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"In The Movies the Bellydancer is Always the Bad Guy"

How Oriental Dance is perceived in the Middle East part 1
By Safran

On the 26th-28th October 2012 the 8th International Oriental Dance Festival took place in Tallinn, Estonia. For the first time in the Festival's history a panel discussion with experts was held, which explored how oriental dance is perceived in the Middle East and what the role of Western dancers are in the development of the dance.

This is the first of two articles. It concentrates on how people from the Middle East, dancer and non-dancer, see oriental dance. The author of this article, Safran was the moderator of the discussion.

Our panel of experts consisted of:

Mohamed Abou Shebika, who has worked as a folklore dancer, musician and band leader. Currently Mr. Abou Shebika is organizing oriental dance events across the world, including 4 festivals in Egypt every year.

Zeina Abou Shebika, who led a successful career as a dancer in Cairo and Alexandria in the 90's, and is now an internationally acknowledged dancer and instructor. She also assists her husband Mohamed with the organizing of dance events.

Outi of Cairo, a dancer originally from Finland, who has been working in Cairo since 2005.

Iris Frolov, an Estonian dancer who has worked in different Middle Eastern countries (Jordan, U.A.E, Egypt) since 2007 and is currently working in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

Outi started the discussion by stating that in Egypt, oriental dance is very loaded - everyone has an opinion about it, and usually there is a negative connotation to it. Sometimes there are even people in her audience who turn their back or walk out of the room when the bellydancer appears, despite of coming to an entertainment venue which clearly advertises dancing. So, Outi never tells people she meets in Cairo that she is a dancer.

When Zeina had just moved to work in Egypt in the 90's, she initially made no secret about dancing and was surprised by people's reactions. She said that as the audience's reaction to her was very positive and appreciative, she could not understand at first why she could not share her pride of being a dancer with "regular people". However, she learned to be more discreet about her dancing over time.

Iris experienced similar situations in the Emirates, but Sharm el-Sheikh where she currently works is somewhat different. There are two types of people in this resort town - tourists and those working for tourists. And the attitudes towards the latter group are the same, be it a dancer or a member of hotel staff.

Mohamed who has led a long career of dance and entertainment in general said that even though his family had expected him to work in the family business, his path in entertainment progressed step by step. This way his family had time to get used to the idea and accept it. Mohamed jokingly added that he is now very valued in the family as his connections allow him to organize the best weddings. However, when it comes to people he meets, he sometimes feels he can not share what he really does for work. And often he just tells people that he is in the export-import business. Which, in a way is actually true.

Mohamed also said that sometimes he tries to explain the value of dancing as an art form to change people's attitudes. However, the ideas in Egypt are slow to change. For example, everyone in Egypt, even the children are still watching the old black-and-white movies. And in these movies the bellydancer is always portrayed as the "bad guy".

The attitudes of local dancers towards foreigners has changed over time. When Zeina worked in Cairo and Alexandria, she would do shows six nights a week and 1-2 weddings each night. It was the golden time for bellydance - all the dancers were so preoccupied with working that they had neither time to socialize nor come up with problems. Over time however, competition increased and the situation changed. Outi said that nowadays the dancers in Egypt don't really form a tight community, but with more and more festivals organized every year, they have more chances to meet up.

According to Iris, there are no local dancers in the Emirates, so all the dancers start off from the same position. But in Sharm el-Sheikh, she feels that foreigners are appreciated by local dancers. Sometimes, she has even been asked by the Egyptians to teach them. When Mohamed mentioned that there are rare cases of jealousy among Egyptians towards foreigners, Iris jokingly confirmed - she, for example, has been envied for her fair complexion :)

Safran is an oriental dancer, instructor and choreographer based in Estonia. She is also a member of the team organizing the annual International Oriental Dance Festival taking place in Tallinn, Estonia.