CAIRO — Fifi Abdu's spacious Cairo duplex is lavishly furnished, with an oval bar, several color television sets and enough opulently padded sectional seating to convene a special session of the U.N. General Assembly.
As one of Egypt's most popular belly dancers, Miss Fifi, as she is called, can afford such luxury. But others in her line of work are not so well-off. Belly dancing has had its ups and downs over the centuries, but rarely have times been as tough as they are now.
The resurgence in recent years of Muslim fundamentalism has sharply reduced the number of places in the Middle East where belly dancers can perform. Also, the art has been corrupted, some authorities say, by gimmickry, commercialism and modern dance techniques.
Attitudes Take Toll
Ambivalent attitudes--ever since the advent of Islam, belly dancers have been the object of love and hate--have also taken their toll, dancers complain.
"I came to Egypt because it is the center of belly dancing--it is where you have to prove yourself," said Lisa Loevenguth, from Syracuse, N.Y. "But I have been disappointed. Belly dancers here are treated like criminals. It's like I'm on parole or something."
Belly dancers are not being paid as well, either, because of increased competition for jobs in a shrinking market. The Persian Gulf countries, with the exception of the United Arab Emirates, have banned belly dancing. Lebanon used to be one of the main centers for Oriental dance in the Middle East but, though it is still possible to dance there, only the bravest of belly dancers would work there. The continuing violence is a strong deterrent.
A Dim Outlook
Syria and Iraq still have belly dancing, but neither has the night life or the culture to qualify as a Mecca for the dance. That leaves Egypt as the only remaining center for the art in the Arab world, and even here the outlook is far from bright.
Last February, when police conscripts took to the streets to complain about being underpaid, they were joined by Muslim fundamentalists and burned down several hotels and more than a dozen nightclubs along the road leading to the Pyramids. In one riotous night, they destroyed nearly half the places where Cairo's belly dancers had been able to find regular employment.
A precipitous drop in tourism, the result of Middle East terrorism and domestic disturbances like the police riots, has forced the large hotels and nightclubs to cut back on entertainment. In most cases, they now feature only one show a night instead of two or three.
'No Market, No Money'
"We do OK, we pay our rent," said Gigi Coppo, an Italian who has lived here for 10 years and runs one of Egypt's biggest talent agencies. "But it's no big business like before. Before, I used to bring artists from abroad. But now there is no market. No market and no money."
Belly dancing has always been a big draw for tourists, but traditionally it has been been the Arabs themselves who have most admired and supported the art, the origins of which reach back at least 5,000 years.
And while Egyptians are still expected to hire belly dancers to perform at weddings, fewer and fewer people are going out to night clubs. Most Egyptians tend to stay at home because of a sharply declining economy and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, which looks on dancing as sinful.
Medhat Hawary, a businessman and belly dance aficionado, said one evening recently at the Cairo Marriott's Almaz nightclub: "It's not like it used to be. Before, if a belly dancer with a name was dancing, people would come every night to see her. They would fill up the place. Sometimes a place would have three or four belly dancers a night.
Fear of Fundamentalists
"But now . . . people don't go out any more," he said. "It's the economy, mostly. But also people are afraid of the fundamentalists."
Another problem, connoisseurs say, is that the art itself has been corrupted--by jazzier dance styles imported from the West. There are still those who perform in the slow, soulful style of the classical belly dance, but most of the younger performers favor faster and flashier routines.
"Most dancers nowadays," Hawary said, pausing to ingest an enormous slab of smoked salmon, "are just yo-yos. All they do is jump up and down."
Coppo, seated at the same table, agreed. "To express the art, you must feel it," he said. "The dancers must feel the music, but most of them today don't. Why, you ask? Because it is not art any more. It's money."
A big-name belly dancer like Fifi Abdu earns about $1,500 a show, and may perform several times a night, on stage and at private parties. But the overhead is high. The dancer must pay her musicians--big-name dancers often have 30-piece bands--and her costumes can cost thousands of dollars.