Nagwa Fouad dances on the table
at the Marriot in 1991, click photo for larger view
Middle Eastern Audiences
Expect from a Belly Dancer
first few months in Egypt, there were times when I felt like crying
after my show. Newly arrived from America, I was thrown into dancing
two shows a night, seven nights a week at a five star hotel for
a predominatly Arabic-speaking audience. I was sometimes met with
ambivalent stares, skattered applause and polite smiles. I felt
that I didn’t quiet know what was expected of me as a dancer.
I had danced successfully for Middle Eastern audiences in Arabic
nightclubs in America; why should it be any different here?
exhausted and suffering from intestinal woes, I pulled myself
together and set out on a path to find what is expected of a
performer by audiences in the Middle East and to bridge the
culture gap between an American bellydancer and al ra’assa
in the Middle East, especially Egyptians, see bellydancing as
something to be participated in, critiqued, and loved (or hated)
with gusto. Bellydancing is an integrated part of Middle Eastern
culture, and most little girls have their favorite dance moves
rehearsed for the next wedding where they will show them off.
Turn on any old movie and it will have a bellydancer in it, while
the Lebanese cable channel LBC has a contemporary bellydancer
on, performing, a few nights a week. Although some won’t admit
it, all Egyptians have their favorite bellydancer and can give
the pros and cons of the dancing of all the famous performers.
It is this atmosphere that gives audiences in the Middle East,
and in particular Egypt, the discerning ability to judge a “good”
years later, I am still dancing in Egypt but with much different
results. It is great to look out and see people engaged in my
show, clapping, smiling, or out of their seat dancing. Also, when
I dance outside Egypt in Europe or America, it is usually the
Middle Eastern members of the audience with whom I have the best
rapport. How did I discover what Middle Eastern audiences expect
from a bellydancer? I worked with Egyptian dance trainers (Oriental
and folkloric), changed my show every few months, organized rehearsals,
designed crazy costumes (some worked and some failed miserably),
spent hours on stage in extremely varied venues (one nightclub
was outdoors in August!), took Arabic lessons and learned to read
in Arabic, and watched hours of Egyptian television (from old
black and white films to modern television serials). It was a
long, hard road and I’m still traveling it, but the work has paid
off and I want to share a little of what I learned about what
Middle Eastern audiences expect of a bellydancer.
Middle Eastern audiences expect the dancer’s appearance to represent
an archetype of feminine beauty. Whether she is the femme
fatale or the innocent girl next door, she must be larger than
life. A dancer’s appearance plays a huge role in her appeal to
the audience. This doesn’t mean the dancer has to be a twenty-year-old
super model, but it does mean that the dancer has to pay attention
to detail. A typical Middle Eastern woman will have her hair,
make-up, and manicure professionally done for a special event.
No less is expected of a performer.
is expected to be manicured, hands and feet; have no body hair,
and that means arms, legs and, God forbid, underarm hair; be beautifully
made up; have thick and styled hair (almost every dancer in the
Middle East wears a wig or extensions); and wear appropriate jewelry.
Of course, there are variations on this to fit your own personal
taste—except in the case of no underarm hair. That’s a law.
A dancer is expected to have a certain amount of sex appeal,
or dela. This is not expressed through erotic
moves; it is more about the attitude of the dancer. It is represented
in a playfulness, coquettishness and awareness of her sexuality
and giving the impression that she is completely in control of
it. It is not directed toward the men of the audience but is part
of her persona as a dancer. An English dance tour leader who had
seen almost every dancer in Cairo commented after seeing my show
in my first months in Egypt: “You’re not much of a tart on stage.”
I had been so conscious of trying to avoid the negative stereotype
of a bellydancer that I had neglected the inherent sexiness of
the dance. Of course there are different levels of sexuality on
stage: there is a vast difference between the raw abandon of Nagwa
Faud and the sweet coquettishness of Samia Gamal.
But each in her own way had sex appeal, and audiences in the Middle
East expect it.
A dancer must know generally what the song she is performing to
is about. I think the tallest hurdle faced by a Westerner
dancing for a Middle Eastern audience is the language barrier. How
can a dancer effectively interpret a song if she doesn’t know its
meaning? Even with instrumental versions of a song, the dancer is
expected to know the original song’s lyrics and understand their
message. Now with passable Arabic language skills, I can understand
what makes the great Arabic singers so special. The poetry and passion
of the lyrics combine with the music to give so much to the dancer.
This doesn’t mean you have to enroll in Arabic school before you
can dance at an Arabic restaurant, but if you have a song you know
you will be performing to with Middle Easterners in the audience,
try to find an Arabic speaking friend to translate it or at least
give you a general idea of what the song is about. This will give
you so much more material to work with as a dancer and will make
all the difference to your audience.
Unknown singer warms up the audience before Ida Nor's show
An emotional connection to the music is key. This is
the biggest complaint that Arabic audiences have of foreign dancers,
that they do not “feel” the music. Part of this may come from
foreign dancers not understanding the lyrics, and part of it may
come from not having a cultural connection to the music. Possibly
because of these difficulties, foreign dancers tend to concentrate
on the steps and technique behind the dance and neglect the feeling
and interpretation of the music. A Middle Eastern audience will
generally choose to watch a less technical dancer who is connected
to the music than a dancer who is executing the moves perfectly
but seems disconnected. I have even been guilty of dancing to
a song that I didn’t particularly like because I learned the choreography
from a teacher at her suggestion. A solution to this is to find
a song that you really moves you in the same genre of music of
your choreography and rework the steps for the new song. (Just
be careful of hand gestures and moves that are specific to the
A dancer must be relaxed and confident on stage. Nervousness,
in emotion or movement, by the performer will turn a Middle Eastern
audience against her. Middle Eastern audiences don’t want to be
“wowed;” they want to be entertained. This means the dancer must
take them through a wide range of emotions and tempos, not rushing,
but taking her time to explore the music and having the confidence
to bring the audience along with her.
A dancer is expected to communicate with her audience—there is
no invisible wall at the edge of the stage. Middle Eastern
audiences expect a performer to respond to them. Take the time
to listen to and feel what your audience needs. Talk to them directly
if they talk to you. Be flexible on stage. This is particularly
important at a wedding. I have danced in weddings where I have
thrown out the entire show I had planned because the bride and
groom and their guests rushed the stage and just wanted to dance
with me for an hour.
dancer in Cairo
Personality and style. A bellydancer in the Middle East
is not just a performer but a personality. When I was dancing
in the States, I would think of the famous Egyptian dancers for
their signature moves: Sohair Zaki’s down step
or Fifi Abdo’s 3/4 walk. Now when I think of
these dancers, it is for their particular style and personality.
A dancer is expected to be unique and true to herself on stage.
Can you imagine sweet Sohair Zaki brazenly smoking a sheesha
like Fifi? Bring your personality traits on stage with you and
incorporate them into your dancing. If you are comic or serious,
delicate or reckless, then let this show. If you absolutely love
wearing classic bedlas with miles of fringe, then don’t
stuff yourself into a Lycra mini. Take the time to develop your
own style on stage, being true to yourself, and a Middle Eastern
audience will appreciate your effort.
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