Learning to burn
Farah Akbar attends the Oscars of belly-dance
Down the road from the Pyramids and inside a large ballroom, about 70 women from around the world including the US, Sweden and Japan -- most of them wearing hip scarves with dangling coins, midriff baring tops and baggy Aladdin type pants -- dutifully mimic the dance moves of their instructors, who are known to be Egypt's best Oriental dance teachers. Some students take time to bend over and busily take notes on the dance steps. "This is everything I thought it would be," says Dondi Dahlin blissfully. "Belly-dance is my heart, my soul, my whole life."
Old dance traditions: Laila Haddad dancing in Cairo
Dazzled by Oriental dance, 250 women, professional belly-dancers and amateurs alike, gathered at the elegant Mena House Oberoi to attend the Ahlan wa Sahlan Oriental dance festival held last month. The festival consisted of a series of workshops taught by some of Egypt's most well known Oriental dancers including belly-dance stars Dina and Nagwa Fouad. Disappointed that belly-dance festivals were held regularly in many parts of the world but not in Egypt, the birthplace of the dance, festival organiser and former member of Egypt's Reda Folkloric Dance Troupe Raqia Hassan created the event four years ago.
A participant from the United States who goes by the stage name Princess Turrini, 27, and sports flowing blond hair and a red bindi on her forehead, said, "This is like the Oscars for films, only this is for belly-dance."
This year's festival came shortly after the bombings in Morocco and Saudi Arabia and Hassan suggests that attendance would have been much higher had it not been for those events. "This was a real problem," she says, "but I'm still happy with the turnout."
Turrini, who is a professional belly- dancer and teaches the art to children in Miami, Florida, remembers how she first became acquainted with the dance. Her father had worked for the Egyptian government as an engineer and would often tell her stories about Arab culture when he came back to the United States. "My dad gave me a copy of the 1001 Nights when I was seven, and since then I had wanted to be a dancer," she says.
After studying the dance for several years, Turrini went professional, and has performed in numerous venues around the United States and in Morocco. Her participation in the festival marked the first time she performed in Egypt. "This is the place to be to learn," she says, having spent about $2,000 for the trip. "In America it's all about technique, but over here, you learn to dance from the inside," she says.
Jackie Lalita, 25, from the United States agrees. "Egyptians have this fire. We get the true Egyptian feeling of the dance, it's amazing," she says, while watching the dancer Dandash perform during the opening gala. Lalita thinks that the West focusses more on the sexual dimension of the dance when the art form is actually one that emphasises expressing emotions.
"When I start to shimmy, after three minutes, I let go from the inside," says Maki Watanabe, 29, pointing to her chest for emphasis, "and I forget about everything, good and bad." From Japan, Watanabe was attending the festival for the third time. "When I first saw belly-dancing, I was shocked," says Watanabe. "How do they isolate their belly and hips?" she says looking back. After years of modern dance classes and figure-skating classes, Watanabe decided to learn belly-dancing.
Searching for an Oriental dance instructor to teach her the secrets of the dance, she travelled to Germany and the United States. A professional belly- dancer now, Watanabe says that she "cannot live without belly-dancing".
But it is a different dance that these young women are coming to learn from that performed by the great stars such as Tahiya Karyoka which came to define belly-dancing in Egypt. "Before dancers could perform for an hour to Um Kalthoum, today they only perform for five minutes," says festival organiser Hassan, pointing out that today the music is much faster, a change that was accompanied by faster steps. When asked if belly-dancing was losing it's original charm, Hassan said, "We have to keep up with the times. The steps, the costumes, everything. I don't like it when teachers stay in the past."
Edwina Nearing, a researcher of Middle Eastern dance and a folkloric dancer licensed by the Egyptian government who has taught in Cairo and in the US since 1977, says that belly-dancing has had to change in accordance with the demands of the audience. "I don't mind the changes, as long as the old things are not lost," she says. She points out that traditional belly-dancing such as done by the ghawazi, the gypsy type dancers of Upper Egypt, contain unique and dramatic dance elements not found in modern belly-dancing. She mentions a dance piece called asharat al-tabl which is rarely seen today. In it, a man has a drum hung over his shoulder and the belly-dancer leans back over it and while doing so, shimmies her hips and twirls a cane. Nearing claims that only one person, Khairiyya Mazin, who lives in Luxor knows how to perform the ghawazi style of dance and fears that when Mazin retires, the art ghawazi dance will be lost.
But for all its interest in the Egyptian tradition of belly-dance the conference was conspicuous in its lack of Egyptian participants. Only four of the participants were Egyptian. Hassan says that Egyptians think they know all there is to know about belly-dance simply because they are Arabs. "Even when they become famous, they do not train enough," she argued. And while Hassan acknowledges that some foreigners are very good, she added that "a foreigner can never be as good as an Egyptian. It's in our blood. Learning the dance is not enough."
But more than anything, Hassan wants belly-dance to be viewed as a respectable and legitimate art. She claims that some foreigners and even some Egyptians have made belly-dance too sexy, thus making its acceptance even more difficult in its home country. "I want Egyptians to respect this dance form. They love this dance, but today they give it no respect," she says. Nearing, however, still hopes that belly- dance will become a respectable art form along the banks of the Nile. "In the United States, for example, belly- dance is emerging as a new fitness trend with gyms offering classes in the dance form while belly-dance workout videos now sit alongside traditional aerobics videos at stores," says Nearing who added that abroad people study belly-dance as an art form and some go as far as attending lectures about the dance. "I think that foreign opinion is an important element in keeping Egyptian dance alive," she added.
"Besides," as Lalita put it, "how can you watch belly-dancing and not love it?"