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Egyptian dancers call for protecting belly dance

Several belly dancers in Egypt are leading a campaign to preserve their traditional dance from whom they describe as intruders that have sexualized the dance performance.
A Chinese dancer warms up before performing at a belly dancing school in the Egyptian capital Cairo on December 12, 2012. This picture was taken during a belly dancing festival with international performers from China, Russia, Lebanon, Tunisia and Britain. The festival organisers said they had received phone threats during the event, while some people, dreading the rise of Islamists to power, have expressed concern over restrictions to public freedoms posing a threat to Egypt's national dance. AFP PHOTO/PAT

Egyptian oriental dancers have been fighting to protect their profession from "intruders" who they feel distort the dance style for a long time. But as more non-Egyptian dancers are coming to Egypt to start their career and new music genres emerge, the fight becomes tougher.

Most Egyptian oriental dancers used to dance to classical Arab music or songs by Umm Kulthum by translating the melodies through their body moves and using their faces and muscles to express the meanings of the songs, without uttering a word. These performances would give the audience a kind of sacred feeling and pure enjoyment of this authentic Egyptian art form.

Although few Egyptian dancers such as Fifi Abdou, Dina, Lucy and others still offer this great experience, a new generation of dancers prefers to dance to "mahraganat" ("festival") songs. Mahraganat is a genre of Egyptian electronic and street music that first emerged in the wake of the 2011 revolution.

“Few dancers now dance to traditional music. I prefer to dance to mahraganat because it gets people dancing and jumping due to its fast beats,” Nora, an Egyptian belly dancer who dances in different venues in Cairo, told Al-Monitor.

In the past, various Egyptian dancers started campaigns to help oriental dance regain its throne. Most recently, renowned oriental dancer Randa Kamel launched a campaign aimed at preserving traditional Egyptian belly/oriental dance. The campaign was joined by other dancers. 

When belly dancers dance to mahraganat they move their bodies faster, shake their breasts and hips in a vulgar manner or even point to sensitive parts of their bodies. This is because of the beats of the music and sometimes the vulgar words of the songs that the dancers chose to attract the attention of the audience. Such type of dancing is rejected by traditional dancers who believe that every move they make should be guided by music and should be artistic rather than vulgar.

“Egyptian dance is, of course, sensual but this is not to be confused with vulgar sexuality. Don’t overuse your body to advertise your skills. I expect dancers to, at least, wear a bra and a pair of shorts and to respect themselves and their craft,” Kamel wrote on her Facebook page

“I also expect dancers to use the right terms when describing their performance — ‘Mahragan’ is ‘Mahragan’/ ‘Oriental’ is ‘Oriental.’ Protect our art and yourselves. I don’t think this is too much to ask,” she continued.

Oriental dance has deep roots in the Egyptian culture. In ancient Egypt, women would dance as a way to woo the gods, and it was like a worship ritual as illustrated on some temples’ walls. It subsequently became entertainment for kings and royals.

One of the oldest modern forms of dance appeared at the beginning of the 19th century with Gypsy women who were called “ghawazi” (“intruders”) because they invaded the dance profession and made movements that were asymmetric and indecisive to the music and the rhythm. They performed mainly in Upper Egypt.

At that time, original Egyptian dancers called themselves “awalem.” They competed with the ghawazi and they followed the dance rules and steps of their ancestors.

Many female dancers reached stardom. One of the first famous dancers in the 19th century was Safiqa el-Keptia, whose life story was featured in a film (1963) named after her. Then came Badia Masabni, a Lebanese dancer who lived in Egypt and gained fame as an oriental dancer. Masabni founded a theater and a troupe in which she trained many dancers who gained fame during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and who appeared on the big screen, including Samia Gamal, Tahia Karioka and Naima Akef.

Safy Akef, an oriental dance instructor and granddaughter of Naima Akef, the famous Egyptian actress and belly dancer who starred in many films, including "Baladi wa khafa" (1949), "Arbah banat wa zabit" (1954) and "Tamr Hinnah" (1957), has been training dancers for the past 10 years in her academy. She also believes that oriental dance should be protected.

“I wanted to pursue my career as an oriental dancer but, although some members of my family are artists and dancers, they refused because now dance has become like a commodity. The more you reveal your body, the more money you will make,” Akef told Al-Monitor. 

Akef believes that oriental dance started to change or even decline in the early 2000s, when many Russians started coming to Egypt and took up belly dancing as their profession.

“They mixed oriental dance with acrobatic and gymnastic movements that changed our [traditional] dance and identity. They then called this new genre Russian belly dance,” Akef told Al-Monitor.

“When dancers dance to drunken audiences in nightclubs they exaggerate their movements, looks and gestures. They are not actually dancing but provoking sexual desires and that is not the art we love and seek to protect,” Akef noted.

According to Article 430 of the law on the censorship of literary works issued in 1955, a dance outfit should cover the lower body, with no side slits, and should cover the breasts and stomach area.  

“Oriental dance is part of our culture. Why should we deny it? We should only follow the rules and protect it,” Akef added.

When gyms started including oriental dance as part of their programs it turned into a fitness practice. All-women dance classes started about 10 years ago in Cairo with an Egyptian-Senegalese trainer, Aicha Babacar.

Nehad el-Sherif, a veiled young woman who has been working as a belly dance trainer for three years, said that people love to define belly dance as a kind of fitness practice.

“I don’t only make women dance to music — I teach them how to move and release negative energy. I define it as a class for the mind,” Sherif told Al-Monitor.

Sherif, who has been dancing since she was a child, is currently a belly dance instructor in Alexandria and has taught dance classes in Turkey and France. 

“I like the old form of oriental dance. But now because many Europeans and foreigners make oriental dance their profession, it has changed,” Sherif said.

For her, oriental dance is a vital thing that can boost the mood.

“Oriental dance is the best thing in the world and all women love it. But non-Egyptians appreciate oriental dance more than Egyptians. There are many oriental dance studios in Europe, for example, but here dance classes are either in gyms or studios that offer other dance forms,” Sherif said.

“I hope that people will protect belly dancing and know its importance,” she concluded.

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