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Taheyia Karioka Movie poster
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Who Really Gave Us This Dance?
by Sausan

Open your local Yellow Pages to the Dance section, and you’ll find it listed.  Go to the local YWCA and you’ll find someone teaching it.  Log onto the Internet and your heart will palpitate over the enormous amounts of listings selling costumes for it.  Go to a Middle Eastern restaurant and you’ll find someone dancing it.  Chances are you’re on the Internet now reading about it.

It –- or what we fondly call Belly dance by way of its generic term, coined before the turn of the 19th Century, has been growing in popularity ever since the middle of the 20th Century when Bert Balladine, Jamila Salimpour, Jodette, Magaña Baptiste, and Morocco, among others, opened schools in the United States and began teaching their rendition of this ancient Egyptian cultural expression to the uneducated public. 

However, long before them, there were those in Egypt who would take up the bedlah, foregoing the veil in provocation of their own country’s accepted mode of behavior.  And, in their quest for self-expression, they, too, would fall prey to the sweet expressive motions of a timeless dance only to find a cure for their soul in the performance of this expression in front of an appreciative audience.  Such is the familiar addiction that today befalls many a dancer –- an addiction that is not without its own unique reputation and stigma found all over the world.

Numerous attempts have been made to write about the historical roots of this ancient dance form giving credit to groups of peoples from the Gypsies of India to the harems of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.  All makes for great reading in the romantic writings of authors past and present.  Although the origins of this dance have been debated as far back as the first day it was introduced to the West,

...we have only one country and one people to thank for it; that country is Egypt and that people are the Egyptians. They were the ones who gave us this dance.

Regardless of which country claims this dance today as its origin, it is solely because of the Egyptian film industry that it was first introduced to the rest of the world and which has helped it to survive.  If it had not been for the Egyptian dancers, actors, and the directors who produced these innovative works of art in Egypt back in the early 1900s these stories, filled with dance and cultural expression, might not have been around to show us the subtleties and nuances of a culture steeped in mystique and legend, much less about this wonderful and unique dance expression. 

Samia Gamal Video courtesy of "Bellybunny" and
Note from author regarding this video clip: During Samia's dance scene you'll see Estifan Rosty, one of Egypt's most celebrated actors. In the following unrelated scene, four more of Egypt's best are shown; singer and actress, Laila Fawzy, and actors, Abd El Wareth Assar, Ismael Yaseen, and Mahmoud El Melegy.

The first dancer to appear in Egyptian film in the mid 1930s flooding the silver screen with her dancing in that and in subsequent films was Taheyia Karioka, followed by Samia Gamal, Na’eema Akef, and many others now seemingly obscured to the newest generation of dancers.  Once these films made their debuts in Egypt, they made their way up through Syria and into Turkey, across Europe, over the Atlantic Ocean, and into the East Coast of the United States, eventually finding their way across the country and into the West Coast, only stopping long enough in their travels in each city to leave their lasting impression upon captivated natives.  Samia Gamal, herself, spent time in France and the United States in the mid 1950s beguiling fans with her sinuous movement and appearing in French and American films. 

Nagwa Fouad, Suhair Zaki, Azza Shireef, Zizi Moustafa, and numerous others followed in the footsteps of Taheiya Karioka, performing their dance in subsequent films.  Some of them even took dance opportunities in the clubs of Lebanon.  With more performances in the outlying countries as well as on more Egyptian film by more glamorous dancers, this new and exciting dance took hold across Europe and the West. 

Those who later traveled to the United States and who took dance jobs in the nightclubs either learned from watching these dancers live or in the movies or learned from watching their mothers who had watched the same movies.  Belly dance would never be the same –- anywhere.  This technology had opened the doors to other forms of information sharing by other continents and between the East and the West.

Today, in the United States, numerous versions of Belly dance have evolved.  Many of these versions do not resemble the first Belly dance ever depicted on Egyptian film danced by Egyptian dancers.   The differences in cultural expression and experience between the West and Egypt are just a few factors for the differences in these evolved Western dance versions.  Additional contributing factors include the differences in moral and ethical beliefs and values of each country and society.  Most importantly, however, is the inability by anyone outside of Egypt or its specific and unique cultural experience to see and imitate this extraordinary expression born out of its culture and beliefs, which is so much a part of the dance as it is performed in Egypt.  This major factor along with the others listed has contributed conclusively to these Western dance versions, where schools have taken up their own definitions of the dance and seemingly omit to mention much less teach about the very people who gave it to us.  It is little wonder why the dance of the West simply just doesn’t look like the dance of Egypt.

Youssef Chahine
We owe our gratitude, thanks, and appreciation for this dance to Egypt and its great dancers.   Had it not been for them, how would we have ever known their names and about their lives?  We also owe the same to Egypt’s great musicians; namely, Mohamed Abd El Wahab, Abd El Halim Hafez, Fareed Al Atrasch, and many others, for without their music, which has become so much a part of our dance repertoire, and whose music was often written specifically for the performances of Egypt’s great dancers, we would not have had the rich selection we have today.  Moreover, without people like Youssef Chahine, Henri Barakat, Ali Badrakhan and others who either directed or produced these films, this dance might have never been known to us.

Sadly, the newer generation of dancer lacks this vital information and basic knowledge, an obvious omission by the educators.  Why do so many Belly dance schools across the country neglect to teach their students about these great dancers and musicians and about the gifts they gave to us?  Not doing so only depletes from the richness of this dance and robs Egypt and its people of its birthright as well as its established cultural expression cultivated in a history of a thousands year-old civilization. 

With the birth of technology, we have the ability to obtain recorded samples of these dances through a medium of Mylar, a medium also known as Video, which is very accessible via the Internet.  The Internet, as well, provides a vast resource via dedicated web sites for finding and reading about these Egyptian artists.  Why keep this part of history separate from what we know in the West as Belly dance?  It is a shame that not all Belly dance schools across the globe make this part of Belly dance history an integral part of their curriculum, for it is indeed the Egyptians –- the dancers, the musicians and the film directors –- who were the ones who really gave us this dance.

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