Cairo belly dancers hit respectability wobble

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It’s 1am at the Scheherazade theatre in downtown Cairo. The smoke from water pipes is thick in the air and the band has started to play.


Outside, the crowds are cheering Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the President-elect who was declared victor with 96.9 per cent of the vote, letting off occasional fireworks.


But inside, no one is thinking about politics. The first dancer sashays on to the stage in a sparkling zebra print costume and thick make-up. She is about 50 and moves awkwardly.


The crowd, mostly middle-age lone men, stare indifferently towards her, even as the tempo of the music rises: the tune is Teslam al-Ayady – or Bless their Hands, a pro-military song used to rally support for Sisi during his campaign.


For the mostly poor clientele, a couple of beers here can easily set them back a day’s wages – more than in the bars playing house and techno that young middle-class Egyptians frequent just a few blocks away.


“They come here to feel rich and powerful,” a young waiter said.


The dancer tries to smile as she shimmies. Above the sparkling silver of her platform heels, the soles of her feet are a painful red.


The venue isn’t doing much better. The murals depicting tales from the Thousand and One Nights are pitted and faded, and the tablecloths are synthetic blue blankets lifted from Egypt Air, the national airline.


This was once one of the most glamorous cabarets in Cairo, and the black and white pictures on the wall recall the time when Tahia Karioka, a film star who danced for King Farouk, reigned supreme.


“There’s prostitution, a lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol,” said Luna of Cairo, an American belly dancer. She also describes bitter competition for work, as dancers steal each other’s costumes or even call the morality police on each other. According to staff at Scheherazade, other police officers are regular customers.


Luna performs at other venues for tourists and wealthier Egyptians, but has interviewed dancers from all over Cairo as part of her postgraduate research into belly dancing culture.


She found that dancers and musicians struggle to reconcile their work with the values of their culture. “The average lower-class Egyptian dancer is ashamed of what she does and is looking to quit as soon as possible,” she said. But the money is better than in many alternative lines of work for women without qualifications.


Belly dancers are at once an object of fascination and contempt for many Egyptian men. “You are seen as a celebrity and the sinner at the same time,” said Luna.


What is called belly dancing in the West is raqs sharqi in Arabic, or oriental dance, and is the most popular form of dance at parties and weddings in the Arab world, although most women would never wear the kind of costumes on show at Scheherazade except in private.


Belly dancing has been buffeted by the rise of conservative Islam in recent decades, which has brought more forbidding social attitudes with it. Costumes which show the midriff have been illegal since the 50s but are worn universally.


At Scheherazade, the dancer descends from the stage. A man with a slicked-back mullet drops a shower of Egyptian 5 notes – worth about 80c each – over her headand begins an ungainly dance with her. A man with a combover scurries to pick up the notes.


– Independent


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