Updated: Jun 10
The Never-Ending Dialogue By Lenka Badriyah "The new generation of dancers is not artful anymore."
"They are vulgar!"
"Their costumes are too revealing."
"They are too sexual."
"They are too close to the customers."
We heard these many times. From both amateur and professional dancers, from both Egyptian and foreign dancers. So the question is: Is it true? Were Raqs Sharqi dancers from the Golden Era perceived as not vulgar? Were they considered artful? Were the costumes not revealing?
Let's look into this issue together. First, we will start from the late 19th century and see how dance was perceived then and what older dancers were saying about the new ones. Then, we will continue through the Golden Era age until 1990, finishing with the interview of Soheir Zaki.
The transition between the 19th and the 20th century
The late 19th century was a fascinating time period. Not only were dance and music from Egypt introduced to Europeans and Americans on a broad scale thanks to easier and more affordable traveling options and huge world expositions, but also, we see the first steps towards the formation of Raqs Sharqi. Dancers who performed mostly within social events in Egypt (known as awaleem and ghawazee) started to perform in newly established entertainment halls. The Western world was astonished. Although many Westerners found the dance vulgar and inappropriate (hips shaking, no corset wearing), they couldn't keep their eyes away!
There are many accounts of this; let me share two of them from the journal L'Exposition de Paris from 1889 when the author tries to describe the dance he saw at the World Exposition in Paris:
"Then begins a series of the most bizarre movements and - let's admit - the least pleasant. The belly is restless with tremors, of repeated vibrations, the whole chest agitates and shivers, the head alone remains impassive..." (1)
The author showed his disappointment with the dance and used its description from M. G. Rodier: "They end up stamping the ground, turning around the three crouching musicians, who accompany them. One of them (almées) collapses as if broken on the lap of one of the spectators, appointing him with the end of a small cane, which she kept in her hand during the whole dance. Another almé executes, with the prodigious swaying of the belly, a dance, while keeping on her head, all the time, an uncorked bottle, full of a mint liquor, of the most highly spiced taste." (1)
These two accounts show us a lot – the dance was not considered as elegant or glamorous as we might think nowadays. In its traditional settings, it involved a lot of interaction with the audience, even sitting on their laps.
Although criticized for their vulgarity and scanty costumes (by Westerners), these dancers had their own opinion about the upcoming new generation of Raqs Sharqi dancers. To make it clear, we are talking about our beloved Golden Era dancers being criticized by their predecessors.
The Golden Era (1930’-1950')
"The older generation claims that presently the women's success is mainly based on going with customers and wearing scanty costumes, not on their artistic level." Says Karin van Nieuwkerk in her research book about Egyptian female performers of the 20th century. (2)
Karin shows many aspects: former awaleem criticized Golden Era Raqs Sharqi dancers for their costumes and manners ('taht' practice was dominant in the entertainment halls when the performers had to sit with customers and drink). They also criticized the following generations for not being artful enough.
Doesn't it sound familiar? Let's see what the criticized Golden Era dancers thought about their new-generation dancers…
The Late Golden Era (1960’-1970')
Interviewer: "By the way... What do you think of belly dancers these days? Were they really able to develop belly dancing, or it's affected by neglect and lack of value on their hands?"
Samia Gamal: "Neglect and lack of value only affect the dancer who does it alone, and no one can deny Nagwa Fouad's place today, neither her hard work nor the progress she achieved for belly dancing and pushing it forward. Also, no one can deny Soheir Zaki and Nahed Sabry." (3)
Samia was always polite. Her answers hint at her true opinion, but as she said before, she is trying to see the best in everything. So let me share with you another piece of her other interview:
Samia Gamal: "You want to know what I think about dancing these days? Farida Fahmy is the only one whose elegant dancing appeals to me. I don't have an opinion about Nagwa Fouad or Suheir Zaki, or Nahed Sabry. I'd rather not offend anybody." (4)
Tahia Carioca was even harder with her judgment of the new generation of dancers:
Interviewer: "I will tell you the names of some (of your) films. Who of our beautiful stars could perform your lead roles...? ... Oum Al Aroussa?"
Tahia Carioca: "Ah, they all look alike with the wigs. It's very strange. They all are the same color and look alike... they are the same, just pick one. Mix them up and choose anyone." (5)
Yes, there was great criticism from the side of Samia Gamal and Tahia Carioca about the following generation (including Soheir Zaki). So maybe, it would be interesting to see what Soheir Zaki said about the new generation at the time when she was at the top.
Modern Era (1980’ – 2000’)
Interviewer: "…How do you see the new generation of belly dancers, and will there be any success that could be achieved in this field?"
Soheir Zaki: "Frankly speaking, I don't think so; the new generation is in a rush towards achieving fame, and this is opposite to what the old generation was doing; the latter suffered till they got known. The old generation introduced [belly] dance to all social categories, starting from the ordinary people in the streets to the high classes. This is not the case with the new generation." (6)
Another typical criticism is about the new generation not doing the art form correctly or going on the correct path. It is easy to forget that everything around us evolves and that things once considered vulgar became classics, and new inventions always create strong opponent responses.
Current Era (2010' onward)
Nothing new has been said in this era that was not heard by the previous generations of dancers. Scanty/vulgar costumes? There have always been this comment about the costumes we now consider elegant and classic – the Golden Era costumes. In the late 19th century, costumes of the first Raqs Sharqi dancers were, back then, considered too revealing. So the comment that current Raqs Sharqi costumes are too revealing is nothing new.
Vulgar moves and too much interaction with the audience? Well, we have to realise that interaction with the audience is closely connected to the dance form. But that shouldn't be surprising, right? The dance we love so much has always been here for entertainment. So it is natural that dancers react to and interact with the audience.
So what we see now in the Cairo scene – dancers performing to maghraganat - shouldn't be surprising. It is a normal evolution; what the audience wants, that pays. And interaction with the audience was connected with the dance as we see from the 19th century accounts. It is a part of the dance form.
The older generation will always criticize the new one. People from the higher class will always criticize those from the lower class. But the same people should not forget that once, they were criticized too. And the arguments, as I tried to show in this article, were basically the same.
(1) The dance of the almées - 1889 translation: https://www.badriyahbellydance.com/post/the-dance-of-the-almees-1889-translation
(2) A Trade Like Any Other: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt, Karin van Nieuwkerk
(3) Interview with Samia Gamal, Akher Saa'a Magazine, 1977 – translation to be published in January 2023 in The Raqs Sharqi Museum (https://www.badriyahbellydance.com/raqs-sharqi-museum)
(4) Interview with Samia Gamal, 1968: http://www.shira.net/about/samia-gamal-1968-interview-kawakeb.htm
(5) Interview with Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal: http://www.shira.net/about/interview-tahia-n-samia.htm
(6) Interview with Soheir Zaki, 1990: https://www.badriyahbellydance.com/post/interview-with-soheir-zaki
Figure SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 1:
Photograph of Turkish dancers performing Raqs Sharqi in Cairo by Zangaki brothers, no.814, 1880'. The dancers are wearing typical costumes for that era - considered inappropriate by many Westerners.
Figure SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 3:
Photo of an unknown dancer at a wedding druing 1960’-1970’. Notice the hands of the couple on the belly of the dancer. This is a habit that was and still is a part of the weddings in Egypt. Sometimes, the couple place their hands on the breasts of the dancer. This is an old habit that has nothing to do with recent evolution of Raqs Sharqi. Figure SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 2:
An original photograph from a private collection coming from Cairo, 1940'. The name of the dancer is unknown. Interaction with the audience is a natural part of Raqs Sharqi.
In this video, you can see Naima Akef performing in the movie Sitt Al Bayt (1949). Her costume is very revealing and it was not the only costume of Golden Era that would be that revealing. Comments about current costumes are not new – the same comments we would here even in the Golden Era.
About the Raqs Sharqi Museum
With a vast collection of more than 400 antique items depicting mostly dancers from the Golden and pre-Golden Era in Egypt, Lenka Badriyah (https://www.badriyahbellydance.com) creates The Raqs Sharqi Museum website (https://www.badriyahbellydance.com/raqs-sharqi-museum). As she believes knowledge should be for free, she keeps all the content for everyone to explore without any cost. It includes translations of old articles, scans of items that are 100 years (or more) old, such as antique postcards, Golden Era movie brochures, lobby cards, posters, engravings, books, press photos, stereoviews, and signed photos.
To support Lenka Badriyah in her effort to keep her work for free for everyone, you can become a patron of the museum (from 2 euro/month). Even a tiny amount makes a big difference. It helps to protect rare items that depict the dynamic history of Raqs Sharqi. You can become the patron here: https://www.patreon.com/raqssharqimuseum