The Place of Belly Dance in Egypt

(First published in MEDANZ News Cultural Corner December 2013)

What we know as "belly dance" is an embedded in Egyptian culture. Unlike the Levant where the default social dance is a type of line dance called debke (dub-ka), in Egypt when people gather to celebrate and music is played the style of dance is traditionally solo, torso based and improvised - what we would recognize as belly dance - and what they call raqs (pronounced more like rocks than rah-ks).

And it is not just a dance for women. Everyone dances - small children and men too. I well remember sitting in a coffeehouse in old Cairo with coffee and shisha and to the sound of the canned music blaring overhead, and a man at another table gets up and starts dancing - hip rocks and shimmies and shoulder shimmies. Another joins in and the first sits down. (you may find some of this street dance on YouTube under shaabi dance.)

This is not something they learn in classes. This is learnt by watching Aunty Fatima or Cousin Ali. Small children copy and learn. This is why Tahiya Karioka could be performing professionally by 14, and Mona el Said and Fifi could become soloists by 13.

Which brings in the other stream of dance. That of the professional dancer. While all but the most conservative are relaxed about people dancing among their family in suitable celebrations, A professional dancer is considered a low person; not the sort of person you would want your daughter to be - or your son to marry. "Son of a dancer" (yabn il-ra`asa) is a serious term of abuse.

When Nieuwkerk asked Egyptians to sort out 30 occupations from "good" through to "very bad", all dancers (except folkloric dancers) came into the "bad" or "very bad" category. Only worse were male assistants to dancers, paid mourners, prostitutes, and money lenders1.

So, while everyone is happily dances at home and while a dancer (used to) be an integral part of celebrations such as weddings, circumcisions and Saint's Days - and dancers at nightclubs and in films become well known celebrities, the profession is seen as haram (forbidden). Why? There are many ideas. One is the displaying of the body. However, the two piece costume is relatively recent (less than 90 years old). Another is that these women (for almost all professional dancers in Egypt are female) are stepping out of their proper place. They are interacting with strangers - and most particularly strange men. There is also fear that they might earn more money than men in their households.

Then there is the associated behaviour. In times past, part of a dancer's job was to get men to buy alcohol at the clubs they worked at. This is not only forbidden by Islam but also takes money from a man's family. The drink the pretty dancer gets him to buy would feed his family for quite a while. And, as much as many Western dancers might squirm, many dancers took it the extra step and also became prostitutes. Some still are. Just as ballet dancers at the turn of the century were in Europe.

In the strict religious interpretation, a (female) dancer is temptation to a man (even a female singer is haram). But a woman moved by joy to dance with family can be okay. But not professionals. They move and their costumes are immodest. They are also are associated with places that encourage forbidden activities such as drinking, taking drugs, lust and prostitution. And finally, the spend time studying dance when they could be being a better Muslim.

1 van Nieuwkerk, Karin (1997) A Trade like Any Other - Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press (review)

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