Foreign Belly Dancers? Egyptians Shake Their Heads (and Hips)

Cairo Dispatch

The arrest of a Russian stomach dancer uncovered simmering tensions in Cairo’s belly-dancing scene. Critics say foreigners are sullying an historic artwork kind. Many Egyptians love them.

The Russian stomach dancer Ekaterina Andreeva, often called Johara, at a marriage in Cairo just a few months after her arrest.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times

CAIRO — When undercover law enforcement officials in Egypt swooped on an upscale nightclub on the Nile final spring and arrested a Russian stomach dancer, the main target of their investigation was her costume — and what, if something, lay beneath it.

Was the dancer often called Johara, whose sizzling video had develop into an in a single day sensation, sporting the suitable “shorts,” as modesty-protecting undergarments are formally referred to as? Were they the suitable dimension? The acceptable colour? Or was she, as some feared, sporting no shorts in any respect?

Johara, whose actual title is Ekaterina Andreeva, 30, insisted on her innocence, however nonetheless the police marched her off to jail, the place others argued over her destiny.

Russian diplomats paid a go to. Her supervisor and her husband again in Moscow pressed her case. In her dingy cell, Ms. Andreeva gave an impromptu efficiency for a dozen fellow prisoners, principally prostitutes and drug sellers.

“Those women treated me so well,” she recalled. “They asked me to dance, and then we all danced together.”

A stomach dancing workshop at a resort in Cairo.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times
The Egyptian dancer Randa Kamel main a workshop attended by many Eastern European ladies.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times

After three days, it appeared she could be deported. But on the final minute, a mysterious white knight intervened — a Libyan businessman with highly effective connections, she was instructed — and she or he was sprung from jail.

It was a drama worthy of stomach dance, a centuries-old artwork kind that has lengthy thrived on sensual intrigue. During the Second World War, German spies mingled with British officers at Madam Badia’s cabaret; within the 1970s, dancers performed for American presidents.

In current many years, stomach dance has impressed conflicting impulses amongst Egyptians, who see it both as excessive artwork, racy leisure or an excuse for ethical grandstanding.

But Ms. Andreeva’s plight additionally highlighted a fairly sensitive concern: If Cairo is the worldwide capital of stomach dance, then why do its hottest new stars come from in all places however Egypt?

Kiev to Cairo

The Ukrainian dancer Alla Kushnir, a regulation graduate, appeared on “Ukraine’s Got Talent” with an extravagant belly-dance routine that set her on a brand new profession path.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times

At a marriage in a luxurious Cairo suburb, a barefoot Alla Kushnir shimmied onto the flower-strewn dance ground, a whirlwind of quivers, twists and livid gyrations.

Young males in tuxedos, grinning broadly, clambered over each other for a greater view of the stomach dancer. Little women in occasion clothes scurried behind, imitating her strikes. A bunch of veiled ladies at a nook desk clapped in approval.

“Coming to Egypt was my dream,” stated Ms. Kushnir, 33, who hails from Ukraine, whereas stuffing her outfit right into a suitcase afterward.

Foreigners have dominated the highest flights of Egypt’s belly-dancing scene in recent times — Americans, Britons and Brazilians, however particularly Eastern Europeans.

The foreigners carry an athletic, high-energy sensibility to the dance, extra disco than Arabian Nights. Their sweeping routines distinction with the languid, subtly suggestive type of classic Egyptian stars. Some are overtly sexual.

Ms. Kushnir making an attempt out equipment for her performances at her house in Cairo.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times
Participants in Ms. Kamel’s workshop throughout an outing close to Cairo.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times

Growing up within the port metropolis of Nikolayev, Ms. Kushnir, 33, dreamed of being an archaeologist. She graduated in regulation. But in 2010, she appeared on a TV present, “Ukraine’s Got Talent,” with an extravagant belly-dance routine that set her on a brand new profession path.

In one efficiency, she wore a black veil with a tray of burning candles on her head; within the different, she writhed in a pool of water supported by semi-naked males.

Then Ms. Kushnir moved to Cairo, the Broadway of stomach dance, the place she turned a real star. She generally performs 5 occasions an evening at upscale weddings and ritzy events, the place prime performers can earn $1,200 or extra. One of her videos has 9 million views on YouTube.

Purists bemoan the international invasion as a cultural travesty. They accuse the outsiders of trampling on Arab heritage for revenue and pushing the dance kind in a brash course. Even some foreigners agree.

“In many cases, we lack the nuance, subtlety and grace of Egyptians,” stated Diana Esposito, a Harvard graduate from New York who got here to Egypt in 2008 on a Fulbright scholarship and stayed to pursue a profession in stomach dance.

Ms. Esposito, who performs as Luna of Cairo, famous that there have been nonetheless 1000’s of Egyptian dancers. But most are within the decrease rungs of the trade — seedy cabarets close to the Pyramids or vacationer traps on the Nile.

“It feels like the Egyptian dancer is an endangered species, which is very sad,” stated Ms. Esposito, who not too long ago moved again to Brooklyn. “Sad for the art. Sad for Egypt.”

Even so, Egyptian dance nonetheless has one undisputed queen — a dancer who by vast settlement stands above all of them.

The Last Egyptian Queen?

Egyptian dance nonetheless has one undisputed queen: Dina.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times

It was simply after three a.m. on the cabaret within the luxurious Semiramis Hotel when Dina glided onto the stage, glittering within the highlight, as a 17-piece band struck up.

Bow-tied waiters bustled about. Puffs of cigar smoke lingered within the air. The viewers — Arab , Western vacationers, as many ladies as males — watched from crimson velveteen cubicles, totally entranced.

A legend throughout the Middle East, Dina Talaat Sayed has danced for princes, presidents and dictators in a profession spanning 4 many years. “Ah yes, Qaddafi,” she stated with a wry smile, recalling the deposed Libyan strongman. “Funny man. Very funny.”

Ms. Sayed additionally is aware of all about Egyptians’ conflicted perspective about her career.

“Love and hate — it’s always been like this,” she stated. “Egyptians cannot have a wedding without a belly dancer. But if one of them marries your brother — oh, my God! That’s a problem.”

Amie Sultan, a distinguished Egyptian dancer, with a fancy dress designer. She comes from a rich Egyptian household and skilled as a ballerina.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times
Participants in Ms. Kamel’s workshop.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times

The stigma is a part of a creeping puritanism that has stifled the humanities in Egypt in current many years. Now even a touch of a kiss is forbidden in Egyptian films, track lyrics are sanitized, and ethical vigilantes hound artists via the courts.

A pop singer, Shyma, is languishing in jail on costs of “inciting debauchery” for a sexually suggestive video; in 2015, a stomach dancer was barred from standing for election as a result of she “lacked a good reputation,” a decide declared.

“Egyptians see an Egyptian dancer as a hooker,” stated Bassem Abd El Moneim, Ms. Andreeva’s supervisor. “But a foreigner can be a star.”

There are exceptions past Ms. Sayed. One distinguished dancer, Amie Sultan, hails from a rich household and skilled as a ballerina. Another, Fifi Abdou, an Egyptian nationwide treasure seen with each affection and mockery for her boisterous character, has been reincarnated in retirement because of social media.

Recently, Ms. Abdou, 65, perched earlier than a pair of iPads as she broadcast to her three million followers on Facebook and Instagram in an hourlong stream of affectionate babble, air kisses and trademark catchphrases.

“Scooze me!” she exclaimed randomly because the display full of crimson hearts. “Salma! Love you, love you, love you!”

But for a lot of Egyptians, the value of a profession in stomach dance might be too excessive.

Randa Kamel, who runs a significant stomach dance faculty in Cairo that pulls college students from internationally, was overwhelmed as a youngster by a father who disapproved of her dancing. Even now, her 17-year-old son hides her career at his personal highschool, and she or he pulls off her glittering pretend nails earlier than assembly his lecturers.

“That’s why I don’t go on TV,” Ms. Kamel stated. “I want my son to have a good life. There’s a certain amount of fame that is not healthy.”

A participant in Ms. Kamel’s workshop performing in the course of the closing ceremony.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times

Ms. Andreeva, the briefly jailed Russian stomach dancer, nonetheless isn’t positive what spurred the police raid in February, however she blesses the day.

Since then, bookings have soared, her look price has doubled, and she or he is sought by the wealthy and highly effective. Recent purchasers embrace the household of a significant metal tycoon, the daughter of Egypt’s prime minister and an exiled cousin of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

Official considerations about her act — and her “shorts” — seem to have vanished. The shimmering costume she wore within the video that landed her in hassle has develop into a major part of her act.

Even the police chief who saved her in his jail has develop into a fan, and booked Ms. Andreeva for a number of household weddings, stated her supervisor, Mr. Moneim.

“She’s famous now,” he stated, as he whisked her between gigs on a Friday night time. “People love that.”

Ms. Andreeva admitted that it was onerous to match Egyptian dancers on some ranges. “We are technically good, but they have that Arab soul,” she stated.

But she compensates by channeling the sheer, raucous vitality of Egyptian audiences. “There’s an emotion here that is incredible,” she stated. “It makes me feel like a rock star.”

An array of stomach dance costumes on sale at Ms. Kamel’s workshop in Cairo.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times

Nour Youssef contributed reporting.

Produced by Mona Boshnaq.

Declan Walsh is the Cairo bureau chief, protecting Egypt and the Middle East. He joined The Times in 2011 as Pakistan bureau chief, and he beforehand labored at The Guardian. @declanwalsh

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