Being foreign Belly Dancer in Egypt - Interview with Luna of Cairo

photo by Tracey Gibbs

by Isis Zahara

"We are all of us stars, and we deserve to twinkle."
Marilyn Monroe

Luna of Cairo is an American Belly Dancer originally from Brooklyn, New York (she studied in Harvard!) and has been living in Cairo for the past 3 years. She is contracted at the Nile Memphis in Cairo (Memphis Tours Nile Cruises) .
Luna will be next Salamat MasrEgyptian Festival (July 05th till  July 12th  2012) teaching with the well known Egyptian belly dancers stars as Mona El Said, Zizi Mostafa and Najwa Fouad.

She has a polemical  blog: Kisses from Kairo.  Where you can read experiences about be a  foreign belly dancer in Egypt, some cultural contrasts and - as she says - her mistakes, observations and successes!

IZ -    When and why did you decide to start a  dance carrier in Egypt?
LC - I actually never intended to start a dance career in Egypt. My goals were much more modest than that. I came here in 2008 on a scholarship to research the origins of belly dance and trace its development throughout history. Of course, I also wanted to learn as much dance as I could. Little by little, people started requesting me to perform. So I agreed to try. At first, before I got a contract, I performed 2-3 times a week at beach resorts along the Red Sea, 2 hours away from Cairo. That was OK for the time being, but I would dance for an hour to CD outdoors on rough pavement and break my expensive dance shoes. It was hard work, but that’s all there is for a dancer to do if she’s not contracted. So I did it happily. And then one day, someone who believed in me took me to audition at the Nile Memphis. I passed the audition, and before I knew it, I had a contract to perform every night to a live band.

"I’ve learned that belly dance
 isn’t something that Egyptians “do.” 
It’s something that happens. 
It just flows freely from them. 
And that’s what us foreigners try 
to achieve by coming to Egypt."

IZ- Behind the glamour of the shows/festivals how is to be a belly dancer in an Arab country? (I read in your blog – you were kicked out of your apartment for being a belly dancer.
LC -
Being a belly dancer in Egypt is no easy thing. Ninety-nine percent of Egyptians, including the dancers and musicians themselves, think that belly dancing is sinful, and that dancers are prostitutes. And nobody likes a prostitute. That’s because they live in a conservative religious society, according to which women are forbidden to expose their bodies to men in public. Because this is such a shameful profession here, most dancers, including myself, hide our profession, or else lie about what we do. If we don’t, we risk being ostracized by neighbors, landlords, friends, family members, etc. As you mentioned, my landlord kicked me out of my apartment when he found out I’m a belly dancer. His sister had seen me performing at a hotel and told him that his tenant was a dancer. The next thing I knew, he told me he and his family were “people of God,” and that they couldn’t have a dancer renting their apartment. In addition to him really believing what he said, he also didn’t want to risk the neighbors finding out that a dancer lived in his apartment, because that would result in his apartment gaining a reputation for being a whorehouse. And then people would look at him as a pimp. It was a lose-lose situation.

IZ - Some years ago Egyptian belly dancers rebelled against the influx of foreign belly dancers and persuaded the government to stop issuing performance permits for non-Egyptians. After that, how is it to be a foreign belly dancer in Egypt?

LC - Well, foreign belly dancers have fewer opportunities than Egyptian ones. As you mentioned, at one point the government completely banned foreign dancers. That’s because many Egyptian dancers, Fifi Abdo being the most important one, were getting angry that foreigners were taking their work. Also, at that time, there were a lot of Russian prostitutes masquerading as belly dancers. So the Egyptians wanted to put an end to that, because they were losing work. Now, foreigners are allowed to work in Egypt, but the process of getting a contract and government permission is difficult. It takes a long time and a lot of money and patience. And, there are only 4 or 5 places licensed to hire foreign talent. If we do get contracted, we’re only allowed to perform at one venue, whereas Egyptians can perform at as many hotels, boats and cabarets as they want. We are allowed to perform at weddings and other private functions, but other than that, we’re limited to performing at the place that contracted us. Additionally, we have to pay a lot of monthly and yearly fines, and taxes! Not to mention all the commission we pay to agents. And then there’s the dress code. Technically, we’re supposed to wear costumes with stomach coverings, even if the covering is sheer. Most of us find them ugly and irritating, but they’re required by law. So being a foreign dancer here is not easy. Not impossible, but no piece of cake.

IZ - What are the positive things about being a belly dancer in Egypt?
LC - There are many positive things to say about being a belly dancer in Egypt. There is nothing in the world like being able to perform for Egyptian audiences every day, and being accompanied by some of the best musicians in the world. You also get to be in charge of your entire show. You select your music, have your band memorize it, you choreograph (or not), you choose your costumes.   And, there’s a lot of recognition from the international dance community that comes with dancing in Cairo. That’s why there are so many foreign dancers who like to say they dance in Cairo, even if they really don’t. They think it makes them look good. 

(...)" There will be a time when
 Egyptians reclaim their culture and dance, 
and perhaps usher in a new “Golden Era” 
of belly dance. Wishful thinking." (...)

IZ -  Are there any moves, rhythms, musical progressions, points of etiquette, etc, that you didn’t know before or you came to Egypt? How has Egyptian culture helped you understand more about belly dance?
LC - In my case, I basically learned how to dance in Egypt. I did have about a year of training in New York, but learning from non-Egyptians is not the same as learning from Egyptians, or from foreigners who have made dance careers in Egypt. I learned most of my technique here, and learned how to express everything in a more Egyptian way. Plus, I’ve also learned how to hear music. How to understand what the instruments say, and which types of movements correspond to them. Lastly, I’ve learned that belly dance isn’t something that Egyptians “do.” It’s something that happens. It just flows freely from them. And that’s what us foreigners try to achieve by coming to Egypt. 

Eman Zaki collection - Tracey Gibbs

IZ - How is it being a teacher in the International Festival “Salamat Masr” with Egyptian legends such as Najwa Fouad, Zizi Mostafa, and Mona El-Said?
LC - I am absolutely thrilled that I will be teaching and performing alongside such stars as Mona El- Said, Nagwa Fouad, Zizi Mostafa, Hassan Ali, Mohamed El-Hosseiny and Semasem and Joana. All of them are such talented, dedicated artists, and I am honored to be participating in the same event as they. And I must say, Salamat Masr is one of the best festivals in the world. Mr. Hassan Ali is a true artist who has gathered all the people who should have been teaching in festivals all these years, but perhaps were excluded by the unprofessional, unfair politics of other large festivals. Most of the artists have actual performing experience in Cairo, which is an extremely important credential. So I’m excited about this festival, as you can imagine!

Salamat Masr 2012

IZ -    Who do you consider a “master” teacher? Why?  
LC - There are many artists I consider master teachers. They are mainly the ones who have actually had a performing career in Cairo. Egyptian and non-Egyptian alike. There are simply things one cannot learn or teach if they don’t have experience dancing to live Egyptian music on a regular basis. The stage, music, audience and experience are the best teachers. So anyone who has all of that is, to me, a master.

photo by Tracey Gibbs

IZ -    Who do you consider an eternal legend? Why?
LC - Fifi Abdo. She is my favorite Egyptian belly dancer, and is appropriately nicknamed The Queen of Raqs Sharqi here in Egypt. Her dancing is transformative, powerful, sassy, beautiful, and feminine. And she has influenced generations of dancers.

IZ - What do you believe is the future of Egyptian belly dance in the coming years?
LC - I think with the economic and social crisis that Egypt is going through, belly dancing will be going through some rough times. The new wave of religious conservatism has already had a negative impact on the dance scene, and I expect it will only get worse as time goes on. I wish I could be more optimistic, but reality doesn’t allow me to be right now. However, there will be a time when Egyptians reclaim their culture and dance, and perhaps usher in a new “Golden Era” of belly dance. Wishful thinking.

Luna at the Nile Memphis

IZ - How do you see your future as a Belly Dancer in Egypt?
LC - If the situation in the country permits, I’d like to believe I have a bright future as a belly dancer in Egypt. I’ve worked really hard since being contracted last year, and have made numerous appearances at high-end corporate events, as well as on Egyptian TV. So I’m optimistic about that. I’m grateful for everything God has given me so far, and am ready for whatever He throws in my path.


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