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Shake and sway

Illustration by Sarah John

My friend Stella is an Iraqi-born oriental dancer, one of the best in Egypt. Her character matches her vocation: passionate, earthy, histrionic. A talented story-teller, her romantic and professional intrigues rival those recounted in the Arabian Nights. More to the point, her career’s ups and downs reflect Cairo’s attitudes towards sexuality, which have in the past been more honest than they are today.

The Egyptian bureaucracy is a frequent protagonist in Stella’s stories. Obtaining work permits can be difficult for unaffiliated expats but it’s especially tough for dancers. Stella has to renew hers regularly with the vice police. She’s also obliged to entrust her British passport to the foreign ministry when in Egypt (though she lives here) and to request permissions to travel like a chattel of the state.

For Stella, the paradox is maddening. Egyptians love the dance they seem to know from birth; little girls can shake things many Western women don’t even know they have. But that doesn’t keep people from disparaging professional dancers, saying they misrepresent Egyptian morality and give local women a bad name. A while back, Stella’s work permit was refused outright. ‘They want the foreigners to stop dancing,’ she lamented, ‘they actually passed a law. I can’t believe it.  And I just had this fabulous frock made – it’s sea green with a bit of mauve…’ 

Cairo’s cabarets and de luxe hotels were once famous for their extravagant oriental-dance floor shows. But public displays of religiosity are more fashionable these days than nightclubbing; and, thanks to the global recession, tourists are no longer willing to pay for high-priced performances. Stella complained that the standard for dancers was on the decline. She’d seen a young Egyptian girl whose frenetic enthusiasm, while entertaining, was not oriental dance, for which a certain subtle maturity is required.

To demonstrate, Stella stood, unbuttoned her jeans and did a few impromptu moves, ending with the one we all know: a hip raised, foot forward and sideways pelvic thrusts. ‘I love this movement,’ she said, ‘you can do so much with it; but this girl didn’t even use it. And she couldn’t keep her legs together like you should when you shimmy.’ With critical ease, Stella imitated the girl’s awkward freezing-on-ice-skates wobble, versus her own finely calibrated head-to-toe fibrillation.

Stella is a devoted and gifted artist, less prima donna than some Egyptians and, like other foreigners, willing to dance longer and often better for a lower fee. Foreigners were getting choice jobs and local dancers didn’t appreciate the competition. I could imagine the Egyptian divas, formidable women, communicating their job-related anxiety to the paunchy but high-ranking protectors they cultivate as career assets, in a manner best described as convincing. It was only natural that they defended their diminishing territory. The silly law was eventually repealed, but Cairo’s delight in proudly wielded feminine sexuality had meanwhile gone underground.

The city used to be more lighthearted when it came to male-female interactions, and women dressed pretty much as they pleased. Men flirted by calling  them ‘minaret’ or ‘gazelle’, or the more audaciously affectionate ‘duck’. Others borrowed a lyric or two from a vast repertoire of popular love songs. Nowadays, even unveiled women are seldom without their ‘modesty wraps’, scarves or jackets superfluous in hot weather, but useful in deflecting unwanted attention, including hissing and the fervent muttering of prayers. ‘I don’t get it,’ Stella says, ‘Egyptians used to be so sexy.’

But that’s just it, I tell her: it wasn’t about sex so much as magnetism, the kind we exert on each other no matter what shape we come in, or what clothes or face we wear. Egyptian sociability was this responsiveness to the possibilities each encounter might represent, and flirtation was only one of them.  Imagine a world where strangers communicate freely: this was Cairo, devoted to union, however great or small. People still interact more readily here than elsewhere, but ‘holier than thou’ attitudes, coupled with prolonged financial stress, have robbed the city of its playfulness.

Stella remains optimistic even though she’s barely performing and has started to teach instead. ‘I think it’s bottomed out,’ she says (meaning the wave of uptight religiosity). ‘I see more hair than before’ (as opposed to covered heads) ‘and fewer inkblots’ (her name for the fully veiled).

I say ‘maybe’, but I doubt it. As if to encourage or perhaps conjure such an amiable future, Stella stands again and undulates, arms arched languidly above her head, neck gliding from side to side. The dance represents an irrepressible urge, she’s telling me, and nothing can stop it for long.

Maria Golia is the author of the non-fiction Cairo, City of Sand (Reaktion Books, 2004) and the forthcoming book Photography and Egypt.

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