Foreigners shake up the belly dance scene in Egypt


Cairo (AFP)

At a Cairo wedding venue, Russian belly dancer Anastasia Biserova took to the dancefloor in a shimmering high-slit skirt and elaborate sequined bra top.

She swirled her diaphanous pink shawl and slipped into the room as a band played music, as the crowd erupted into enthusiastic applause – all captured in a video posted online.

“There is no country in the world that enjoys belly dancing like Egypt,” she later told AFP.

“There is a growing trend here to invite 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 elsewhere 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 shrink, largely due to the growing notoriety of the profession as the country has become more conservative over the past half century – and to a crackdown on the profession. growing freedoms.

The profession has taken another hit as Egypt’s novel coronavirus outbreak forced large weddings to be temporarily suspended and nightclubs closed – though many dancers continued to captivate audiences with videos online.

– Conflicting points of view –

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

The Brazilian, known as Lurdiana, said she performed in front of enthusiastic crowds at weddings and nightclubs, and even taught in gym classes.

“But there are some who don’t see me as a professional – or (who think) that I didn’t have a good education and that I only do this to show my body for money”, a- she declared.

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

The Egyptian belly dance 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 widely viewed dancing as entertainment, to be watched, but never considered a profession.

“This point of view was reinforced by popular culture and movies that portrayed belly dancers as flirtatious, prostitutes or house breakers,” said Shaza Yehia, author of a 2019 history book. dance.

The 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 the violation of “family values” or “public decency”.

Foreigners have not been 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 researchers, belly dancing in Egypt would have particularly flourished during the 19th century.

“The artists of the time were called ‘awalem’, or connoisseurs, in reference to their vast knowledge of 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 “belly dance” or “belly dance” was originally coined by the French.

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

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

International dance moves have been incorporated into oriental dance, and costumes have been altered to appeal to popular tastes.

Today, conservatives and traditionalists regard the flowery skirts and sequined bras of oriental dancers as too revealing, and often accuse them of being “vulgar” and “overtly sexual.”

Dancers performing to classical Arabic music have also become a rarity, generally preferring popular electro street music, known as mahraganat – a genre with fast-paced rhythms and improvised vocals that purists consider crossing boundaries. moral.

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

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

“Egypt is quite simply the land of belly dancing.”

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