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Egyptian dancer Duaa Hegazy performs at a wedding on a cruise ship in Zamalek (a still shot from The Bellydancers of Cairo)
Gilded Serpent presents...
“The Bellydancers of Cairo”
An interview with filmmaker
Natasha Senkovich

by Betsey Flood
 

Who are these women who dare take on the extreme challenge in Egyptian society of becoming a professional performer of raks sharki?  What social taboos about dancing in public have they faced in order to pursue this alluring dream?  Along with their performance footage, filmmaker Natasha Senkovich scored frank interviews with some of Egypt’s top dancers—and others—in her recently released film, The Bellydancers of Cairo.  As she was drawn more and more into the world of raks sharki, Senkovich found herself expanding her film beyond the dancers themselves, exploring how Egyptian history has formed the dance and what cultural factors influence it today.

The film includes cameos of international stars Nagwa Fouad, Lucy, Dina, Samasem and Katya.  Senkovich spoke with dancers from different social strata such as Rabab, a shamadan dancer; Khairiyya Mazin, the only remaining Ghawazi dancer still performing, Duaa Hegazy, an up-and-coming dancer who used to be an actress and anchorwoman; and two dancers from Cairo cabarets, Marwa and Dunia.  Other participants are Eman Zaki, a costume designer who used to be a dancer and whose mother was a dancer in Badia Masabni’s club; Gigi de Marrais, a dance ethnologist; an anonymous male professor from Islamic University of Cairo and a spokeswoman for the Islamic Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.  Senkovich even includes her own father and brother in her effort to create a mosaic of perspectives on this art form.

The Bellydancers of Cairo was first shown to a live audience at the Giza Academy of Music and Legends of Dance Video Awards in San Francisco, California on December 3, 2005, where it received the award for “Best Documentary.” GS caught up with Senkovich at the awards and later in 2006 to capture the story behind her work. Since that time, The Copeland Group has picked up and distributed the film.

GS: Tell me about your background.

NS: I’m Croatian.  I was born there and I moved to the U.S. (Orange County, California) in junior high. I always wanted to do performing arts and I was bellydancing all along.  In my early 20’s, I joined a jazz performing group and we traveled in Southeast Asia, Taiwan and Japan.  I did a bit of bellydancing in the Far East through agencies, just as a little hobby I had, to help bring in money. 

GS: What is your background in filmmaking?

What She Reads
Here are some books and manuscripts Natasha Senkovich read to prepare for her film journey, with her comments:

A Trade Like Any Other – Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt
by Karin van Nieuwkerk
“This was an extremely informative book.  Not easy reading as it is written in a very academic style, but very descriptive of the lives of the dancers – mainly Mohammed Ali Street dancers.  I found her candor fascinating, as she showed a very clear picture of the dancers’ personal lives and marriages.  The book included stories of women who shared their musician husband with the second wife...the clear hypocrisy of the male audience who admitted enjoying the show – but still considered it a shameful display where the blame was upon the performer...”
From Amazon-
Order A Trade Like Any Other Today!


Khul – Khaal - Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories

by Nayra Atiya
“This was a fascinating, gritty, inside look in the lives of most Egyptians.  Told from the point of view of women, the stories are frequently sad and perplexing at the same time.  I felt that I understood the dynamics of the Egyptian society much better after reading this book.” 


Woman at Point Zero

by Nawal El Saadawi
“I read this book because it was thin and it seemed like easy reading.  Wow!  Actually, this was a very gripping, heavy book to read.  A true story of a prostitute who was executed because of killing her abusive pimp...she told her story to the author who was visiting female prisoners while doing research on the neurosis of Egyptian women.  I couldn’t put this book down.  It was really a story of a woman who was lost because there was no one to protect her.”


The Cairo Trilogy

by Naguib Mahfouz 
“A beautifully written novel.  Even more than the very detailed historical accounts of a life in turn of the century Cairo, the book made me feel like I understood the emotional reasons behind the perplexing behavior of the characters.  It is a very thick book, but incredibly easy to read.  The stories read like watching a beautifully shot movie—you feel like you are there.  I felt a great deal of compassion for the characters—even the antagonists!”

Salome, Scheherazade, and Hollywood:  the Oriental Dance in American Feature Film
by Rebecca Stone
(A Thesis submitted to UCLA for the degree Master of Arts in Dance)
“This was a very thorough study of the (mis)perception of Oriental dancers in Western culture.  In the thesis, Ms. Stone explores why many westerners chose to believe in the fantasy versions of the dance, dancers, and their cultures rather than the reality of people, women in particular case, performing a dance, expressive of their cultures and personal situations.”

NS: While I never went to film school, I became familiar with filmmaking when I was acting.  I went to an acting academy when I returned to L.A. after my travels in Southeast Asia and I joined a theatre company.  I did a play, I got an agent and then I started auditioning for films.

GS: When did you first consider a film on this topic? 

dina

A still shot from the film: Egyptian star Dina performs at a wedding at the Kata Meya Heights Marriott.  
Lucy
Senkovich interviews Lucy
(still image from the film)

NS: I was dancing with Viviane Hamamdjan, a Coptic Christian Egyptian who headed an Egyptian folkloric dance group in Beverly Hills with a large Egyptian following.  Gigi de Marrais, the ethnologist I interviewed in the film, was also a part of the group. 

Gigi was in the process of getting her masters degree in ethnology at the time and was the first to bring up the central issue I addressed in my film in conversations we had about dancers’ hardships in Egypt.  She gave me Khul Khal to read – it was so surprisingly gritty. 

[Ed- see sidebar, “What She Reads”]  Gigi also told me some of Sahra Kent’s stories about performing in Egypt.  She trained a bit with Farida Fahmy and mentioned that Farida would not go to the pool in Gigi’s hotel (even though she mentioned she’d enjoy a swim) because she couldn’t be seen going in and out of a hotel as someone might concoct a story.  I just thought that was strange at the time but these stories started to intrigue me.

Gigi told me a story relayed to her by some people in Cairo who were organizing a dance show. This folk group learned that a woman working as a maid was a very good dancer and they invited her to perform with this folkdance company in Egypt.  She was very excited.  She came home and told her family who threatened to disown her if she joined the company.  She was in tears and had to decline. As a maid you can find yourself in compromising positions—not good situations for a woman to be in—but in Egypt, it is considered so much better than being a dancer. I remember thinking how bizarre that was.

Then in 2004, I went to Egypt for the first time with a group to attend Ahlan wa Sahlan at the Mena House.  I went there to train and work on my dancing.  I bought the cheap package, so I was dumped at the hotel, which meant I got to know Egyptians, hang out with taxi drivers and get into clubs to see dancers. 

That was when I came face-to-face with the strange polarity of how Egyptians view the women who perform raks sharki.  It became a kind of fascination and then I started doing research on it. 

GS: What kind of research did you do?

NS: Other than reading books, I also had many conversations with others about their experiences in Egypt.  I took Arabic lessons for about 6 weeks prior to my trip (not enough!), and read as much of the Koran as I could.  It is difficult reading.

I had spoken about my idea extensively with Edwina Nearing, who gave me many phone numbers, as well as much advice and historical background.  She was very available and encouraging during the whole process.  She got the ball rolling for me; she gave me Khairiyya and Samasem’s phone numbers.  I had Katya’s number already from Jillina.  Samasem was a big help and called Dina and asked her to grant me an interview, which Dina was very gracious about.  Then, a lot of other people wanted to be in the documentary by virtue of Dina being in it. For example, Lucy, who is a bit competitive with Dina, then wanted to be in the documentary.  It was a domino effect that happened once I got over there.  I should also mention that several dancers—one was Catherine Barros of Dallas, Texas, who was mistakenly not credited in the DVD—generously gave me some stills of dancers to use.

GS: So when did you begin to film?

NS:  Some people take years in pre-production but I didn’t.  I went to the Festival in July 2005 then I had a stroke of luck.  I had auditioned for a bellydance DVD and it came through. I returned to Cairo the following September, able to at least start filming with cash I was paid from the video.  

GS: What about the nuts and bolts of filming?

NS: I brought one cameraman with me and hired an interpreter and local crews for sound and lighting.  We rented two wireless mikes but only one was functional so we couldn’t show both me and the interviewee at same time.  But that actually put the focus and storyline where it needed to be in the film. 

When I got home, I began the post-production process.  I transferred all the footage to VHS tapes with time codes, so I could repeatedly study all the footage at home.  I had all the footage translated as well, and I recorded the translations myself.  Creating the script took quite a while to do, as the pre-edit “paper cut” had to have 2 columns with the narration in one column and the time-coded excerpts of the interviews and shots in the other column.  Then I hired my editor who did all the cuts while I hovered behind him during the entire editing process.

I did the voiceover in the “directors cut” you saw at the Giza Awards.  Then, I did another version with a professional voiceover that’s shorter.

GS: Tell us about your most exciting moments interviewing these dancers.

Natasha
Filmmaker Natasha Senkovich interviews a young man in a papyrus shop in the Khan el Khalili bazaar.

NS: Lucy gave a very compelling and fascinating interview. She expressed how difficult it was for her as a young dancer, still in school during the day and performing at weddings at night.  She loved bringing money back to her family.  Egyptian weddings go on and on and she would walk a long way to take public transportation there and back.  She got robbed one time; they knew she was a dancer.  She begged and pleaded with them and they let her go.  She had an exam in school after one of these weddings and never made it as she fell asleep at the bottom of the stairs in her home.  That was one reason she didn’t finish school. 

Here is a very intelligent, driven woman who could never finish her high school studies.  It’s not like here, where you can pick up education at any age.

Dina is also very strong. She says that if you respect yourself, everyone will respect you.  What fascinates me about these women is their power.  They are so strong and confident in who they are. They have to be, to stand up to all the challenges they face in their society.  Some people here might have a bit of a hard time telling a parent they are a dancer but there it is unimaginable; it casts shame on the family—a totally different social dynamic.  The treatment you receive as a dancer—even when you rent an apartment—it’s a “shame” kind of a thing.  You get unwanted attention from men who immediately assume you are a prostitute.  You have to go through quite a lot.

Semasem tells a “typical” story of how a dancer rises through the ranks and gets a job at a five star hotel. 

Then the management starts pressuring her—suggesting a favorite wealthy guest who likes her and “wants to spend some time” with her. If the dancer caves in, they’ll walk away and say, “they’re all prostitutes”—while they pocket the commission.

GS: Why did you include the anonymous university professor who is interviewed in the film and who is so antagonistic towards bellydancers?

NS: I wanted to make a documentary that showed the different nuances and layers surrounding this art and to show that off as much as possible.  That’s why I included history like the colonization of Cairo, to show how dance and costuming evolved.  Then you have the dynamics of politics and how it influences the arts. 

I wanted to hint at that and to show how growing Islamic conservatism is affecting the arts.  The other factor is that male/female relationships in Middle East are complex and different from those in the West.

This man was introduced to me by my interpreter.  He is a lecturer and assistant professor at Islamic University in Cairo—supposedly with a “brilliant career ahead of him.” He charged me quite a bit for the interview—he said he charges the same for lectures.  He is a strange character.  He insisted on anonymity, as he was afraid “just appearing in a documentary about bellydancers” would damage his reputation. 

Nagwa
Senkovich interviews Egyptian star Nagua Fouad
(still image from the film)

I thought he’d use his anonymity to say all these radical things.  Instead, he expressed very conservative Islamist views that represent the growing conservatism in Egypt -- for example, that a woman’s duty is to be covered so she won’t seduce a man. 

He discussed the growing poverty in a country where many people are not able to get married because a man first has to prove he’s economically comfortable to provide for a wife.  So marriage is something unattainable for many and it’s so against the social rules to do anything before marriage, that guys are frustrated and it’s a terrible temptation and torture for them.  He spoke about men feeling disempowered and helpless both politically and economically—and the need to feel empowered in their own home. These commonly held views that he expressed have an impact on female performers and I had to touch on all points of view so that the audience will have an understanding of this society. 

Since he was citing the Koran, I had the additional responsibility to show the Koran as it was actually written. So I filmed Edina Lekovich, who is a spokeswoman for the Islamic Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, responding to the anonymous man’s comments. I am fascinated by anthropology and the social dynamics within a society and different gender situations. 

I wanted to see the film balanced and whole and I therefore interviewed my family to show that this kind of mentality is not restricted to Middle Eastern men.  Even in my own family!

As I discussed the subject with the people I filmed, it demanded more explanation and balance in the film.  So I did the best I could to give as accurate and honest a portrayal and to encourage my interviewees to be as honest as possible in what they said to me.

GS: Who is your audience for this film?

NS: It’s surprising how many dancers still have yet to learn about the social dynamics of the Middle East.  I also want to educate other people who might not have a clear idea what it takes to be a dancer in Cairo and how that society works.  It’s hard enough to be a woman in the Middle East but these women are something else to have faced all these additional challenges.

GS: How did you feel when you heard you won “Best Documentary” at the Giza Awards?

NS:  It felt so good

Making this film was a hard and lonely process. 

In early December, not many people had seen the finished version except my family and they don’t get the whole bellydance thing.  An Egyptian friend of mine also saw it and had some personal issues with it.   

I didn’t submit the film myself.  After I created the trailer, I sent it to Edwina Nearing because she had helped me so much and she showed it to the Giza Awards committee.  They e-mailed me and said they were very impressed and wanted to see the whole film.  They told me it was OK to submit a work in progress.

I decided to attend the event as the awards committee said they’d like to premiere my film there. Then, the committee warned me that some late submissions were quite impressive.  They also cautioned me that the awards judges (and the audience during the ceremony) are very tough and even said, ‘You could possibly walk away with an award or you could possibly leave with an insult.’  I actually sat towards the back during the awards because I didn’t know if I’d hear stinging criticism and have to slip out the back door! 

[Interviewer’s note: The audience at the Giza Club Awards had only supportive comments for Natasha.]

GS: Is the film available now?

NS: Yes, in many places.  People can find it at Amazon.com and web sites for Barnes & Noble, and Target. 

GS: What’s next?

NS:  I don’t want to reveal what the next project is about yet—only to serious investors. I will say that I will try to film more in Cairo this year.

For more information about Natasha Senkovich, visit http://natashasenkovich.com or contact her at natasha@natashasenkovich.com.

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
3-16-06 Giza Awards 2005, A Cultural Odyssey, by Rebecca Firestone
Can it be that the West has been so involved in learning technique and choreography that the very soul of the dance has been left to those in the Middle East who are desperately struggling to keep their art alive?

1-3-04 Khairiyya Mazin Struggles to Preserve Authentic Ghawazi Dance Tradition by Edwina Nearing. But when Khairiyya Mazin retires, one of the most distinctive traditions of Ghawazi dance may come to an end.

7-25-06 Freedom From Choreography: A Lucy Report by Nisima
Lucy certainly did “Free me”! ...

1-10-06 The Dina Show! Photos by Catherine Barros, Slideshow coding by Tammy Yee. Event sponsored by Little Egypt on May 28-30, 2005 at the Crowne Plaze in Miami, Florida

8-16-07 What Middle Eastern Audiences Expect from a Belly Dancer by Leila
Audiences in the Middle East, especially Egyptians, see bellydancing as something to be participated in, critiqued, and loved (or hated) with gusto.


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