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  • Writer's pictureBadriyah

Ban the Export of Belly Dance

In this post, we bring you a translation of an article written by Abdel Nour Khalil in 1969 for El Kawakeb magazine. The article describes many severe issues that happened in the second half of the 20th century in Egypt and discusses several questions that are still hot today. To provide you with an insight into these topics from the current perspective, we have asked Nisaa (Heather Ward) for her commentary. You can read it in the beginning of the post. The commentary is followed by the full translation of the 1969 article.

Big thanks to Karim for the translation and Nisaa for the commentary.

Nisaa's Commentary

This article offers several valuable insights into a critical time in Egyptian belly dance history.

Following the Revolution of 1952, the Egyptian government adopted an increasingly interventionist approach to “culture,” seeing cultural expressions such as the fine arts, literature, music, theater, and folk dance as important mechanisms for propagating the new regime’s ideology. The Ministry of Culture, established in 1958, became a powerful force in defining Egyptian culture and heritage. Arts and entertainment that did not fit within the state’s vision of Egyptian nationhood were left without state sanctioning and support. In terms of dance, the Egyptian government threw its support behind theatrical folk dance, while simultaneously rejecting and marginalizing raqs sharqi.

It is noteworthy that this article presents an opinion that dissents from the state narrative: the author clearly sees raqs sharqi as a valuable part of the Egyptian cultural heritage. He feels that raqs sharqi deserves the attention and protections of governmental ministries, and he argues for more rigorous institutional training and credentialing of raqs sharqi performers. It’s also fascinating that the author points out the dance’s associations with sexuality and seduction (unfortunately repeating the unfounded mythos of dancers competing for attention in the “harem”) without overt judgement or criticism. At the same time, it’s interesting that the author speaks only of dancers performing in tourist-oriented settings such as hotel nightclubs and cabarets, while completely disregarding the vast world of dance performance at weddings, mawalid, and other traditional occasions. The omission is telling, as the author’s arguments for the development and protection of raqs sharqi appear only to extend to dancers in theatrical or nightclub environments, suggesting that perhaps she doesn’t view dancers working in traditional settings as worthy of the same consideration.

The author’s concerns about an influx of inexperienced belly dancers into the trade are also noteworthy. Little did she realize that the increase in dancers that she observed in 1969 would be utterly dwarfed by the massive inflow of new dancers following Sadat’s infitah policies in the 1970s. The author’s concerns here are prescient, as the unparalleled influx of new dancers in the 1970s would have profound effects on the business of raqs sharqi. Similar to the author’s complaints here, many who observed the changes of the 1970s complained of an overall decline in artistry and technique. However, one of the most significant impacts of the inflow of inexperienced dancers was the disruption and eventual disintegration of traditional entertainer networks, most notably the entertainer subculture of Cairo’s Muhammad Ali Street. The author’s observation of an increase in new and inexperienced belly dancers by the end of the 1960s suggests the early stages of a situation that would peak dramatically in the 1970s.

Ban the Export of Belly Dance

What is happening now in the name of belly dancing!?... Dance was supposed to rise and be carried by that rising artistic wave that carried all our arts, and started from the roots in the art institutes.. Our insistence on keeping it and preserving it as an image that tourists used to see and search for, had to be accompanied by another insistence on developing it, taking care of it, and purifying it from the impurities and misconceptions that surround it.. . What is happening now in the name of oriental dance, and its effects extend to Arab capitals such as Beirut, is really provocative and negligence must stop at one end and another problem: Dance as an art that follows the Department of Artistic Works in The Ministry of Culture, and as a tourist image, follows the Ministry of Tourism. The Ministry of Culture narrows it down, while the Ministry of Tourism does not want to assume its responsibilities.

● Tragedies committed in the name of belly dancing in Arab capitals!

● A student at the Faculty of Arts turns into a belly dancer to escape from prison!

● Belly dance is hated by the Ministry of Culture and is not sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism!

● Each one of well-known dancers is thinking of retiring!

Suheir Zaki

Can we ignore oriental dance as an art itself in our lives? This ignoring cannot eliminate it... It is present in our celebrations on all levels, and it is present in our clubs on a large scale, and it is present in television, cinema and theater many times. And this presence of oriental dance derives from its introduction in our life as an eastern (Arabian) society… It was exclusive to the “harem” at the beginning and in it, as many researchers confirm, dance appeared as an expression of sex, and as an attempt by “harem” to draw attention of the caliph, master or the man in general… and In recent years, at the beginning of this century, and when Cairo began to know different kinds of cabarets, different from just a tarab party performed by a male or female singer, dancing was a major and important aspect of what these cabarets offered. And it is much stronger than those that are limited to presenting theatrical parties or acting groups... And with time, belly dancing has not lost its importance, which calls for major tourist hotels, without exception, to present it in their nightclubs, and makes cabarets that deal with tourists not without a dancer in their programs or two every night.

And only ten years ago, belly dancing had a whole world...and there were names that had sparkle and big in the world of dance, such as Tahia Carioca, Samia Gamal, Hoda Shams El Din, Hagar Hamdy, Katy, Nabawiya Mustafa, and Bebba Ezz El Din, dancing dominated the cinema, as the musical and dance films were the most successful films with the highest revenues... until there came a time when an Egyptian film was not devoid of dancing… and gradually, this domination began to shake after many dancers moved away from cinema first, and then from dancing in general, as did Tahia Carioca and then Samia Gamal… Perhaps the retirement of Tahia and Samia was the beginning of a new generation that leads oriental dance… The generation of Nahed Sabry, Soheir Zaki, Nagwa Fouad, Suzy Khairy, Zizi Mustafa and others, and until recently this was what really happened. Nagwa Fouad joined Tahia Carioca and Samira for a while, then Nahed Sabry and Soheir Zaki jumped to join Nagwa and the three of them stand at the beginning of the line.

The Tragedy of Dance

The different picture of belly dance now has moved away from what it was years ago... The number of dancers has increased in an unfortunate way until it exceeded more than 2000 belly dancers in Cairo alone…

Zizi Mustafa and Suheir Zaki (from right)

And the beginning of every new dancer who enters the field of oriental dance deserves a person to stand in front of her and be pensive… I remember that I was once visiting a well-known dancer, and a girl (her maid) came carrying a tray of tea, and then the dancer asked me: “What do you think… Wouldn’t she fit to be a dancer! “. And I found myself answering carelessly: “I mean...everyone dances.”… And not one month has passed until I was surprised by the image of the girl in an advertisement for a nightclub on El-Haram Street as a “creative” dancer. And this beginning is almost the traditional beginning now... The picture may differ slightly, and the place may differ. Perhaps it was a cabaret hall and a hooker was encouraged by the owner or manager of the cabaret to rent a “belly dance suit” and stand in front of the drunks and the intoxicated, shaking her hips and wriggles, and with the passage of time she becomes a dancer, and this is a fact that we do not deny.

Nahed Sabry says

"I thought about quitting more than once.. I actually thought about retiring because dancing is no longer at a high level… and there is no longer a big dancer or a small dancer... They are all the same to the owners of cabarets or the organizers of parties... Rather, what happens is that the owner of the club or the contractor finds a new dancer who does not cost him anything, and does not force him to respect her artistic level when he presents her to the masses, so he prefers her, of course… to prevent financial headaches."

She continues, why he would bring Nahed Sabry, Soheir Zaki or Nagwa Fouad, and each of them only dances with a private band and has special traditions when she accepts work in his cabaret. Rather, she has a special wage that is determined by her level of dancing and her position between audience and public... For him any new girl who can shake her hips is enough… There’s no censorship on cabarets or event organizers, and not even any restrictions on the professionalization of the dance profession… For this reason, the public saw a large number of new dancers, hardly one of whom knew the basics of belly dancing.

Nahed Sabry, Soheir Zaki and Nagwa Fouad (from right), each of them had a tourism activity in many countries around the world... Nahed in Japan, Soheir in Yugoslavia and Nagwa in Belgium.

There is a tragedy abroad too

Perhaps this was possible in Cairo's nightclubs or from the organizers of parties, but it is definitely when it is linked to Cairo's reputation and its position in the world of arts among Arab capitals that it turns into a tragedy that requires strict measures to stop it.. I heard a story from an Egyptian dancer returning from Beirut, Karima El Badrawi... She told me about a student at the Faculty of Fine Arts, perhaps because I wrote about her enthusiastically when she starred in a movie consisting of three stories, and I quoted on the pages of “El-Kawakeb” a conversation about her work in cinema, and her benefit from studying plastic arts when she stands in front of the camera.. Karima El Badrawi told me that this girl is now working as a belly dancer in a night club in Beirut.

Mona Ibrahim

Belly dancing - as a profession - was not one of the goals of the art student who acted in the cinema and wished to become a star and achieve fame, but - according to Karima - she got involved with the owners of the cabaret and was sentenced to pay a fine and they asked her to dance, so she danced with tears In her eyes, she will continue to dance until she pays the fine.. This girl is named Kawthar Sobhi, and she was a main character of a story from the movie "Three Faces of Love"…

What prompts me to believe this story is that I know that some make a contract with ambitious girls to form folklore bands to work in the Arab countries… I have seen contracts in this sense with more than one emerging male or female artist, and the band gets actually formed, and then leaves Cairo to Beirut and hardly starts working in a nightclub, Until the owner of the nightclub causes a fight and breaks the band’s contract, and the girls among its members find nothing but to accept work individually as belly dancers or even as girls who sit with customers in the nightclub.

Between Culture and Tourism

A year ago.. a project was prepared in the censorship of artistic works at the Ministry of Culture to abandon the inspection of nightclubs, especially those that present belly dancing as fixed performances in their programmes.. The idea behind this project was that most of these cabarets, whether they are in the Haram area or in major hotels, tourist resorts, all of which deal with the Ministry of Tourism and are subject to its supervision with regard to the prices of what they offer to their visitors in terms of food or drinks, and in their general appearance, which should not offend us in front of tourists. And according to this, the Ministry of Tourism is the first to supervise the arts offered by these cabarets, including belly dancing.. The reason for thinking about this project was the campaign that took place a year ago against these cabarets and the imported foreign dancers they offer that do not fit the nature of our life or society we have, or violations that are often committed in the name of belly dancing.

Until now, this project is still an idea that has not been implemented, and it seems that the Ministry of Tourism is not enthusiastic about it enough and does not want to bear the hardships of following up on the implementation of the regulations and laws of dancing in these cabarets.

Films and Touristic Tours

A question may come to mind: What is the extent of “Artistic Works” responsibility for exporting dance, or in a simpler sense, for allowing dancers or dance troupes to travel abroad to work? And the answer is: Absolutely complete responsibility... Artistic works must agree to the travel of any dancer or any dance troupe, and the “Artistic Works” have the right to refuse, and then the dancer or troupe won’t be able to travel for work, passports office require the approval of artistic works first, and this also happens with regard to the actors, and at the same time they are fully responsible for ensuring the high level of dancing through their inspection apparatus, and the “Artistic Works” inspector has the capacity of the judicial police, and he can, by virtue of the law, suspend any dancer who he deems vulgar or who violates the conditions of the law regulating the practice of work in nightclubs... It was possible under this responsibility to stop this flow of women who trade in the name of belly dance profession in many cities, or the stream of troupes that come out in the name of folk art, then these troupes disband and the girls who came out as members of them turn to oriental dance… Rather, I know that there is a committee in the “Artistic Works” that determines the level of each dancer who requests to travel abroad and must agree to her level as a dancer. And the questions that complements the first question is: What is the extent of the Ministry of Tourism’s responsibility for “Dance” as a touristic image that foreign tourists seek or that foreigners tend to like in their countries?!

Nagwa Fouad

And the answer is also: full and direct responsibility... We all know that the Ministry of Tourism often supervises the organization of tourist trips for fashion models to stimulate our country’s cotton industry or to publicize our progress, and at the same time it puts with our model a well-known belly dancer.

Rather, in many international exhibitions in which Egypt participates, such as the Brussels exhibition, for example, Ministry of Tourism invites a dancer such as Nagwa Fouad, Nahed Sabry, Soheir Zaki, or Zizi Mustafa to dance in the Egyptian pavilion of the exhibition. Indeed, some tourism agencies film films of dances presented by a first-class dancer, which they use to promote tourism here, as happened when Nahed Sabry filmed the tourism film "In the Shadow of the Sphinx." And our well-known dancers, who are few, television directors came from more than one country in order to film their dances on films shown on the small screen, as happened with Soheir Zaki, or one of them receives an invitation to dance on television, as happened with Nahed Sabry on that trip that she made. She was brought to Tokyo and the TV presented her dancing on a colorful screen… Belly dance, then, is largely related to tourism and its promotion, and it must be supervised and developed by the Ministry of Tourism, the ministry should choose from it what the world sees, whether in the near Arab countries or other countries..

And I do not think that a dancer from our dancers who are known for their high level of dancing, and who are keen on the integrity of the respectful appearance that deserves appreciation in what they present..I do not think that any of them could oppose the idea of those responsible for tourism supervising the dance... That’s a kind of guarantee for the belly dancing to get on a higher level.

Development issue

Suzy Khairy

Can belly dance be developed?! .. Unquestionably: Yes. And with all optimism... we have an excellent creative experience in the world of folk art!.. Many of the dances performed by Farida Fahmy with the Reda Troupe are sophisticated oriental dances linked to a specific theme that presents an image of our eastern life... Whether this dance is in Khan El-Khalili or in a village, In fact, in many cases, Farida's dress in her dances with the band does not deviate from the "dance suit" and the hand of development has been extended to it… Also in much of what the Folklore Troupe presents are paintings based on oriental dance, or dances originally based on an oriental dancer when the troupe presents a painting about the "wedding" or the joys/celebrations of the people, and more dancers in the troupe who can belly dance in a sophisticated/developed way without triviality or obscene…

Zizi Mustafa and Karima El-Badrawy (from right)

Rather, I witnessed a successful experiment to put oriental dance in a decent framework.. The glorious dancer Samia Gamal used to dance with the Cairo Show Troupe when she was performing her dances at the Engineers Syndicate stage, and it is possible that this experience can be repeated with the first-class dancers... Why does Nahed Sabry, for example, not dance in the framework of the National Troupe for Folklore, or Soheir Zaki join one of the successful folk troupes, and there are many ? In addition to nationalism, there are Beheira, Alexandria, and others?! … And why do these troupes not allow new talented blooms the opportunity to become professional belly dancers within their staff so that these blooms can converge on artistic care on academic intact foundations, and I could be more optimistic and ask: Why do those responsible for the Ballet Institute not embrace the art of oriental dance and develop it on academic intact foundations? I remember once in a meeting with Musayev, the Soviet artist who is considered a master of the development of folk arts. I heard him say that belly dance could be a great and creative art if it was developed on study basis… And I do not think that any of our first-class dancers would object to develop her art or giving others the opportunity to develop it… In more than one seminar, and on more than one occasion, Nahed Sabry demanded a union for dancers, and Tahia Carioca was leading this campaign at the time when she was still dancing, and she was dreaming, as Nahed dreams, of a professional syndicate that could raise the level of belly dancing and earn it respect as an art... Indeed, months ago, Nagwa Fouad submitted a memorandum to the Ministry of Culture repeating this request and requesting supervision of new dancers to ensure a high level of dance.

At the end of the day

No European dancer came to dance in a "ballet" from the ballets imported by cabarets in Cairo, except that she insisted on learning oriental dancing and in many cabarets/nightclubs in Europe, America and other continents, belly dancing is performed by artists of non-eastern origin… They get impressed by oriental dance, so they learn and master it… And even when a foreign tourist comes to our country, he keeps in his mind a picture of what he can see.. A picture that has been deposited long ago of charming oriental dancers, who have the magic of the East, its mystery and its fragrant scent, and belly dancing becomes the first thing he searches for, and he does not search for that European art that we import or anything else, and as a first step to maintain a reasonable level of belly dancing, as I said, everything that gets exported to abroad must be subject to a close supervision from the Ministry of Tourism, if the supervision of the Ministry of Culture through artistic works does not negate the desired purpose... We must limit our dancers’ trips abroad to dancers who have been able, over many years, to earn for themselves an honorable level and a good reputation that honors us and does not harm us... And I go back to the beginning... that belly dance has existed since ancient times in our lives... and as long as we do not want it to extinct then let us develop it.

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