy of variation in her movements, faster as she gets more personally involved in the dance, slower as she becomes more mellow.
This element of improvisation means that foreign dancers bring a different style to Egypt. I put it to Deyana that difference must be difficult for audiences to accept in a country so in love with its dancing tradition. She disagrees. "As a French dancer, I was a novelty," she says. "I danced well, and people thought I might be Syrian or Lebanese." She tells me about a memorable incident late one night in an Alexandria club. Irate customers -- who had paid over the odds to see a foreign belly dancer -- thought she was a local and demanded their money back. "The manager made me speak French on the mic, to prove I was the genuine article," recalls Deyana. "It is funny now but back then in the dimly lit club, it was very strange." Then, to Kashka's consternation and mine, she turns serious for a moment. "A foreigner can never truly dance like an Egyptian," she says. "This dance is deeply cultural. But we can find our own way to express ourselves through this dance."
With her Iranian looks, Liza has also been mistaken for an Egyptian. "It gives me great pleasure to dance here, and people embrace me," she told me. "When they realise I'm not an Egyptian, they do sometimes get offended." In conversation, Liza is fiery and opinionated on the surface but with a strong sincerity shining through beneath. She has finely sculpted features betraying her Teheran origins, with longing brown eyes. "It was my dream to dance in Cairo, and people would always tell me that it wasn't possible. To some extent they had a point." She turns wistful. "Perhaps if I was an Egyptian, it would be easier. But I feel that I am doing the dance correctly, and I am an oriental."
I tell Liza that I'm surprised by this last comment. If dance is pure expression, surely where the dancer is from doesn't come into it? She smiles and shakes her head. "Only an oriental dancer can perform this dance. A non-oriental could have technical knowledge. But she could not have soul or feeling." Deyana also told me that she has "an oriental body, and that is a great advantage."
Deyana teaches oriental dance all over the world, jetting out from Cairo to hold workshops. In between, she is reading for her second degree in psychology, "something which enriches my ability to understand the dance."
Like Deyana, Liza is analytical about her dancing -- a legacy of her undergraduate years at University College London, she tells me. Yet it was not in London but in Paris that she first discovered oriental dance. "I was mesmerised," she recalls, "the music connected with my being, my soul, my heart." A week after she had seen her first dance, Liza handed in her notice at the London law firm where she worked. "I was young and pretty and I had a good ear," she remembers, smiling. "They gave me a job in the very same club."
Despite this, she found her first months as a dancer difficult. "I started doing cabaret, and I was soon freaked out." I ask her why. She looks at me with a slightly awkward expression. "Well, there were... expectations," she recalls. "That kind of scene was not for me." I wondered if this was a common problem for foreign belly dancers. When I asked Ionella about it, she conceded there was a problem but said it was not specifically Egyptian. "The first thing people think when they see me is that I'm Romanian, so I must be something else." Isn't that difficult to handle? "For me, no. At first, I thought this was an Egyptian problem, but then I danced in Bucharest and discovered that Romanians have the same mentality." Liza tells me that the problem can be avoided by avoiding sleazy clubs and dancing in hotels and at weddings instead. "I am a professional," she asserts, "it's not about going around tables getting money stuffed down my bra."
Liza is hard-headed and refused to give up her dream, however. She moved back to London and danced in famous venues like Cafe D'Avoir, Omar Khayyam and Maroush in the city's Marble Arch district -- another summer capital for Gulf Arabs and their ample budgets. In between, she danced in hotels in the UAE, Syria, Jordan and Tunisia.
"I first danced privately for Prince Charles and then again for George Bush senior in 1996," recalls Liza. I cannot resist asking how the Prince of Wales reacted to her. "He is a spiritual man who appreciated the dance as an art," says Liza, smiling mischievously. "In 1999, he asked me to dance again for him and his girlfriend, Camilla Parker Bowles."
Soon after this, Liza decided to chase her dream and move to Egypt. She displays a strong respect for the country and its dancing tradition. "Here, dance is not just to entertain men, it's a family thing. It's about soul and communication and the power of women." Nevertheless, she admits it is not easy as a foreigner in Cairo. "The market is about money and games, and you have to know how to play along," she says. "It sometimes gets in the way of artistic expression." Still, there is nothing like dancing in Cairo. "I will stay in Egypt as long as it will have me," she says. "It is my last stop, and I want to leave gracefully."
Back in Deyana's apartment, I fend off an irate Kashka while his mistress waxes lyrical on the past, present and future of Egyptian dance. "The reason that this is an especially oriental dance, and most particularly an Egyptian dance" explains Deyana, "is that its vocabulary exists in the Egyptian people." She tells me about the distinction between 'language' and 'talk' made by the French linguist Saussure. A piece of 'talk' is nothing but an individual act, an isolated conversation or -- in this case -- a single gesture of a dance. Beyond talk, wrote Saussure, there are 'languages' that exist timelessly in what he called 'interpretive communities.
Deyana still has faith in Egyptian dance, because the 'talk' of dance still exists. "What there is less of in Egypt," laments Deyana, "is performance. Puritanism in society and the economic recession have affected the dancing and there is less work as people avoid calling dancers to their weddings. Younger Egyptians are also copying American-style nightlife by playing Arabic music at clubs at which there is just a dance floor and a DJ, with no stage or dancer."
"But the people of Egypt are still the interpretive community, and the gestures of the dance are their 'talk'," says Deyana. "They still have the dance in their every movement, when they walk and talk and laugh with each other, when they flirt, when they pout." She smiles. "That is why this dance will never die."
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