Wednesday, 23 July 2008

"I want all the women in all the world to belly dance."

Belly dancing choreographer Hassan Khalil speaks to Yoga Travel.

Hassan Khalil is a professor in the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Cairo. He teaches oriental dancing all over the world, but, ironically not allowed to teach belly dancing in Egypt - it has been banned in public institutions.

"Like any art, belly dancing started with religion. It came from the times of the pharaohs: you can see them dancing in the tombs and temples. The form of their movements expressed their connection to the gods. To open themselves to the gods they used movement from the womb - the most sensitive and holy place in their bodies. Their hand positions too were a form of prayer: putting their hands above their heads and out to one side, for example, meant talking to god. In Pharonic times the shapes they made were a language with which they communicated with the gods.

Belly dancing is all based upon the womb. Where do you think we get the word woman? I am a man, she is womb-man. Belly dancing is the movement of the holy place of the woman - the womb is where it all starts. The secret of belly dance is not in the dance - it's in the woman.

Civilisation today structures how women live - go on the metro, sit at the computer, run up stairs - all things that are contrary to the rhythms of her body. They are looking for the relationship between the power and energy within them and themselves. They're searching for the fine art of their bodies in space.

When I teach the women in Europe I say to them: 'shake your breasts.' Of course they refuse. But I insist: 'Shake them. Shake.' And then they do it and sometimes they scream. They start to feel themselves as a female person. Life is monotonous. But with another rhythm, it can free you from the daily rhythm of everyday life.

Every woman has the physiology. In Egypt we call belly dancing 'the mother' because it gives women the ability to prove the freedom of their body. We did a class in Frankfut with deaf girls. They felt the music through the ground, and they danced. The city mayor was there - he cried. It was the first time they heard their body. And blind women too, they'd never seen the movement in their lives, but they could do the dance - it was a miracle, they could feel their bodies. One and a half million girls in Brazil doing it. This is not fashion - this is women feeling themselves."

Source: YogaTravel

"Of course it's exhibitionist, but all girls like to feel sexy."

Dancer Keti Shariff talks to Yoga Travel.

Keti Shariff trains belly dancers in Cairo and travels all over the world to dance, although not in Egypt. She is booked by clients for shows or weddings, then flies out to perform. We sit in the opulent surroundings of Cairo's Marriot hotel.

What does belly dancing mean?
"It's about many things - physical, sexual, sensual, fitness. It's about female empowerment, and about feeling sexy. And of course it's about glitter and dressing up. But originally the shapes and postures used in belly dancing were representations of nature, to worship god. In fact, one of the early stars - Tahira Kareoka - her father was a sheik in a mosque."

Is it exhibitionist?
"Of course, but all girls like to feel sexy. You know, in some ways it has never left the harem. It's always been about women dancing amoungst themselves. There's a group of you and you dance together, you show off what you know. It's not at all for the men - it's for us."

Why don't you dance in Egypt any more?
"I realized that I didn't want to dance any more in Egypt when I was dancing at the Nile Hilton. The manager took me aside and told me I had to get an AIDS test. He explained that they like their customers to stay for a long time, to spend a lot of money in the hotels, and to make that happen the dancers, you know, we have to get close to them. He said it because he knew that I was new to dancing, and to let me know that it's not always a clean business. But that was it. Now I don't dance in Egypt any more."

What do people think of you as a dancer?
"When I tell Egpytians that I'm a dancer they look at me a bit strangely and their eyes go wide. They can't really understand. But when I get talking to them about the old stars of the past and they're like 'oh yes, they were the greats', then they know that I'm doing it for the love of the dance, not in a sleazy sense."

What is the state of belly dancing in Egypt today?
"Most Egyptian girls get into it because they want to become actresses. Or to get onto TV. They see people like Shakira and Britney belly dancing and they want to be like them. But the dancers here are not the role models they used to be. In the 40s and the 50s there were really big stars, people still talk about them today, that was the golden age of belly dancing.

"People are interested in different stuff thess days. They don't book dancers for private parties so much any more. Younger couples getting married don't automatically look for a dancer at their weddings. These days they look for something different - maybe a jazz band. Belly dancing just isn't on their radar.

In some ways it's going back to its roots - it's always been a hidden thing. Maybe in ten years time it will re-emerge again into the glamour of the old days, when the young girls start seeing the big stars and saying - I want to do that."

Source: YogaTravel

Liza Laziza: "What's wrong with being a dancer who just loves to dance?"

By: Will Cottrell

Liza is an early fortyish woman, born in Iran and raised in London. These days she lives and works as a dancer in Cairo and commands a salary of 'thousands' per party, except in her favourite venue back in London, where 'I couldn't ask anything like that'. We talk in her flat in Cairo's fashionable Zamalek district. The flat is richly decorated with oriental furniture. On the walls are pictures of her dancing in the desert - blue costume against the white sand, shiffon scarves trailing in the breeze.

"Once my bra strap broke mid way through a perfomance," she begins. "I managed to get off stage - but my dressing woman had it back together and I was back on stage within thirty seconds." She's even had a whisky glass thrown at her: "that was my fault, my Arabic wasn't so good then and I think instead of calling someone my brother I called him a homosexual - not good in Arab society," she smirks.

"Belly dancing is not only to do with the belly: it's in the hips, the arms, the waist - it's the whole body. I'm translating the rythmn and melody into my body. It's a powerful expression of women without words. It's saying it's OK to be sexy and powerful - but not vulgar. It's being dignified."

What can western women gain from belly dancing?
"A lot of women want to do it because they love the music. There's others who want to tone their body. Some need it cos they're shy and low self-esteem. Taking lessons and performing in groups gives them self-esteem - an acceptance, an acknowledgement. It's both very personal and very public. The women that are drawn to it are definitely interested in the woman side of it. I had one woman - she was an engineer - she said, I'm not in my body at all. I want to find myself as a women, she said. It's a very feminine dance."

What's so special about Egypt?
"It's the only middle eastern country that is - possibly - democratic. It has alcohol - and as far as the dance is concerned it's as old as the pyramids. Cairo is the heart of the dance. Thirty years ago there was nightclubs everywhere. Every four or five star hotel had a nightclub -the money was huge."

"Then the rot set in. If you look at movies of the last ten or twenty years they all depicts the dancer as a theif, a liar, a prostitute, man eater. Recently Dina has declined to act in any film that depicts dancers in a negative light. Several months ago Fifi Abdou was interviewed, the interviewer was making out that dancers are bad - she said 'what is wrong with being a dancer who just loves to dance?' I always think what's your issue, why can't you handle it. It's your dirty mind."

Source: YogaTravel

Dina: Daring, Debauched or simply Delightful?

"You have to be strong. You have to continue your career, you have to be strong everyday."
Exclusive Yoga Travel interview with top belly dancer Dina
By Will Cottrell

As the country's best belly dancer, Dina is one of the most famous women in Egypt. Yet the Egyptian press have regularly enjoyed the eruptions of her personal life. In 2002, a video appeared of the dancer in bed with her third husband. She fled the country, vowing never to dance again. She returned, however, to sue him, eventually also sending the editor of a national newspaper to jail. Six months later she returned to dancing - commanding fees higher than ever.

"Last year happened like a bang. Oh my god. I just stopped everything. It was written in all the magazines. Somebody called and told me. My first reaction was to get out of here so I went abroad. I kind of hid.

A week later I felt less shocked. I closed everything. I stayed at home for two months. Then I started to go outside a bit. After six months I started to act. But I missed dancing. My friends helped me. They said that this has happened and that if you meet any bad guy he can do this. You have to be strong. You have to continue your career, you have to be strong everyday.

And I still have to be strong - but now I feel like I didn't do anything wrong. Everybody eats, drinks, has sex. I have to tell myself this all the time. He was my husband and one day he'll come out of jail, but I don't want to see him. I didn't just have it all in public - I lost my husband too."

You studied philosophy of theatre at university. What did you enjoy about that?
"I liked the Sufistayeen (a philosophy based on the sufi mystical sect). When you say yes, they say no. When you say go out, they say stay in. I really love them. I also like Freud. How women can take care of her child. He put sex in the world. I like the way he talked about how to handle children. I respect him very much."

How does philosophy of theatre help a dancer?
"Philosophy gives you an experience of people. When I'm on stage I know what the audience is like. Then I can adjust my performance to suit the audience - this is very important for a belly dancer. I don't just do what I want - I do what they want."

How has the press coverage of the video affected your life?"I don't hear what people say about me. I'm a dancer - I do it because I love it. When I began I was full of power to do what I like: I didn't hear anyone. I love dancing. I'm not looking to my reputation, I love dancing. I don't care what people say. "

What advice would you give to a dancer just starting out?"Belly dancing makes women feel like they're feminine. That it's good to be a woman: that women are very beautiful. It's in the dress and the movement. For professionals though, they must train, train, train. I train three days a week, another three days in the gym and another one for different dancing - like jazz, like cha, cha. They must take the ballet bar, for hands, for the head, the have to do yoga. They have to keep smiling in the mirror."

How do you see the future of belly dancing in Egypt?
"Things have been going downhill for the last four years. Bars are changing to different styles and there aren't many Egpytian belly dancers coming up. That's what has allowed foreigners to come in. This year I've seen in video clips that they're belly dancing, but they're called singers. It's more acceptable like that.

Actually, I'm not seeing anything new. We need ten or twenty good dancers but there's not even five. It's very bad. If it stays like this then the future is outside - in Europe. In Finland I did a workshop - I was standing on stage and in front of me 800 women were practicing in a hall. And from that thousand some good dancers will come."

Source: YogaTravel

Tummy Trouble

Hit by sex scandals and rumours of prostitution, the belly dancing scene in Cairo - home of the belly dance - is underthreat like never before.

Two years ago one of the most popular dancers, Dina, was involved in a scandal from which the industry is still reeling. Commanding fees of up to $10,000 a night, Dina was famous for her provocative dances and skimpy clothing. But when her businessman husband fell out with the Egyptian president's son, police raided the couple's apartment and found compromising videos which were then released onto the internet.

At the same time, many Egyptians see belly dancers simply as the playthings of rich gulf Arabs: these rich young sheiks are now a belly-dancer's ultimate catch. Dancers are flown to the gulf for a fee of thousands - and for a dancer (many of whom come from poor backgrounds) these Arab royals are a rags-to-riches fairytale.

Indeed, belly dancing is increasingly suffering from the decline of its reputation. Dwindling returns have led many Cairo clubs to close their doors and while it was possible to earn quite good money through the 80s and 90s, some places now prefer cheaper (in every sense) dancers to the better, more expensive ones.

Today, promoters claim there are around 100 regular dancers in Cairo. In 1957 more than 5000 belly dancers were registered with Cairo authorities.

But the taste of the audience has also changed. Young Cairenes prefer a club over a belly dancing show, while an influx of foreign dancers (manly Russian) means owners no longer pay the rates they used to. Similarly having a belly dancer at your wedding is seen as old-fashioned - DJs or jazz band are often more popular.

Source: YogaTravel

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Air Art - Air Dance company teaches new technique at ETSU workshop

Published: 10th Jul 2008
By Rex Barber
Press Staff Writer

Mary Jones takes part in the Aerial Dance Workshop being held at ETSU. (Ron Campbell / Johnson City Press)

Nina Charity wrapped herself in purple silk and twisted, twirled and flipped 20 feet up in the air.

She was practicing air dance, a new and popular art now capable of being taught at East Tennessee State University. The school recently purchased the equipment for air dancing — silk ropes and trapeze bars — that were suspended from the massive steel ceiling beams in the lower level of Brooks Gym.

Charity is a member of Jayne Bernasconi’s Air Dance company. Bernasconi and her crew were at ETSU to instruct about a dozen women from across the eastern United States on the art of air dancing in ETSU’s first Air Dance Workshop.

Charity began a routine on the silk ropes, bending and twisting and hurtling and flipping while wrapped in the strands of purple fabric. She performed various routines, including one called the “scary dragon.”

“ ... It looks like a scary dragon, I guess you could say ... where I grab the fabric and I swung my legs around, came back up, locked my knees and then pulled myself up to fall and dive through again to catch the fabric on my way down.”

The thought that she could fall only adds that much more to the experience, Charity said.

“Oh it’s exhilarating,” she said. “I’m an adrenaline junkie, so it’s fun to fall all the way from the top.”

Delbert Hall, a professor in ETSU’s theater department, organized the workshop. He hopes the workshop, the only one of its kind in the state to his knowledge, will become an annual event.

“This is the first year of this, and something we’re planning to do for many years as it grows,” he said. “We wanted to do things we don’t normally teach,” Hall said.

Hall said the equipment for air dancing is fairly inexpensive, consisting of ropes, silks, bungie cords, hooks and attachment riggings. He utilizes some of the same equipment in the theater department.

“Since I do a lot of the riggings for these types of performances, I suggested we do an aerial dance workshop for the summer,” he said. “We’re hoping to bring in a lot of people who normally wouldn’t come to ETSU to think, ‘Hey, this is a neat place. I’d like to come here.’

“We think this is something that’s going to continue,” he said. “It’s good exercise. It’s a beautiful art form.”

Bernasconi, who has a dance company in Maryland, has also written a book on the art. She said the dance is complex, but allows much more freedom of movement because it essentially defies gravity.

“What we’re doing is low-flying trapeze on single-point traps,” she said. “ ... It’s called aerial dance and we use the ground and the air. So what (the students are) doing right now is they’re exploring motion, conical shapes. There’s a lot of physics involved in it.

“ ... They’ve learned some vocabulary, skills or tricks and we’ve been learning that for the past two days. And now we’re actually taking it into motion. And they feel the dynamics of how light they can be. When you’re just static and trying those tricks gravity just pulls you down. But when you take it into motion and you use the dynamics of the lines it frees you up, so they begin to dance and that’s why it’s called aerial dance.”

Claire Phillips dances at her high school in Chattanooga, but has never done aerial dance. She said she has learned “tons” of stuff that will help her in her dancing back home.

“My aunt is a professor here at ETSU and so she brought back the news. I was very excited when I heard about it. It’s a very cool experience.”

She said the motion she gets while in mid-air creates a feeling of exhilaration.

“It’s very fun,” she said. “It’s kind of scary because you’re off the ground and there’s a secure bar on the trapeze, but then when you let go and you’re not on the bar anymore, it’s like leaning back and you’re not sure if you’re secure anymore.”

The workshop participants will perform a finale showcasing aerial dancing for the public this Saturday at 10 a.m. in Brooks Gym.

Source: Johnson City Press, Tennessee

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Adult Entertainment Industry Feels Pinch Of Tough Economy

By NICOLA M. WHITE | The Tampa Tribune
Published: July 8, 2008

TAMPA - Jessica Mann and Rebecca Massicotte swiveled around a pole in high-heeled platforms and bikini tops.

Two men in velvet chairs looked on.

The women are used to sparse crowds on weekday afternoons at the Deja Vu strip club on Adamo Drive. But not like this.

As the economy slumps and gas prices rise, Americans are tightening belts. That means even here in Tampa, the self-professed "Lap Dance Capital of the World," the area's adult entertainment venues are taking a hit.

Profits are down 25 percent to 30 percent this year, said Deja Vu general manager Eric Terrell, who goes by the name Ice.

Guys in suits out to entertain their clients no longer have such plush expense accounts. The customers who once thought nothing of plunking down a few hundred bucks - even a grand or two - on credit cards for private dances in the champagne room now balk at their monthly statements.

Mostly, the clients just don't walk through the door.

"What we are seeing is there's a trickle-down effect because of the subprime mortgage crisis," said Angelina Spencer, national executive director of the Association of Club Executives, a group that represents adult entertainment clubs. "This is resulting in less people going to all sorts of entertainment venues, not just adult entertainment venues."

Spencer, who used to run a club in Cleveland and now lives in Naples, fields calls every day from strip club owners feeling the pinch of a bad economy.

"Entertainment is one of those luxury items; it's one of the first things people give up," she said.

While an ailing economy may bring fewer customers to local strip clubs, it often, however, will bring out more women willing to give pole dancing a try.

"If it's hard to find even a regular job out there, I'll get more dancers," said Joe Redner, owner of Tampa's iconic Mons Venus club on Dale Mabry Highway.

His club's business is down 25 percent in this struggling economy, he said.

Most adult entertainers work as independent contractors, meaning they pay club owners a fee to perform and then pocket the money they earn from tips and private dances.

Because it doesn't cost club owners extra cash to take on new dancers, club managers lose nothing by adding more women to their dance roster. This, of course, means more competition for tips and private dances among the women.

"They're having to work longer hours and actually work a little harder," Redner said.

Mann, 28, worked at Deja Vu 10 years ago, bringing in big cash for the then-18-year-old dancer.

"It was wonderful back then," she said.

She made $400-500 most nights. But she didn't want to dance forever so she left the business to go to school and become a certified nurse's assistant and medical technician.

The problem: She earned $9.75 per hour and found herself living paycheck to paycheck. Three months ago, she came back to Déjà vu and started dancing again.

Massicotte, 24, who started dancing at 18, earned $2,200 a week during the good years.

Those payouts are over.

"The regulars we used to have three to four times a week, we don't have that anymore. They're looking for dance specials," she said.

Neither woman, however, wants to leave the business any time soon. Although some nights they don't come home with much money, in what is perhaps a bigger indictment of the local economy, dancing pays more than a traditional gig.

"It's still more than a 40-hour-a-week job," Mann said.

There might be a bright spot on the horizon, though: football. Particularly that one big game in February.

"We're all holding our breath for the Super Bowl," said Monica Fox, a manager and consultant at Deja Vu.

Source: Tampa Bay Online

Friday, 4 July 2008

Dancers using the tango to fight off depression

A research trial is finding out if concentrating on dance steps keeps negative thoughts away.

Published: June 28, 2008

What flamenco is to Spain, or what jazz was to the United States, tango is to South America.

Its sensuous formality has inspired poets and composers and an art form thought to have begun in Argentinian brothels has fans around the world.

Now there is new research in Australia which suggests that tango may help people fight depression.

A University of New England researcher has been running a trial to see if concentrating on dance steps keeps negative thoughts away.

Long-time tango teacher Jackie Simpson instructs a class of about 20 people in an old church hall in the inner Sydney suburb of Surry Hills.

One of Ms Simpson's female dance pupils says she decided decided to get involved in tango therapy to try to overcome depression.

"So I read about this and although I don't dance, just my whole being went, yeah! You know, yeah, I want to learn to tango, I want to learn to do this," she said.

"It just sounded, just something that I wanted to do.

"After the first night I got home and I just felt so energised and for the next two days I just felt so focused and things that I was just feeling that I was overwhelmed about before, I just had the energy to do."

She says decided to take part in the classes to help deal with her grief.

"I was feeling really at a deep place," she said.

"I lost a son about two-and-a-half years ago and where I had done a lot of grieving I just found I wasn't getting up and getting back into life that much."

Rosa Pinniger is an honours student at the University of New England, where she is studying cognitive and behavioural therapy.

Psychologists use it to try to help people fight negative thoughts and see situations more positively.

Ms Pinniger says many studies have shown that meditation can be helpful in learning to do this.

While studying the benefits of meditation she realised the brain works in a similar way when dancing the tango.

"While you're doing tango you can only be in the present - you really have to focus, concentrate, and it doesn't allow your thoughts to drive into your mind," she said.

"And this is one of the things of meditation, the other thing is that for example in meditation people usually use their breathing, and this is something that people have done all their lives - they know how to breathe but they need to be aware of their breathing and they use it.

"The same with the tango - everyone walks and as long as you can walk you can tango, and this is the truth.

"The only thing is that usually we are not aware of how we walk and in tango you have to."

Positive changes

Ms Pinniger says the participants in her trial have kept coming back to the tango classes because they can see results.

"If people can have a break from their negative thoughts for three minutes - which is the time of the tango - they can realise that it is possible," she said.

"And sometimes we only need to know that something is possible. If we can do it once, we can do it again and again and again.

"I think that this is why people tonight, while they are doing tango, this is what it is, nothing else. So all their problems and their thoughts, they cannot be, they are not invited in the tango."

One of the participants found the tango helped take her mind away from a particularly painful event in her life.

"We've had a death in the family and I forgot about it while we were dancing and I guess the depression was all part of looking after someone that we knew was dying," she said.

"So I was very depressed for a long time but you come here and you forget about it, you know, so, for a moment."

But generally the people at the tango class enjoy getting together and learning something new.

"When you're learning and you're practising and you get, well, you're sort of achieving things, I think that makes you feel good about yourself. So I think that's helpful," one pupil said.

"I noticed a huge improvement in how I was feeling during the classes - particularly after maybe doing three or four.

"I think it has a blend of a social element. There's a closeness to other people so you can learn to trust again and there's a physical exercise in it but it's so subtle that you don't really notice.

"So it's the subtle blend of many things."

Ms Pinniger says learning to tango will not cure depression but can be used with other therapies.

She also says it is not for everyone - meditation may be better for some.

"Let's not forget that meditation although it has many things in common with tango, but it's still an individualistic activity while tango it is more social," she said.

"For some people maybe they are not in the state that they want to go that step further of connecting and then it's okay.

"We are all individuals and we have to choose which one is better for us, that's all."

All of Jackie Simpson's tango students have decided to continue learning to dance the tango - and even Ms Pinniger says she might take up learning the exotic art form herself.

Based on a report by Carly Laird for PM

Source: ABC News, Australia

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Sensuous Shimmy Faces Jab and Jostle

Dance was an intrinsic part of the culture of the ancient Egyptians, with people of different social classes enjoying music and dancing.

By Ramadan Al Sherbini, Special to Weekend Review
Published: June 13, 2008

To the West, it is the belly dance. To Middle Easterners, it is raqs sharqi or the oriental dance. Whatever the name, the dance continues to be popular worldwide despite changes over the centuries in its form and perception.

There has been much debate as to when and where this form of art originated. Many researchers date it to Pharaonic Egypt, citing inscriptions on temples of dances performed during religious rituals.

Dance was an intrinsic part of the culture of the ancient Egyptians, with people of different social classes enjoying music and dancing.

Labourers worked in rhythmic motion to songs and percussion and street dancers entertained passers-by, historians say.

Some researchers, however, argue that the belly dance originated in Greece and came to Egypt when Alexander the Great (356-323BC) built the coastal city of Alexandria. Others trace it to northwestern India and Uzbekistan.

Apparently looking for a compromise, some other theorists say the belly dance has different origins, referring to its diversity of styles.

Because of this ambiguity, the dance has come to be scorned by some people and admired by others.

From the Middle East to the US and Australia, the belly dance has become a popular performing art as well as a mode of self-expression and entertainment.

Classes teaching the dance continue to be conducted in many parts of the globe.

In Egypt, where the belly dance has thrived over the years, it is popular among foreign visitors and locals alike. Egypt boasts the world’s best-known dancers.

“Despite restrictions triggered by a revival of Islamism in this predominantly Muslim country, the belly dance is still a major item and attraction in most wedding parties,” says Khalil Sadek, a folk-arts researcher. “This art is a form of self-expression and a way of exercising.”

In recent years, gymnasiums have sprung up in major Egyptian cities, offering classes for women interested in learning it.

“We have a high demand particularly in the summer, when girls do not go to schools and mothers have enough time,” says Hossna Jamil, an instructor at a gym in northern Cairo.

“Despite the scorn poured by Islamists and conservatives on the belly dance, it is still popular with the local women, who want to perform it for their husbands or on happy occasions such as weddings,” Jamil says. “It also helps them to be in good shape.”

She says the belly dance is beneficial to both the mind and the body.

“Dancing boosts mental health and helps increase flexibility and strength. It activates blood circulation and makes the body more supple and controllable. It also rids one of feelings of fatigue and depression.”

Many belly dance styles emphasise muscular “isolations”, and enhance the ability to move various muscles or muscle groups independently, experts say. Belly dancing, they add, tones the arms and improves flexibility.

As a form of exercise, it can burn as many calories as jogging, swimming or riding an exercise bike. “Belly dancing is less strenuous than lifting weights and more uplifting than working out on a bike at the gym,” said researcher Sadek.

There are two forms of belly dance. The first is raqs baladi (a local dance), which is generally performed during festive occasions such as weddings and other social gatherings for fun and celebration.

The second form — a more theatrical version — is called raqs sharqi (oriental dance). Like raqs baladi, raqs sharqi is performed by both male and female dancers.

According to the Wikipedia encyclopaedia, the exact origin of this dance form is actively debated among enthusiasts, especially because of the limited academic research on the topic.

Much of the research has been done by artistes attempting to understand their dance’s origins.

However, the often-overlooked fact that most dancing in the Middle East occurs in the social context rather than the more visible and glamorous context of professional nightclub dancers has led to widespread misunderstanding of the dance’s true nature and has given rise to many conflicting theories about its origins.

The best-known theory is that it descended from a religious dance. This idea is usually the one referred to in mainstream articles on the topic, and has enjoyed a large amount of publicity, according to Wikipedia.

In the West, raqs sharqi was popularised during the Romantic Movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, inspired by the Orientalist view of harem life in the Ottoman Empire (1288-1922).

Although there were performers of this type of dance at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, it was not until the 1893 World Fair that it gained national attention.

At the fair, there were authentic dancers from Middle Eastern and north African countries, including Syria, Turkey and Algeria, but the dancers in the Egyptian Theatre of the Street in Cairo exhibit gained the most attention.

With belly dancing generating admiration bordering on a craze in the US, Thomas Alva Edison made several films focusing on the dancers in the 1890s.

The list included Turkish Dance and Ella Lola. One of the earliest films made on belly dancing was Fatima’s Dance, a short that drew criticism for its “immodest” dancing, and was eventually censored under public pressure.

Some Western women began to learn from and imitate the dances of the Middle East, which at the time was colonised by Western powers.

The famed US dancer Ruth St Denis (1877-1968) also engaged in Middle East-inspired dancing, but her approach was to put “oriental” dancing on the stage in the context of ballet, her goal being to lift all dances to a respectable art form.

Egyptian belly dancing was among the first styles to be witnessed by Westerners. During Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, his troops encountered the ghawazee tribe.

The ghawazee (itinerant dancers) made their living as professional entertainers. At first, the French were repelled by their heavy jewellery and hair, and found their dancing “barbaric”, but were soon lured by the hypnotic nature of their movements, according to Wikipedia.

The classical belly dance is still popular in the West. Still, many dancers have created fusion forms such as the American tribal style, inspired by the folkloric dance styles of India, the Middle East and north Africa and even flamenco.

Dancers in the United States, while respecting the origins of the belly dance, apparently innovate to address their requirements.

In fact, many women in the US and Europe view belly dancing as a tool for empowerment and a boost for bodily, mental and spiritual faculties.

Issues of body image, self-esteem, healing from sexual violation and self-fulfilment are regularly tackled in belly dancing classes there.

The interest in belly dance has given rise to diverse names for the same simple movements and the need to have a “style” as instructors try to accentuate distinction and differences in their ways of teaching.

A recent movement in the US called the American Tribal Style Belly Dance (ATS), represents everything from folklore-inspired dances to the fusion of ancient dance techniques from north India, the Middle East and Africa.

Launched in the early 1990s by Carolena Nericcio, founder of FatChanceBellydance in San Francisco, ATS has a format consisting of a vocabulary of steps designed to be performed improvisationally in a lead-follow manner.

Pure ATS is performed in a group, typically with a chorus of dancers using zills, or finger cymbals, as accompaniment.

The music can be folkloric or modern and the costume is heavily layered, evoking traditions of one or all of its cultural influences.

Multicultural trends that have shaped Western and US belly dancing are still at work.

Constantly evolving, this dance keeps absorbing a blend of influences — modern fashion, film and television imagery, the world of rock and hip hop, underground subcultures, and many others.

Like the United States, Canada also has a thriving belly-dance community with many different styles ranging from raqs sharqi to gypsy.

Many schools teach the dance in Canada, which has produced some of the finest belly dancers in the world, including Yasmina Ramzy.

She is the driving force behind the International Belly Dance Conference of Canada, regarded as the country’s largest belly dance gathering.

Belly dancing is equally popular in other Western countries, including Britain and Australia.

While social dancing on certain occasions such as family functions is accepted and even encouraged, many people in Middle Eastern and North African societies frown upon the performances of professional dancers in revealing costumes and dismiss them as morally objectionable.

Some have even gone so far as to suggest that such performances should be banned altogether.

Last month, Dina, Egypt’s celebrated belly dancer, drew scathing criticism from members of parliament and the media for performing at a school prom.

The country’s official TV broadcaster stopped showing belly dance performances two decades ago.

Since the early 1980s, big-name belly dancers in Egypt have been quitting the profession, deciding to “repent”.

The list includes Sahar Hamadi, Hala Al Safi and Azza Sherif. Others, such as legendary Najwa Fouad, have either retired or shifted their sights to TV drama and cinema.

The heyday of this art form in Egypt was in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Emad Eddin Street, Egypt’s version of Broadway in those times, was famous for its nightclubs where top as well as not-so-well-known dancers performed.

During those years, King Farouk, Egypt’s last monarch, reportedly hired the Russian ballet instructor Ivanova to teach his daughters.

Ivanova later taught Egypt’s iconic belly dancer Samia Jamal how to use the veil to improve her arm carriage.

Most Egyptian dancers would use the veil as an opening prop, which they discarded within the first few minutes of their routines.

In Egypt, dancers also wear full, beaded dresses to do folkloric and baladi (local) performances. Such outfits are also used by the American and European artistes for folk dances.

However, in Egypt these dresses are designed according to the dance and the tradition. Western dancers have more freedom and may choose freely according to taste and imagination, experts say.

Tahya Karyouka, one of Egypt’s most talented dancers in the first half of the 20th century, is remembered for popularising baladi dance in her movies.

Soheir Zaki and Najwa Fouad dominated the belly dance scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Other dancers such as Fifi Abdou and Lucy rose to fame in Egypt and far beyond in the 1980s and 1990s. Now they devote most of their time to acting on TV.

In recent years, Dina has been the most famous name in Egyptian belly dancing, where the art form is now dominated by foreign performers from as far as Argentina, Mexico, Poland, Russia and Ukraine.

In an apparent reaction to protests from local dancers, Egypt imposed a ban on foreign belly dancers in 2003. The ban was, however, lifted a year later.

There are 150 licensed foreign belly dancers in Egypt, according to official figures. Insiders, nonetheless, confirm that the figure is far higher because of the low fees requested by the foreign performers compared with their Egyptian counterparts.

A famous Egyptian dancer would demand $10,000 a night compared with $500 by a foreigner.

Egyptian agents started to hire foreign belly dancers in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Originally ballet dancers, the newcomers from Eastern Europe were quick to acquire the skills of raqs sharqi.

They soon proved to be serious rivals to the local performers in nightclubs and in programmes hosted at fashionable hotels in Cairo and thriving resort towns such as Hurghada.

Foreign dancers, such as Asmhan of Argentina, the Ukrainian Sally and the Brazilian Camellia, are now big names among Egypt’s raqs sharqi performers.

In an apparent bid to enhance their allure and renown, these foreign dancers have taken purely oriental names.

Belly dancing consists of movements that are executed throughout the body.

The focus of the dance is the pelvic and hip area. It is, fundamentally a solo improvisational dance with a unique dance vocabulary that is fluidly integrated with the music’s rhythm.

The most admired performers of raqs sharqi are those who can best project their emotions through dance, even if their dance is made up of simple movements.

To some experts, belly dancing is not an inaccurate term. They point out that all parts of the body are involved in the dance and the most important part is the hips.

The dancer’s aim, they argue, is to convey to the audience the emotion and rhythm of the music.

Egyptian-style raqs sharqi is based on baladi, a style honed by legends such as Samia Jamal and Tahya Karyouka in the 1940s until the 1960s, deemed to be golden era of the belly dance in Egypt.

Its popularity was enhanced through local musicals.
In Egypt, three main forms of the traditional dance are associated with the belly dance: baladi (local), sha’abi (folksy) and sharqi (oriental).

The Egyptian forms of belly dance are rivalled by the Syrian, Lebanese and the Turkish patterns.

Turkish belly dancing may have been influenced by the Roma people as much as by the Egyptian as well as the Syrian and Lebanese forms, having developed from the Ottoman dance to the oriental dance known today worldwide.

Turkish law does not impose restrictions on dancers’ movements and costumes, unlike Egypt, where dancers are barred from performing floor work and certain pelvic movements.

With the surge in Islamism and the foreigners’ invasion of the trade in Egypt and some other Arab countries, experts are worried about the future of the belly dance.

“Now everyone who has nothing to do can claim she is a dancer,” Fouad told the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Al Awsat.

“Russians and Poles are now dominating the scene as female singers take up dance as well.”

Earlier this year, Fouad was on the jury of Hezy Ya Nawam (Wiggle, Chick), a contest produced by the Lebanese TV channel LBC to spot new talent in belly dancing.

The producers said their key aim was to protect this genre from extinction. Ironically, the contest drew competitors from France and Ukraine.

Ramadan Al Sherbini is a journalist based in Cairo.

Source: Gulf News Archive