Foreigners are shaking up Egypt’s belly dancing scene

A Mexican dancer performs at a festival in Cairo — foreign belly dancers have dominated the Egyptian scene in recent years

CAIRO — At a Cairo wedding venue, Russian belly dancer Anastasia Biserova jumped onto the dance floor wearing a sparkly high-slit skirt and an ornately sequined bra top.

She swirled her sheer pink shawl and slid around the room as a band played music, while the crowd erupted in rapturous applause – all captured in video posted online.

“No country in the world enjoys belly dancing like Egypt, she later told AFP.

“Here there is a growing trend of inviting foreign belly dancers to weddings, nightclubs and other events.”

Biserova arrived in Cairo over four years ago and has built a solid reputation.

Belly dancers from Eastern Europe, Russia, Latin America and beyond have dominated the scene in recent years in Egypt, long considered the birthplace of belly dancing.

But the North African country has seen its community of local dancers dwindle, largely due to the growing prominence of the profession as the country has become more conservative over the past half-century – and a crackdown growing freedoms.

The profession has taken a further hit as the novel coronavirus outbreak in Egypt has forced the temporary suspension of large weddings and the closure of nightclubs – although many dancers have continued to captivate audiences with online videos.

– Conflicting views –

Belly dancer Maria Lurdiana Alves Tejas said it took her some time to come to terms with Egyptians’ divisive view of her profession.

The Brazilian, known as Lurdiana, said she had performed to cheering crowds at weddings and nightclubs, and even taught gym classes.

“But there are some who don’t see me as a professional – or (who think) that I haven’t had a good education and that I’m just doing this to show off my body for money,” he said. she declared.

“It was very difficult and sad because I spent years learning.”

Egypt’s belly dancing scene flourished in the last century, when icons like Samia Gamal and Tahya Carioca rose to fame on the big screen.

But researchers say Egyptian society has largely seen dancing as entertainment, to watch but never as a profession.

“This view was reinforced by popular culture and movies that portrayed belly dancers as flirtatious, prostitutes or home wreckers,” said Shaza Yehia, author of a 2019 book on the history of belly dancing. dance.

Arabic terms for dancers – raqasat and awalem – now often have offensive and racy connotations.

Recently, authorities have targeted dancers, pop divas and social media influencers who posted videos online.

Charges often leveled against them include violating “family values” or “public decency”.

Foreigners were not spared from the repression.

In 2018, Russian belly dancer Ekaterina Andreeva – known as Johara – was briefly arrested for donning a costume deemed too revealing, after a video of her performance circulated widely.

– ‘Restless imaginations’ –

According to Yehia and other scholars, belly dancing in Egypt particularly flourished in the 19th century.

“Performers at the time were called ‘awalem’, or scholars, in reference to their vast knowledge in the arts of song and dance,” Yehia said.

Its modern manifestation was partly shaped by Westerners during colonial times, she added.

Some even claim that the term “danse du belly”, or “belly dance“, was originally coined by the French.

“Foreign writers and painters have portrayed their own fantasies about oriental belly dancers,” Yehia said.

“These views captured the imagination of the West, which then sought to turn them into reality.”

International dance moves were incorporated into Bellydance, and costumes were changed to appeal to popular tastes.

Now, conservatives and traditionalists consider belly dancers’ floaty skirts and glittering bra tops too revealing, and often accuse them of being “vulgar” and “overtly sexual.”

Dancers performing to classical Arabic music have also become rare, generally preferring popular electro street music, known as mahraganat – a genre with fast beats and improvisational vocals that purists see as crossing moral boundaries. .

Despite the apparent contradictions, foreign belly dancers in Egypt say coming to the country was the right choice.

“Foreigners should come here to fully understand, play and practice,” said Ukrainian belly dancer Alla Kushnir.

“Egypt is simply the land of belly dancing.”

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