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Yasmina of Cairo

Yasmina’s Belly Dancers’ B&B




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. It’s hard work but the rewards are amazing. It’s so creative; nothing feels quite like being up there on stage with your band playing behind you.

I started performing as a belly dancer at 24. I’d 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 wasn’t 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 1970’s and 1980’s 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 can’t 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 don’t have many, it doesn’t 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 don’t show it. Egyptians are very polite and the audiences are very kind. If they don’t like you they will smile and clap, but they won’t hire you again. British audiences are much harder to dance for. They don’t understand the music or see the depth of the performance. I don’t 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 don’t 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.

I’ve never had hassle from men. You are up on stage and afterwards you are up on stage and afterwards you leave backstage and you don’t have much contact with the audience. Yet even though it’s 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 wouldn’t necessarily want their son to marry one.

It’s a paradox: a dance that expresses female sexuality in a country that we think of as being sexually repressed.
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