THE TIMES, 26th AUGUST 2003A
DANCE AROUND AUTHORITY
As the Egyptian Government cancels work permits for foreign belly dancers, two
English performers tell CAROL MIDGLEY about making a real career of this
ancient folk dance in its country of origin.
YASMINA, whose real name is Francesca Sullivan, has been performing as a belly
dancer for nearly twenty years. She comes from Beaconsfield, Bucks, but has
lived in Cairo since 1995, having married Safaa, a local singer. The couple
have a son, Azzedine, one.
You have to be able to understand how the system works to be able to earn a
living as a belly dancer in Egypt. Getting a permit to license you to dance is
a tightly monitored, laborious process. Your license must be renewed every
month, and it is compulsory to pay monthly subs to a performing arts trade
union. Its hard work but the rewards are amazing. Its so creative;
nothing feels quite like being up there on stage with your band playing behind
I started performing as a belly dancer at 24. Id been a photography
student and I learnt to dance to earn extra money. I love its expressiveness.
At first I worked in nightclubs in London but then I decided I wanted to
experience dancing in the Middle East.
In 1989 I went to Morocco, and then worked in Syria and Jordan. Belly dancing
is not native to these countries, only to Egypt and the Lebanon, so it
wasnt as strictly regulated.
I arrived in Egypt eight years ago and met my husband, and I have been there
ever since. Foreigners have been dancing in Egypt for many years. During the
1970s and 1980s the scene was very competitive and it was difficult
for foreigners to get work. But then, due to economic reasons, many clubs
started to close and the number of local dancers fell away.
Egyptian women love to dance but they do it primarily to earn a living. For
foreign women there is a great kudos in coming home and saying you have danced
professionally in the country of origin. A lot of women who come in to dance
from foreign countries such as Russia are prepared to ask a lot less money, so
it cant be denied that the Egyptians have a point.
On the other hand foreign women bring a lot of money with them, and many of
them are well-educated. It is so expensive to set yourself up as a dancer: you
have to pay for the costumes, the orchestra, the choreographer. Costumes have
to be made individually for you and cost about 1,500 Egyptian pounds minimum
(£250 - £300). A good dancer would be expected to have maybe 20
costumes. There are three changes in a performance, and you can do several
performances in a day.
There are different levels of venue. Weddings are well-paid jobs, as are the
good hotels. Some girls work their way up dancing on Nile cruises, which can
vary in quality. Some of the cabarets can be insalubrious. The fee can vary
enormously (from £20 for a low-class venue to £500 for a wedding) and
the dancer has to pay her band out of the fee, so she has to decide how many
musicians she can afford to use. The worry is that if you dont have many,
it doesnt look good.
When you first try to get a license you have to persuade the hotel or wherever
you are working to give you a contract to prove that you have a job. Then it
has to be approved by the Ministry of Labour, the morals police and the
performing arts unions. There are inspectors who can ask to see your
accreditation at any time. If the Egyptian women do resent foreigners being
there they dont show it. Egyptians are very polite and the audiences are
very kind. If they dont like you they will smile and clap, but they
wont hire you again. British audiences are much harder to dance for. They
dont understand the music or see the depth of the performance. I
dont think you can make a proper career of it in Britain.
To be good at it you have to have a feeling for music, a good sense of rhythm
and a willingness to express your emotions. You also have to have charisma and
sex appeal, but they dont want you to be overtly sexual. In Egypt many
women dance well into their forties. The big stars earn huge money.
Western standards of beauty are starting to be appreciated more, largely
because of satellite television. Belly dancers are increasingly expected to be
slim rather than voluptuous. Egyptian women tend to be naturally well-endowed;
in fact a plastic surgeon I was speaking to there says that one of the biggest
demands in cosmetic surgery is for breast reduction.
Ive never had hassle from men. You are up on stage and afterwards you are
up on stage and afterwards you leave backstage and you dont have much
contact with the audience. Yet even though its part of the culture, some
people do regard belly dancers as women with loose reputations. They want a
good belly dancer at their wedding but they wouldnt necessarily want
their son to marry one.
Its a paradox: a dance that expresses female sexuality in a country that
we think of as being sexually repressed.
<<< Back to Articles about