Monday, 28 December 2009

The belly-dancer at the wedding

In Egypt the unusual love--hate relationship with belly-dancing persists amid a conservative culture of veiled women and virgin weddings.

by Yahia Samir Lababidi

At a time when more and more Egyptian women are taking the veil, Cairo remains the world epicentre for those who wish to master a dance that is only a slight variation on the theme of Salome's shedding of her veils. And when, seaside, the bulk of Egyptian women are opting to wade in gallabiyyas (full length traditional dresses), it is not unusual for a belly-dancer to perform at a public venue in little more than a glorified bikini, like a beached mermaid in her glittering, gauzy garb.

The ubiquity and sheer joy of the dance, however, does not detract from the perception of immorality associated with the belly-dancing profession. Egyptians are deeply conflicted about the respectability of the art form. Islamic preachers have gone so far as to proclaim that belly-dancers cannot take part in religious rites, such as feeding the poor during Ramadan or performing the Hajj/Pilgrimage.

An incident illustrating the paradoxically privileged position belly-dancers occupy in society occurred last year. A video depicting one of Egypt's top belly-dancers in flagrante delicto leaked onto the street and internet, following a police raid on the villa of a well-known (and married) Egyptian businessman. A lesser mortal would have perished beneath the heat of such a scandal, especially a woman in a conservative society. Yet, following a teary public apology and a short leave of absence, the Uberdancer bounced back on stage. Moreover, to add legislation to lore--further demonstrating society's strangely protective stance regarding the dancer's status--a new law forbids foreign dancers from practising this local art altogether (a lucrative trade in the city's many nightspots).

A love/hate relationship for the belly-dancer places her in a perceived moral netherworld somewhere between actors and whores. Both actors and dancers, whose testimony was once inadmissible in court, are accorded the same morbid fascination--every twist and turn of their private lives deemed newsworthy--as well as the same contempt. Hishik bishik, slang for all things associated with belly-dancing (and short-hand for tsk-tsk), is actually onomatopoeia: the sound of the shaking belly-dancer, beads and all. It is also used figuratively, as a derogatory term for the shaking of values or the loosening of the moral fabric associated with a dancer's questionable position in the public imagination. What does this say about the people who heartily embrace the dance as a form of self-expression?

The origins of Raqs Sharqi or Oriental Dancing (Egyptians do not call it belly-dancing) are ambiguous. Whether or not it was born in Ancient Egypt, it is widely held that the dance has its roots in fertility ceremonies, meant to strengthen abdominal muscles and ease childbirth. It is as though tapped into the bottomless fund of Earth's energy, its pulsations course through the dancer. The dance itself is a kind of break-dance only more fluid, exhibiting a variety of muscle isolation techniques: rolling the belly, swivelling the hips or making the upper and lower body appear as though they lead independent lives. In many ways, belly-dancing is the anti-ballet. Whereas the ballerina wears her pretty steel-tipped slippers, the belly-dancer is sensuously barefoot. While the ballerina strives for the ethereal and seeks to resist gravity, the belly-dancer is earthy with her feet firmly planted on the ground.

That is the technique, but then there is the inspiration, the wordless ecstasy communicated, the body eloquence. President Anwar Sadat once described a celebrated Egyptian dancer of the '70s, Souhair Zaki, as 'the Oum Kalthoum of dance'. 'As she sings with her voice, you sing with your body,' he said to her. Speaking of the same dancer, Geraldine Brooks put it slightly differently in her book, Nine Parts of Desire: What she did with her body was what a woman's body did--the natural movements of sex and childbirth. The dance drew the eye to the very centre of the female body's womanliness.

The fact that weddings are hardly complete without a belly-dancer is revealing, given the function of marriage as sanctifying the union between a man and a woman who is expected to be a virgin. Costing the family of the bride or groom up to $3000 for a 45-minute performance and widely considered the highlight of the matrimonial event, the belly-dancer's entrance is anticipated with baited breath. And what an entrance it is. Some time past the witching hour, often draped in a sort of a sparkling cape, she shimmies into the room with a manic enthusiasm, heralded and accompanied by the wild beating of drums. Having established her presence and revelling in the power of an intensity inhabited, the dancer sheds her mock modesty veil to reveal herself--a half-naked, shimmering apparition. All anima and daemonic, she then proceeds to stomp on the hallowed ground of the wedding ceremony.

This primeval emotional maelstrom is presented to the enthralled audience and the blushing bride in particular. Women study her intently but with a more guarded enthusiasm than their drooling male counterparts. Having transfixed the audience in a sort of reverse mesmerism--where the snake charms those who have summoned it--the dancer turns her attention to the bride. Weaving and dipping in her vicinity, she initiates the bride into the rites of uninhibited womanhood. 'See the effect I have on the room (and your groom),' she insinuates, brandishing her sexuality. 'That power is yours, too. Your birthright. Celebrate it.' And she's off, back with the crowd; challenging them to take guilt-free pleasure in their bodies, snaking between them, dancing with a deliciously self-absorbed exhibitionism.

Wearing a wedding cake of a gown, the bride must fret: how can I possibly compete with this woman invulnerable to taboo? Having spent a lifetime shrewdly protecting her virtue and a small fortune on the appearance of her dress, she is being upstaged at her own wedding by a woman who seems to care for neither. How can she possibly stand up to this dancer--radiating sex and naked confidence--with her flamboyantly flagrant disregard for the fundamental commandments of Family and Society?

In such a charged atmosphere, belly-dancing serves as a kind of 'licensed murder'. This is Bertrand Russell's definition of war, only the war declared here is on conventional morality and its mind-forged manacles. The force of the belly-dance is a force of nature, perceived as unharnessed and disruptive, hence the fear. The fear is an ancient one: of desire; of female flesh. The belly-dancer's twisting sisters are many and ruinous in mythology and the human imagination: Eve and the Serpent; Medusa (Woman and Serpent fused); Salome (powerful desire); Kali (fierce transcendence); the Sirens (femme fatale); the striptease (look don't touch); and the lap dancer (crude sensuality). All hint at a vision of woman engaged in a frenzied dance of Life and Death, of passion careering out of control, threatening to overwhelm and consume.

It is not without significance that a 1920s law forbade the belly-dancer from showing her navel. Later, in the 1950s, belly-dancing was prohibited in Egypt altogether. The ban was repealed following a public outcry, on the condition that the belly button be covered. Why the belly button? Given it is not a sexual organ, one suspects the significance is symbolic. The belly button is, after all, where the umbilical cord was severed. Is it the scene of the original crime from which people wish to avert their gaze?

'Every vagina has secret teeth, for the male exits as less than when he entered,' says Camille Paglia. Teeth that are razor sharp in a patriarchal society. Vagina dentata, in turn, denotes a fear of devouring origins, as does the offensive belly button. This, it appears, is what lurks at the heart of the ancient anxiety over female sensuality. Hence, trafficking as the belly-dancer does in the heady cocktail of dance and womanhood, creation and destruction, the object of desire becomes a repository of fear and loathing. To accept their spontaneous joy in dance without the attendant sense of sin, perhaps Egyptians might learn a thing or two from Nietzsche's declaration: 'I could only believe in a god who dances'.

Yahia Samir Lababidi, aphorist and poet, currently works as editor for UNESCO Cairo Office.

Source: The Free Library

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