When Lurdiana Tejas began watching belly dancing on TV as a young girl in northern Brazil, she never thought this passion would take her to the dance halls of Cairo, where she would become an internationally renowned star.
By most measures, Tejas has “made it.” She performs at some of the most prestigious venues in Egypt, is in constant demand to dance at the weddings of the elite and has over 2.5 million followers on Instagram.
Yet even the most successful belly dancers like Tejas occupy a complex position in Egyptian society. Belly dancing was once dominated by Egyptian household names and synonymous with stardom. This, however, has changed over the past three decades. With the growth of religious conservatism and the end of the golden age of cinema, belly dancing ceased to be an attractive profession and instead became synonymous with sex work.
International belly dancers hailing from Eastern Europe, Latin America and the United States were brought in to fill the space left by Egyptian dancers and now uphold what is viewed as a quintessentially Egyptian art. They are a must at weddings or popular concerts, and families can spend entire Saturday afternoons watching the latest performances on YouTube.
Yet their relationship with the Egyptian audience is filled with contradictions. Objects of fascination, they are also often blamed for bringing “decadence” to a previously “authentic” art form and held responsible for its hypersexualization. They are also under tight scrutiny from authorities keen to ensure regulations around the dance are respected. Even successful dancers are not exempt from short stays in prison.
“You don’t know for whom it is OK and for whom it is haram [forbidden], so I try to show them the art so they see I am not here to provoke or seduce,” said Tejas. “People assume I didn’t choose to do this,” she adds. “But I trained for years.”
While purists hold belly dancing to be one of the last authentic Egyptian art forms, citing its supposed pharaonic origins as evidence, modern belly dancing was never entirely local. Instead, it was born out of the negotiation between local practices and foreign fascination, in a process that allowed imported influence to remodel traditions. Dancers captured the imagination of 19th-century travelers who came in droves to see them. Their first claim to fame arose in this context of European Orientalism, which applied dancers’ sensuality to the whole female population and fueled tropes about the East as a place of transgression and immorality.
Twentieth-century cabarets, often owned by Greeks, Italians or Armenians, codified and refined the dance. They incorporated ballet techniques and Western-style orchestras to create the modern genre still practiced today. Elements now viewed as inseparable from the Egyptian art form, like the two-piece costumes or veils, never hailed from local folklore but were actually imported from Hollywood and French cabarets by trailblazers like Badia Masabni. Her establishments attracted the Egyptian intelligentsia and foreign clients, and King Farouk himself was part of Casino Badia’s clientele. Egypt’s flourishing cinema industry contributed to the burgeoning dancer-star system: Dancers also became actors and reached the rank of pan-Arab superstars.
The recent increase in foreign dancers has come partly because Egyptian women — who know belly dancing is both adored and deeply judged — no longer want to take on these roles. The golden era ended in the late 1960s, and was followed by a rise of religious conservatism in the public sphere. Dancing stopped being a respectable profession for Egyptian girls, and even became an insult. From the late 1980s onward, entertainers turned to foreign dancers to bring novelty to their shows.
“There is a big difference between old dancers and the new generation,” says Aicha Babacar, who has been teaching belly dancing in Cairo since 2006. “Dancing is in our culture and we love it so much, but when you say to a family your daughter will be a dancer they refuse. All families refuse, they would accept ballet but not belly dancing. Now almost all the dancers are foreigners. It is easy for them to dance in public.”
Yet the bad reputation associated with performers does not take away from the dance’s popularity. “I give classes to Egyptian ladies and the turnout is huge, huge numbers,” Babacar says. “We are Egyptians. We love dancing. We just won’t do it in public.”
Instead, Egyptians look fondly to the past for national icons.
“Old Egyptian dancers were more respected; the old generation used to respect dancers more than now. Here in Egypt, the most famous dancers also became actresses,” Babacar says. Yet it is not clear if it was the versatility of past generations’ dancers that earned their audience’s respect or if it was the audience’s respect that enabled this versatility.
One should not romanticize the past. Even the most iconic figures of dance were complex women who never gained full social acceptance. Shafiqa El-Koptiyya (Shafiqa the Copt), one of Egypt’s biggest dancing stars at the end of the 19th century, was disowned by her family early on for her career choice. She chose to highlight her religion as part of her stage name in a bid for acceptance. This private disavowal did not hamper public adoration, and Shafiqa amassed such fame and riches that she was known for her champagne-drinking horses. Tahiya Karioka, whose career spanned decades and who appeared in more than 40 movies, was estranged from her family. Her 14 marriages to men she later called “a shabby lot of bastards” in an interview with the scholar Edward Said never quite fit in with society’s standards. Regardless, she was admired for her public political stances and was given a state funeral after suffering a fatal heart attack in 1999.
Only a handful of Egyptian stars remain. Among them is Fifi Abdo, 77, who later reinvented herself as an actor and TV anchor. Famous for her energetic personality and trademark catchphrases, she is a national icon and occasionally still dances for her 6 million followers on Instagram. Dina Talaat, 57, is another notable example. Boasting one of the most prestigious careers in the art, she has danced for leaders all over the world. She often speaks of her family’s acceptance of her career choice: She grew up in Italy and earned a degree in philosophy before choosing dance. Both nonetheless paid the price for the ambivalent relationship the Egyptian audience sustains with dancers. Abdo faced regular lawsuits and public condemnation, while Talaat experienced relentless harassment after her ex-husband leaked a sex tape. She was even accused of sexual harassment after young men said their attacks on young girls were provoked by her dancing at an event she did not even attend.
After years of training, performing in Cairo is a crowning achievement for many dancers coming from abroad. Daniela Acevedo, a 32-year-old Chilean dancer who won several international dance competitions, is one such performer. “I danced all over the world, but never was it like in Egypt. The connection with the audience is magical, they understand the art and the music,” she explains. “But before you start dancing, everyone just sees you as a prostitute. It is very strange.”
The association between belly dancing and sex work is as old as the first mentions of the art in accounts dating back to the 15th century. The rumors cannot be entirely dismissed, as the lines between dancing and sex work can be porous in cabarets. There, costumes are shorter and moves more explicit, yet these venues can be an obligatory rite of passage for dancers in need of work. Successful dancers are not immune to this: Tejas recalls an incident where an older woman managing dancers in a nightclub was baffled that she refused to give her number to clients, asking, “How else will you make any money?”
Though Cairo is filled with dance enthusiasts, both Egyptian and foreign, these purists are often the harshest critics of the current foreign craze. “I would never go watch a Russian dancer,” says Martine Vey, a 66-year-old French dance enthusiast who set up a guesthouse and studio for dancers coming from all over the world, including China, Japan, India, Italy, and more recently from other countries in East Asia. “Dance is taking a wrong turn. I love the Egyptian dance, with its ancient roots and subtlety without vulgarity. Today we focus too much on technique, and things have become too sexual,” Vey said.
In this drive toward hypersexualization, rather than blaming the dancers themselves, Vey sees dance as a regulated outlet for broader sexual frustrations. “The problem comes from the current mindset. Young people are sexually frustrated — there are so many problems around that,” she says. The dancers merely mirror the vision of a society in which women are often sexualized and are consequently potential victims of violence. In Egypt, as elsewhere, harassment of women on the street remains widespread. In 2013, U.N. Women, the United Nations’ entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women, estimated that virtually all Egyptian women were subjected to some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. This summer, a wave of femicides shook the country. Two students, 21-year-old Nayera Ashraf and 20-year-old Salma Bahgat, were stabbed to death in broad daylight for refusing the advances of their assailants.
Hypersexualization is now a requirement, something audiences ask for. For Tejas it was nonnegotiable.
“I used to focus a lot on my technique because that’s what they want in Brazil, but here the most important thing is your look,” says Tejas as she points to a full face of makeup and a push-up bra. “A lot of foreigners come, and the market asks for this, especially in clubs. So they put too much extra sexuality.”
Dance is first and foremost a business in Cairo. While popular dancers can demand fees in excess of $1,000 for wedding performances, the profession is not so lucrative for most dancers. The salary for a night of work averages around $25, though this is now being brought down by an ever-increasing influx of dancers ready to work for less. Some venues do not even offer any wages but instead allow dancers to keep half of the tips they collect on stage. Contracts are also a rarity, and venue owners will not hesitate to switch to a dancer of a new nationality if they feel she corresponds to the audience’s demands.
The absence of contracts has created an opportunity for the police, who regularly check dance halls, to demand a cut of the night’s revenue if a dancer’s papers are not in order. Given that work visas are only granted after one year of residence in Egypt, rare are the dancers who can afford to fully conform to the law. To avoid the prospect of deportation, dancers rely on good managers to keep them away from venues that are regularly raided.
Costumes can also be a source of trouble for dancers. A Russian dancer, “Johara,” was arrested in 2018 on charges of “debauchery” for not wearing the shorts that Egyptian law requires as part of her costume. Most dancers I spoke to insisted this kind of case was rare and exceptional, and some even suggested she probably crossed a powerful persona and was arrested on false pretenses. Far from stopping her, Johara’s brush with the law only increased her popularity later on.
Such difficulties can be real obstacles, even for the most passionate dancer. Yet the hardest part is rejection in private, according to Acevedo. “People would mock me or refuse to befriend me because I am a dancer,” she said. “Even people I was friends with would never introduce me to their family or show me on their social media profiles.” Ultimately, foreign dancers have to choose between their profession and building a family life. “I know no man will accept me as I am. I’d have to give up my profession to get married,” says Acevedo. As a result, many plan to go back to their home country after a few years. “I want to come back to Brazil and open a center that mixes dance, yoga and therapy,” says Tejas.
Where foreign dancers narrowly escape, Egyptian dancers are often the targets of traditionalist critics, who use ill-defined laws protecting “family values” and punishing “debauchery” as tools of censorship. The dancers Shakira (Suha Mohammed Ali) and Bardis (Dalia Kamal Youssef) both received six-month sentences in 2015 for “inciting debauchery” in a music video. In 2020, the dancer Sama el-Masry was jailed for three years on the same charges, for pictures and videos on social media that were deemed sexually suggestive. The accusations are not limited to dancers but part of a larger crackdown against artists seen to violate a certain vision of morality. While Tejas escaped prison, mahraganat stars Omar Kamal and Hamo Bika were sentenced to one year in prison and fined for a video in which they danced with her.
Despite this, some Egyptians remain hopeful, like Babacar, who has taught various generations of Egyptians. “Every 20 to 25 years a different generation comes, and we don’t know what they will accept. Our generation is not accepting of belly dancers, but maybe the next one will be.” Vey, who remains a purist, agrees: “Foreign dancers are a trend. Like all trends, it will end and something else will come.”