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Belly dance occupies a prominent place in the arts, not only in the Middle East but around the world. In addition to being featured in other arts such as cinema and theatre, it has also been used to treat some psychiatric conditions. Belly dancing’s popularity has made it a big market where mainly female dancers from around the world compete for the financial returns that other professions often lack.
In Egypt, where belly dancing has long been one of the most important arts, the market is filled with dancers of various nationalities looking for fame and fortune. The competition between Egyptian and foreign dancers is fierce. Atiyat Abdel Fattah Ibrahim, better known as Fifi Abdou, has been the most renowned Egyptian belly dancer since stars such as Suheir Zaki, Tahiyyah Karyoka and Najwa Fouad quit the scene.
Born in 1953, Abdou emerged as a star in 1990s following her famous performance Hazzemni Ya (‘Tie me up’) in 1994. She has since starred in dozens of plays and films. Despite her advancing age, she has maintained her public presence, most recently on social media where she posts videos of herself.
After a four-year absence, Abdou returned to belly dancing in 2019, aged 65. In an interview she said, “Dancing has no age as long as there is fitness. Before I decided to return to dancing I tested the audience by posting videos of dancing on social media, which were well-received and generated positive reactions from the people, some of whom asked me to come back, so I was excited to return, and I returned indeed.”
More recently, Amy Sultan, who originally trained as an engineer, has amazed Egyptian audiences with her dance skills in concerts and clubs as well as raised eyebrows over her income. Her wage per night ranges between $1,500-$3,000, whereas the monthly salary of an engineer her age does not exceed $200. She is thought to be the highest paid dancer in the country, surpassing Dina Talaat Sayed Mohammed, named ‘the last Egyptian dancer’ by the American magazine Newsweek, who earns $1,200 per night.
Although belly dancing in Egypt has historically been known for the professionalism of foreign dancers such as the Greek dancer Kitty, this professionalism has re-emerged with foreigners finding lucrative opportunities in Egypt that are unavailable elsewhere.
Russian dancer Ekaterina Andreeva, who performs under the name Jawhara, had a successful belly dancing channel on YouTube before moving to Egypt. She became known after a video of her dancing in a club went viral. She was subsequently arrested by the Egyptian authorities for inciting disobedience and immorality and sentenced to one year in prison. After being released, she moved to Beirut, Lebanon. Her income one New Year’s Eve, when she performed several times on the same night, was around $30,000.
Back in the 1950s, the Egyptian authorities established rules regulating the work and permissible clothing of female dancers. The ethics police are responsible for ensuring adherence to these rules, which include covering the lower third of the breast, wearing short trousers up to the middle of the thigh and covering the stomach between the chest and abdomen. Foreign dancers have to obtain work and residence permits to dance in Egypt and are subject to art controls. They also have to submit forms to several authorities such as the ethics police and the National Security Agency.
According to art critic Adam Mikiwi, “Belly dancing has been a big market and a huge trade in Egypt and the Middle East due to its artistic value in history in our region. What made this market attractive for foreign dancers was the fact that the society was closed and religious over several periods of time and because of the role of new clerics in the late 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, in addition to the emergence of so-called ‘clean cinema’, drying up the market of local dancers who were subject to stigmatization in society and had weak attendance at weddings and in clubs. In the past, dancing was an essential part of hotel night programmes, the most famous of which was the ‘Airport of Love Show’ performed by Indian dancers in famous hotels. Interest in dancing became weak, after there were big bands that created generations of female dancers, including the bands of Akif, Reda and the National Folk Arts Band.”
Safinaz is another foreigner who has achieved belly dancing stardom in Egypt. Born Sovinar Goryan in Armenia, her role in the 2013 film al-Qashash launched her career. Known for introducing new and novel moves into her performances, she has gone on to become Egypt’s best-known belly dancer, commanding up to $1,800 per dance. Like Jawhara, however, she fell foul of the Egyptian authorities, spending six months in prison for performing in an ‘offensive’ dress the same colours as the Egyptian flag on the eve of the 2014 presidential elections.
Among other successful foreign belly dancers in Egypt is the Brazilian Esmeralda, whose performance in a hijab was widely circulated on social media. A handful of male belly dancers, notably Curacao-born Rachid Alexander, have made it too, following in the footsteps of Egyptian belly dance coach Hassan Zaza and the Lebanese dancers Mesho and Alexandre Paulikevitch.
Mikiwi added that the emergence of some local dancers and their ability to find fame in film rendered the belly dance market unbalanced because it created two types of dancers: famous stars who earn high wages and low-level dancers with poor skills who earn very low wages. As a result, female dancers from Russia, Ukraine, Brazil and other countries were brought in to fill the gaps. These foreign dancers are usually fit, beautiful and highly trained. One of the first people to bring in Russian dancers was actor Samir Sabri for his Russian Show.
Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the demand for dancers at weddings and other occasions is on the rise again. Dancing is back in fashion, and dancers, singers and actors have re-emerged to benefit from the new opportunities this presents.