Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World
The Belly Dancer at the Wedding
Egyptians love to dance. The national conceit is that belly-dancing runs in their veins and that even an amateur local is innately superior to a professional foreigner. Upon the faintest prompting, women of every shape, age and class will put this proposition to the test. It is typical, for example, to see little girls wriggling at gatherings in an astonishingly accomplished manner for hours at a time. Equally common, to hear coy protestations one moment of a guest being invited to dance and then to witness a creature possessed the next. Forget about asking them to take their seat until the shaking subsides.
The ubiquity and sheer joy of dance, however, do not detract from the perception of immorality associated with the dancing profession. Egyptians are deeply conflicted about the respectability of the art form. It is alright, they argue, to perform this type of dance in private, among friends or family, but to do so before strangers and for money is unsavory. Islamic preachers have gone so far as to proclaim that belly dancers cannot partake in religious rites (i.e. feeding the poor during Ramadan or performing the Hajj/Pilgrimage). In short, professional belly-dancers are regarded as little more than purveyors of titillation and the embodiment of sin.
At a time when more and more Egyptian women are taking the veil, Cairo remains the world epicenter for those who wish to master a dance that is only a slight variation on the theme of Salome’s shedding of her veils. And when, seaside, the bulk of Egyptian women are opting to wade in gallabiyyas (full-length traditional dresses) it is not unusual for a belly-dancer to perform at a public venue wearing little more than a glorified bikini, like a beached mermaid in her glittering, gauzy garb.
An incident illustrating the paradoxically privileged position belly-dancers occupy in society occurred nearly a decade ago. A video depicting one of Egypt’s top belly-dancers in flagrante delicto leaked onto the street and internet, following a police raid on the villa of a well-known (and married) Egyptian businessman. A lesser mortal would have perished beneath the heat of such a scandal, especially a woman in a conservative society. Yet, following a teary public apology and a short leave of absence, the uberdancer bounced back on stage. Moreover, to add legislation to lore, a new law forbids foreign dancers from practicing this lucrative local art, another example of the almost unassailable status of the belly-dancer in Egyptian society.
A love/hate relationship for the belly-dancer places her in a perceived moral netherworld somewhere between actors and whores. Both dancers and actors, whose testimony was once inadmissible in court, are accorded the same morbid fascination and contempt. Every twist and turn of their private lives is deemed newsworthy, and a renewed source of censure. Hishik bishik, slang for all things associated with belly-dancing (and shorthand for tsk-tsk) is actually onomatopoeia: the sound of the shaking belly-dancer, beads and all. It is also used figuratively, as a derogatory term for the shaking of values or the loosening of moral fabric associated with the dancer’s questionable position in the public imagination. What does this say about the people who heartily embrace belly-dancing as a form of self-expression?
To begin with, Egyptians do not call it belly-dancing, but rather raqs sharqi (oriental dancing) or raqs baladi (folkloric dancing), and the origins of the dance are ambiguous. Whether or not it was born in Ancient Egypt, it is widely held that the dance has its roots in fertility ceremonies, meant to strengthen abdominal muscles and ease childbirth. The dance itself is a kind of break dance, only more fluid, exhibiting a variety of muscle isolation techniques: rolling the belly, swiveling the hips, or making the upper and lower body appear as though they lead independent lives. In many ways, belly-dancing is the anti-ballet. Whereas the ballerina wears her pretty steel-tipped slippers, the belly-dancer is sensuously barefoot. While the ballerina strives for the ethereal and seeks to resist gravity, the belly-dancer’s feet are firmly planted on the ground, tapping into a boundless fund of earthy energy
That is the technique, then there is the inspiration, the wordless ecstasy communicated, the body eloquence. President Anwar Sadat once described a celebrated Egyptian dancer of the 70s, Souhair Zaki, as “the Oum Kolthoum of dance.” “As she sings with her voice, you sing with your body,” he said to her. Speaking of the same dancer, Geraldine Brooks put it slightly differently in her book, Nine Parts of Desire:
What she did with her body was what a woman’s body did-the natural movements of sex and childbirth. The dance drew the eye to the very centre of the female body’s womanliness.
The fact that, in Egypt, weddings are hardly complete without a belly-dancer is revealing, given the function of marriage as sanctifying the union between a man and a woman who is expected to be a virgin. Costing the family of the bride or groom up to $3,000 for a 30-minute performance, and widely considered the highlight of the matrimonial event, the belly-dancer’s entrance is anticipated with bated breath. And what an entrance it is. Some time past the witching hour, often draped in a sort of a sparkling cape, she shimmies into the room with a manic enthusiasm, heralded and accompanied by the wild beating of drums. Having established her presence and reveling in the power of an intensity inhabited, the dancer sheds her mock modest veil to reveal herself-a half-naked, shimmering apparition. All anima and the daemonic, she then proceeds to stomp on the hallowed ground of the wedding ceremony.
This primeval emotional maelstrom is transmitted to the enthralled audience in general and the blushing bride in particular. Women study her intently, but with a more guarded enthusiasm than their drooling male counterparts. Having transfixed the audience in a sort of reverse mesmerism-where the snake charms those who summoned it-the belly-dancer now turns her attentions to the bride. Weaving and dipping in her vicinity, she initiates her into the rites of uninhibited womanhood. ‘See the effect I have on the room (and your groom),’ she insinuates, fearlessly brandishing her sexuality. ‘That power is yours, too. Your birthright. Celebrate it.’ And she’s off, back with the crowd; challenging them to take guilt-free pleasure in their bodies, as she snakes between them and dances with a deliciously self-absorbed exhibitionism.
Wearing a wedding cake of a gown, the bride must fret: how can I possibly compete with this woman invulnerable to taboo? Having spent a lifetime shrewdly protecting her virtue and a small fortune on the appearance of her dress, she is being upstaged at her own wedding by a woman who seems to care for neither. How can she possibly stand up to this dancer-radiating sex and naked confidence-with her flamboyantly flagrant disregard for the fundamental commandments of Family and Society?
In such a charged atmosphere belly-dancing serves as a kind of ‘licensed murder’. This is Bertrand Russell’s definition of war, only the war declared here is on conventional morality and its mind-forged manacles. The force of the belly-dance is a force of nature, perceived as unharnessed and disruptive, hence the fear. The fear is an ancient one: of desire, of female flesh. The belly-dancer’s twisting sisters are many and ruinous in mythology and the human imagination:Eve and the Serpent, Medusa (Woman and Serpent fused), Salome (disastrous desire), Kali (fierce transcendence), the Sirens (femme fatale), the striptease (look, don’t touch), and the lap-dancer (crude sensuality). All hint at a vision of woman engaged in a frenzied dance of Life and Death, of passion careening out of control, threatening to overwhelm and consume.
It is not without significance that a 1920s Egyptian law forbade the belly-dancer from showing her navel. Later in the ‘50s, belly-dancing was prohibited in Egypt altogether. The ban was repealed following a public outcry, however, on the condition that the belly button be covered. But, why the belly button? Given that it is not a sexual organ, one suspects the significance is symbolic. The belly button is, after all, where the umbilical cord was severed. Is it the scene of the original crime, then, from which people wish to avert their gaze?
„Every vagina has secret teeth, for the male exits as less than when he entered,“ writes Camille Paglia. Teeth that are razor sharp in a patriarchal society. Vagina dentata, in turn, denotes a fear of devouring origins, as may the offensive belly button. Something of this age-old anxiety over female sensuality appears to lurk stubbornly in the myths of many cultures. Hence, trafficking as the belly-dancer does, in the heady cocktail of dance and womanhood, creation and destruction, the object of desire becomes a repository of fear and loathing. To accept their spontaneous joy in dance without the attendant sense of sin, perhaps Egyptians might take a cue from Nietzsche’s declaration: “I could only believe in a god who dances.”