by Lara Sameh
Like any other Egyptian girl, as a child I had a passion for belly dancing. Here in Egypt, most girls seem to know how to dance by nature. It is not something that we learn but something we feel we are born with and embrace while growing up. Even the most conservative families let their girls dance at women’s gatherings and family events. It is a part of our culture and tradition.
Even after the religious awakening in Egypt, Egyptian women still perform belly dancing, as long as there are no men around.
But since tthen Egyptian belly dancing has become disrespected. Most of the popular belly dancers nowadays in Egypt are European, Armenian and Russian.
For example, the widely loved “Sofinar” is actually a Russian Armenian belly dancer. She started her career as a ballet dancer but then switched to belly dancing and later came to Egypt. Her career took off when she danced in the movie “El ashash“. Since then, she has become Egyptians’ favourite dancer.
Another foreign belly dancer in Egypt is the Ukrainian Ella Koshner. She won many prizes in dancing programs in the Ukraine and the Middle East, then came to Egypt and starred in two video clips. One of them is “ah lw labt ya zahr “, a very popular song nowadays in Egypt.
Still it is a shame that Egypt’s most famous dancers are no longer Egyptian. The origins of belly dance are said to be from Egypt and Turkey along with an influence from India. Traces of the art can be found up to 6,000 years ago in some pagan societies who used to worship a feminine deity, to celebrate women’s fertility as some kind of magic. Some say that belly dance was a ritual to prepare a woman for giving birth.
The ethnic group that used to perform in public on the streets was called “ghawazi“ and public belly dance was accepted as part of the traditions up into the 1800’s. However, in 1834, conservatives started calling for a ban on public belly dancing and many dancers stopped performing in Cairo.
Then, at the beginning of the 1920s, there was another culture turn around as nightclubs opened and flourished. In this golden age, one of the best known streets with the most famous nightclubs was “Mohamed Ali Street” in Cairo. Below is a tour of famous Egyptian belly dancers that shows what has been lost from our culture.
The most famous clubs in this period were owned by the matron of modern belly dance, “Badia Masabni,” born to a Syrian mother and a Lebanese father, who started her career in Egypt as an actress and dancer and became responsible for the beginnings of many other belly dancers’ careers.
Her successor, Tahya Carioca, was discouraged by her family from performing as a dancer. However, she moved to Cairo and started performing at Badia Masabni’s casino as a solo dancer and later became an actor who starred in some of the most successful hits of Egyptian cinema.
The above video shows her performance in the Egyptian movie My Black Lover. Her technique of mixing belly dancing and Latin dancing made her a legend.
Another fantastic belly dance icon is Samia Gamal, who studied under Badia Masabni and Badia’s star dancer at the time, Tahya Carioca. She incorporated techniques from ballet and Latin dance into her own solo performance. She was also the first dancer to perform in high heels on stage. To me, her dancing was not just an act of mere dance but a work of art. Her grace, femininity and beauty made the king of Egypt of that time, King Farouk, proclaim her “The national dancer of Egypt”.
One of my absolute favourites, the most joyful and playful dancer of all, is Naima Akef, a famous Egyptian belly dancer during the Egyptian cinema’s golden age who starred in many films of that time. Her parents were acrobats in “Akef Circus.“ She started performing in the circus at the age of four. She soon met Badia Masabni and started performing at her casino just like Samia Gamal and Tahya Carioka .
The queen of seductive eyes, Naemat Mokhtar, was born into a wealthy family. However, at a young age, her mother left her father and took the child with her. Later in life, Naemat was taught how to dance by some good friends of her mother. One day, Naemat danced in a wedding by coincidence and was discovered; she became a lead dancer with a singer called Kareem Mahmoud, and later danced in many films as the lead dancer.
One of the most famous dancers of the sixties and the seventies, the beautiful “Sohier Zaki“, gained the respect of the members of her orchestra because of her meticulous ear for music. She was once told by president Sadat, “you sing with your body”. She also received accolades and medals from the Shah of Iran, the Tunisian president and the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
She was a natural talent and a very highly respected bellydancer by presidents of the Middle East and Egypt .
Another symbol of absolute femininity, Naqwa Fouad, was born in Alexandria and worked as a bellydancer in many casinos and starred in many films. It was said that she had a great influence on the political relations between Egypt and the USA, as she had a strong relationship with the US secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, who saw her dancing at a special ceremony held by president Sadat.
Another fabulous belly dancer, “Kitty,” was a Greek, Jewish belly dancer born and raised in Egypt, known for her willowy body and lively character as well as her graceful traditional belly dancing mixed with some foreign dancing moves.
It is a shame to lose so much of this art, which has gone underground in our culture. These wonderful women were not just dancer but also artists, creating a whole masterpiece composed of music, femininity, grace and beauty. Whenever they danced, they brought joy to the audience, and people never despised them or disrespected them. To this day, they are still a symbol of Egyptian beauty and femininity.
As for now, belly dancing has descended into a vulgar kind of dance, stripped of the gracefulness and magnificence that it had before. It has become a way of just showing off the dancer’s body.
The only dancer who I think relates to the golden age of dancing in some way is “Lucy,“ who started as a dancer in weddings and night clubs, then became an actress in many films and series. Now she dances at her own night club on Alharam Street in Giza, “The Night Casino”. If you are ever in Egypt, this is a club worth going to if you want to experience what has gone missing from Egypt’s belly-dancing performances.