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The duality of Egyptian dance.

In spite of its veneer of westernisation, Egypt is becoming more deeply conservative, especially as far as attitudes towards the role of women are concerned. The duality of Egyptian society in 1993 is apparent in many areas of life but the division is strikingly apparent at traditional wedding ceremony celebrations, at which veiled women, or muhagabaat, are juxtaposed with the scantily clad belly dancing entertainers who have long played an important role in such events.

Top class belly dancers such as Fifi Abdou and Soheir Zaki are as highly revered in Egypt as some of the country's national monuments but an increasing affiliation with the more conservative elements of the Islamic identity, can pose problems for their audiences.

Recent media reports from Cairo indicate the appearance of professional dancers at weddings is less popular than previously because of the growth of religious fundamentalist feeling. However, a recent visit to the Egyptian capital proved the reverse to be true, the entertainment industry, is thriving and dance is still considered a traditional embellishment to any wedding ceremony. If anything belly dancers are getting even more risque. Nightclub shows are gradually becoming more raunchy and wedding celebration performances follow suit.

Yet at the same time there is a subtle but pervasive mood of increasing Islamicisation in Egypt. Increasing numbers of veiled women are visible in all classes of society. Wearing the veil is not only an indicator of Muslim identity but also a status symbol. It has again become fashionable. Yet, if there is any dilemma involved for women attending weddings, as they sit covered from head to foot watching the type of sensual entertainment considered customary on these occasions, it is not apparent to the observer.

While some families will choose singers rather than belly dancers to mark the occasion of a marriage, they are far outnumbered by those who still prefer the traditional method of celebrating. As one woman guest explained: "Dancing is happiness, at weddings people dance for joy!" Those who cannot afford the expense of a lavish feast and professional entertainment will frequently book a table at a nightclub in order to have their marriage "blessed" by a belly dancer.

In order to comprehend the logic of this it is important to understand that the dancers at a wedding represent not only the joy of the union between the bride and groom but also the sensuality of the event. An American belly dancer in Cairo, Zohra, believes that the wedding belly dancer symbolises the seductive and devouring nature of women, while the virginal bride is her polar opposite. Seen in this way, the role of the dancer is clearly to encourage the transition from virgin bride to sexually responsive mate. A professional dancer is only ever hired for a woman's first wedding. Even if there are subsequent marriages it is not considered necessary to hire another dancer because the transition from girlhood to womanhood has already taken place.

The concept of releasing a woman's sexuality at the time of her marriage is in no way inconsistent with Islamic teachings. Even the most orthodox Muslims advocate the fullest physical enjoyment between husbands and their wives. Indeed, marriage is largely seen as the only way of containing what is sometimes regarded by Islam as the potentially destructive force of female sexuality.

The view from Islamic scholars at Cairo's centre of Islamic learning, the Al Azhar mosque remains relatively liberal on the subject of belly dancing at weddings. It is only the more extreme fundamentalist groups who object to all dance and in any situation, who have publicly condemned continuation of the practice. These extremist factions, who see themselves as being engaged in a type of cultural war or jihad, control certain neighbourhoods where they attempt to forbid the inhabitants even from listening to the radio, lest they be corrupted. Fortunately, they are not representative of the more conciliatory responses being heard from the scholars at Al Azhar.

Dancing and singing are considered appropriate in the celebratory context of a wedding although the professional dancers such as Fifi Abdou who gyrate half naked before unrelated males in a licentious manner, are most definitely considered haram. Women and girls who dance at weddings should wear proper clothing and not move their bodies immodestly if they are to stay on the right side of religious opinion.

Women's bodies have always been considered public property, controlled by religion the state, and men. The body of a woman is considered innately shameful in a way a man's can never be. So even the most professional and highly paid nightclub dancers are in an ambiguous position. Women displaying their bodies in nightclub shows are considered akin to prostitutes so, while the dancers are on the one hand revered as professionals, they are also presumed to be, in some strange way, fallen women.

Historically, there was a link between dance and prostitution, particularly when Cairo was overrun with soldiers during the First World War. But the clubs have long since been cleaned up and these days the dancers hotly deny any connection between their shows and prostitution. They see themselves as entertainers first and foremost and argue that no dancer in her right mind would risk her considerable earning power by compromising her reputation with sexual indiscretions.

Belly dancing is such a key part of Egyptian marriage festivities that the sobering condemnations of the religious community generally fall on deaf ears. Dancers continue gyrating, their navals barely covered by the obligatory body stocking, and the punters keep on paying. With the swelling of the nouveau riche in Egypt, since Anwar Sadat's presidency, an elaborate wedding held at a five star hotel provides the perfect opportunity for a display of wealth and status -- even if it means being in debt for years. Fifi Abdou is in great demand for weddings, despite a fee of E|pounds~5,000. At times she may be hired more for the status of having the country's most expensive dancer than for her individualistic and uncompromising style. While this atmosphere of ostentation prevails, so will the traditional dance.
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Author:Lorius, Cassandra; Zaki, Laila
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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