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Tummy Trouble in Cairo

Performers and fans of belly dance are worried about its future in the country where it all began. The rise in political Islam has sparked a backlash, and more Egyptian women are shunning the art form.


CAIRO — It is 1:30 in the morning at the packed Al Rashid nightclub, and the scene is "Arabian Nights" crossed with Studio 54.

A private nurse wearing an Islamic veil attends to a heavyset Saudi man in robe and kaffiyeh, giving him an injection at his stage-side table. Some women in the audience are in full hejab, covered in black scarves, veils and robes. Others drip diamonds from their ears and necks. Notwithstanding the hour, there are giddy children and a few Westerners who have wandered in to see the show.

And then, with a sudden throb of the tabla--an hourglass-shaped Arab drum that seems to sing with its own voice--a 20-piece orchestra swings into high gear and a barefoot female figure swirls in from the side.

Dina. She is a household name in Egypt, connoting glamour, grace and forbidden pleasures. And this season, she is Cairo's reigning belly dancer. Lithe and mesmerizing, in a costume that is G-rated yet reveals a body sculpted by years of practice and performance, the Egyptian dancer holds her watchers in thrall for an hour.

Dina represents the pinnacle of Oriental dance--belly dance, in everyday parlance--an art form that has a long pedigree in Egypt and manages to live on in the hearts of many Egyptians.

But its performers and aficionados are worried for its future in the country where it began. During the past 20 years, the rise of political Islam in the Middle East has led to more puritanical attitudes on morality in general, creating a backlash against belly dance. Fewer hotels, clubs and Nile River boats are offering the live performances, and more and more Egyptian women are shunning the dance because of Islamic disapproval.

As a consequence, more of the dancers performing professionally in Cairo are outsiders--from Japan, South America and the countries of the former Soviet Union. They are from almost everywhere, in fact, except Egypt.

"I am here to make my name," says Souraya Lukasova, a doctor from Uzbekistan who prefers gyrating at Cairo's Shepherds Hotel to grappling with diseases in Tashkent. A bevy of young women like her has gravitated to Cairo from cities all over the world--hoping to find fame and big money through belly dancing.

Cairo is the heart of the entertainment industry for the Arabic-speaking world, and dancers who make it here can write their own tickets in the belly-dancing circuits of Europe, the United States, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf. (The top dancers get $3,000 or more for a 45-minute show.)

And for all the drawbacks of the biggest city in the Middle East and Africa, there is still something magical about its balmy nights and the swaying palms and bright neon lights that line the Nile. The whiff of the apple-scented hookah and the jangle of the bells on the tourist carriages hang in the air as pursuers of belly dance make their way down the gangplank to one of the several big nightclub boats.

The foreign influx arouses disdain among some purists. "We will drive these foreigners out," vows Ronda Gamal, an Egyptian dancer on a boat where the other two regular dancers are Russian and British. But even her manager concedes that the foreigners show great love for the dance, often take tradition more seriously than the Egyptians and, on the whole, are willing to work for less money.

But how do they match up against Egyptians as interpreters of Arab music? Not very well, in the opinion of Dina, who explains it culturally.

"In Brazil, you find that the dancers there dance very well. If I was to appear and try to dance as a Brazilian girl, [the result] would be very different, because I hear the music differently," she says. "The Brazilian has heard that music all her life. I think her feeling is different, and because of this her step is different."

Among people in the business, there is a feeling that the market for Egyptian belly dance is not what it used to be, in part because of societal changes.

"Seven or eight years ago, the Arabs used to come here, sit with a bottle of whiskey in front of them and stay up all night watching a show," says one club manager, Samy Saad. "Now the younger generation of Arabs goes to Europe or the United States during the holidays. They don't go to the nightclubs. . . . They prefer to dance themselves in a disco. They want to move their bodies."

Even for posh weddings, the long-standing tradition of hiring a belly dancer is waning, he says. "Classy people today want to have only a deejay."

'Something Not to Be Spoke Of'

The accounts of early European visitors to the Middle East give an idea of the first arresting impression made by the belly dance: "Nothing could be more artful or proper to raise certain Ideas, the tunes so soft, the motions so Languishing," wrote Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an envoy's wife and famously observant letter writer, in 1717.

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