Welcome to Egypt, the world capital of belly dancing

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

Jannelle Cortes and Keti Sharif are kindred spirits.

The two have never met and are from opposite sides of the earth, The US and Western Australia respectively, yet they followed a similar path that led them to Egypt. Simply put, they are both Westerners who belly dance, but neither belly dancing nor life is always so simply defined.

Let us still try to do both.

The first basic step of the belly dance is the Hip Circle. Slow and on an axis, level with the ground, the pelvis rolls in a continuous, repetitive motion – a full circle rotation.

This oriental dance style, “raqs sharqi in Arabic, has both unclear beginnings and an elusive definition. Its rich history and modern popularity, on the contrary, is confirmed.

Only four years ago there was a ban in Egypt against foreign belly dancers. The government’s motivation to enact the law was in reaction to the prostitution of impoverished foreign women impersonating dancers. The hope, also, was to give work back to local dancers.

Similarly in the 1950s, the rise of Nationalism put a stigma on the technique, pushing the seductive dance underground after a “golden age when belly dancers were becoming famous performers, some actresses.

As creative expressions tend to do, the dance has fluctuated with societal conditions and the political landscape. Or is it that life imitates art?

“Anyone who is making money right now in belly dance should send Shakira some commission, Cortes told Daily News Egypt, “because of artists like her, it has gone mainstream. Whether you agree if she does it well or not, that’s a non-issue.

Whatever the instigating factor, life or art, belly dancing clearly continues its journey.

The Figure Eight move traces the infinity-like shape with the hips, adding a side-to-side swing as if a pendulum. It is rhythmic. The move is overlapping in the center- one point intersected repeatedly.

A long history allows for a lot of influence, adaptation and, as the adage goes, repetition. Belly dancing is intersecting with popular performing artists of today, just as it has done in the past. Samia Gamal was noted for infusing ballet into her routine, and her popularity was so that King Farouk titled her “The National Dancer of Egypt in 1949.

Soon after this admiration, the dance was pushed underground, as Sharif mentioned to Daily News Egypt. “There is an ebb and flow in belly dancing. Well put.

She continued, “Thanks to women doing this dance in their own homes, they have preserved it.

And so today belly dancing is far from lost; it continues to cross other’s paths. The largest belly dancing festival in the world, Rakkasah West, is held in California, not the Middle East. Sharif is credited with the organization of the Western Australia Middle Eastern Dance Festival (Wamed), now in its eighth year.

“Foreigners are bringing back the Egyptian pride of dance, Sharif says.

The Belly Roll is a relaxed move. Insecurity shouldn’t overpower the natural roundness of your womb; allow it to hang, but don’t push forcefully. It is a steady push and pull.

Balance is important in life and both Cortes and Sharif know this. They were disciplined students, Cortes in pre-law and Sharif in architecture, who found pleasure in dancing. Neither planned to make it their career. It happened organically.

Today Cortes Entertainment is a successful dance company in New York City offering classes of all kinds. But Cortes says of her 500 belly dance students a week, “[Belly dancing] has taken over my schedule.

Currently Sharif is busy in Cairo architecting a documentary film from Wamed footage. She asked dancers, “Why do you belly dance? and was surprised to get a plethora of answers.

Sharif says of the interviewees, “Many belly dance to develop parts of their persona that have been hidden.

Perhaps it is the free spirit and willingness to follow their heart that might explain how these two Western women have found so much success with this Eastern dance.

In the 3-step turn, the dancer must push their weight into the direction they move: 180 degrees away from your audience and 180 degrees to bring you back to them.

“This dance has been a platform for discussing women’s issues, culture, religion, you name it. Cortes explains. She quite obviously has not lost her intrigue of world issues since scrapping law school. Dance brings with it an additional education.

Sharif offers private classes for individuals and small groups of women in Egypt who, she says, come from all different backgrounds. She has created a specific routine for pregnant and elderly women to accommodate. It’s for everybody.

“The movement is a common language, she says. Dominican Republic-born and currently a New York resident, Cortes has taught belly dancing to urban youth who now go without physical education in their public schools. She infuses Latin rhythms, hip hop, and ballet with Eastern-inspired pieces when choreographing.

Sharif’s Pulse8 Fitness Program includes options of Capoeira and yoga with the belly dancing. She has completed a number of instructional DVDs, which is an arena Cortes is taking advantage of as well.

And so it goes on, raqs sharqi finds new inspiration. Or is it that we find inspiration from belly dance?

“Chicken or the egg, I suppose.

The traveling shimmy is a fun shake of the hips as the dancer moves across the floor.

Early next year Cortes will be traveling back to Egypt with 20 students. She was just here and is hoping to come on an additional, private trip as well. “Nobody dances like Egyptians, she says.

From her home in Zamalek, Sharif echoes the same respect for Egypt, “Every belly dancer wants to dance here.

Jannelle Cortes (www.cortesentertainment.com) and Keti Sharif (www.ketisharif.com) can be contacted through their websites.

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