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Foreign Belly Dancers? Egyptians Shake Their Heads (and Hips)


Cairo Dispatch

The arrest of a Russian belly dancer exposed simmering tensions in Cairo’s belly-dancing scene. Critics say foreigners are sullying an ancient art form. Many Egyptians love them.

The Russian belly dancer Ekaterina Andreeva, known as Johara, at a wedding in Cairo a few months after her arrest.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times

CAIRO — When undercover police officers in Egypt swooped on an upscale nightclub on the Nile last spring and arrested a Russian belly dancer, the focus of their investigation was her costume — and what, if anything, lay beneath it.

Was the dancer known as Johara, whose sizzling video had become an overnight sensation, wearing the right “shorts,” as modesty-protecting undergarments are officially called? Were they the right size? The appropriate color? Or was she, as some feared, wearing no shorts at all?

Johara, whose real name is Ekaterina Andreeva, 30, insisted on her innocence, but still the police marched her off to jail, where others argued over her fate.

Russian diplomats paid a visit. Her manager and her husband back in Moscow pressed her case. In her dingy cell, Ms. Andreeva gave an impromptu performance for a dozen fellow prisoners, mostly prostitutes and drug dealers.

“Those women treated me so well,” she recalled. “They asked me to dance, and then we all danced together.”

A belly dancing workshop at a hotel in Cairo.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times
The Egyptian dancer Randa Kamel leading a workshop attended by many Eastern European women.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times

After three days, it seemed she would be deported. But at the last minute, a mysterious white knight intervened — a Libyan businessman with powerful connections, she was told — and she was sprung from jail.

It was a drama worthy of belly dance, a centuries-old art form that has long thrived on sensual intrigue. During the Second World War, German spies mingled with British officers at Madam Badia’s cabaret; in the 1970s, dancers performed for American presidents.

In recent decades, belly dance has inspired conflicting impulses among Egyptians, who see it either as high art, racy entertainment or an excuse for moral grandstanding.

But Ms. Andreeva’s plight also highlighted a rather touchy issue: If Cairo is the global capital of belly dance, then why do its hottest new stars come from everywhere but Egypt?

Kiev to Cairo

The Ukrainian dancer Alla Kushnir, a law graduate, appeared on “Ukraine’s Got Talent” with an extravagant belly-dance routine that set her on a new career path.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times

At a wedding in a plush Cairo suburb, a barefoot Alla Kushnir shimmied onto the flower-strewn dance floor, a whirlwind of quivers, twists and furious gyrations.

Young men in tuxedos, grinning widely, clambered over one another for a better view of the belly dancer. Little girls in party dresses scurried behind, imitating her moves. A group of veiled women at a corner table clapped in approval.

“Coming to Egypt was my dream,” said Ms. Kushnir, 33, who hails from Ukraine, while stuffing her outfit into a suitcase afterward.

Foreigners have dominated the top flights of Egypt’s belly-dancing scene in recent years — Americans, Britons and Brazilians, but especially Eastern Europeans.

Ms. Kushnir trying out accessories for her performances at her apartment in Cairo.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times
Participants in Ms. Kamel’s workshop during an outing near Cairo.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times

Purists bemoan the foreign invasion as a cultural travesty. They accuse the outsiders of trampling on Arab heritage for profit and pushing the dance form in a brash direction. Even some foreigners agree.

Egyptian dance still has one undisputed queen: Dina.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times

It was just after 3 a.m. at the cabaret in the luxury Semiramis Hotel when Dina glided onto the stage, glittering in the spotlight, as a 17-piece band struck up.

Bow-tied waiters bustled about. Puffs of cigar smoke lingered in the air. The audience — Arab couples, Western tourists, as many women as men — watched from red velveteen booths, utterly entranced.

A legend across the Middle East, Dina Talaat Sayed has danced for princes, presidents and dictators in a career spanning four decades. “Ah yes, Qaddafi,” she said with a wry smile, recalling the deposed Libyan strongman. “Funny man. Very funny.”

Ms. Sayed also knows all about Egyptians’ conflicted attitude about her profession.

“Love and hate — it’s always been like this,” she said. “Egyptians cannot have a wedding without a belly dancer. But if one of them marries your brother — oh, my God! That’s a problem.”

Amie Sultan, a prominent Egyptian dancer, with a costume designer. She comes from a wealthy Egyptian family and trained as a ballerina.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times
Participants in Ms. Kamel’s workshop.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times

“Egyptians see an Egyptian dancer as a hooker,” said Bassem Abd El Moneim, Ms. Andreeva’s manager. “But a foreigner can be a star.”

There are exceptions beyond Ms. Sayed. One prominent dancer, Amie Sultan, hails from a wealthy family and trained as a ballerina. Another, Fifi Abdou, an Egyptian national treasure viewed with both affection and mockery for her boisterous personality, has been reincarnated in retirement thanks to social media.

Recently, Ms. Abdou, 65, perched before a pair of iPads as she broadcast to her three million followers on Facebook and Instagram in an hourlong stream of affectionate babble, air kisses and trademark catchphrases.

“Scooze me!” she exclaimed randomly as the screen filled with red hearts. “Salma! Love you, love you, love you!”

But for many Egyptians, the price of a career in belly dance can be too high.

Randa Kamel, who runs a major belly dance school in Cairo that attracts students from across the world, was beaten as a teenager by a father who disapproved of her dancing. Even now, her 17-year-old son hides her profession at his private high school, and she pulls off her glittering fake nails before meeting his teachers.

“That’s why I don’t go on TV,” Ms. Kamel said. “I want my son to have a good life. There’s a certain amount of fame that is not healthy.”

A participant in Ms. Kamel’s workshop performing during the closing ceremony.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times

“She’s famous now,” he said, as he whisked her between gigs on a Friday night. “People love that.”

Ms. Andreeva admitted that it was hard to match Egyptian dancers on some levels. “We are technically good, but they have that Arab soul,” she said.

But she compensates by channeling the sheer, raucous energy of Egyptian audiences. “There’s an emotion here that is incredible,” she said. “It makes me feel like a rock star.”

An array of belly dance costumes on sale at Ms. Kamel’s workshop in Cairo.CreditLaura Boushnak for The New York Times

Nour Youssef contributed reporting.

Produced by Mona Boshnaq.

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