Fifty years ago a young teenager named Ghada Bashour walked into a Damascus night club, where she had been contracted to perform Oriental dancing three days a week. She chose to wear a long dress, used by dancers performing the baladi style, a more conservative form of Oriental dance focused on movement of the torso, with less flesh-showing.
One night the Lebanese singer Fairuz walked in, having just wrapped up one of her performances at the Damascus International Fair. The young dancer—herself a Fairuz fan—could not believe she was going to perform before the Lebanese diva. Bashour danced her way up to Fairuz’s table, swaying to the music of the live band playing on stage, vibrating, and shivering with every drum beat. Fairuz at the time sung nothing but serious Andalusian poetry. She never cracked a smile on stage but was clearly impressed by the young dancer. She applauded her, describing Bashour’s style as “expressionist, emotional, and elegant.”
Even during the Golden Era, Oriental dance was never accepted by conservative society, due to its association with night life and cabarets.
That was at a time when Arab intellectuals still considered Oriental dancing a form of art before religious conservative clerics wrote it off as haram, thus wrong, immoral, and forbidden in Islam. They saw it as synonymous with nudity, given that a belly dancer’s dress exposes her legs, breasts, and, obviously, her belly. But even during the Golden Era – a period in the early to mid-1900s when the Egyptian film industry took off and many belly dancers became famous – Oriental dance was never accepted by conservative society, due to its association with night life and cabarets. In Syria for example, it was only during the late 1970s that state-run television began promoting it as a form of folkloric art.
A Dying Profession
The profession today is all but extinct in the three Arab cities where it once flourished—Cairo, Beirut, and Damascus. The Muslim Brotherhood lashed out against this form of dance during their brief rule of Egypt from 2012 to 2013 while the devastations of the Syrian war crushed opportunities for the very few belly dancers who remained active. Meanwhile in neighboring Lebanon, harsh economic conditions have led many dancers to abandon the craft and search for professions that make more money.
In Damascus, over the past 20 years, schools have emerged teaching ballet, waltz, and the tango but not one offers lessons in Oriental dance. In classic, black-and-white Arabic films, belly dancing is often shown in cabarets and nightclubs where there is plenty of drinking and smoking, greatly harming the public perception of the profession, and discouraging many from enjoying it.
As a result, the big names of the Golden Era of belly dancing are either retired or dead. Many simply faded from the limelight and died in their homes, old and forgotten. Ghada Bashour is one of the very few who managed to reinvent herself with a career shift into acting. She now plays in popular television dramas, often taking the role of an aging housewife.
The Story of Sumayya
According to Sumayya, a retired belly dancer living in Damascus, others were not so lucky. As a devout Muslim, Sumayya now wears a headscarf, along with a black garment covering her entire body. She is reluctant to speak about her previous life in show business. “I don’t want to embarrass my grandchildren,” she told Inside Arabia. Sumayya was once a big name in entertainment, performing at the Siriana Cabaret, frequented by then-President Adib al-Shishakli in the 1950s.
Many Syrians still watch Egyptian belly dancers on screen, like Najwa Fouad, Samia Gamal, and Fifi Abdo. The connection ends there, however. Few—if any—would want themselves or their families to be associated with them, Sumayya explains. Part of the distancing is due to the ill reputation that a new generation of belly dancers brought upon themselves. During her dancing career, Sumayya says, “Women would bring their husbands to watch me dance, because it was art, not prostitution. I never got too close to the tables, to avoid embarrassing anybody, including myself. Dancers now use their performances to steal husbands or find fans whom they can milk for money. They are nothing but cheap opportunists.”
That was not always the case, reminisced Sumayya. “During my time and age, belly dancers were wives and mothers, working to earn a decent income. Our bodies were artwork, not only commercial flesh,” she adds.
“I learned to belly dance, along with other forms like Andalusian samah dancing and ballet, while I was a young girl. I studied at the hands of respected dance masters in the Arab world. I practiced expressionist dancing, telling a story with every move I made. I used to dance in respectable venues, those reserved for families only, and in private weddings,” Sumayya shares.
A Universal Language
Dancing is an international language understood by people of different colors, languages, and ethnicities from around the world. Undoubtedly, Oriental dancing is one of the most famous—and controversial—genres of dance. The costumes usually consist of a fitted top or bra, along with a colorful belt wrapped around below the waist and the hips, and skirts split at leg-length, decorated with beads and embroidery. Oriental dance is a solo act, unique in the sense that it is not based on any guidebook and can be performed with no restrictions.
Oriental dance is a solo act, unique in the sense that it is not based on any guidebook and can be performed with no restrictions.
Fans of Oriental dancing can still be found around the world, as the dance’s appeal is not restricted to the Arab World anymore. Westerners in particular have long been enchanted, with many stating that the genre has helped them better understand the Orient. This might explain why many study and learn the dance for its physical and artistic appeal and the craft has penetrated show business in Europe and the US, recently establishing itself in Asia as well.
Currently, many belly dancers from China, Eastern Europe, and other parts of the globe, come annually to Egypt, either seeking work, wanting to learn the profession, or to take part in dancing competitions, for which Cairo is famous. But even foreign dancers are not immune from prosecution. A popular Cairo-based Russian belly dancer, Johara (a.k.a. Ekaterina Andreeva), with over 2 million Instagram followers, who was featured in a DW article, was later subjected to arrest and trial, though she seems to be back in business.
Suheir Zaki, the famous Egyptian dancer who performed before US President Richard Nixon during his visit to Cairo in 1974, once said that no matter how hard foreign belly dancers try, they will “never, ever” compete with the Arabs. The reasons, she explained, is because “they lack a musical ear, one that is accustomed to Oriental tunes and melodies, in addition of course, to the spirit of light humor.”