At a wedding party in one of Cairo’s hotels, a young man was encouraged to belly dance for the guests. His dancing astonished some of those present. A few of them applauded him, some laughed at him, while others rejected him.
Ramy, 23, who was born in a small village in Sharqeya governorate, traveled all the way to Cairo alone, after his father ejected him for insisting on practicing dancing.
“Being rejected by my society and family is very cruel. Some people cannot understand that Oriental dancing is an art form that can be practiced by men and women,” Ramy, who refused to reveal his full name, told Al-Monitor.
Although some Egyptian men have no problem shaking their hips and bodies while dancing in weddings or parties to have fun, the male belly dancing profession is regarded by many Egyptians as taboo. Performers are regarded as being gay, which faces widespread opposition in Egypt.
For years, Ramy struggled to address his family about his desire.
“I left everything behind me to dance. But I realized that a person like me won’t appear in a good way here. I’m trying to find a travel opportunity where I can perform and live outside Egypt like other male belly dancers,” he said.
Egyptian belly dancing (aka Oriental dance and Raqs sharqi) has always been an attraction for people from around the world, as it is part of Egypt’s culture.
Modern belly dancing first appeared in Cairo in the 1920s and was adapted by Badia Masabni, a Lebanese singer, dancer and actress who — through her cabaret — paved the way for dancers such as Tahia Carioka and Samia Gamal, who dominated the scene during the 1940s and 1950s. Since that time, many belly dancers came on the scene, including today’s veteran dancers Nagwa Fouad, Fifi Abdou, Dina, Lucy and others.
Oriental dancing has always been an art reserved for women because it is associated with revealing costumes, temptation and sexy impressions. However, some males believe that belly dancing is like any art form that can be practiced by both genders.
In old times, male belly dancing was a common practice, as mentioned by British Orientalist Edward William Lane in his 1836 book "Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians." He wrote that male belly dancers were preferred by Cairo residents as they believed — at that time — that women should not expose themselves.
But Egyptian society has widely changed since then, and male belly dancers gradually disappeared from the scene, as they became taboo. In recent decades, male belly dancers have started to reappear. Because of the conservative society that rejects them, they try either to practice their art without revealing their identity or find their way outside the country.
Male belly dancer Khalil Khalil was born in 1987 in Argentina to Egyptian parents. He is based in Cairo and is one of a small number who have made it to the international scene.
Khalil learned to dance folklore dances, Upper Egyptian dances and dabke, but chose to continue his career as a belly dancer. He has toured to more than 30 cities in different countries to show his art.
“Many people were surprised and some people didn’t agree, but with the passage of time people accepted the idea even more,” Khalil told Al-Monitor.
Khalil’s audience is tourists and Arabs who seek to experience something new.
“Belly dancing is very attractive for tourists. When they watch my dance, they relate with Aladdin and other Arabic entertainment figures, and they love it. Arabs also see it as something new and many enjoy it,” he said.
In his opinion, a male belly dancer should not imitate female dancers’ costumes or reactions.
“One of the things that allowed me to be more accepted is that I never imitate a female belly dancer’s costumes and I never reveal my body. All my costumes are like normal casual wear with shining materials that we need while on the stage," he said.
“Facial expressions are very important. But expressions must be classy, innocent, funny, but never vulgar or dirty,” added Khalil, who started his career dancing in weddings all over Egypt and in five-star hotels.
Like every male belly dancer, Khalil faces harsh criticism from people who watch his videos on social media.
“Egyptians may make bad comments on social media, but when they watch a live show, most of them enjoy it. Many Egyptian boys write to me day by day asking help and advice about how to become a male belly dancer. I think men are the dancers of the future in Egypt,” Khalil said.
Every year, Egypt hosts two major dance festivals: The Nile Group Oriental Dance Festival and the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival. Both festivals attract many female and male belly dancers from across the world.
In 2015, some Egyptian media outlets attacked one of these festivals for hosting shows by male belly dancers, describing it as a gay festival.
“I was in the festival in Cairo and a policeman was filming my show, then said it is a gay festival and tried to shut it down. This appeared on TV and in newspapers at the time and they even debated whether male belly dancers should perform in Egypt or not,” Moroccan belly dancer Saif Al-Huriya told Al-Monitor.
“Male belly dancers do a thing that is against the norms, that's why they are famous,” Ibrahim Abdel-Maqsoud, a folkloric and Oriental dance trainer, told Al-Monitor. “A folkloric dance show usually consisted of a group of 12 dancers on stage, all of them must do the same movements. When Tito started dancing Oriental alone, he became famous."
He said men can excel in this art form only if they dance in a manly way without imitating women.
Abdel-Maqsoud, who lives in al-Mahala el-Kobra in Gharbia governorate, concluded, “Many female belly dancers were originally trained by male trainers."