Friday, 24 July 2009

Sikidim, sikidim

By Tanya Goudsouzian
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 July 2000, Issue No. 489

It was as though one had been propelled centuries back in time, to the tent of a wealthy tribal patriarch who was giving one of his many daughters in marriage to a worthy young camel herder. Ebullient young girls in shimmering, beaded bustiers jiggled and whirled about in their diaphanous skirts before a spellbound audience. On the evening of 27 June, however, there were no camels in sight. The audience comprised mostly veiled matriarchal characters and subdued middle-aged men, as well as a sprinkling of foreigners eager to sample "authentic Arab culture."

The Ramses Hilton was the chosen locale for the costume show that was part of the week-long festival of Oriental dance organised by well-known dance instructor Madame Raga'i. The elaborate -- and eminently seductive -- ensembles on display were the handiwork of Amira El-Qattan, a tall, graceful woman with bright orange hair, who stole the show in her skin-tight black gown the moment she strutted into the hall. The evening stretched on for some seven hours, but what kept the audience locked in place were rumours that the organising committee held some tantalising surprises in store.

The spectacle began at 8.00pm with the celebrated Reda Folkloric Dance Troupe members performing a zaffa, the traditional wedding procession consisting of song and dance. Then the lights were dimmed and large screens placed at both extremities of the room presented a brief historical of Oriental dance. Revered figures such as Tahia Carioca, Samia Gamal and Soheir Zaki reappeared in the prime of their youth on celluloid to show what the art was all about: communication and improvisation. Today, many people take the dance at face value, and equate it with the ever-popular American strip show. To put it bluntly, it must be understood that it is not about selling oneself, but about grace, agility and an ear for the subtlest titillation of music. Of course, time passes, music changes and so does the dance. This was a point emphasised by Soheir Zaki, famous in the 1970s and 1980s, who was in attendance and spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly.

Samia Gamal
Tahia and Farid
Lucy  and Suheir Zaki
Comparing styles
Natasha Atlas
From top: Samia Gamal; Tahia Carioca and Farid El-Atrash; Dina; Foufa in London in 1970; Lucy and Soheir Zaki: a demanding jury; comparing styles; Natasha Atlas, the songbird who took Europe by storm

(photos: Sherif Sonbol and Al-Ahram's archives)

"A dancer has an ability to make both quick and slow movements. Back then, the music allowed for the dancer to show all her abilities," said Zaki. "Today the music is too fast."

As the screening came to an end, the DJ began spinning some popular Middle Eastern beats and in bounced the jaunty models garbed in gaily-coloured frocks. El-Qattan's collections were modelled by young women who had travelled from the four corners of the globe, including Australia, Japan and Italy, to partake in the series of workshops to be given by the country's most masterful dancers during the week-long festival. It might sound like a scene straight from an illustrated copy of the Arabian Nights, but it looked more like Mardi Gras with some of the ladies boasting cascades of gold locks, tattoos and a few excess kilos.

Just about the time they made their appearance, I made my disappearance -- under a swarm of photographers who, like moles, scurried out from their dark corners towards the light, nearly blocking my view. What I could discern, however, was that the collection was divided into themes, some inspired by legendary women such as Sheherazade and the Queen of Sheba. The Sheherazade costumes had a mystical quality, with halo-like shades that left a hazy trail behind them and coupes fantaisistes ; the Queen of Sheba line could best be described as regal, ornate with jewels, ruched shoulder bands and rich colours. El-Qattan also brought in some modern looks, such as tie-dye and floral Carmen-like prints.

The girls left the stage and a hush spread throughout the hall. The first surprise was to be revealed. The backstage door cracked open and a slight figure in a diaphanous black outfit with gold trimmings stepped out. She was none other than the toast of Paris, Natacha Atlas. There was no mistaking those features: a tanned complexion, slanted eyes elongated with black kohl and a mesmerising gaze. When she began to sing, she uttered French lyrics but her enchanting voice followed an unmistakably Oriental melody. Atlas recently relocated to Egypt to find her roots. Born in Belgium to an English mother and a (technically) Egyptian father, the songbird has taken Europe by storm with a style than can only be compared to that of the late great ballad singer Dalida. In my opinion, the audience did not do her justice in their applause. Perhaps the proportions of her reputation have not yet reached the country, or perhaps an audience more likely to worship Umm Kulthoum can never really appreciate the likes of Atlas.

After her performance, the jiggling young ladies returned once more, wearing another series of El-Qattan concoctions. At this stage, the audience was visibly exhausted from watching amateurs imitate Oriental dance. Lucy's performance came just in time. Lucy had made her initial entrance as a guest alongside Soheir Zaki, amid flashing bulbs. But somewhere along the line, she discretely retreated backstage where she traded her slinky backless black gown for a chi-chi Oriental deux-pièces.

Lucy's style can be dubbed the Perrier of belly-dance. She is an acquired taste. She makes no effort to captivate the audience with eye contact or coquettish gestures. She simply gyrates to the beat -- but such a precise gyration. Through the grape-vine, I learned that Fifi Abdu, the reigning queen of the country's movers and shakers, had been asked to perform. When she informed the organisers that her price would "depend on the number of heads in the audience," she was shimmied off the list of performers.

Lucy's performance was a few notches higher in the class department than what Fifi could have provided. Barramching! Lucy's hips jolt to the right. Barramching, ching, ching! Lucy's hips jut-jut-jut to the left. Her expressionless face cracks a smile as the audience begins to appreciate her physical rendition of the music played by a live band. She dances as though she is singing, sometimes extending her arms upwards, miming a soprano. She reappeared for her second sequence dressed in a sizzling red concerto gown -- albeit, one exhibiting more cleavage than any conservatoire would allow -- and short auburn wig. For her final sequence, she emerged in a translucent black and silver dishdasha with a cane in hand. Here, she paid homage to Soheir Zaki who was sitting in the audience. "Up," she gestured and a gushing Zaki obeyed, giddy at the prospect of dancing before an audience again. It was a sentimental scene when the two ladies danced in embrace.

When Lucy's number was up, the guests were told they could finally approach the buffet. By now it was past midnight, and everyone was famished. I had to fight my way through the throng with a fork for a morsel of chicken kofta. When I returned to sample the desserts, not only had the serving dishes been wiped clean, but "they have eaten the spoons too," quipped one unfortunate guest. Back to our respective tables. The pièce de resistance was about to make her way on-stage.

Dina is the quintessential belly dancer. This fact cannot be disputed. With a mane of jet black ringlets down her back and a cleavage virtually bursting out of her bustier, she appears as though she has been peeled off one of those Orientalist paintings they peddle in Khan Al-Khalili "art" shops. All she has to do is stand there, and the male audience is satisfied, as the smiles plastered on faces attested, even when she had left the room to change between sequences.

But she is anything but immobile. She is full of expression, flirty, mischievous and suggestive. She shakes about with a broad infectious smile, dragging her legs and her arms in wide motions like a gypsy dancer. She has a few gestures that constitute her trademark, like when she makes eye contact with some hapless gent in the audience, then points to her navel. When his eyes follow, she erupts in laughter and goes on with her business.

Her costumes are another matter. For her first sequence, she sauntered on stage in a candy pink outfit, reminiscent of the one worn by Barbara Eden in the 1960s hit series "I Dream of Genie." In her second sequence, she wore a blue iridescent butterfly-shaped bustier and a floral print cache-maillot wrapped around her hips. The third sequence, she came out dressed in a fire-engine red slip-like costume, shredded at the hem. What is remarkable about this woman is the fact that mere months have passed since she gave birth to her son Ali and she is in better shape than some unmarried women. She may come across as the bimbo of belly-dance, but this would be, quite literally, a show. Dina holds a master's degree in philosophy and is well-travelled, having lived in Rome for many years. A closer look at her performances and one clearly detects a calculated image.

When I left the hotel, it was past 2.00am. Dina was still dancing -- in a fourth ensemble, black with gold trimmings. Every single guest was still in place. The magic of Oriental dance has not been lost, despite growing fears that Westernisation (or globalisation) will erode local culture.

"Arab dance must be spread," said Soheir Zaki, when asked what she thought of foreigners taking on the dance. "The whole world should appreciate it." But can they ever really capture its essence?

Source: Al-Ahram

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