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Nagwa Fouad dances on the table
at the Marriot in 1991, click photo for larger view
Gilded Serpent presents...
What Middle Eastern Audiences
Expect from a Belly Dancer

by Leila

During my 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?

Disheartened, 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 elshar’eya

Audiences 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” dancer.


Imad Hamdi

Nearly four 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.  

1.   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.


Sohair Zaki

A dancer 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.

2.   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.


Unknown singer warms up the audience before Ida Nor's show
3.   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.

4.   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 words.)

5.   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.


Unknown dancer in Cairo
6.   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.

7.   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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