Raqs sharqi, literally “oriental dance”, actually permeated Egypt from the West and from the Maghreb, or North Africa, where the Amazigh people called the dance Oulid Nail. The French who colonised much of North Africa later named the dance the danse du ventre, or belly dance. The dance swept through Egypt as a result of the arrival of the Shia Muslim Fatimids in the mediaeval period as many of the retainers of the Fatimid sultans were ethnic Amazigh, the indigenous people of North Africa.
However, earlier native Egyptian dances dating from the days of the ancient Egyptians survived the Fatimid conquest. And a further wave of stylistic improvisation then swept Egypt with the Ottoman conquest of Egypt and the Middle East in the early 16th century. The Ottomans came with white slaves, people of Slavic, Turkic and Caucasian heritage who introduced new dancing styles. The Fatimid tide survived the Ottoman onslaught, but Turkish influences were a sea-change in raqs sharqi.
The rules of this curious dance had to be strengthened. Women, and in particular women of the aristocratic elite, were almost physically incarcerated in haramlek, or harems, at the time. However, peasant women and working urban women had far more freedom. Elite women were forbidden to dance in public, yet they had the pleasure of watching professional belly dancers at private parties.
When the pioneering Egyptian feminist Hoda Shaarawi later decided to stop wearing the veil in public after her husband’s death in 1922, viewing it as a symbol of women’s oppression and restriction of movement, she caused much consternation among conservatives, but she also unleashed a process in which women, and women professional dancers, began to uncover more of their bodies even as Egyptian women as a whole adopted Western dress. The face veil was lifted, followed by the hair veil. In the case of the belly dancers, the belly itself was bared.
Debauchery laws that forbid the showing of the belly still remain in effect, even though most professional dancers ignore the ban. Belly dancing itself was briefly forbidden in the 1950s in Egypt, and it was declared illegal under pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. However, the government repealed the law because of popular disapproval, though more recently militant Islamists have managed to remove belly dancing from television programming.
“Men are afraid of the tremendous power in the hands of women when they perform this dance,” says professional dancer Dalal in the book The Forbidden Dance by US author Lucy Papas. The irony is that men are fascinated by this “forbidden dance” even as women are intrigued by it.
Today, belly dancers are no longer considered to be women of ill repute, or at least this is what lovers of this unique art form hope. As with all hopes, there will doubtless be disappointments, especially as a result of pressures from some among the religiously conservative who regard belly dancing as a sin.
FOLKLORE AND RELIGION: But there is good reason to expect the survival of belly dancing even amid the tide of religiosity currently hitting Egypt, North Africa and the Middle East.
Militant Islamists may voice their disgust at the dance, yet there is no denying that it remains a popular art form among the bulk of the Egyptian population. Contemporary Egyptians of all classes, except for the most conservative elements, see belly dancing as an art form that transcends religious restrictions.
While religious zealots consider singing and dancing in public expressions of debauchery, professional belly dancers have long enjoyed impunity from restrictions, reflecting the desire among Egyptians for freedom of expression. The belly dancer is not interested in a man’s gaze. She dances to celebrate and express her femininity.
She is convinced that she has the moral high ground. “The main animator of Egyptian dance is the Egyptian temperament. The main characteristic of Egyptian dance is improvisation and flexibility and not strict rules,” the Anglo-Egyptian belly dancer Farida Fahmi was quoted as saying in an interview after she retired, though strictly speaking Fahmi was not a belly dancer per se. She was more of a folkloric dancer whose dance style infused folkloric dancing with contemporary choreography.
“Improvisation is the state of the art at the moment. And improvisation accounts for the longevity of the dance,” Fahmi told interviewer Keti Sherif in an article on her belly dance website. Sherif herself has been dancing since she was 17 years old and has studied with Egyptian choreographers and danced professionally in Cairo. She was fascinated with the erudition of Fahmi.
This ingenious dancer was inspired by Egypt’s regional dances, especially regional variations on folkloric dances. She always danced in loose fitting galabiya, the traditional garment of Egypt, the Nile Valley and Horn of Africa nations. It is known as the jelebeeya in Ethiopia, the jehllubeeya in Sudan and Eritrea, and the jelabiyad in Somalia. In that sense, the Fahmi phenomenon was an expression of Egyptian and regional costume and folkloric dance traditions.
She always danced with cheer, charm and self-assurance, and she had a real erudition when it came to the traditions of the dance. “In Egypt, there are two types of female dance entertainers: the ghawazee of rural society in Upper Egypt and belly dancers in urban society,” Fahmi commented.
“Ghawazee movements are completely improvised and involve more lower body movement and repetitive, earthy sets of moves danced with a lively feel. Belly dancers dance with takht [bench] bands, and improvise to the music, especially to taqsim [melodic musical improvisation],” she said.
“Taqsim means ‘to improvise’. Nay or kanoon [musical instruments] players know which sequence (maqam) follows within the music and improvise from there. [The great Egyptian singer] Um Kulthoum used her genius to improvise when singing and often repeated phrases with subtle emotive nuances. Each time the phrase took on a completely new feel,” she explicates.
Aplomb is the trademark of a professional Egyptian belly dancer. In days gone by, belly dancers were also expected to be accomplished singers.
They had to have an ear for the maqam, the melodic development of the musical sequence, in order to perfect the pitch and the pattern of expressing passion.
“It is the same thing for the dance. You can only improvise well if you know the music well and you have a wide vocabulary of movements to express that. If belly dancers use too many steps, it becomes confusing; but if they move too little, it is not right either. As a performer, you need to find the fine line between the two,” Fahmi explained.
Yet, the improvisational aspect is a construction of the rhythmic-temporal scheme, and this is changing in contemporary Egypt. “In the 1950s, 60s, 70s and even 80s dancers used to dance to very sophisticated classical Egyptian orchestral pieces played by talented musicians. In the 1990s, the music became more generic and classical compositions were replaced by Franco-Arab style music,” Fahmi added.
“Weight-shifting is also important during the dance. The strength is in the pelvis, and you have to allow for gravity to work through your movements. So liberate your pelvis! Your pelvis makes the decision where to go. Keep your posture and energy elevated but relaxed. Make your movements voluptuous,” Fahmi advises.
“The most important thing when dancing is that you are enjoying yourself,” Fahmi told Sherif in 2015.
Fahmi’s dancing partner was Mahmoud Reda who was born in Cairo in March 1930, and with Fahmi they founded the Reda Dance Troupe in 1959. In its heyday, the troupe had some 150 dancers, musicians and stage crew. The names of the two dancing partners became inextricably intertwined.
Reda never studied dance professionally and studied political science at the university. He was the eighth of ten children and his father was a librarian. Reda married Fahmi’s older sister Nadeeda Fahmi in 1955 before going on to help revolutionise the sometimes stigmatised profession of belly dancing.
Thanks to their film Gharam fil Karnak (Romance in Karnak) produced in 1963, the duo hit the headlines. The Temple of Karnak in Luxor, at which some of the film was made, has always been a symbol of Ancient Egypt.
DANCE IN ANCIENT EGYPT: In Ancient Egypt, labourers, men and women, would tirelessly toil in the fields to the rhythmic motions of music, clapping and dancing. From temple reliefs and tombs we know that the dances of the ancients were choreographed in symmetrical and dramatic ways to express their emotions.
An estimated two million stone blocks weighing an average of 2.5 tons went into the construction of the Great Pyramids on the Giza Plateau outside Cairo. And a particular “pyramid” dance was performed in the days of the pharaoh Khufu who ruled Egypt in about 2547-2524 BCE. Khufu’s brother, Hemienu, the pharaoh’s vizier or right-hand man, supervised the Pyramid’s construction.
There is relatively little data on dance in Egypt during Graeco-Roman times. However, there is one intriguing letter written by a female somphis, the Greek rendition of the Ancient Egyptian “TBF”, or “temple dancer.” (Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were written like modern Arabic with the consonants only marked, and so we can only guess how a word was actually pronounced.) The somphis in question was an indigenous Egyptian and not a member of the Greek or Roman ruling class. The letter was discovered during excavations by the University of Michigan at Karanis in 1925-26.
The curious letter was discovered by chance since Ludwig Koenen, the discoverer, was not particularly interested in dance. According to Willy Clarsysse of Belgium and Pieter J Sijpesteijn of the Netherlands, the letter deals with Ancient Greek papyri from the Ptolemaic period. Koenen was interested in the subject because of an Ancient papyrus he was working on that had to do with cats in Ancient Egypt. The latter were considered sacred animals and had their own graveyards and were mummified.
The cat goddess in Ancient Egypt was Boubastis, as transliterated into Greek, with the Egyptian being “BST” or Baset. She was depicted as a woman with the head of a cat and was mentioned in numerous hieroglyphic stelae. We know that the goddess was worshiped since 2890 BCE.
She was the goddess of love, as well as the goddess of music, dancing and rejoicing, and she seems to have given rise to her own form of dance.
Curiously, cat dances are still performed in Africa south of the Sahara today. The Tiv people of Nigeria have a unique cat dance which may have been related in the distant past to the Ancient Egyptian cat dance. At any rate, the somphis, or female dancer in question, was highly educated and literate in her native Egyptian tongue and she was also proficient enough to write in Greek, the official language of Egypt at the time as she belonged to the country’s priestly caste.
This somphis wrote her letter in the classical Greek language of the era and in her own hand. She did not scrawl it down, but was meticulous about both the beauty and the artistry of the intricate handwritten script and the sophistication of the language used with all its nuances. It was penned on papyrus.
GENDER ISSUES: Men rarely belly dance in contemporary Egypt. Dance is considered a feminine art, even though some teachers of it are men. These men teach women the art of belly dancing, but rarely dance in public themselves. It would be regarded as something of a stigma for them to do so.
Since mediaeval times, the khawwal, a man who dances, has been frowned upon and even regarded as effeminate. However, this has not been the case for all types of dance, since men in Upper Egypt today sometimes dance with heavy wooden sticks in mock battles. This stick dance accentuates the masculine, and the moves are aggressive, assertive and hard-hitting.
Not all dancers have been as sophisticated as the somphis in Ancient Egypt. Aristocrats kept captives and slaves to entertain them in the past and to present pleasant diversions to their overlords. In the cosmopolitan Graeco-Roman world of the second and third centuries CE, the Greek terms magodos, malakos and kinaidos/cinaedus identified a category of performer invariably described as “effeminate dancers.”
But dance was certainly not an all-woman’s world in Ancient Egypt, even though we do not know the precise role or nature of the “effeminate dancer’s” performance and his function in the motley religious dances and festivities of ancient Egypt.
The Romans conquered Egypt in 39 CE, and during their rule men called cinaedus in Latin and kinaidos in Greek were employed as professional dancers. The kinaidos were not highly regarded as their performance elided traditionally accepted conventions of theatrical illusion. They were mostly Greek and Roman.
Lyrical dance was performed by women and male couples together. Women dancers wore diaphanous robes and belt girdles crafted from cowrie shells or beads. Professional women dancers were engaged to add to the pleasures and enjoyment of the Roman rulers of Egypt at their symposia.
Ancient Egypt had a plethora of grotesque dances by midgets and dwarfs, and acrobatic dances and gymnastic dances were introduced by the Greeks. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus claimed that the most popular one was that celebrated in Bubastis in honour of the cat goddess.
There were six distinct types of dancing, namely religious dances, non-religious dances, banquet dances, harem dances, combat dances and street dances.
Both men and women danced. The Sed Festival and the Opet Festival, both religious occasions, were given to particular pomp and ceremony.
Women of the ruling elite did not dance, except those who danced for religious purposes and were dedicated to specific gods or goddesses.
The Sed Festival was celebrated with special religious and ritualistic dances that took place during jubilee ceremonies that celebrated the renewal pledge of the people to the pharaoh. The Opet Festival was another event celebrated with dancing and was associated with the god Amun’s visit to his wife the goddess Mut.
Processions of sacred barques and other festivals since Old Kingdom times were all accompanied by dancers. Female dancers are commemorated in the tomb of Nikaure from the Old Kingdom, and the dances were enacted at funerals by male dancers wearing tall head-dresses made of reeds. Again, such headdresses are still worn today by certain dancers of ethnic groups in Africa south of the Sahara.
Exotic headdresses are no longer sported by dancers in contemporary Egypt.
In Ancient Egypt, men danced to express their devotion to their shrine god. Cult dances such as those celebrated in honour of Min, the god of fertility and regeneration, saw male priests dancing with monkeys performing a most peculiar dance. To this day, monkeys sometimes dance with al-quradati (monkey trainer) in Luxor and elsewhere in Egypt, even though it is a dying art form.
Dancing played a vital role in the annual Nile Flood festivities, and dancers depicted the much feared and fierce lioness-headed goddess Sekhmet, the goddess of war in Upper Egypt, miraculously transformed into the loving and caring cow goddess Hathor.
Funeral dances, as in numerous African cultures today, were performed in Ancient Egypt. In many contemporary African cultures funeral dances are still performed, such as those of the Akan people of Ghana and Ivory Coast in West Africa. In ancient Egypt, such dances were considered farewell performances associated with the departure of the sun.
ISLAMIC EGYPT: In 969 CE the Shia Muslim Fatimids conquered Egypt and established Cairo as the capital of their North African Empire.
Egyptian Jews and Coptic Christians were favoured by the Fatimids as well as the indigenous Amazigh people of North Africa.
Egypt became the political, cultural and religious centre of the Fatimid Dynasty, and Amazigh women courtiers introduced the earliest form of belly dancing to Egypt.
The Fatimid regime lasted until the late 12th century, but many of the traditions of the Fatimids survived, including belly dancing. Other aspects of the regime continue to this day in predominantly Sunni Muslim Egypt. The much-revered Al-Azhar University in Cairo was founded by the Fatimids, for example.
Fahmi claims that the Reda Troupe was inspired by Fatimid Cairo. Dancing with a milayah, literally a “bed sheet”, on stage was an invention she perfected, seeing this as originating in North Africa. In many contemporary Amazigh dances the male dancer expresses his admiration for the female by throwing a milayah or veil over her head.
Many aspects of the culture of Fatimid Egypt can also still be seen in the context of the country’s Coptic Christian traditions. Coptic Christians accounted for a majority of the population of Egypt during the Fatimid period. The pagan dances of Ancient Egypt and the Graeco-Roman period were not encouraged by the Coptic Orthodox Church, though the din of drums, clashing cymbals and trumpets was expropriated by the liturgy of the Coptic Church and pagan songs metamorphosed into Christian hymns.
However, the pagan choruses of women’s ululations, a waggling of the tongue in mid-scream to produce a very characteristic sound, survive to this day as an expression of joy in non-religious festivities.
During the Mameluk period (1250-1517 CE), there were free public dance performances in Egypt. This was a period when foreign slaves – Turkic, Slavic, Greek, Georgian, Circassian and other Caucasians – ruled the country as groups of warring warrior slaves who vied for power and fought one another. It was a particularly unsettled period noted for political intrigue.
Nevertheless, cross-cultural encounters between Egyptians and foreigners produced new forms of belly dancing. There are relatively few European accounts of Egypt during the Mameluk period, perhaps because of the incessant power struggles. The Mameluks were also suspicious of Coptic Christians, and even though many joined various Sufi Muslim orders, they eschewed mysticism. We know very little of the dance of the Egyptians in the politically turbulent Mameluk era. Yet, it is clear that Amazigh belly dancing survived Mameluk rule, which did not end Fatimid cultural influences.
Later European accounts give some notion of the survival of dance forms in Egypt. Male-authored accounts differed considerably from female travelogues such as Charlotte de Jong’s Victorian Women on the Nile.
In Before There Were Belly Dancers: European Accounts of Female Entertainers in Egypt, 1760-1870 by Kathleen W Fraser, the author focuses on actual performances of belly dancing, or rather its precursors, with an eye on choreography. The 19th century traveller Lucie Duff Gordon’s Letters from Egypt is also a treasure trove of life in Egypt in the Victorian era and in particular of the lives of women, including how they danced.
Duff Gordon left her husband and children in England in 1862 in order to treat her tuberculosis as she could no longer tolerate English winters.
She fell in love with Egypt. “I live among the oppressed race,” she mused. “When I go and sit with the English, I feel almost as if they were foreigners to me, so completely am I now bint al-balad, or daughter of the country,” she wrote.
“You must recollect that the learned know books and I know men, and what is and what is more difficult women,” wrote Sophia Lane-Poole to her husband in her classic Last Letters from Egypt. Lane Poole wrote her English Woman in Egypt: Letters from Cairo during her residence in the country in 1842, when she left her husband and took her two sons to live with her brother, the celebrated orientalist Edward William Lane, in Cairo.
She also contributed to his classic Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836) by detailing the lives of Egyptian women of the period, a realm her brother could not penetrate.
Lane-Poole dressed in the oriental fashion of the period and sported a veil covering her face. Perhaps this was why she was invited to stay in the harems of many wealthy households, including the royal harem in the Citadel where she witnessed numerous dancing sessions.
The raqqasin, or professional dancers of the time, were women who lived to entertain people and had their own guild.
The more talented raqqasin were admitted into the palaces of the wealthy elite and the harems of the aristocracy. The less accomplished were relegated to entertain the masses. They danced at moulids (religious celebrations) and in the streets of urban centres such as Cairo and Alexandria.
Duff Gordon mentions a woman called Sakna, or Sakina Almaz, who was 55 years old in 1862, and her rival Almaz. Sakna danced and sang with her face veiled because she was said to be very ugly. Lane-Poole’s account of raqqasin performing in the royal harem in the Citadel is also very intriguing. A hired orchestra of women played motley musical instruments, and Lane-Poole pronounced the dancing as “extremely disgusting”, presumably because it was too sensuous and seductive for Victorian taste.
Lane-Poole notes that Egyptian ruler Mohamed Ali’s eldest daughter presided over the festivities and that the performers faced her. Apart from the Egyptian performers, Georgian and other Caucasian slaves performed Slavic slaves from the Balkans. Each performer received a costly cashmere shawl with the “female clown” winding hers around her fool’s cap.
THE GOLDEN AGE: Tahia Karioka, perhaps the greatest of all classical belly dancers from Egypt’s 20th-century Golden Age, had a hard childhood in her hometown of Ismailia on the Suez Canal.
Yet, she had a dream, and the prospect of having to live the rest of her life in Ismailia was intolerable. Her father and brothers prohibited her from dancing, but she had an indomitable spirit and fled their clutches to the nightclubs of Cairo. Her stunning figure and love of dancing was all she had, and she joined the troupe of her friend the nightclub owner Soad Mahasen.
Nevertheless, Mahasen refused to let her friend dance in her own club, and somehow Tahia stumbled across a racy Brazilian Samba dance called “Karioka”. She chose the Samba dance as her stage name.
There was then no stopping her as she was an accomplished actress, singer and dancer and a natural performer. The owner of the Casino Opera, herself an entertainer, Badia Masabni, was her mentor. Tahia was particularly fortunate because her career took off with Egypt’s Golden Age of cinema.
For a young woman who had deserted her conservative family to live with friends in Cairo, it was not surprising that her first film was Aheb Al-Ghalat (I Love Erring, 1942). Her second movie, filmed the following year, was the equally telling Ahlam Al-Shabab (Dreams of Youth, 1943).
She was also a leftist political activist and was very active in the performing actors union in Egypt. She was reputed to be a communist. She remained a rebel throughout her life and married 14 times. Unable to conceive any children of her own, she adopted a daughter, Atiyat Allah, or the “gift of God”.
The dancer Samia Gamal was born in the Egyptian town of Wana, scarcely larger than a village to the immediate south of Cairo in 1925. It is an intriguing aside that both of Egypt’s most successful belly dancers of the Golden Age, Tahia Karioka and Samia Gamal, were Pisceans. Gamal studied under Masabni’s star pupil Karioka. Her first film was Gawhara (Jewel, 1942). In the same year she starred in Ali Baba wal Arbain Harami (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, 1942).
Then there was Nemat Mokhtar, a talented dancer who combined grace with impossible acrobatic moves, and Naima Akef, who died tragically young. The latter was a circus performer, a child prodigy, who became a belly dancer. Soheir Zaki was the leading belly dancer of the 1970s. Her “shic, shack shouk” dance was a sensation that wowed onlookers in Egypt and throughout the Arab world.
The dancer Nagwa Fouad was something of a social climber. She had no qualms about confessing to using her husband Ahmed Fouad Hassan, a talented composer and conductor, to further her career. He gave her the chance to appear on the popular 1960s stage show Adwaa Al-Madina (City Lights).
“Hassan was 17 years older than me, but I needed him. He nurtured my amateur talents,” Fouad later mused. She learnt her profession by studying the different dance styles of the older generation of dancers, the stars of the 1930s to the 1950s. “I was able to combine the oriental dancing of Tahia Karioka and Samia Gamal with Naima’s acrobatic style and created a stage show like a dramatic piece,” she said.
Iranian belly dancer Liza also danced with a group of musicians in Cairo, each of them playing a different instrument. Liza danced at my own wedding in London in 1992 and then expressed an interest in moving back from London to Cairo. Her trademark trick is to balance a stick on her chest, yet Liza insists that her dancing is profoundly spiritual and metaphysical. “Dance is emotion in motion,” she says.
The contemporary dancer Fifi Abdu has been nicknamed the “Queen of Oriental Dance”. Her powerful personality flares up on stage, and in films she is the embodiment of a woman who pounces on men depicted as punching bags. Her style is so unique that it empowers women and redefines the notion of femininity. In 1991, she was charged with “depraved movements” by a Cairo court and sentenced to three months in jail.
The dancer Lucy never attained the notoriety of Abdu. Dina, however, did. Dina’s debut as a dancer was in the early 1980s when she danced with the Reda Troupe. She is the opposite of Abdu, and even though she dances at private weddings and in five-star hotels she dances for free for friends. Her dancing style is unique, but she is seen by her detractors as a seductress. She is reported to be the highest paid dancer in Egypt today.
In 2011, Dina released an autobiography entitled Hurriyati Fil Raqs, or “My Freedom in Dancing”. The US magazine Newsweek called her the “last Egyptian dancer”,s but as it turned out she was not, and the dancer Safinaz is now all the rage in Egypt.
Safinaz is the latest bombshell. Her real name is Dzovinar Grigoryan, and she is an Armenian who has made her name as Egypt’s top contemporary belly dancer. In May 2014, she was summoned for questioning by Egyptian prosecutors for “insulting Egypt”, and in April 2015 an Egyptian court sentenced her to six months in prison for “insulting the Egyptian flag” after she wore a revealing dress with the Egyptian flag on it.
The flag scandal, according to Google data, made her name the most searched by Egyptian Internet users in 2014.
Dancers like Dina and Safinaz do not have much choice about endearing themselves to everyone with their dancing. Yet, the irony is that Egypt is essentially a country that has always been tolerant of audacious belly dancers.