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Foreigners preserve Cairo's reputation as belly dance capital

CAIRO — Sequins sparkled and beads jangled in a Cairo ballroom as students at a belly dance workshop imitated the teacher's undulations.

"Step, twist, sit, shimmy, up!" came the commands, and their ponytails swung like pendulums. When the drumbeat yielded to the sensual tones of an Egyptian flute, the women spun into arabesques and tossed an imaginary audience coquettish smiles, just like the glamorous belly dancers who once packed Cairo's storied cabarets.

On this day in February, however, there wasn't an Egyptian in the room.

The veteran instructor, Virginia Mendez, is a Cuban-American with her own successful dance company in Miami. The students were from France, Spain, Japan, Cyprus and Argentina, a sampling of the thousands of foreign dancers who travel to Cairo each year in hopes of adding a dash of Egyptian authenticity to their routines.

With the spread of a more conservative brand of Islam and a dismal economy that leaves the majority of Egyptians with little money for entertainment, the visiting dancers are helping to avert the collapse of an endangered way of life. Local musicians, costume ateliers and dance studios all depend on foreign dollars now.

"We had the Russians, the Japanese. They come in waves. Now there's more and more Americans," said Mohamed Abu Shebika, a well-known former dancer who heads one of the two main belly-dance workshops at private hotels in Cairo.

The shrinking Egyptian belly-dance community happily accepts foreigners for private lessons and weeklong workshops such as those run by Shebika's Nile Group and its archrival Ahlan Wa Sahlan (Arabic for "welcome"). The legendary hospitality can turn frosty, however, when foreign dancers set up shop in Cairo.

In 2003, Egypt's top dancers rebelled against the influx of foreign belly dancers and persuaded the government to stop issuing performance permits for non-Egyptians, who were landing coveted spots on the Cairo nightclub scene and at Red Sea resorts. That ban later was rescinded, but resident foreign dancers still have to navigate an expensive bureaucratic runaround that may or may not result in licenses for public performance.

"We pay to dance," said Aleya Pena, a California-born dancer who moved to Cairo a year ago and often is mistaken for an Egyptian because of her Mexican heritage. "It's expensive. There's the costumes and the props — you know, swords, finger cymbals, candelabras for your head, wings — and then the makeup, hair and nails."

While lifelong friendships can blossom between Egyptian maestros and their foreign protegees, the dominant relationship appears to be one of mostly cordial mutual dependence. The Egyptians get the cash to keep their choreographers and orchestras working, and the visiting dancers get to soak up the local flavor and export it to their own audiences in Europe, Asia or North America.

"When I came to Egypt, it was, 'Oh! THIS is dancing,' " said Mendez, the Miami-based instructor who teaches workshops in Cairo each year at the invitation of Nile Group. "That feeling, that interpretation of the music, that emotional input — that's Egyptian. It's the roots, the essence."

Egyptians dance at home or at family weddings, but belly dancing as a profession is strictly off-limits to most young women in this Muslim country of more than 80 million people. As local convention goes, it's fun to watch, as long as it's not your daughter, sister or wife gyrating on a public stage.

In Egyptian films, belly dancers typically are depicted as prostitutes or thieves, and for a time Egyptian courts wouldn't accept testimony from professional dancers. Even the very word in Arabic for dancer, raqasa, comes with connotations of lax morals and a seedy underworld.

The disrepute was only underscored with the leaking of a private sex tape featuring Dina, Egypt's top dancer, and a prominent Cairo businessman with whom she's said to have had a secret marriage. It was 2002 when the steamy footage went viral, and the scandal still draws grimaces when dancers are asked about it.

"Egyptians have had to suffer a lot to keep this dance alive. Many are disowned by their families; they suffer from the shame. It's a struggle," Mendez said. "We, a little link in the chain, need to respect it and learn it correctly so we can help keep it alive."

The origins of belly dancing are murky. By most accounts, the sensual moves — with names such as "the camel" and "snake arms" — indeed have their roots in traditional Middle Eastern and North African dances. The midriff-baring pageantry associated with modern-day belly dancing, however, typically is traced back to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, where legend has it that a canny promoter caused a sensation with his "hootchy-kootchy" dancers, supposedly including one nicknamed Little Egypt.

More than a century later, belly dance classes are ubiquitous at American dance studios and gyms, fueled in recent years by the popularity of Shakira, the Colombian superstar singer of "Hips Don't Lie." Shakira's concerts and music videos nearly always feature an elaborate belly-dance routine, a nod to her Lebanese ancestry.

Unlike other fitness crazes such as yoga or kickboxing, belly dancing comes with the added attraction of what Mendez called "the bling factor," a reference to the high-glam makeup, dazzling costumes and over-the-top props. At the festival in Cairo this month, several foreign women sported long hair dyed black and eyes ringed with Cleopatra-like kohl. Between workshops, the students bargained with persistent Egyptian vendors for sequined canes and filmy harem-girl costumes.

Mendez, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of belly dance history and easily discusses the related issues of Orientalism, knows that most of her students practice belly dancing only as a pastime. Few share her lifelong devotion to the craft and even fewer will invest the time to forge the sort of connection she has with Mahmoud Reda, an octogenarian legend whose name remains synonymous with Egyptian folkloric dancing.

"He told me there are two kinds of teachers," Mendez said, her eyes growing damp at the memory. "One is a drop of water in a glass. The other is the River Nile. He told me, 'If you're the River Nile, you have so much to give, so keep coming back.' "

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