Egyptian Belly Dance Losing Touch with Roots as Cultural Phenomenon

Naomi Pham
From left to right, a web-based photograph of traditional belly dance attire; photograph of Samia Gamal; photograph of Tahiya Carioca by Bob Landry for LIFE.

Belly dance in Egypt has undergone major cultural and social transformations since the mid-20th century. Dancers often perform at live gatherings and across social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. However, belly dancing as an art form has become redefined in today’s age. It has increasingly been the target of criticism, the latest being a claim by Abdel Halim in Al Araby that the dance has deteriorated further under neoliberalism.
Explanations for the origins of belly dancing vary. Some experts believe it developed from the religious dances temple priestesses once practiced. Depictions of women dancing for the gods date back to ancient Egypt, as illustrated on some Pharaonic temple walls, perhaps as part of worship rituals requesting blessings of fertility and prosperity, according to Youssra el-Sharkawy in Al-Monitor. Others believe the dance form grew from various dances that had spread during the migrations of the Romani people. Variants of the dance have existed for centuries, seen in the artwork of dancers on palace walls produced between 650-1250 and in Persian miniature paintings from the 12th and 13th centuries. The art form is most famously associated with Egypt, but also has Syrian, Lebanese, and Turkish forms.
From the 18th to early 19th centuries, dancers were distinguished by two types of groups. The “Ghawazi” (intruders) were traveling street dancers named so because they “invaded the dance profession and made movements that were asymmetric and indecisive to the music and rhythm,” in the words of Sharkawy. These dancers mainly performed in Upper Egypt, often in moulids (religious festivals). However, in 1834, conservatives called for a ban on public belly dancing, halting performances in Cairo. The second group, “Awalem,” was considered more “upscale and professional” in the words of Dina Ezzat in Al Ahram. These dancers performed for private audiences. While neither group followed a specific choreography, awalem dancers moved to the rhythm of the music and occasionally sang. Towards the end of the 19th century, solo belly dancers rose in popularity.
In recent history, belly dancing played a prominent role in social gatherings, typically weddings, and more frequently in dedicated venues like cabarets and nightclubs, a development that began in the 1920s. According to author Shaza Yehia, in the years following World War I in Egypt (then under British rule), cabarets rose in the place of dance halls as belly dance became popular entertainment for British soldiers (the demand was also in part because of the evolution of the music industry, according to music historian Ratiba al-Hefni).
Egyptian writer Bigad Salama recently published a volume on the history of belly dancing and marks these years as the beginning of an evolution in belly dancing that would bring it to the golden era it celebrated throughout the 40s and 50s. During these years, belly dancers became widely acclaimed, and some rose into the status of divas. In 1963, a biographical film was released about the early 20th-century belly dancer, Shafiqa Al-Qibtiyya (Shafiqa the Copt), a well-known nationalist who found hiding places for young men taking part in the 1919 Revolution and used her connections to free them from jail. She chose her name to suggest that being a dancer did not contradict her Christian faith. They well knew Shafiqa for her appreciation of the nationalist figure and leader of the 1919 Revolution, Saad Zaghloul. She “took to the streets as Zaghloul’s car drove through Cairo upon his return from forced exile in the spring of 1919, dancing on carpets to show her solidarity with the revolution,” according to Ezzat.
Badia Masabni, an actress, singer, and dancer, also rose to prominence in the 1920s. She established one of Cairo’s most famous cabarets on Emadeddin Street, Salet Badia, along with two other venues. They often shrouded these venues with intrigue; German spies had mingled with British soldiers in Masabni’s cabarets during World War II, according to Declan Walsh in the New York Times. She regarded her cabaret Badia Bridge with pride for its role in the nationalist movement through the satirical songs of Srya Helmi and others. Masabni also contributed to developing much of modern belly dancing, focused on controlled movements of the upper body. Salet Badia launched the careers of Egypt’s “uncontested divas” of belly dancing: Tahiya Carioca and Samia Gamal.
Tahiya Carioca gave Egyptian belly dancing its name and fame, according to critics Saleh Morsi and Suleiman al-Hakim, as cited by Ezzat. Like dancers before her, she was known for her public persona, particularly her political role in opposing British occupation. As an activist, she also criticized the rulers and presidents of Egypt, including former King Farouk. They credited her with reclaiming belly dance as Egyptian art and liberating it from foreign influences, developing the traditional style of the dance.
Samia Gamal (born Zainab Khalil Ibrahim Mahfouz) created the second belly dancing school, combining traditional aspects with western movements. Like Carioca, her dance career began with Badia Masabni, who gave her the name Samia. She was often referred to as the “barefoot dancer” since her debut in Salet Badia, where she took off her shoes and danced barefoot to the raucous applause of the audience, according to Mohammad Houjeiri in his recent book, “Secret Love: Intellectuals and Oriental Dance” (Riad Al Rayes Publications, 2019). The late novelist Khairy Shalaby considered Gamal’s style a “dance literature” in which “it is the body that speaks everything. Her dance was not vulgar, and free from any single movement aimed at sexual arousal in the crude way that we see in most of our present-day dancers,” as cited by Houjeiri.
Both Carioca and Gamal became established film stars besides their dance careers, rising in status to perform for prominent political figures like Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, and Richard Nixon. Gamal danced in Farid al-Atrash and his sister Asmahan’s film, “The Victory of Youth,” which sparked many rumors of Gamal and Atrash’s romantic entanglement. Alongside other dancers of their generation, these women established the base of the Egyptian-style belly dance that dancers today still emulate.
However, the perception of belly dancing has changed in recent years. In the 1960s, introducing socialist policies in Egypt under President Gamal Abdel-Nasser led to declines of the bourgeoisie and demand for cabarets, according to Ezzat. Instead, folk dance rose in popularity over belly dance. The belly dancers of this period leaned on traditional forms, as with Soheir Zaki and Nagwa Fouad.
Increased puritanism has “stifled the arts in Egypt in recent decades,” according to Walsh. Belly dance suffers from the double standards of Egyptian society, which has grown conservative, to where belly dancers at weddings are now less welcome than before. “While belly dancers are a must for every respectable wedding, in private Egyptians would rather not be associated with the profession,” in the words of Emily Gordine and Jennifer Pahlke in DW. Dina Talaat Sayed, the current ‘queen’ of Egyptian belly dance, comments on the double standard in the New York Times: “Love and hate — it’s always been like this… Egyptians cannot have a wedding without a belly dancer. But if one of them marries your brother — oh, my God! That’s a problem.” Randa Kamel, a belly dance instructor, recalled that her father beat her as a teenager for dancing and even now she keeps her profession private to protect her son.
The Egyptian belly dancer Amie Sultan agreed that the “unfortunate image of nightclubs, the degeneration of the environment of many such clubs, and the sad association of belly dancing with venues of excess” have all diminished the art form. The rising stigma of the dance as vulgar and viewed as “un-Islamic” by several clerics has led to fewer Egyptian performers and more foreign dancers filling their positions. Not subjected to the conservative expectations Egyptian dancers face, foreign belly dancers — hailing from Russia, Armenia, and other European countries — dominate the field.
Many claim that foreigners are the reason the dance is sexualized today, according to Sharkawy. Egyptian dancers once danced to classical Arab music, commanding their body movements and facial expressions to express the meanings of those songs. These performances instilled a “sacred feeling and pure enjoyment of this authentic Egyptian art form,” in the words of Sharkawy. The new age of dancers perform upbeat street music called “mahraganat” (festival) songs, often dancing sensually with explicit erotic gestures. Like Abdel Halim in Al Araby, others point to neoliberalism as the culprit, from the monetization of the “ideal body” (a woman in her 20s and 30s) to the increased import of dancers from Eastern Europe and Asia by big corporations capitalizing on a market ripe for the picking. As Safy Akef, a dance instructor, says in Al Monitor, “The more you reveal your body, the more money you will make.” On the path it treads now, with more and more foreigners taking the stage and fewer Egyptian dancers learning the art, authentic Egyptian belly dancing may soon join the ranks of other lost traditional arts in Egypt.

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