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The globalization of belly dance

Giselle Rodríguez| El Universal
08:51Tuesday 16 December 2014

Alla Kushnir holds her trophy after winning Al Raqisa The Belly Dancer competition. Next to her is second runner-up Soraya Shoheib and behind her, from left to right, competitors Brenda (Argentina) and Miasia (USA), judge Ferial Youssef, Sahar (Egypt), Oxana Bazaeva (Russia) and Dina Talaat. (Photo: Taken from Facebook )

Ukrainian belly dancer Alla Kushnir's triumph in Al Raqisa The Belly Dancer, a competition organized by Egypt's oriental dance icon Dina Talaat, is a reflection of the globalization of this ancient dance style.

On December 14, 2014 Alla Kushnir, a talented Ukrainian dancer of an unfathomable beauty, won "Al Raqisa The Belly Dancer", an international oriental dance contest organized by Egypt's belly dance icon Dina Talaat.

Even though this was not her first triumph -she ended third in Lebanon's LBC Belly Dance World Championship “Hizzi Ya Nawaem”- this victory constitutes a remarkable achievement because the competition took place in Egypt, the cradle of belly dance, whose actual name is "raqs sharqi" (رقص شرقي), that means oriental dance in Arabic.

Alla beat 26 national and foreign contestants, among them second runner-up Soraya Shoheib, a dancer that Dina described on her Facebook as a "melting pot of Lebanon, Greece, Egypt and belly dancing all in one", Sahar from Egypt, Oxana Bazaeva from Russia and Brenda from Argentina.

Wining a belly dance competition in Egypt judged by Dina herself, along with Tunisian actress Ferial Youssef and screenwriter and producer Tamer Habib, is not only a victory for Alla but for the globalization of this ancient dance style, because it proves that a foreigner is perfectly able of grasping the feeling of oriental dance instead of "engaging in appropriation" as bigot writers such as Randa Jarrar have claimed

Dina praised Alla's last performance saying: "Gamila gidan", which in Egyptian Arabic means "very pretty", while Ferial called her the queen of the stage and said: "You were one of the smartest belly dancers on our TV show. You know when to be calm and when to be wild. Your moves are amazing."

The competition, Egypt's first of its kind, was aired on Al Qahera wal Nas satellite TV channel to around 300 million viewers throughout the Middle East and North of Africa and by the time it finished the Facebook page of Al Raqisa The Belly Dancer had 58,361 likes.

The Golden Age of Belly Dance

The website of the program welcomes visitors with the following statement: "Samia danced, Tahia danced, Naema danced. They danced with their feet, they danced with their hips, they danced with their belly, but, most of all, they danced with their heart. They captivated the world with their art, and turned music into form and form into fame."

From the 1930s through the 1980s, a period of time known as the "Golden Age of Belly Dance", Egyptian movies directed by locals such as Henry Barakat, Atef Salem, Hussein Fawzi and Niazi Mostafa and foreign directors such as Robert Pirosh contributed to belly dance popularity and turned Egyptian dancers like Samia Gamal, Tahiya Carioca and Naima Akef into movie stars, along with others who also became famous at El Cairo's Opera Casino owned by Badia Masabni from Lebanon. 

However Egypt's romance with dance is ageless, as evidenced by paintings like the ones found in Nebamun's tomb in Tebas of a banquet scene with two dancers that date back to 1390-1352 B.C. and those of Orientalist painters such as Fabio Fabbi, Otto Pilny and Jean-Léon Gérôme. 

Despite constituting an undeniable part of Egypt's social life and celebrations like weddings since at least the last couple of centuries, belly dancing in non women-only environments is looked down upon and is condemned by conservatives throughout the Middle East, who far from considering it an artistic expression see it it a shameful and reprehensible job, a view shaped by Islam's understanding about the modesty of women, that are not supposed to expose their bodies to men.

While it is true that several low-class women with limited dance skills perform at ghetto weddings with skimpy costumes, as shown by the Canadian documentary "At night they dance" directed by Isabelle Lavigne and Stéphane Thibault, there are many professional dancers that entertain audiences at upscale celebrations and prestigious venues.

For this reason in the last decades Egyptian belly dancers such as Dina herself, Randa Kamel and Aziza of Cairo have witnessed the arrival of professional foreign dancers to Egypt with varying degrees of success.

In the Emirates and Lebanon belly dancers from other countries are hired to perform in five-star hotels, restaurants and night clubs, while Turkey's belly dance scene still seems to be dominated by local stars such as Didem Kinali, Tanyeli and Asena.

Like Alla, millions of women of different nationalities throughout the world have chosen to learn belly dance. Every year teachers from several countries crisscross the globe giving belly dance workshops and master classes while courses organized in Egypt by locals such as Raqia Hassan's Ahlan wa Sahlan, Randa Kamel's Raqs of Course and Mohamed Abou Shebika's Nile Festival are attended by dancers from all over the world. In Turkey there are a couple of minor festivals: Rakass Istanbul and Tarazade.

The belly dance craze has taken the whole world by surprise. So much that on May 14, 2014 The New York Times published an op-ed by Egyptian writer Alaa al Aswany on the subject. In Latin America Colombian singer of Lebanese ancestry Shakira and soap operas such as "O Clone", first aired by Brazilian TV network O'Globo, contributed to its promotion.

As a belly dance teacher for over 10 years, I believe that belly dance has become popular because of its empowering effect achieved through the appropriation of one's body until you are able to move it at will. Naturally, its mesmerizing moves and the beautiful sounds produced by the instruments traditionally used in Middle Eastern music such as oud, nay, qanun and tablah (darbuka) and more recently violin, accordion and saxophone have also contributed to its success.

So with all this momentum behind oriental dance, wouldn't it be about time that Egypt started seeing it an undeniable part of its cultural heritage and took pride in it?


About the author:

Giselle Rodríguez is a Mexican journalist and translator who is also a belly dance teacher. As a dancer she is known as Giselle Habibi. To read more about belly dance and Middle Eastern music, art and culture in Spanish, visit her blog.