Belly Dance in Egypt

Visiting our friend Kate while she worked in Cairo was the excuse for our trip, but Lis and I both had ulterior motives for wanting to visit Egypt.  For me, it was because I had wanted to be an Egyptologist when I was seven.  For Lis, it was a bit of a pilgrimage.  As a belly dancer, Cairo is the place to go for the art, and yet, it's also a harsh reminder of how dancers are perceived by modern Egyptians.

I'm too sexy for my country.

In 2004, the Egyptian Labor and Emigration Affairs Ministry banned foreign belly dancers from performing publicly, wanting to bring jobs back to their citizens and reclaim some of their cultural heritage.  The problem was, as Egypt had become more conservative, fewer Egyptian women studied the art.  Dancers are, in the eyes of most Egyptian men, prostitutes.  Respectable daughters, wives and mothers only dance behind closed doors.  Needless to say, the ban was revoked later in the year and foreign dancers went back to work. 

Under the new administration, belly dancers are feeling the strain once again.  Dancing can be grounds for being evicted by your landlord and like everyone, dancers are affected by the lack of tourists.  However, belly dance also brings in tourist dollars from a small but dedicated base of foreign women who study the art.

Lis found a belly dance-friendly guide for Cairo in Nibal Gouda.  Nibal is great - she offers a unique perspective as a working Egyptian woman, a devoted Muslim wife and mother, and an excellent guide.  She took us round to three shops that specialize in dance costumes in the Khan el-Khalili.  The first shop (Al Fahem?) was small but bright and had a woman working the register (uncommon in the Khan, to say the least).  The salesman asked Lis what she was looking for and immediately pulled three or four choices, bundled up in clear garment bags, off the shelf.  Nibal and I sipped tea while Lis tried them on behind a curtain.  It reminded me of going wedding dress shopping with Kate, back when she lived with us in Brooklyn!  Lis ended up with an amazing gold one-piece and the world's sparkliest diamante top.

Our next stop was a dark and narrow little store called Yassers, with a steep staircase to an upstairs room that looked like the notions and accessories aisles of several fabric stores had exploded. We didn't spend much time here, but Lis went back on her second visit to Egypt, a month later, and bought two amazingly blinged-out costumes there.  Finally, we stopped by Mahmoud El Ghaffer - the most impressive of them all.  It was a three-story shop, completely devoted to belly dance costumes.  A veritable belly dance department store.  They switched the lights on when we entered.  Combating the heat or the electric bill?  We didn't ask.  Lis left with a gorgeous skirt to go with her disco-ball top, and a fake sword for balancing on her head.
Before arriving in Cairo, Lis had booked a lesson with a dancer on one of the Nile dinner cruises, Loona.  She also made reservations for us to go on the Nile Maxim, widely considered the best boat.  The reservations turned out to be unnecessary - the boat was probably 60% empty.  We were seated right up front, which gave us pause later, as the clear "tourists" on board - us, the Asian tour group, a few other Anglo families - seemed to be given preferential seating.  In any case, we filled our plates at the salad bar and listened to two singers duke it out in English, Spanish, and Arabic.  We took a walk around the boat as they closed their act.

Dinner was alright, but dessert brought with it our unexpected star of the evening - the sufi dancer.  Costume changes, drums, and LED lights were involved.  Pictures were taken.  Lis was fed chocolate cake. It was great.

Our belly dancer, Leila, turned out to be American, but definitely danced Egyptian style - more fluid, lazy movements.  She was very engaging and pretty, but Kate and I weren't overly wowed by her dancing or costume choices.  The Egyptian family sitting to our right loved it, however. The mother and daughter both clapped appreciatively through every song, even getting up to dance with her for a few moments.  It was neat to see the different tables react.  The tour group from China didn't quite seem to know what to make of her.  In the end, our take-away from the night was that the salad bar and the sufi dancer had stolen the show.

Our last belly dance experience took place the afternoon we got back to Cairo.  Lis had gotten in touch with Yasmina, a British expat who runs a bed and breakfast for belly dancers visiting Cairo.  She also puts her background in fashion photography to use, doing photo shoots in front of the pyramids!  I got to tag along as a "helper".  Hopping in Yasmina's car in Giza, we drove up a narrow road lined with stables, stopping at one at the top.

Despite growing up in Virginia horse country, the last time I'd ridden was at the age of six, at a friend's birthday party, and I hadn't exactly liked it. I was given the smallest, most docile horse of the three.  Our horse wrangler/bouncer/photo assistant led my horse slowly along, while Yasmina led the way on her beautiful Arabian and Lis trotted after.

We stopped below a bluff overlooking the pyramids.  A group of teenage boys was hanging out above.  Our bouncer went to ask them to please move, trying to cut down on the attention we'd attract on a busy Friday afternoon.  Yasmina had explained that attention attracts police officers, who want bribes, which then attracts more police officers... "It can get very expensive, very fast," she said with a small smile.  Lis kept the robe she'd been wearing nearby, in case anyone did show up.


Yasmina and her assistant then set about directing, reflecting, and shooting Lis as she went through a variety of poses and props.  The landscape and magic hour light were definitely in our favor - even the few pics I snapped of Yasmina snapping Lis turned out great.  After about an hour and a hundred shots, they finished up, and we trotted back to the stables.  To wrap up the day, I scored this rather epic picture...

All in all, I'm so happy I got to see a side of Cairo I never would have known existed otherwise.  Thanks, Lis!


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