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Volume 22, Number 5September/October 1971

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La Danse du Ventre

"a good belly dancer must express life, death, happiness, sorrow, love and anger... but above all she must have dignity."

Written by Elias Antar
Photographed by Burnett H. Moody

The final blast of a tangle of electric guitars at full volume reverberated through the "Maryland" nightclub, incongruously set in the middle of a children's playground in Cairo. With a crash of cymbals, the lights dimmed and the lead singer of the rock band shuffled forward and muttered laconically into the microphone: "Showtime."

Chairs scraped in the darkness as the Arab orchestra filed in and settled down. The packed room hushed expectantly and the musicians launched into a spirited introduction, the reedy music almost as loud but somehow less aggressive than the assault on the eardrums by the rock group. A spotlight flashed on and caught the curvaceous figure of Soheir. Zaki, already a blur of sequined blue veils and long black hair. For the next 40 minutes Miss Zaki delighted the audience with a highly creditable rendition of the belly dance, that ancient and—in the West—much misunderstood Arab art form.

Miss Zaki, who comes from a town in Egypt renowned for its beautiful women, is one of the Middle East's handful of belly dancers who have risen to the top of their profession. Endowed with all the right physical attributes, Miss Zaki has an extra asset that has helped her widen her following: she has a smile that is not seductive or sexy but just plain sweet. This has made her popular with women, as was obvious on that soft spring night in Cairo. Normally, Arab women watching a belly dancer take on a resigned but faintly disapproving look while their menfolk nod their heads to the rhythm, clap their hands in time with the music or indulge in nights of fancy. The women at the "Merryland" were relaxed, responsive and in good humor. They smiled back at Miss Zaki as she shook her breasts, rolled her hips and gyrated her midriff, all with that sweet smile on her face. It was hard to realize this was the "belly dance" that in the West still has strong overtones of vulgarity and licentiousness.

This is not to say that belly dancing is recommended children's entertainment. But neither is it nearly as revealing as the striptease nor, as performed by Miss Zaki, in any way sleazy or degrading. The only thing she took off was a shoulder wrap, dropping it to the floor at the beginning of her act. The rest of the time she wore the traditional costume: a bra and floor-length skirt slit at the sides to allow freedom of movement. In accordance with a somewhat self-defeating Egyptian government regulation, Miss Zaki covered the area between bosom and hips with a filmy gauze that did nothing to hide her figure. The regulation was meant to introduce modesty to the dance, but the girls have gotten around it by making the covering so sheer that it enhances rather than conceals the anatomical feature after which the dance is named.

To the throb of a hand-held drum that is the heartbeat of the belly dance, Miss Zaki swayed, twirled and undulated around the floor, expressing herself with sinuous movements of arms and legs, rotating her hips upwards, sideways and downwards again. Though the name implies an emphasis on the abdomen, that part of the anatomy is in fact only one element in the dance. A good dancer uses arms, head, legs, breasts and hips to form one pleasing whole, emphasizing each part as the tempo of the music requires. Miss Zaki, who has a fine sense of rhythm, blended well with the music. Halfway during her performance, she put on sagat, little brass finger cymbals which she clapped together to counterpoint the rhythm. The performance ended, as it usually does, with a few pirouettes and a bow, and the spotlight went out even before Miss Zaki left the floor.

Not all dancers, of course, perform as pleasurably as Miss Zaki or for the same type of audience, which that night was mostly Egyptian middle class with a sprinkling of tourists. The belly dance, in one form or another, is performed almost everywhere in the Arab world but for a number of reasons is associated mainly with Egypt. Indeed, most of today's dancers come from Egypt, with only a very small minority being native Lebanese or Syrians. Estimates vary, but there are about 500 dancers in Egypt, while Lebanon has perhaps only a couple of dozen performing in the famous nightclubs of Beirut, and even some of them are Egyptians. The profession has the same pyramidical structure as show business everywhere. At the bottom are vast numbers of beginners or mediocrities who perform in waterfront cafés, one-horse nightspots or native theaters in the boondocks. Higher up are those who by dint of hard work, some talent and a favor or two have managed to work their way to the lesser known cabarets of Cairo, Beirut and Damascus. At the very top are perhaps half a dozen like Miss Zaki, who appear in the best nightclubs, have starred in films and command top fees.

Perhaps number one in the Middle East is Nadia Gamal, a 32-year-old Alexandrian of Greek-Italian parentage who now lives in Beirut. She began her show business career almost 20 years ago and with an impressive single-mindedness has become an internationally-known star. Miss Gamal's approach to her profession is a formidable combination of superb talent, energy, intellect and dedication, and her performance of the "oriental dance," as she insists it be called, is simply beautiful to watch. In Egypt there is Miss Zaki, 25, who comes from a conservative family which at first opposed all her efforts to become a dancer. To shame her into abandoning her ambition, they often beat her and even shaved off her lustrous waist-length hair. But she broke away and one night in an Alexandria nightclub, when she was 11, a television producer spotted her well-developed figure and offered her a job.

Two other dancers in Egypt have an equal claim to fame. Nagwa Fouad, 30, has been a dancer for almost 15 years. She too ran away from home, and with an attractive figure and considerable talent, worked her way to the top. Right there at the pinnacle alongside Miss Fouad and Miss Zaki is Nahed Sabry, 34. Formerly a secretary, she started relatively late in the game at the age of 26. But Miss Sabry's flashing dark eyes, stunning figure and exuberant dancing style quickly brought her fame.

The nature of their occupation makes belly dancers a particularly catty lot who disagree over everything, including the origins of their art. Indeed, no one really knows how and where the belly dance started. Some people maintain it began with the pharaohs, pointing as proof to tomb paintings showing dancers dressed in transparent veils. Most Egyptian dancers are tempted by this theory, but grudgingly admit the drawings in the pharaonic tombs depict movements and positions that are too stylized to have any relation to the fluid motions of the belly dance. Miss Zaki does not think it began with the pharaohs but neither does she care very much. "I just like to close my eyes, feel the music and dance," she says with a shrug.

Egyptian officials at the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance prefer to emphasize folk dancing as being more in keeping with Egyptian tradition than belly dancing. Cairo newspapers regularly scold "the belly dancing cult" and one straitlaced columnist, railing against the undiminished popularity of the dance, recently wrote: "There are belly dancers everywhere. Why on earth is that? Are we introducing a new type of art which could be called the navel-shaking civilization? Let us get tough about all this nonsense and clean up our arts."

Reflecting this opinion, belly dancing receives no government encouragement or assistance, is mentioned by officials with a frown, and is attributed to the Turks, who ruled Egypt for 400 years. Turkish officials, less inhibited in such matters, enthusiastically agree. "Of course it started with us," said one emphatically. "Everyone knows that." That is arguable, but there is no doubt that belly dancing is widespread in Turkey today, most dancers coming from Sulukule, the old Gypsy quarter nestling under the walls of Istanbul.

"The Turks have nothing to do with it," insists Miss Gamal. "All they did was to introduce the sagat." She says belly dancing originated with the Phoenicians, the ancestors of present-day Lebanese. It was performed by virgin maidens about to be sacrificed to the gods. Later in Arab history, Miss Gamal says, women in harems, trying to attract their masters' attentions, found the belly dance a most effective way to get their message across. Over-romanticized accounts of this version brought back by western travelers in the 19th century led to the unfortunate reputation that the dance has in the West.

Wherever it originally came from, there is no doubt that the fountainhead of belly dancing in this century was the "Casino Opera" in Cairo, right across the square from the ornate Egyptian state opera house. Casino Opera was founded in 1927 by Badia Massabni, a gifted and enterprising young woman of Lebanese parentage who was then married to Egypt's leading playwright. Using such innovations as an electrically-operated rotating stage, Miss Badia presented vaudeville acts, comedies, and singers. And, of course, dancers. It is fair to say that Miss Badia, now 78 and owner of a dairy farm in Lebanon, started dozens of dancers on their way before she sold the Casino in 1950. In the early days, they did not appear singly but in a kind of chorus line, with Miss Badia in the front singing, clapping the sagat and occasionally dancing herself. Those who had particular talent made it to the front row and eventually stardom. Miss Gamal, as a child, used to perform western dances with her mother at Casino Opera. One night she found herself alone on stage and, overcoming her initial fright, began belly dancing. "Miss Badia was so happy that when I finished she came on stage, kissed me and gave me ten Egyptian pounds, a fortune in those days," Miss Gamal recalls.

The most famous alumna of Casino Opera is Tahia Carioca, the premier belly dancer in the Arab world for almost two decades. Miss Carioca, whose very name has become synonymous with dancer, wore a full-length gown which revealed nothing and danced in the center of the floor. With only the minimum of locomotion, she sent audiences into raptures of delight. "In those days they thought I was sexy because I danced with my mouth slightly open," recalls Miss Carioca. "Truth was, I suffered from asthma and had difficulty breathing, so I kept my mouth open for extra air." Miss Carioca retired in 1956 at the age of 37, went on to a successful career as a movie star and now has her own theater company.

Miss Carioca's dancing style successfully bridged the gap from an older version of the belly dance to the type now practiced by Miss Gamal, Miss Zaki and most cabaret dancers. The old school, which stressed muscular movements while almost standing still, stemmed from the type of dancing practised by the awalem, which literally means "those who teach." What the awalem taught, to uninformed couples, was what to do on the wedding night. Most weddings were attended by two or three awalem, who stimulated the groom and gave rather broad hints to the bride. Education has lessened the demand for awalem, but they still appear at weddings in the more populous parts of Cairo and other Egyptian cities. Even well-to-do couples have a dancer at their weddings, just to maintain tradition.

The third type is usually seen at local celebrations and feasts. It is generally improvised, a well-endowed woman tying a scarf around her hips to accentuate their movements and dancing in her ordinary ankle-length dress. Men sometimes take part, accompanying the movement of the women, by rapping the head of a cane on the floor. The type foreigners usually see is that featured in nightclub acts such as Miss Zaki's, where the accent is equally on muscular control and locomotion.

What qualities should a good belly dancer have? "Dignity," says Miss Carioca with unquestioned authority. "She must express life, death, happiness, sorrow, love and anger, but above all she must have dignity." Miss Carioca concedes that a belly dancer must also be sexy, "but it must not be vulgar or blatant." Miss Gamal, whose approach to the art is perhaps more cerebral than that of her contemporaries, basically agrees. "Belly dancing is essentially an expression of femininity," she says. "It must, among other things, suggest sex, but it must do so delicately, hinting rather than asserting, and it must always be in good taste. It is definitely not just a matter of exposing the flesh." Miss Zaki is somewhat less articulate. Flashing that sweet smile, she expresses her feeling for the dance simply as a mood to which the music lends rhythm. Miss Fouad's opinion is that sex is in the ears of the beholder. "When the music becomes sinuous, then the dancer seems sexy; when it's not, she is not," declares Miss Fouad, intimating that there is no need for the dancer to worry about it.

Miss Fouad got into belly dancing by escaping from marriage. Her parents wanted her to marry a cousin, she didn't, so she ran away from home in Alexandria and went to Cairo. She tried to become a singer, but Egypt's leading composer told her unequivocally that her voice was terrible. "But your figure is the best I've ever seen in my life," he went on, and she soon became a dancer, appearing first in a film he was producing. Purists now claim that Miss Fouad, 34 films and countless live performances later, has abandoned the true belly dance for something not quite definable. They say she relies on gimmicks such as bells attached to her wrists and a candelabra with 13 candles balanced on her head, the high point of her nightly act in one of Cairo's biggest hotels. Miss Fouad admits she has attempted to introduce "new elements" into belly dancing but maintains that the results are gratifying.

Miss Gamal argues that there is no need for such accessories as a candelabra and her opinion seems valid if only because of her impressive professional background. While going to school in Alexandria and later in Cairo, she studied classical ballet for 11 years. An American tap dancer taught her acrobatics. She studied the piano for three years and choreography for two years. "Any woman can shake her body and call it belly dancing. But I know what I am talking about when I say it takes a lot of work and dedication to be a top oriental dancer," she declares. Apart from her accidental performance at Casino Opera, Miss Gamal did not start out as a belly dancer. She performed Russian or Hungarian folk dances. One night in a cabaret in Lebanon, however, the belly dancer on the bill became ill and Miss Gamal was more or less pushed onto the stage to replace her. She gave such an expert performance that the audience went wild, and she soon switched to oriental dancing.

Her decision was wise. In the years since, she has become perhaps the only internationally-known belly dancer from the Middle East. She has performed all over Europe, including Austria, Finland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, West Germany, France, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey and Cyprus. She has also appeared in Iran, India and Ceylon and earlier this year made a highly successful tour of Venezuela. (Language for her is no problem; she speaks, reads and writes seven.) And at home, one of the high points of her career was when she danced at the Baalbeck International Festival in 1968, a month-long annual event which that year also featured such artistic luminaries as Herbert von Karajan directing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Miss Gamal is so self-confident that she asserts that she can perform a belly dance to non-Arab music, such as Latin-American rhythms. But she concedes that only Arab music and instruments can give oriental dancing its full breadth of expression. She has mastered the ten kinds of tempos for oriental dancing, rhythms with such tongue-twisting names as mouwashah, makloubeh, oughrouk, and masmoudeh. Some are fast, requiring nimble footwork and enormous energy; others are slow and seductive, highlighting muscle control and liquidity of movement. "The change of pace and sequence depends on the audience and their reaction, and also on the mood of the particular time and place." Even in the cold atmosphere of a television recording studio, Miss Gamal is outstanding. At one recent taping session, the crew broke into spontaneous applause after her nine-minute dance, a performance in which she shook everything from her hair to her fingertips and which left her bathed in sweat—and her face radiant with pleasure at the tribute from those hard-bitten professionals.

Miss Gamal's current ambition is to write a kind of "teach-yourself-oriental-dancing" book, in which each step and each sequence would be set down and clearly explained as in other dance instruction books. If that is successful, she may open a school when she retires. There is no formal instruction available for belly dancers at present. Most pick up the art by watching established dancers and take it from there. Ibrahim Akef, an Egyptian who comes from a famous family of acrobats, runs a dancing class in Cairo in which he gives instruction to a few aspiring dancers but it is not a school in the formal sense and certainly cannot match the experience provided by the old Casino Opera.

Belly dancing demands a certain amount of self-sacrifice, especially where marriage and children are concerned. Many dancers have unhappy married lives because, in a society that prizes child-bearing, they refuse to have children for fear of spoiling their figures. For this and other reasons, there is a high divorce rate among belly dancers. Another burden is the need to constantly watch diet and the scales for signs of flabbiness or overweight. Miss Zaki, in fact, drinks a small glass of pure lemon juice every day. "It keeps my weight down," she explains, a grimace replacing her sweet smile. Miss Gamal loves to ride horses and swim, but cannot find the time in her busy career.

But the sacrifices are, for dancers in the top category, more than amply rewarded, something that is important in a profession where few women can continue beyond the mid-thirties. Dancers on contract with fashionable nightclubs make between $100 and $200 a night. For appearing at private parties, a star can demand—and get—as much as $1,000 for a 20-minute performance. With additional income from movies and television, most good dancers lead comfortable lives, complete with fashionable homes, sports cars and all that goes with them. Which perhaps explains why another graduate of Casino Opera, after more than a decade out of show business, is preparing to make a comeback—at age 47. "She'll never make it even if it kills her," said one prima donna, with questionable logic but unmistakable venom.

Elias Antar, an Associated Press correspondent based in Beirut, is a regular contributor to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 4-11 of the September/October 1971 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1971 images.