Monday, 28 December 2009

Belly dancing: a dying art?

First published: Jul 23rd, 2009

Traditionalists in Egypt have targeted cabarets that feature belly dancers, and many Egyptians fear that the art is dying.

Acarabee Alley, just off 26 of July Street in bustling downtown Cairo, opens onto a small courtyard surrounded by bars. Up the stairs at the end of the courtyard a belly dancer shakes her hips and smiles at the mostly empty tables in Club Miami. She turns and sways in her bright yellow costume in front of a five-piece band belting out Arabic songs.

At 11 pm on Thursday night the place is quiet, with the exception of a few middle-aged men sipping beer at a table near the bar. While belly dancing has become popular abroad, and for foreign visitors to Egypt, many here have feared its demise as a result of the increasing observance of conservative Islam.

Over the last several decades, traditionalist ideals have been gaining ground in the country once known for its cosmopolitan ways. In the 1990s, when violent Islamist groups were most active in Egypt, the haram (forbidden) combination of alcohol and shaking, skimpily dressed women made belly-dancing cabarets a target.

Nabil Abdel Fattah, head of the sociological research unit at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and editor-in-chief of the center’s “State of Religion Report,” says businesses like bars and belly-dancing clubs have suffered because of the Islamization of both the public and private spheres in Egypt. “Belly dancing is outside of Islamic values,” says Fattah, adding that increasing conservatism in Egypt has led to reforms in the role and dress of women and fewer customers for establishments that serve alcohol.

However, in the last few years the country has undergone a soft revolution, where a surge in conservatism for many has coincided with an increasing movement toward Western lifestyles and liberal practices for others.

“There is a new soft revolution in Egyptian society. You can see this trend of new magazines and shops and people returning to belly dancing. There is also a Westernization of the way of life, of the new upper-middle class and businessmen,” says Fattah, who maintains this has happened in tandem with increasing observance of conservative Islam.

Looking back

Belly dancing is the English name given to the art of raqssharqi (oriental dance) or raqsbaladi (country dance). The practice spread throughout the Middle East but took a greater hold in Egypt than the rest of the Arab world, finding its place in wedding celebrations, private and public performances and, most recently, in tourist establishments.

Around midnight, customers begin to take seats near the stage at Club Miami. The clientele remains the same, mostly middle-aged Egyptian men. The band continues to play as the second dancer, Suhayla, takes the stage under a small disco ball. Tamer, Club Miami’s manager, who asked that his real name not be used, says in the winter the club attracts foreigners and in the summer it fills with Gulf Arabs. But most of their clientele is Egyptian.

“We get the rich and the less fortunate,” says Tamer. “Thursday is the busiest day of the week. We start the night at 11pm, but it doesn’t get full before 12 or 1am.” He’s been working in the industry for 10 years and says he’s seen a decline in the number of visitors in the last decade. Despite the influx from Gulf tourists, places like Club Miami are not seeing an increase in customers.

“There are new bars for the middle class everywhere, in Mohandeseen, in the city center and also in hotels,” says Fattah. “This is a new variable and I think it’s related to the economic policy of the state. There is a tolerance now … because [these are] private companies and this is very important economically.”

The next evening, a few kilometers south on 26 of July Street, Ahmed Dessouki leans against a polished wood bar sipping whisky over ice at the Cairo Jazz Club. The 28-year-old architect says he goes out four nights per week, but doesn’t venture to belly-dancing joints or baladi-style bars. “I mostly go to Zamalek bars,” says Dessouki referring to Cairo’s expensive, more Western neighborhood. “I’m not interested in this kind of art.”

The Cairo Jazz Club could easily be in any major American city, with a DJ spinning records in the corner, high-back booth seating and multi-colored track lighting. By midnight there is little room to move as young Egyptian men hold the waists of their girlfriends and mix with foreigners on the tiny dance floor.

“It’s the mentality of the people. We don’t have a big gap between the mentality of Europe and the [United] States,” says Dessouki.

“Almost everybody has a girlfriend. We like to come to this kind of club to spend a nice night with our girlfriends - nothing more.” Dessouki says some nights he and his friends rack up bills of several thousand Egyptian pounds (or several hundred US dollars).

In the 1990s, Western-style bars became popular among some Egyptians and today, in Cairo, Alexandria and in tourist towns like Sharm El-Sheikh, there is no shortage of European - or American-style establishments. The influx of Western-style nightclubs is drawing customers away from the baladi nightspots.

A soft revolution here won’t necessarily restore belly-dancing cabarets to their former glory if young, affluent Egyptians prefer to drop a 200 Egyptian pound minimum charge ($35) to dance to house beats, R ‘n’ B and top-40 music, rather than watch jeweled women shake their hips in an age-old tradition.

“We’ve been affected by last year’s economic slump. Some of our best customers come once a week now instead of every day,” Tamer says. While he notes most of his customers are Egyptian, Suhayla, who has been performing as a belly dancer for years, argues this isn’t the case in other establishments. “It depends. You get Egyptians, foreigners and Arabs,” Suhayla says. “You can find more foreigners in El-Haram.”

Tourists have long filled the seats of higher-end belly-dancing establishments. In tourist cities like Sharm El-Sheikh, dancers perform to almost entirely foreign crowds.

The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism said in June that hotel occupancy rates had dropped to between 66 and 70 percent and some analysts have predicted that the global financial crisis, combined with the recent bombing in Cairo’s Khan El-Khalili market, could result in occupancy rates falling further, even to 50 percent.

The opening of Egyptian society may not be enough to salvage an art form that has had a place in Egyptian society for centuries.

“Most of the people I know who are interested in belly dancing are foreigners and they just go once,” says Dessouki over thumping electronic beats. “Most of my friends are interested in this kind of music - house and trance.”

First seen in Trends magazine.

Source: KippReport

No comments:

Post a Comment