CAIRO: From Kazakhstan to Brazil, Italy and Indonesia, lovers of oriental dance flock to Egypt to pay homage to the cradle of this ancient art.
In a luxury hotel at the foot of the pyramids, some 80 professional dancers from around the world gathered on the eve of 2008 to take part in an intensive workshop to improve their technique and pick up style tips.
“If you haven’t danced in Egypt, you are not a real dancer, said Raqia Hassan, Egypt’s most famous dance teacher who organizes the winter workshops and is also behind the Cairo Dance Festival held every summer since 2000.
“It is absolutely necessary to be trained here. [Egypt] is the source after all, said Nadia Sement, a French oriental dance instructor attending the workshop.
With colorful sequined scarves jingling around their hips, the dancers who each spent 1,000 euros for the workshop, train vigorously for eight hours a day and listen to lectures on the dance’s history in the evenings in order to truly capture the spirit behind the moves, the organizers said.
And cursed be those who reduce the ancient art to a simple form of seduction or who dare call it “belly dance, says Carolina Vargadinicu, who goes by the stage name Morocco.
“That would be a false, colonial and racist interpretation [imposed] by the West, says the 70-year-old New Yorker whose family roots lie in Romania and who has been dancing professionally for 47 years.
Legend has it the dance was originally an ancient fertility rite.
And while Egyptians like to trace it back to the Pharaonic times, the dance actually comes from India and was brought over to Egypt by gypsies.
The orientalist cliche of a sensual dance and its exoticism in Western popular culture has increased its exposure outside the Arab world.
In Mexico some still believe that the dance has the power to help fertility, says Grinnelli Sandoval who runs a dance school in Ensenada in Baja, California.
“I have some students who have been sent by their gynaecologist, because the movements help massage a woman’s internal organs, which helps support the uterus better for childbirth, she said.
The workshop has also drawn local creative talent eager to showcase the accessories that must accompany the perfect dancer.
Displays of shiny, sequin-studded or pearl-embroidered costumes hang on display next to stands overflowing with music CDs and dance DVDs, and posters of the dance legends.
But despite the attraction that Egypt holds for the ladies at the workshop, most admit that settling long-term in the dance capital has no appeal.
Not only has the golden age of the dance, embodied in the legendary Samia Gamal or Tahia Karioka, long gone but foreign dancers working in Egypt are subject to restrictions aimed at keeping the art in Egyptian hands.
And while the dance has regained some ground, lost during a campaign of attacks by Islamist militants in 1990s, dancers are considered sinners by many in an increasingly conservative society where Islamists groups are the main opposition force.
And Egypt’s morality police is on the lookout for those who bend the rules imposed by the ministry of culture: “The outfit must cover the breasts, the belly button and what is beneath that.
It is also forbidden “to make gestures that could awaken the sexual instincts of spectators, according to the rules.
For Raqia Hassan, the dream would be to set up an oriental dance academy granting recognition to an art that she feels has not been given its rightful dues.