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Raks Sharqi

Raks Sharqi:

Cairo’s Disappearing Act

by Shareen El Safy

“Dance is finished here,” Fifi Abdou said. We were, along with an attentive entourage, crowded into the nightclub elevator after her show and the obligatory photos with waiting fans at the Cairo Meridien. Her words were spoken in a flat voice—more as an expressionless statement of fact than a passionate exclamation, punctuated by a wave of her hand as if to say, “It’s over, gone.”

Fifi Abdou, Cairo, 1999

Summer, the long awaited peak tourist season, was just getting off the ground in July, 1999, as the much anticipated Gulf patrons began to arrive from the unbearably hot Eastern deserts, streaming en masse into Cairo’s hotels and businesses. But everyone agreed it had been a very slow start to the nightclub season. A steady decline in clientele had left singers, dancers and musicians trying to hang on while positioning themselves for the best possible outcome once business did finally pick up. “Next week more guests will come,” was the often-repeated litany of club owners trying to keep the morale high. Entertainers, teetering on the edge of financial uncertainty, were tenaciously sticking it out during the dry months preparing for the coming money making season with new costumes and shows. Dancers were struggling to keep their bands intact, while even the very best musicians sat on their hands waiting for the call to come to work. For the past few years it has been a matter of survival for individual artists, for an industry, and for an art form.

Before the Gulf War just a decade ago, dancing and music could be found throughout Cairo in easily a hundred different venues, from the elegant five star hotel nightclubs and mirrored discos to the smoky Pyramids Street cabarets and Nile side garden cafes. At the most glamorous night spots top dancers and singers entertained the glitterati— jet-setters, bureaucrats and high-profile celebrities sat at linen covered tables set with bottles of scotch and soda, tuxedoed waiters hovering nearby. On any given night one could watch Nagwa Fouad, Sohair Zeki, Fifi Abdou, Dina, Lucy, and a dozen others, following their favorite performer, if they so wished, from stage to stage until morning’s light.

But this summer only some nightclubs were open a few nights a week while many were closed down entirely. The Cairo Meridien had Fifi Abdou one or two nights a week, if there were guests, and sometimes Dina. The Cairo Sheraton, open four nights a week, featured Dina and Lucy on alternate nights. The Samiramis Intercontinental was the only other five star club open with Lucy or Dina dancing for four nights and lesser known dancers on the other three. The Marriott’s Empress nightclub, which for decades had boasted headliners like Nagwa Fouad, Fifi Abdou, Hani Shakar and Ihab Tewfik, had just re-opened after being “dark” for months. They down scaled their operation, hiring two dancers on alternate nights, Amani and Koloud, both using the same house band of six musicians! The Mena House, Ghazirah Sheraton, Ramses Hilton and Nile Hilton nightclubs were closed indefinitely.

None-the-less, Cairo has always been the undisputed capital of the Oriental dance world, and still offers priceless opportunities to watch great Egyptian artists. However, the competition between dancers to be in the forefront of the industry, which in the past spawned innovation and impressive production numbers, was noticeably absent on this visit.

Some growing trends caution one to be less than optimistic about the dance scene in Cairo. Fewer locals frequent the more expensive nightclubs, though some still celebrate a special occasion like an engagement or birthday in the presence of a big star singing their congratulations and cutting the cake. A tangible atmosphere of conservatism—in appearances of dress and manners, in alcoholic consumption and mixed gender interaction, has replaced the national joie de vive. While there are still tables of well-to-do professionals who enjoy sharing drinks at a sumptuous table with friends at their preferred club, one now sees the faces of Middle Eastern and European tourists, not the familiar big spenders, who choose to throw their own private parties.

There are numerous reasons for these pervasive changes—some of the obvious are economics, religious conservatism and social fashion. Egyptians have less discretionary income because of high inflation and unemployment still plaguing them years after the Gulf War. The middle and lower classes are struggling to maintain their commitment to family and higher education while resisting Western mores. Their spending has become more conservative as have their religious leanings, with a stricter interpretation of and adherence to the tenets of Islam, along with a growing identification with fundamentalism. And there are some for whom neither money nor social standing is an issue, but going to a nightclub is simply passe—the trendy piano bars and exclusive, smaller clubs are more fashionable. Their parents and grandparents may have been happy watching the great dancers of the past on stage and film, but the younger, fickle, generation finds it boring—big screen MTV is happening!

Lucy, Semiramis Intercontinental, Cairo, July 1999.

Only four or five years ago one could expect to see a major dancer performing original choreography, backed by a forty piece orchestra playing newly composed music to a packed house for two hours and more. This summer nightclubs were often half full, dancers were on stage about an hour and the musicians typically numbered in the twenties. The top dancers’ costuming continues to be glamorous, but there is little evidence of original musical compositions, new choreography and innovative production numbers. Dancers are understandably unwilling to invest a lot of money in their shows because they may be working at only one nightclub a night for, at most, a few nights a week.

What was obvious in Cairo this summer was that Dina has definitely made it to the top, working at more clubs than any other dancer and before larger audiences. Her hour-long show began with the same opening number that she has used for the past few seasons, and included “Waheshteny” and a beautiful taxim to “Serit El Hob” as well as a Saidi routine with mizmar and tabl beledi. She mixed and matched other routines from her past repertoire so that almost every show had one or two different songs. She later told me there’s “no new music before this summer; there’s not a lot of business.” She’ll keep the same music until after Ramadan and then do a new show with new music.

She made the usual number of five or six costume changes—all simple, sexy and elegant. In sharp contrast to the “civies” she wears into the club—the tight short skirts with flats, or capris and tank top—her costumes have been a topic of discussion, especially because of the absence of a body net over her abdomen. (She has been singularly exempt from this government dictate.) Gone were the hair extensions that most Egyptian dancers wore in recent years. Her “natural” curly hair and subtle makeup suited her understated, “au courant” look. She was radiant, with soft, glistening skin and sparkling eyes—happier than I’d ever seen her.

Dina was three months pregnant at the end of July and becoming sensually zaftig! Backstage at the Samiramis I asked her more about her recent marriage to a handsome, emotionally supportive film producer. It is her third marriage—the first one had ended after the first month, and the second lasted three months. “I chose a very wrong way,” she explained, dismissing her earlier much publicized weddings. But now she is very happily married and thrilled about the pregnancy. I asked her, “Will you return to dancing after your child is born, like Sohair Zeki, Fifi Abdou and Lucy have done?” Still hesitant to speak with certainty that she would be able to remain pregnant she said, “If I have it, Ensha’allah…If my body comes back and everything is okay…I think a baby completes everything a woman needs.” (She has since come to Los Angeles to await the birth.)

As I sat talking with Dina, one of her assistants showed her several haute couture evening gowns that she would wear in her theatre opening within the week. She would star in “Give Me My Money Back,” singing, acting and dancing. The musical is about how the rich take the money intended for the poor from the American-Egyptian Bank. While another assistant began to dress her for this evening’s show, putting on a toe ring and a rhinestone anklet and spraying her from top to bottom with “Nude” perfume, I asked her a few more “catch-up” questions. Had she graduated yet? Yes, she now has a Masters degree in Philosophy from Shams University in Cairo. And what about her aunts, uncles and cousins? Seven years ago Dina had told me that her extended family was not speaking to her because of her decision to become an Oriental dancer. But now everything was okay between them. “It takes time to accept this,” she said. “If you’re clean and clear in your work, they accept.”

I asked her about the disappearance of dance in Cairo these days. “There are no places for dancing. When I started dancing, all the nightclubs, hotels, all the cabarets were working a lot. Then you could find ten big name dancers and you could find twenty or more second and third—there were a lot of dancers! Now even the small dancers, you don’t hear about them.” She voiced concern about the lack of up and coming Egyptian dancers. “You have to start when you are young, twenty, twenty-one, to start building your name. And wait ten years while building your name. Now I am in my thirties and I am starting to be a name. If I started to build my name now, I wouldn’t make it. When you’re young, you like (the taste of) apple.” I bemoaned the loss of the “good old days” when business was booming and dancers like Nagwa Fouad were commissioning new music and choreography. (One needs only to remember the dozens of musical pieces that Nagwa Fouad commissioned during her career, many of which dancers around the world still use today.) “Nagwa Fouad made a lot of things,” Dina agreed. “Every year you’d come to Cairo you could find (something new) she made. Sohair Zeki—she worked another way. Mona El Said did a lot of things. Fifi Abdou worked in her way, and you could find Shu-Shu Amin and Zizi Mustapha and Hanan and Sahar Hamdi and Hala el Safy, and a lot…!”

Dina, Cairo Sheraton, July 1999

Incidentally, a few weeks earlier Dina had taught and performed at the Pharaohs Festival held in Cairo and Sharm El Sheikh, making the event which was poorly organized worthwhile on that account. Ibrahim Akef, Mahmoud Reda, Raqia Hassan, Beata and Horacio, and I also taught. Participants from around the world were enthusiastic about this rare opportunity to take class with the great Egyptian choreographers. Beata and Horacio presented European Oriental dance with professionalism during their performance on closing night at the Cairo Sheraton. Yasmina, the English dancer, also gave a great show at Sharm El Sheikh, bringing her ten-piece orchestra and two singers from the Meridien Heliopolis. She wore six costumes designed by Amira El Khattan who also gave a spectacular fashion show at the opening gala at the Pyramisa Hotel in Cairo.

And what is Nagwa Fouad up to these days? I visited her in her flat on Maspero Street, overlooking the Nile. She had recently refurbished the parquet floors, wallpapered in a terracotta color and reupholstered in corals, peaches and golds. She looked quite rested and svelte, even though she’s been very busy with several TV series and the theater. Nagwa plays the main character in “Bint Assuiti”, written by Helmi Salem and directed by Mohamed Nabeh, airing on Cairo’s Channel One. Fortunately she has recovered from the knee problems that forced her to quit dancing. After several trips to doctors in Paris, Switzerland and Germany, she opted for experimental injections instead of surgery.

This season Fifi Abdou began her show with a short five-minute (about half the normal time) magenci played by twenty-five (instead of the usual forty plus) or so musicians. Her orchestra leader, Said El Arabi, composed the Oriental opening, “Om Osta Neyema Nosaheya,” a reference to a character in a 1930’s Egyptian film, a malima from Mohamed Ali Street. This number appeared to be loosely choreographed, which was confirmed when I returned later several times to see somewhat different routines. Choreography is not always necessary, especially in the sections when improvising (like the malima with shisha) can add playful spontaneity, but the great dancers generally do have their show, especially the Oriental and drum solo sections, choreographed and well-rehearsed for top-notch delivery.

Fifi is a consummate entertainer, known for her stamina and boisterous bint el beled quality. She can dance tirelessly all evening, stopping now and then to chat and deliver one of her shocking one-liners, usually at the expense of some blushing, innocent audience member. One evening she commented about her dazzling bright red lips encrusted with glitter, saying in Arabic, “It’s the same color as the inside.”

She sang and danced through a string of songs she has made famous in her theatre roles, with the audience sometimes singing along. Her costumes appeared to be the only new creations in the show. She wore a rhinestone bedla with black chiffon pantaloons, followed by her perennial malima act in a white abaaya. She ended with another costume change, a very short black evening dress and heels, for the drum solo. It was all typically Fifi—she was at ease, full of confidence, luxuriously feminine and outrageous.

Over the course of a month we talked about a few things. The unusual perfume that wafted over the audience when she came on stage was made “special” for her, along with the bright red lipstick encrusted with glitter. Would she market them in the future? She said she had other things she was busy with now. Her big news is that she is a grandmother! Six months before, Azza, her oldest daughter, had a baby girl. She also has a younger twelve-year old daughter. Her new Four Seasons penthouse apartment that everyone has been talking about, the one with a car elevator for parking at the top, is not yet completed. Fifi is still dancing at weddings and private parties, but she is discouraged about the future of the dance in Cairo. Instead, she is working on other projects, including films—Egypt is the film capitol of the Arabic-speaking world.

Lucy always gives her best during her opening number, technically concentrated and fully absorbed in the emotional quality of the music. Her orchestra of about thirty musicians and singers sounded full and rich. She had commissioned a new opening magenci from Khalid al Amar and entered wearing a chiffon full-skirted bedla. I was happy to learn that Lucy, at least, had invested in new music for the season, also using new pieces composed for her by El Hamid Tutu and Mustapha Hamido. After her opening number she surprised the audience by changing into a white cocktail dress and pumps, and sporting a bobbed brunette wig a la Dionne Warwick. She also did a stunning Khaleegi suite and ended, dripping in liquid silver assuit, with an assaya to a rousing Saidi finale.

I spoke with her after her show on several occasions. She had been staying up all night working on a film with Metah Saleh, and was exhausted. Her three-and-a-half year old son, Fahti, also makes demands on her time, but she of course doesn’t mind that. I noticed an ace bandage on her lower leg near the ankle and asked if it was the same injury she sustained on the set of a TV show she taped for Ramadan last year. She said the break still hadn’t healed properly. Two of her fingers were also in a removable cast. Although Lucy is small boned, delicate and somewhat fragile, she, like all the self-motivated Egyptian stars, works herself very hard.

Oriental dancers are not the only ones who have been affected by the declining interest in dance. The government supported folkloric groups have also waned to some extent. But the Egyptian Ministry of Culture has recently commissioned Mahmoud Reda, the well-known choreographer and former director of the national troupe, to create a folkloric production for the opening of the newly remodeled Balloon Theater which would be taped for a later television airing. He wrote, choreographed and directed “Heart for Sale.” The fifty hand-picked dancers have been in Reda’s company in the past, and include Mohamed El Husseini in the male lead, Do’aa Salem Abdel Shafi as the mermaid and Inez Abdel Aziz in the female lead. Spanish Oriental dancer, Nesma was invited to perform with the company. They rehearsed twenty-two dances that take the audience on a regional tour of Egypt. The former “premiere danseuse” of the Reda troupe, Farida Fahmy, is costume designer for the production, and was on hand during the rehearsals watching with a keen eye. The music was composed by Mounir El Wasini and played by a live orchestra of over forty musicians with sixteen singers.

In Egypt dancers are coming up against conservative attitudes in more and more instances. The prevailing hesitancy to be associated with Oriental dance was apparent to several of us who attended the 42nd World Congress for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, Sport and Dance held early July in Cairo and attended by five hundred delegates. American dancers Morocco, Barbara Sellers-Young and myself presented papers, classes and performances to a number of dance educators from around the world. Our presentations were well attended and enthusiastically received, especially by the Egyptian and American delegates. But when the joint American/Egyptian chair of the dance committee suggested to the Egyptian conference director that our dance should be included in the closing ceremonies, he protested. He was embarrassed, and said that it would be in all the papers that the conference had “belly dancers” and would bring shame upon him and his family!

However, there are many “foreign” Oriental dancers working in Cairo now. There is Asmahan, Argentina; Kasoumi, Japan; Katia and Nour, Moscow; Samasem, Stockholm; Yasmina, London; Soroya, USA/England; Caroline, Australia; Leyla, Ukraine; and others. Working in Cairo has not been easy for most of them who’ve had to wait months to receive permission from the Egyptian government to work as a dancer. It could cost 1,000 EL’s or more to get the papers and artists union card after first landing a contract. The foreign dancer pays 48% of her income in taxes, and must surrender her passport for the duration of her stay in Egypt. (The Egyptian dancer pays 8% taxes!)

I sometimes hear the outcry that Western dancers are taking jobs away from the Egyptians. While I do think it’s a shame that international tourists cruising up the Nile watch a dancer from Moscow and not Luxor, it’s a fallacy to think that that they are stealing jobs away from the home girls. Instead, they have found a niche that has become more hospitable during Egypt’s economic decline. Western dancers have slid into the widening void created by retiring Egyptian dancers with no new dancers following them up the ranks. And Egyptian women are more and more unlikely to choose a career in Oriental dance. Religious fundamentalism has impacted dozens of dancers who have retired in recent years, donning the hegab amid familial pressure or social threats. The highly successful dancer, Hendaiya is the most recent statistic.

Also Western dancers seem to have, more often than not, created new performing venues or at least new opportunities that didn’t exist before like hotel discos and restaurants. Although there are five star cabarets like Sunset and Tivoli that hire both Western and Egyptian dancers, with few exceptions foreigners are still essentially blocked from performing in the five-star hotel nightclubs which have traditionally featured Egyptian dancers.

Some establishments prefer to hire Western dancers for a number of reasons. They think Western dancers lend a certain “prestige,” being generally well-educated, well-groomed and being “foreign” seem exotic somehow. They are in Cairo to dance, and usually, as a group, are reliable and behave themselves. The niche they occupy pays much less than a known Egyptian dancer with a comparable show would be willing to accept, and more than the lower class venues are willing to pay. Yes, there are struggles and jealousies between dancers jockeying for better jobs and better pay, but this occurs more between the foreign rather than the native dancers, except in those few venues where both are employed.

In Cairo there are big preparations underway for a globally televised “millennium” celebration that will include lowering a gold cap onto the Great Pyramid so that it will appear as it did when it was first completed five millennia ago. Egypt, a land of eternal, enduring monuments that defy time, is an ancient, continuous civilization that has persevered. Egyptian culture is paradoxical and mysterious, adapting to new pressures while seeming to shrug off the undesired with a sense of humor and resilience—inclusive and insulated at the same time. Her native arts, like her people, also adapt to changing influences, absorbing and reshaping new styles. The dance, which has been an integral part of its civilization throughout recorded history, is no exception.

Of course dance will never entirely disappear from Egypt—it is a time-honored natural expression of joy and celebration for all the people! Young and old, men, women and children spontaneously and unselfconsciously move to the music. Even given an optimistic outlook, why is this downward trend so devastating to the form? Increasing societal and family pressures strongly discourage potential dancers from pursuing their artistic vision publicly. As a result, fewer young Egyptian women who have developed a disciplined raks sharqi technique and personal style are becoming dancers. In addition, there is an appreciable decline in new musical compositions, negatively impacting the careers of dancers, choreographers, singers, and musicians, alike.

A decade ago the Egyptian dancer stood before her audience and her society as a symbol of feminine beauty, strength and wholeness. Her independent stance as a sexually charged but intelligent and self-contained woman may now appear too conspicuously revealing for the conservative mind-set. I can only hope that the solo dancer, who for me embodies the budding integrated spirit of enlightened humanity, will not be crushed by the insensitive forces of change.

Shareen El Safy is an award-winning instructor and choreographer who has performed and taught Egyptian dance in sixty major cities on five continents, including many states throughout America. She has made numerous trips to Egypt, researching dance, studying with renowned artists there, and leading her Dance Study Tours. As one of few westerners, Shareen performed raks sharqi in Cairo nightclubs during the 1988 to 1992 summer seasons. She has released a number of instructional DVD’s focusing on Oriental dance technique. Shareen presented at the 1999 World Congress of Sports and Dance, and taught and performed at the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival (2001), and the Nile Group Festivals (2009 and 2010) in Cairo. Shareen co-produced the First and Second International Conferences on Middle Eastern Dance in 1997 and 2001. She was Publisher and Editor of Habibi from 1992-2002 and Editor-in-Chief in 1993. www.shareenelsafy.com.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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