The Real Stuff
Some food for thought:
While die-hard fans wax lyrical about the great Egyptian stars of the past, the better foreign dancers are bringing respectability to a profession most Egyptians view as one veil short of prostitution. "Ninety percent of Egyptians see belly dancing as shameful," says Essam Mounir, a 37-year-old agent who has taken on Russian dancers for lack of local talent. "Foreign women are educated, they are not maids or poor girls looking for rich husbands and they show up on time and love to dance," he says. "But as for feeling our music, not one of them really gets it [emphasis mine]."
Man, does that statement haunt me. I hope that I get it. I hope I do. I want to.
The eroticism of the dance itself didn't disturb Egyptians. What scandalized them instead was the shame of Muslim women performing unveiled (and often naked) before infidels. Inspired by Napoleon's 1798-1801 expedition, a flood of Western travelers arrived in Egypt in the early 19th century. So many dancers crossed the line into prostitution that in 1834 Mohammed Ali, Egypt's Ottoman ruler, exiled them from the capital to towns in Upper Egypt, where they became as much a tourist attraction as Pharoanic temples.
Didn't know that? Most people don't. I didn't. What a pity it still distorts the dance today. I want to change that.
"Ninety-five percent of my customers are foreign," says Ahmed Dia el Dine, the John Galliano of costume designers, waving a sheet of faxed orders from Australia in his atelier on Cairo's Mohammed Ali Street.
"It's true the style is no longer truly Oriental," he sighs, showing me an antique Turkish costume made from strings of rose-cut diamonds and an old piece of embroidery with the word "Allah" sewn in silver sequins. "Thirty years ago it took 35 meters [38.5 yards] of fabric just to cut the skirt for a dancer; it wasn't about naked thighs but the swirling of the cloth around the female body. The overseas customer just wants to show her flesh. I can design a costume that uses just two meters of fabric, but I struggle to avoid pornography."
I've thought about that, too. My costumes are quite modest compared to what's out there - people are oftentimes surprised.
They are also surprised at how wholesome it is. I love to dance for children especially because they make the best audience - they are not ashamed, they just gawk right at me and sometimes move with the beat. It's about enchantment. When we were children, we all got it.
UPDATED: Okay, this is for Dogscratcher, who needs to get those Ken Russel stereotypes out of his system! A very nice performance by a Colorado dance named Sadie.
As you can see, the dance is mostly about keeping the rest of the body still, not just what she is moving. It's difficult!
SECOND UPDATE: Okay, I think the men kissing Fifi's legs were play-acting but this struck some people as still pretty risque so here's Nagwa Fouad in a 50's film dancing at a wedding. I mean, it's all going to strike westerners as risque - we're not taught to move these parts of our bodies. But think about it - a ballerina lifting her leg and showing the underside of her thigh is pretty risque, yet it doesn't bother us, because we're used to it.
All dance is sensual, ultimately. Even when a woman is covered from head to toe, as in this Middle Eastern-Flamenco fusion:
My whole point here is, if anyone out there watching me dance ever yells, "Quit with the goochie! Take it off!" (as has happened to a few women I know), that person is dead meat!
Yeah, I'll take it off, all right! ;-)