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Yasmina of Cairo

Yasmina’s Belly Dancers’ B&B



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 country’s women have gyrated their hips, rolled their stomachs muscles and shimmied their cleavage.

One of Cairo’s most sought-after exponents is Yasmina, who burst onto the city’s oriental dancing scene in the mid-1990’s. 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 Egypt’s 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 didn’t take up oriental dancing – or belly dancing as the British prefer to call it – professionally until she was in her mid-20’s. 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 classes.”

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 couldn’t 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 countries.”

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 don’t 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 respectability.”

Francesca concedes many find it odd that an English woman would choose a belly dancer’s way of life. “It is true that there are more constraints on it than 20 years ago, but isn’t to say that people don’t 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. It’s double standards.” So what does her family think of her choice of career? “My mother sometimes jokes she wasn’t 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 liberal minded.”

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 Cairo’s top star, Fifi Abdou is 60, so who knows?”
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