Why the Fuss Over Egyptian Style
Music & Oriental Dance?

by Shira

The folk dance which led to Oriental dance (often called "belly dance") has been part of local culture throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and as far east as Iran for centuries. According to research performed by Morocco, oral tradition links it back to ancient times, when it was used as to support childbirth.

Despite the vast reach of the folk dance, the stage performance of it is linked most strongly to Egyptian music, props, and costuming. Persian-Americans that I have spoken to refer to it as "Arabic dance". When I traveled to Turkey, I saw more dancers performing to Arabic music than to Turkish music, and they used such distinctly Egyptian props as canes and candelabra. In North America, by far the most popular presentation of Oriental dance involves use of Egyptian music, props, and styling. If you're somewhat new to the dance scene, you might be wondering why Egyptian music and interpretation have dominated the Oriental dance scene. Here's a bit of background to help you understand.

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From Folk Dance to Nightclubs

Before the 19th century, Oriental dance was performed primarily in family-oriented situations. At weddings, circumcisions, bar mitzvahs (yes, Jewish families did it too!), and other occasions, people would get up to dance for the joy of it. Sometimes they would hire a professional dancer for added entertainment. Since these were family occasions, outsiders were rarely given any opportunity to witness it.

During the 1800's, Europeans became fascinated with "the Orient". Writers such as Gustav Flaubert and painters such as Jean-Léon Gérome flocked to the Middle East and North Africa for artistic inspiration. Tourists visited the region to gawk at the exotic people and landscapes. Colonial armies from England and France occupied various countries in the region.

Among these curiosity-seeking Europeans, word quickly spread that the dancers were one of the attractions they shouldn't miss. Whether they enjoyed the dancing or despised it, the exotic appeal of something so very different from their own homeland held a sort of fascination for them. Although previously the local women had danced only for family celebrations and community events, they discovered a new market for their talent: foreigners.

In Cairo, Egypt, the first nightclubs to offer this type of entertainment in a public setting appeared in the 1920's. Similar nightclubs also arose in Beirut, Lebanon. Employment opportunities for musicians and dancers flourished thanks to the demand from foreigners seeking a taste of the exotic local entertainment.

At this time, Turkey was struggling with a cultural revolution brought about by the overthrow of the final Ottoman sultan after World War I. Turkey was preoccupied with transitioning from monarchy to democracy, and from a religion-dominated society to a secular society. Under the leadership of Ataturk, Turkey was dragged away from its historically Oriental culture, and looked westward for its political and cultural leadership. The new government banned men from wearing the fez and women from wearing the veil. The Mevlevi sect of sufis (the whirling dervishes inspired by Rumi) was forbidden. Under these profound societal changes, there was no opportunity for Oriental music and dance in Turkey to follow the precedents set in the Arab world.

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From Nightclubs to Movies & Music

As the U.S. movie and music industries arose in the first part of the 20th century, a similar entertainment industry emerged in the Arabic world. Just as New York and Hollywood were the centers of the U.S. entertainment industry, Cairo and Beirut became the centers of music and film for the Arabic-speaking world.

Starting around the 1940's, Egyptian film production companies began releasing Arabic-language musicals. Farid al-Atrache emerged as a multi-talented star who captured women's hearts as a leading man, composed music that became instant hits throughout the Arabic world, and played the oud with the skill of a virtuoso. Another composer who rose to fame and popularity was Mohammed Abdel Wahab.

Just as English-language musicals featured dance scenes, so did the Arabic ones. The Oriental dance performances in these movies soon turned Tahia Carioca, Samia Gamal, and others into international stars. Even today, these early stars of Egyptian dance are as much a part of the Arabic cultural heritage as Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Gene Kelly are part of the American culture.

In parallel, Lebanon was growing its own Oriental dance scene, led by Nadia Gamal.

Inspired by harem scenes in Hollywood movies, the Egyptian movie industry garbed its performers in costumes similar to those produced half a world away. Soon, Egyptian dance was setting a new standard throughout the Middle East for treating Oriental dance as a performing art rather than a social dance.

Although the social dance is part of the culture throughout the Middle East, there really wasn't any analogous development of Oriental dance as a performing art in Turkey, Iran, or North Africa. So that's why many people from the Middle East refer to the public performance of Oriental dance as "Arabic dance".

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The 1960's Through the 1980's

Lebanon's rich contributions to Arabic culture were sadly interrupted by their civil war. It's hard for an entertainment industry to prosper when people's primary concern is simply staying alive and eking out a living under the dark cloud of war.

As a result, Egypt became the centerpiece for continued development of the Arabic performing arts. Several memorable stars emerged during this era: Soheir Zaki, Nagwa Fouad, Lucy, Nadia Hamdi, Fifi Abdo, and others. These dancers were paid very, very well and became rich by the standards of their own culture. They commissioned musicians to compose intricate songs played by 40-piece orchestras just for them. This was a wonderful time for a tourist with an interest in dance to visit Egypt and see world-class performances.

The clubs featuring these headliners were 5-star nightclubs, and heavily patronized by wealthy Arabs from nearby countries such as Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian entertainment industry promoted their work, and the news media made them famous throughout the Arab world.

As air travel became more affordable and accessible in the late 1970's, an increasing number of Oriental dance artists from Europe, North America, and Australia made the pilgrimage to see these shows. These "dance tourists" were captivated by the superb performances and the popularity these stars had in their own countries. Soon, many people were bringing home music, props, and costumes they had bought "over there" in hopes of copying the types of shows they had seen.

At the same time, Turkey's Oriental dance scene was primarily aimed at the sleaze market. Dancers were very scantily clad, and the nightclubs that featured them were low-class dives. They did not present an example that dancers in Europe, North America, and Australia would want to emulate.

The Egyptian influence took a strong hold over the dance scene around the rest of the world. Egypt was the best place to go in the Middle East to see excellent performances of Oriental dance in high-class nightclubs, and it was also the best place to go to buy costumes. Egypt was the one country in the Middle East whose Oriental dance performers were famous and highly paid.

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The Dance Scene Today

Sadly, the dance scene in Egypt declined over the course of the 1990's.

One issue is that there has been a decline in the rich Arabic tourists from the Persian Gulf region who used to patronize the 5-star nightclubs in Cairo. It was the older generation that used to be fond of going to these clubs and watching dance performances. The younger generation prefers other entertainment, and goes elsewhere to find it. As a result, several of the 5-star nightclubs have closed due to this loss of revenue.

Another impact on the Egyptian dance scene is the fact that the Muslim extremists targeted Egypt as a place to bring their conservative influence. They offered to pay money to families if the women would wear traditional Muslim attire instead of Western garb. They began to wreak violence on people who didn't conform to their rigid interpretation of Islam.

These extremists particularly targeted public dance performances by women, because Islam states that women should cover their beauty and show it only to their husbands. They threatened to disrupt with violence any events that involved women performing Oriental dance in front of men. As a result, people have backed away from hiring female dancers for weddings and other happy events, because they don't want their special occasions ruined by violence. When I was in Egypt in 1999, I was invited to two weddings, and neither had a female dancer. Instead, both featured ensembles of young men dancing.

Today, the famous Egyptian dancers such as Fifi Abdo and Dina surround themselves with entourages of bodyguards to ensure their personal safety. Others such as Nagwa Fouad and Soheir Zaki retired in the late 1980's or early 1990's because it just wasn't worth the hassle to continue.

The dancers who used to make a living performing at weddings and the less prestigious nightclubs are having trouble making ends meet. Many Egyptian-born dancers have retired from performing altogether. Increasingly, the dancers who do continue to perform publicly are foreigners from Russia, Argentina, and other far-flung places.

The good news is that while the Egyptian dance environment has decayed, Oriental dance is rising to higher levels of quality in other places.

Now that Lebanon's civil war has ended, Beirut is starting to restore its cultural heritage.

In Turkey, some fine Oriental dance performers are starting to appear in the better night spots frequented by tourists. Interestingly, the majority of the ones I saw when I was there in 2000 danced to Arabic music and used Egyptian props such as cane and candelabrum rather than using Turkish music. Their costumes were lovely and tasteful by North American standards. Although I'm sure it's still possible to find clubs in Turkey that cater to the sleaze factor, there are now many opportunities to see good-quality performances there.

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This article originally appeared on the Suite101 web site, in the Middle Eastern Dance category, on January 31, 2002.

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