dancer Duaa Hegazy performs at a wedding on a cruise ship
in Zamalek (a still shot from The Bellydancers of Cairo)
Bellydancers of Cairo”
An interview with filmmaker
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.
includes cameos of international stars Nagwa Fouad, Lucy,
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
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.
me about your background.
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.
is your background in filmmaking?
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.
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...”
A Trade Like
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
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
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
did you first consider a film on this topic?
still shot from the film: Egyptian star Dina performs at
a wedding at the Kata Meya Heights Marriott.
(still image from the film)
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
kind of research did you do?
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.
So when did you begin to film?
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.
about the nuts and bolts of filming?
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
us about your most exciting moments interviewing these dancers.
Filmmaker Natasha Senkovich interviews a young man in a papyrus shop
in the Khan el Khalili bazaar.
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.
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.
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.
tells a “typical” story of how a dancer rises through the ranks
and gets a job at a five star hotel.
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.
did you include the anonymous university professor who is interviewed
in the film and who is so antagonistic towards bellydancers?
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.
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.
interviews Egyptian star Nagua Fouad
(still image from the film)
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.
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.
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.
is your audience for this film?
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.
did you feel when you heard you won “Best Documentary” at the
It felt so good.
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.
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
note: The audience at the Giza Club Awards had only supportive
comments for Natasha.]
Is the film available now?
Yes, in many places. People can find it at Amazon.com and
web sites for Barnes & Noble, and Target.
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.
information about Natasha Senkovich, visit http://natashasenkovich.com
or contact her at email@example.com.
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
Giza Awards 2005, A Cultural
Odyssey, by Rebecca Firestone
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?
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
certainly did “Free me”! ...
Show! Photos by Catherine Barros, Slideshow coding by Tammy
sponsored by Little Egypt on May 28-30, 2005 at the Crowne Plaze
in Miami, Florida
What Middle Eastern Audiences
Expect from a Belly Dancer by Leila
in the Middle East, especially Egyptians, see bellydancing as
something to be participated in, critiqued, and loved (or hated)