Party’s Over

On January 1, 2004, the Egyptian government stopped granting foreign belly dancers licenses to dance within the nation. Claiming that the national dance was being appropriated by foreigners, the Ministry of Labor says it moved to alleviate Egyptian unemployment in the dancing industry. Belly dancing was invented in Egypt and has historically been a national art form, being performed at top hotels, weddings, and other celebrations. The 'invasion' of foreign dancers, from Russia and elsewhere, has been particularly noticeable since many foreign dancers have become more popular than native Egyptian performers. Now, says this article in Al-Ahram, Egypt's tourist industry and wedding planners are struggling to meet demand by using "second rate" local girls. Foreign dancers remain hopeful that the government's ban will be overturned in a court case brought by the Association of Foreign Artists; the court has yet to make a final decision. – YaleGlobal

Party's Over

With foreign belly dancers banned from performing in Egypt, the industry struggles to meet the demand
Reem Nafie
Monday, March 8, 2004

Belly dancing was introduced to Egypt by ghawazi. Their tribe was later joined by awalim, who danced veiled or for a female audience in the 1800s. Egyptian dancers then began to perform in clubs in Paris, New York, London and in Cairo's Western-style cabarets. By 1920 belly dancing had become an essential part of traditional Egyptian weddings. During the 1940s dancers developed styles of dancing that were included in most film productions. Dancers today such as Fifi Abdou, Dina and Lucy adopted these routines, modified them and turned them into solo performances.

Five years ago foreign dancers began to enter the Egyptian scene. Although they had been a regular feature of Cairo nightclubs they had recently managed to cut a niche into Cairo's professional dance scene. Names like Nour, Thorraya, Asmahan and Caroline Evanoff featured regularly at weddings and parties.

This was deemed unacceptable by the Ministry of Labour that banned non- Egyptians from acquiring belly dancing licences as of 1 January 2004. The government argued that the ban was due to the high level of unemployment. The belly dancing industry "is not an industry where we need foreigners", said the Ministry of Labour's Nawal El-Naggar.

This ruling was appealed by Russian dancers Nour and Caroline Evanoff in cooperation with the Association of Foreign Artists. On 21 January 2004 a Cairo Administrative Court rejected the request to temporarily overturn the ban. Chairman of the association Yasser El-Soweri told Al- Ahram Weekly that "rumours have been spreading that we lost the case, but that is not true. What happened is that the judge accepted the context of the case, but refused to allow foreigners to dance until a ruling is issued." Nour told the Weekly that "only a few foreign dancers have left, while most of us are waiting for the final ruling and have high hopes." Nour argued that there aren't enough Egyptian dancers to meet the market's demand. "Dina is the only Egyptian dancer that is ever demanded, in addition to two or three unknown dancers. How can an entire industry depend on four dancers?"

The lack of dancers has also affected the hotel industry. "Many five-star hotels are finding difficulties in filling the gaps in their nightclubs and weddings," Nour explained. Instead of having foreign dancers that present high-quality and genuine performances, they are now using "second rate dancers".

Although there is speculation that the ban was instigated by powerful Egyptian belly dancers Nagwa Fouad, one of the most celebrated dancers in Egypt and the Middle East, thought otherwise. "We have always had a mixed industry, with space for everyone. It is absurd that this should change now," Fouad told the Weekly.

Dina agreed, saying that. "I, Lucy and Abdou have not benefited." She explained that people who were willing to pay for the "big three names" would never consider foreigners in the first place. "Only younger Egyptian dancers who get paid much less than we do -- sums closer to what foreigners receive -- would benefit."

On the other hand Randa Kamel, one of Al-Haram Street's dancers, felt the ban was beneficial. "We need a chance in our own country," Kamel told the Weekly. "Egyptian girls work hard and we deserve to be appreciated." Kamel feels that the foreigners are the reason why she is still considered second rate and that the price foreign dancers set was too low for any Egyptian to compete with. "They sometimes used to dance for as little as LE800," Kamel said.

Kamel went on to say that although she is happy "the foreigners are out, the bad side is that now anyone can dance. Look at the respect we get abroad. Unfortunately, only Egypt fails to appreciate us," she said. Rakya Hassan, a belly dancing teacher agreed, saying "we are not even able to open a formal institute to teach in Egypt, so how will our heritage survive?"

Hassan trains foreigners from all over the world. She always wished there would be an official dance institute in Egypt. She blamed not having one on the rise of Islamism. While ballet is widely taught, "belly dancing is taboo".

While many professional dancers had initially come to Egypt for a week to learn from Hassan, Nour and many others stayed on. The Gulf states offer far more lucrative opportunities "but the Egyptian audience and atmosphere are like no other. When you dance in Egypt, you know you are performing in the most prestigious country in the Middle East," said Nour.

Although some foreign dancers have left they are all willing to come back if the ban is overturned. Most remain in Egypt teaching tourists how to belly dance or by giving workshops abroad. "They are all hoping that they can go back to their normal lives. There was never a nationality for art -- there should not be one now," Nour concluded.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. Reprinted from Al-Ahram Weekly Online: 679 (Issue No. 4 - 10 March 2004).