Thursday, 27 May 2010

Bellydancer fears her art is dying

From The National, 30th June 2008 
Despite the date its a very interesting read and the situation hasn't changed.
At about 2.30am on a Saturday, Dina, Egypt’s most famous belly dancer, slinks on to the stage of Haroun el Rashid Night Club wearing a revealing pink outfit, accompanied by the sound of her trademark music.
Without an introduction she eases into her routine, gyrating her hips and rolling her stomach in slow, sensual motions, gradually raising the tempo with ever more daring and titillating movements of her thighs and torso.
The audience, made up of upper class Egyptians, Gulf businessmen and tourists as well as a smattering of westerners, is enthralled.
Dina is practising an art that dates back to the Pharaohs, but belly dancing, or raqs sharqi, is these days more often condemned as immoral than celebrated as a national pastime, as religious conservatism grows in Egypt.
In May, Dina caused an uproar after giving a brief performance at a high school party. Apart from the storm that ensued in the media, 17 Islamist and independent lawmakers filed an urgent inquiry with the education minister, and Nabih al Wahsh, a well-known lawyer, filed a lawsuit against her for “seducing students”.
Ali Laban, a legislator and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, called for talks with the culture, education and interior ministers, while Sherif Omar, who heads the education committee in parliament and is a member of the ruling National Democratic Party, referred to the incident as a “catastrophe”.
Dina, in her forties and who goes only by her first name, was taken aback by the reaction, though it is far from the first time her dancing has raised the ire of conservatives.
“When I heard that my dancing for five minutes while wearing a jeans and T-shirt in the prom party [caused such offence], I was shocked,” she said, sipping a cappuccino and smoking a cigarette in the cafe of the Semiramis InterContinental Hotel in Cairo, where she performs three times a week.
“Sometimes I feel I get used to these things, but I don’t, because they never cease to amaze me,” she said.
In Oct 2006, Dina was widely blamed – by officials, the media and the public – after scores of young men chased women through downtown Cairo groping them and pulling off their clothes – even those wearing Islamic headscarves and face veils.
She had been dancing with a popular singer in front of a downtown cinema to advertise a movie that was playing during Eid, and allegedly aroused the men, causing them to run riot.
“This accusation made me laugh,” Dina said. “I couldn’t believe I could be responsible for unleashing a sexual uprising by hundreds of men. It’s just unbelievable.”
Famed for her green eyes, long black hair, and voluptuous figure, sculpted by more than 20 years of dancing, Dina is now one of the only well-known belly dancers in Egypt.
“I see no hope or future for belly dancing in Egypt,” she said. “Ten years ago we were so many. Each one had her own style and audience, whether first-class belly dancers, or second and third class. Now I look around and see nobody.”
According to the Egyptian Arts Authority, 5,000 professional belly dancers were registered in the 1950s, compared with less than 100 today.
While belly dancing is legal, dancers cannot perform on state-owned television in Egypt. And in an attempt to reduce the number of dancers, authorities are giving fewer licences to foreigners and making it difficult for them to renew existing ones.
Police also monitor nightclubs to ensure that dancers’ costumes are sufficiently modest, with slitted skirts that must start below the knee. The navel is always supposed to be covered, if only by transparent material.
According to Dina, who holds an master of arts in philosophy from Cairo University, the belly dancing outfits are the main cause of controversy in Egypt, rather than the dance itself.
“I think the problem some have with belly dancing here is the dancing costume; but it has always been seductive like this, we [our generation] didn’t invent it. Like ballet – can the ballerina dance with a different outfit? We too can’t dance with our bodies covered,” she said.
Wearing a beige tank top and tightfitting pants, and a golden necklace studded with blue charms, Dina said it was becoming increasingly difficult to be accepted as a belly dancer in Egypt, where 90 per cent of Muslim women wear the veil and the trend towards conservative Islam is growing.
“If I had a daughter, I would advise her not to become a belly dancer,” said Dina, who is a widow and the mother of an eight-year-old boy named Ali.
“It’s very tough being a belly dancer in Egypt.
“I surround myself with people who love dancing, and who are very understanding, so I don’t get the feeling that I’m doing something wrong at all,” she said. “But when these problems happen from time to time, it’s a reminder that many people look down on dancing, and that it’s [seen as] shameful.”
Yet demand for belly dancing in Egypt is still high among those who approve of it, especially among the rich who can afford to pay the LE12,000 per hour (Dh8,250) rate that Dina and her band charge to perform at private functions.
“I still dance at many weddings,” Dina said. “Most of the brides are veiled but they don’t stop dancing with me and their groom all night long. For Egyptians who can afford it, a wedding means a belly dancer.”
Suha Abdel Wahab, 30, is one such Egyptian. “Of course I would never imagine myself being a belly dancer,” Mrs Wahab said. “But I had Dina at my wedding, that was a dream come true.”
Still, people like Mrs Wahab seem to be the exception.
“At my wedding, I slaughtered sheep and distributed to the poor, by the same amount of money that I would have paid to a belly dancer,” said Rasha Moustafa, 29, who wears the veil.
“I think God would bless a marriage that begins by feeding the poor not wasting money on belly dancers.”
Nonetheless, in the face of growing disdain for her profession, Dina sees herself as “the guardian of belly dancing”, and vows to continue doing what she loves.
“Belly dancing is in our blood, it’s deeply rooted in our soil,” she said. “I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.
“When I get old, and can’t dance anymore, I will train belly dancers. I just hope there will be ones to train.”

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