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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 8, No. 4, 2009
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Robert J. Lewis
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Yahia Lababidi



Yahia Lababidi, aphorist, essayist and poet, is the author of Signposts to Elsewhere, selected for ‘Books of the Year’ in 2008 by The Independent (UK).

Egyptians love to dance. Their conceit is that belly dancing runs in their veins and that even the amateur local is innately superior to a professional foreigner. Upon the faintest prompting, women of every shape, age and class will put this proposition to the test. It is typical to see little girls wriggling at gatherings in an astonishingly accomplished manner for hours at a time. Equally common, to hear the coy protestations of a guest being invited to dance one moment and to witness a creature possessed the next. Forget about getting them to take their seat until the shaking subsides.

The ubiquity and sheer joy of the dance, however, does not detract from the perception of immorality associated with the dancing profession. Egyptians are deeply conflicted about the respectability of the art form. It is alright to perform this type of dance in private, among friends or family, people argue, but to do so before strangers and for money is unsavory. Islamic preachers have gone so far as to proclaim that belly dancers cannot take part in religious rites (i.e. feeding the poor during Ramadan, or performing the Hajj/Pilgrimage). In short, professional belly dancers are regarded as little more than purveyors of titillation and the very embodiment of sin.

At a time when more and more Egyptian women are donning the veil, Cairo remains the world epicenter for those who wish to master a dance that is only a slight variation on the theme of Salome’s shedding her veils. And when, at seaside, the bulk of Egyptian women are opting to wade in gallabiyyas (full length traditional dresses) it is not unusual for a belly dancer to perform at a public venue wearing little more than a glorified bikini, like a beached mermaid in her glittering gauzy garb.

An incident illustrating the paradoxically privileged position belly dancers occupy in society occurred last year. A video depicting one of Egypt’s top belly dancers in flagrante delicto leaked onto the street and Internet, following a police raid on the villa of a well known (and married) Egyptian businessman. A lesser mortal would have perished beneath the heat of such a scandal, especially a woman in a conservative society. Yet, following a teary public apology and a short leave of absence, the Uberdancer bounced back on stage. Moreover, to add legislation to lore, a new law forbids foreign dancers from practicing this lucrative local art, another example of the almost unassailable status of the belly dancer in Egyptian society.

A love/hate relationship for the belly dancer places her in a perceived moral netherworld somewhere between actors and whores. Both actors and dancers, whose testimony was once inadmissible in court, are accorded the same morbid fascination and contempt. Every twist and turn of their private lives is deemed newsworthy, and a renewed source of censure. Hishik bishik, slang for all things associated with belly dancing (and shorthand for tsk-tsk) is actually onomatopoeia: the sound of the shaking belly dancer, beads and all. It is also used figuratively as a derogatory term for the shaking of values or the loosening of the moral fabric associated with a dancer’s questionable position in the public imagination. What does this say about the people who heartily embrace the dance as a form of self-expression?

The origins of Raqs Sharqi or Oriental Dancing (Egyptians do not call it belly dancing) are ambiguous. Whether or not it was born in Ancient Egypt, it is widely held that the dance has its roots in fertility ceremonies meant to strengthen abdominal muscles and ease childbirth. The dance itself is a kind of break dance, only more fluid, exhibiting a variety of muscle isolation techniques: rolling the belly, swiveling the hips or making the upper and lower body appear as though they led independent lives. In many ways, belly dancing is the anti-ballet. Whereas the ballerina wears her pretty steel-tipped slippers, the belly dancer is sensuously barefoot. While the ballerina strives for the ethereal and seeks to resist gravity, the belly dancer’s feet are firmly planted on the ground, tapping into a boundless fund of earthy energy.

That is the technique, but then there is the inspiration, the wordless ecstasy communicated, the body eloquence. President Anwar Sadat once described a celebrated Egyptian dancer of the 70s, Souhair Zaki, as “the Oum Kolthoum of dance . . . As she sings with her voice, you sing with your body.” he said to her. Speaking of the same dancer, Geraldine Brooks put it slightly differently in her book, Nine Parts of Desire:

What she did with her body was what a woman’s body did -- the natural movements of sex and childbirth. The dance drew the eye to the very centre of the female body’s womanliness.

The fact that weddings are hardly complete without a belly dancer is revealing, given the function of marriage as sanctifying the union between a man and a woman who is expected to be a virgin. Costing the family of the bride or groom up to $3,000 for a 45-minute performance and widely considered the highlight of the matrimonial event, the belly dancer’s entrance is anticipated with baited breath. And what an entrance it is. Some time past the witching hour, often draped in a sort of a sparkling cape, she shimmies into the room with a manic enthusiasm, heralded and accompanied by the wild beating of drums. Having established her presence, and reveling in the power of an intensity inhabited, the dancer sheds her mock modest veil to reveal herself -- a half-naked, shimmering apparition. All anima and the daemonic, she then proceeds to stomp on the hallowed ground of the wedding ceremony.

This primeval emotional maelstrom is transmitted to the enthralled general audience and the blushing bride in particular. Women study her intently, but with a more guarded enthusiasm than their drooling male counterparts. Having transfixed the audience in a sort of reverse mesmerism -- where the snake charms those who summoned it -- the dancer turns her attention to the bride. Weaving and dipping in her vicinity, she initiates her into the rites of uninhibited womanhood. See the effect I have on the room (and your groom) she insinuates, brandishing her sexuality. That power is yours, too. Your birthright. Celebrate it. And she’s off, back with the crowd; challenging them to take guilt-free pleasure in their bodies, snaking between them, dancing with a deliciously self-absorbed exhibitionism.

Dressed in a wedding cake of a gown, the bride must fret, how can I possibly compete with this woman invulnerable to taboo? Having spent a lifetime shrewdly protecting her virtue and a small fortune on the appearance of her dress, she is being upstaged at her own wedding by a woman who seems to care for neither. How can she possibly stand up to this dancer -- radiating sex and naked confidence -- with her flamboyant disregard for the fundamental commandments of Family and Society?

In such a charged atmosphere belly dancing serves as a kind of ‘licensed murder.’ This is Bertrand Russell’s definition of war, only the war declared here is on conventional morality and its mind-forged manacles. The force of the belly dance is a force of nature, perceived as unharnessed and disruptive, hence the fear. The fear is an ancient one: of desire, of female flesh. The belly dancer’s twisting sisters are many and ruinous in mythology and the human imagination: Eve and the Serpent, Medusa (Woman and Serpent fused), Salome (disastrous desire), Kali (fierce transcendence), the Sirens (femme fatale), the striptease (look don’t touch), and the lap dancer (crude sensuality). All hint at a vision of woman engaged in a frenzied dance of Life and Death, of passion careening out of control, threatening to overwhelm and consume.

It is not without significance that a 1920’s law forbade the belly dancer from showing her navel. Later in the 1950s, belly dancing was prohibited in Egypt altogether. The ban was repealed following a public outcry on the condition that the belly button be covered. Why the bellybutton? Given it is not a sexual organ, one suspects the significance is symbolic. The belly button is after all, where the umbilical cord was severed. Is it the scene of the original crime from which people wish to avert their gaze?

"Every vagina has secret teeth, for the male exits as less than when he entered." says Camille Paglia. Teeth that are razor sharp in a patriarchal society. Vagina dentata, then, denotes a fear of devouring origins, as may the offensive bellybutton. (This, it appears, is what lurks behind the age-old anxiety over female sensuality). Hence, trafficking as the belly dancer does, in the heady cocktail of dance and womanhood, creation and destruction, the object of desire becomes a repository of fear and loathing. To accept their spontaneous joy in dance without the attendant sense of sin, perhaps Egyptians might take a cue from Nietzsche’s declaration: I could only believe in a god who dances.

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