by Luna

by Luna



Blog Intro

Hello, I'm Luna, and I'd like to welcome you to "Kisses from Kairo,"* my blog about living and working as an American belly dancer in Cairo.

Life in Cairo isn't easy for dancers, foreigners, women, or even Egyptians. It is, however, always exciting. That’s why after living here for seven years, I've decided to share my experiences with the world. From being contracted at the Semiramis Hotel to almost being deported, not a day has gone by without something odd or magical happening. I will therefore fill these pages with bits of my history in Cairo—my experiences, successes, mistakes, and observations. Admittedly, my time here has been rather unique, so I want to stress that while everything I write is true, my experiences do not necessarily reflect the lives of other dancers.

In addition to my life as a belly dancer, I will write about developments in costuming, performances, festivals, and, of course, the dance itself. I will also make frequent references to Egyptian culture. I should note that I have a love/hate relationship with Egypt. If I make any criticisms about the country, please keep in mind that I do so with the utmost love, respect, and most of all, honesty. Egypt has become my home, so I want to avoid romanticizing and apologizing for social maladies, as most foreigners tend to do. Nothing could be more misguided, patronizing, or insulting.

I hope you find this blog informative, insightful and entertaining, and that we can make this as interactive as possible. That means I'd love to hear from you. Send me your comments, questions, complaints, suggestions, pics, doctoral dissertations, money, etc., and I will get back to you. Promise. :)~

My Videos

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Endangered Species

The Dying Art of Egyptian Belly Dance

Egyptian belly dancers are an endangered species.  On the road to extinction.  That is, if there isn’t a belly dance renaissance in Egypt sometime soon.  Even Dina fears as much.  For the truth is, aside from Dina, Randa, Camelia, and more recently, Aziza, there has been a decline of good Egyptian belly dancers on the market.  This is ironic, considering that most of us imagine Egypt to be “Planet Belly Dance,” and that Egypt is the home of belly dance legends Samia Gamal, Fifi Abdo, and Soheir Zaki.  There’s also at least 40 million Egyptian women living here.  You’d think that with those numbers, this music and dance oriented country could produce a few more belly dancers.  Yet the reality is that an ugly combination of economic and socio-religious factors is robbing this country of one of its greatest artistic achievements.

I remember first moving to Cairo and being excited about all the belly dancers I thought I’d see.  Expecting to discover hundreds of naturally talented women, I visited nearly every venue that featured belly dancing.  But what I expected and what I discovered were two different things.  To my dismay, the level of dancing here amongst most Egyptian belly dancers is not as high as it used to be just 30 years ago.  

Here’s why.  First, their technique is generally limited, a result of not studying the dance seriously.  Second, props such as veils, canes and melayas have gone the way of the dinosaur.  Not too many dancers incorporate them into their performances anymore.  If they do, it’s done rather unskillfully. Third, their costumes are usually cheap and reinforce the negative image of belly dancing that we try to combat.  Fourth, their stage presence and overall professionalism is lacking.  

While this level of performance is excusable in the Haram Street cabarets, it is depressing when seen in 5-star venues.  In cabarets, the customers are mainly Egyptian and Arab men who are there for the flesh factor.  In 5-star venues, however, both tourists and Egyptians expect to see a quality belly dance show. 

Intrigued as any of us could be by this apparent absurdity, I decided to talk to some Egyptian dancers about it.  The results of my conversations are both telling and sad.  

According to my “research,” most of these dancers have never trained a day in their lives.  Not a single dance class.  Classes are for foreigners and failures.  A more sociologically interesting reason for their lack of training, however, lies in their views on belly dancing.  The very same women who dance professionally believe that what they’re doing is shameful.  Which means it’s haram, sinful. And something can’t be both sinful and art at the same time.  Thus, what is haram doesn’t deserve any serious effort.  In Egypt, the belief that performing belly dance is sinful is mainly indebted to religion, which holds a firm grip on the Egyptian imagination.  Religion requires strict female modesty and frowns upon women who publicly expose their bodies.  

This logic is also the result of a system that keeps its people starving intellectually, culturally, economically, and for many, quite literally.  Average Egyptians are too worried about where their next meal will come from to be thinking about art.  Yes, the economic situation here is that pathetic.  And fragile and unpredictable.  One little terrorist attack or, perhaps, a “revolution,” and these women find themselves out of work at the mercy of their savings.  In a place with no guarantees and no social safety nets, it’s not logical for dancers to spend any of their income on something so frivolous as a dance class.  Rather, they invest their earnings in acquiring assets, mainly apartments and cars, and on their kids’ education.  Just goes to show how art can’t flourish in any society unless a certain minimum standard of economic well-being has been attained.  

Things weren’t always this bad though.  Just 30 years ago, the belly dance business was booming, relatively speaking.  At that time, Egypt had a reliable flow of Arab tourists from the Gulf who came to enjoy the fruits forbidden to them in their own puritanical societies.  Their presence and petrodollars fueled Egyptian nightlife, of which belly dancing was a mainstay.  They, along with wealthier Egyptians, were the biggest patrons of well-known dancers.  They were the ones who did the hiring at weddings and other private functions.  All of that starting going downhill in the 90s, however.  With the conclusion of the first Gulf War, many Kuwaitis and Saudis went back home to rebuild their countries.  Others stopped vacationing in Egypt on account of the harassment they received from religious fundamentalists who would try to dissuade them from entering cabarets.  Basically, the entertainment industry's main source of funds had dried up.  As did artistic innovation.

But with the economy as bad as it is now, not even the belief that dancing is haram can stop women from making a living as belly dancers.  If anything, belly dancing has become more attractive as a profession.  That’s because it’s lucrative and requires no skill set whatsoever. The very least a dancer can make in one night at a cabaret is 100 EGP (roughly $17 USD), which is a decent daily income in Egypt, where more than half the population lives on less than $2 USD a day.  That’s assuming she only dances at one cabaret and makes no tips.  Which isn’t typically the case.  Most dancers work at multiple venues every night and make tips, so they make much more than 100 EGP.  Indeed, between salary and tips, a dancer could make thousands of pounds in one night.  Most Egyptians don’t make that much in a year! So it’s understandable that from a financial perspective, belly dancing is a good job, however shameful it might be. 

Another factor negatively impacting the dance scene here is the changing entertainment preferences of younger Egyptians.  Whereas belly dancing used to be a popular form of entertainment up until recently, western style discos, alcohol and drugs have become the preferred choice of amusement these days. But the biggest competitor to the dance thus far is the DJ.  Compared to belly dancing, hiring a DJ is cheap and easy.  And it doesn’t come with all the stigma of hiring a belly dancer. 

If you’ve never been to Egypt before, or have been but aren’t really familiar with the dance scene, you probably think I’m lying or exaggerating the situation.  But I’m not.  I guess it’s the kind of thing you have to see to believe, though.  

It’s counterintuitive that here in the birthplace of belly dance, this beautiful art is dying.  Speaking of death, most Egyptians’ favorite belly dancer is Samia Gamal, who is, well, dead.  As for today’s belly dancers, Egyptians generally aren’t fond of them or even know who they are—other than Dina, of course.  But this is the current state of the art.  Its development and very survival depends on social, economic and political reform sweeping over Egypt.  More liberal attitudes towards art, coupled with a bustling economy, will be necessary to revive the glory days of this dance.  

For additional perspectives on this topic, check out the following links:


  1. Hi Luna, a really interesting, well written article - thanks very much for sharing your perspective with us.

    Susanna xx

  2. As usual you wrote an attractive articles made me always reading your blog in daily basis, you may be right but this depends on two factors which are:-
    1- Is there is a way that belly dance art (for special) can adapt with the conservative constrains? , i think yes if the dress changed it may be yes, for another types of arts i think there will be no problems at all.
    2- For how long belly dance can survive if the economic get worst and the tourism by the way was hardly affected? , also i think it can survive as in the uprising events the tourism movements continue but in lower flow, but it still
    - We have many types of religious countries or even the democratic religious ones like IRAN (which is not democratic) and Turkey (democratic and neutral islamic regime) , KSA, Pakistan, Israel (which is democratic), so the reality of the situation will not be clear unless we can estimate the Egyptian model ,as if we will go to follow the Turkish model , or the Iranian model, but in the kitchen of politics i like to say that the battle never end yet between the military regime and the religious group and the liberal groups ,all will going to collide together, most of the Egyptian people are peaceful and like to be away from the struggle, but actually the struggle starts now (i may be wrong but that what i see)

  3. Thanks for reading my blog Susanna. :) Glad you liked it.

  4. It doesn't help that the Egyptian girls who become dancers often - not always - have some sort of problematic background. When working in Sharm el Sheikh I saw a couple of Egyptian girls who were actually good dancers, with a Randa-esque earthy technique and charisma. But I doubt their careers will go that far because of the chaotic personal lives. It's so unfortunate.

  5. You make a good point Zaina....their personal lives didn't even occur to me. But yes, this is just one more problem afflicting the dance. I wonder if they enter the dance with problems or acquire problems because of the dance...