THE JOURNAL, 25th JANUARY 2002
EARNING A BELLYFUL OF RESPECT
JANE HALL talks to the toast of Cairo, British-raised oriental dancer Yasmina
The classical Egyptian belly dance is a heady mix of quivering limbs, naked
navels and suggestive eye contact. Egyptians say it has been in their blood for
thousands of years and generations of the countrys women have gyrated
their hips, rolled their stomachs muscles and shimmied their cleavage.
One of Cairos most sought-after exponents is Yasmina, who burst onto the
citys oriental dancing scene in the mid-1990s. With her long dark
hair, heavily-kholed eyes and dramatically slashed chiffon skirts, she has won
over the hearts of both men and women in Egypts capital.
Her success has brought her an enviable lifestyle money, a flat just ten
minutes drive from the Pyramids and the luxury to pick and choose her
engagements. But this woman who so convincingly gives the illusion of Middle
Eastern promise is not Egyptian. Neither does she hail from the Arab world.
Yasmina is in fact Francesca Sullivan, the 38-year-old daughter of Quaker
parents from the quiet English village of Jordans in Buckinghamshire.
She didnt take up oriental dancing or belly dancing as the British
prefer to call it professionally until she was in her mid-20s.
Before that she was happily pursuing a career as a fashion photographer in
London. Francesca admits she never intended to turn what had started as a hobby
into a career. At the time it was a question of taking a couple of months
out to have a bit of a change. I didnt plan to abandon everything.
That was twelve years ago.
Since then she has performed across the Arab world and is now permanently based
in Cairo, regarded as the Hollywood of the oriental dancing world. Nothing in
her middle class background suggested Francesca would one day be transformed
into the exotically named Yasmina whose stage costumes include a sexy leopard
print bikini top and gravity-defying skirt. Her late father, Matthew Sullivan,
was a respected historian and BBC broadcaster and her mother Elizabeth, is a
retired social worker.
One of six children she was brought up in a highly moral but close and loving
Quaker family. Three of her brothers are lawyers and businessmen while the
fourth, Justin Sullivan, is the founder member and front man of Indie rock
group New Model Army. Her sister Miranda is an artist currently living in
Middlesborough. Like many young girls, Francesca attended both ballet and
contemporary dance classes but says: I was never really any good.
It was after graduating from art college in London she took up fashion
photography. It was a tough job, but I was doing well and working for a
number of magazines in Britain. But in 1985 she took herself off to
Morocco on holiday and recalls: I fell in love with the music. I
couldnt get the rhythms and melodies out of my head and on my return to
London I bought some tapes. From there I started taking oriental dance
She began dancing between tables in Arab restaurants of an evening, but the
time came when she realized she was burning the candle at both ends. I
can remember going to a meeting with an art editor who was considering me for a
fashion shoot in India, which would have been a huge break. During our
meeting, as I showed her my portfolio, one of my false nails from the night
before fell in front of her. I was simply too embarrassed to explain that I had
spent the previous evening dancing for money in a Lebanese restaurant.
But that was the turning point for me. I realized I would have to choose
which way of life I really wanted. I knew I couldnt give up the art
and excitement of oriental dancing and that I wanted to take it as far as I
could, so I left Britain and went out to the Middle East. I started off
in Morocco and then worked for an agent in Beirut who got me work in other
Currently the only British oriental dancer in Cairo, Francesca continues:
I was carried along by the whole thing. It was a seductive way of life as
well. For many years I was living and working in hotels in the Middle East and
everything was paid for. I just had to perform once a dayand the rest of
the time I was living a very attractive lifestyle. Her agent suggested
she move to Cairo and she describes her arrival as like coming
home. While foreign dancers have not been universally welcomed in
the city by local girls, Francesca claims to have encountered no animosity.
I have always been treated very graciously by the Egyptian dancers. If
there is any animosity it is because foreigners are prepared to work for less
money. However, I have now been in Cairo for a significant number of years, and
I like to think I have always gone along with the market price and never tried
to undercut it. She may also have her Egyptian partner, Safaa, to thank
for defending her reputation and teaching her the local ways. Most Egyptian
dancers are from working class backgrounds and take up the discipline as a
means of clawing their way out of poverty.
But while it gains popularity in the West, on the streets of Cairo Islamic
revival has taken its toll. Many Egyptians consider its lewd movements to be
haraam forbidden by Islam and it is banned on television.
Francesca confirms it is not a respectable profession. Most people would
not want their daughters to do it. Dancers are very much on the fringes of
society, but that is okay when you are a foreigner as you dont have a
family to worry about so there is no pressure to stop. But for girls who
choose the profession in Egypt, they are looked down upon. Some become
superstars, however, by going into movies, and from there they gain
Francesca concedes many find it odd that an English woman would choose a belly
dancers way of life. It is true that there are more constraints on
it than 20 years ago, but isnt to say that people dont love it. It
may not be socially acceptable as a profession, but at parties and celebrations
people want to see a dancer, and that includes the women. Its double
standards. So what does her family think of her choice of career?
My mother sometimes jokes she wasnt strict enough with the younger
children, but my family have always known me to be adventurous, she says.
And contrary to what some people imagine, I think Quakers are very
Now approaching 40, she has reached the pinnacle of her career and has
retired from performing in nightclubs. Now she only accepts jobs at
private functions. While she laughs at suggestions she is a superstar she
admits she has been recognized in the streets.
She plans to continue dancing as long as she is in demand. It is hard for
an older dancer but Cairos top star, Fifi Abdou is 60, so who
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