Gilded Serpent presents...

The Bellydance Museum

An Accident of Fate?

David Robert's "Dancing Girls of Cairo"
David Robert’s "Dancing Girls of Cairo"

by Stief
posted March 30, 2009

Here is an account by a world traveler, Stief, who became impassioned with collecting images concerning Bellydance, both old and new. Every picture tells a story and every story likes to be told. These stories came sometimes out of his library of antique books. These books were tales of traveling artists who explored the Middle East centuries ago and described Oriental dance.This steadily growing collection became a travelling multimedia exposition. But then to his distress his complete library of books disappeared due to unfortunate events. This was before the internet. After the black night of the soul, the spirit came back and, inspired by a friend, the online Bellydance Museum was born. People sometimes ask the question where the Bellydance Museum is located. Thanks to the internet, it is located in the entire world, offering free entrance for everybody to enjoy. Many documents still need to be translated and scanned and uploaded. But there is plenty to see: movie posters, engravings, lithographs, trade cards, postcards, music, etc.  The Bellydance Museum is supported by encouragement and the occasional purchase. You will find Stief to be a knowledgeable and fascinating character.

It all started when I was a young boy; I often stayed at my grandmother’s place. Grandmother had one room, almost empty except for one colorful picture behind glass. The subject of the picture was a harem scene featuring some scarcely-clad girls dancing for the Pasha. Years went by, and my grandmother died, and I married. At the end of 1979, not long after our marriage, my wife gave birth to twins that both died after only a few weeks. Hoping to forget our grief, we decided to cross the African continent starting from Egypt.

On arrival in Cairo, the image I remembered from the past came alive. At that time, it was the custom that a wedding party of every self-respecting Egyptian family hired an Oriental dancer. If the family could afford it, stars like Soheir Zaki or Nagua Fouad were invited to ignite the party. Due to an accident of good fortune, I witnessed a private wedding party from my window in the place where I stayed. It was my first encounter with the world of Oriental dance

Because we were budget-conscious travelers, we often stayed in youth hostels in which even married couples were required to stay in separate dormitories. According my wife, the girls’ dormitories were a lot of fun. Some girls starting to beat a rhythm on a chair and others joined in and danced. That was her first experience with Bellydancing.

Crossing Egypt from North to South to the border of Sudan deepened our experience with Arabic music and dance. In Atbara, a desert town in Sudan, we watched a pigeon-dance performance. It was some kind of courting dance only done by unmarried women. (Well, that was what the people told us.) The dancer did a mesmerizing movement and the performance had nothing in common (to our eyes) with the Oriental dances we had seen in Egypt.  Nevertheless, the dance impressed me and remained vivid in my memory. Later, I stumbled upon pictures resembling this dance in ancient traveler stories on the dance of the Ouled Nail. We spent New Year’s Eve 1980 in Wau, a city (if you could call it a city) in Southern Sudan, watching the dervishes doing a Dzikr . I had already participated in a Dzikr ritual dance in Omdurman/Khartoum, which inspired me later as a base for a song that I released on a recording in 1982.Aziza Gizeh

A dzikr is a religious Sufi ritual to bring the participants closer to God. It involves a repetition of movements and recitations. Those differ from congregation to congregation. A dzikr is lead by a sheikh. Sometimes they involve the use of music instruments, mainly framedrums. I attended several dzikr and none were the same. I also participated the dzikr in Omdurman so I can speak out of experience. It has nothing to do with exorcism, that is another ritual called zar or zaar. Which has indeed also the use of framedrums and religious recitations but has besides that nothing in common
David Roberts (Stockbridge, 24 Oktober 1796 – Londen, 25 November 1864) was a Scottish artist who traveled to Egypt in 1838

His hand colored lithographs are highly sought after by collectors. I had the chance to buy the "Dancing Girls".

Upon our return, my wife began giving courses that she called "Primitive Dance". In one of the places where she was teaching, there happened to be a workshop taught by Wendy Buonaventura, who, years later, wrote some beautiful books on the history of Oriental dance. Since there were no classes of Oriental dance in Belgium, the director of the Cultural Dance Center asked my wife to start a course in Oriental dancing. Her dance classes became a huge success; so, we decided to organize one in Antwerp, which was the town where we lived, and the biggest town of Belgium. (Antwerp has a population three times larger than the region that is Brussels’ capital “city”.)

I took upon myself the task of providing the context to make the art of Bellydance known to the general public there in Antwerp, I quickly became interested in the history of this particular dance. Being a musician and having played together with Moroccan and Turkish friends, I soon realized that their music was entirely different from Egyptian music. Most people could not perceive the differences between Turkish, Moroccan, Lebanese and Egyptian music. Around 1985, we met American-Lebanese Rose and Tania Moghrabi, a mother and daughter; at that time, they stayed in Brussels often, and taught the Lebanese style of dance that was called the Debke. Although of Lebanese origin, Tania learned Oriental dance from Ibrahim "Bobby" Farah, an American/Lebanese master of Middle Eastern dance instruction.

Fascinated by the spread of Oriental dance throughout the world, I started to search for its roots, from a musician’s point of view. Spending days in the museum of Egyptology in Brussels (one of the most important libraries on Egyptology in the world) doing research and taking notes, my insight of Oriental dance broadened. After participating in a percussion class with Hossam Ramzy, I traveled to London to meet one of his musicians, the ney-player, Mohamed El-Toukhy. While strolling through the city, I discovered an antique shop selling a lithograph of David Robert’s work and an engraving by Alma-Tadema, and thus, my collecting began.

Soon, I crossed Europe and Egypt, endlessly collecting all that I could find concerning Oriental dance and its origins. We invited dancer and master instructor, the late Serena Wilson of New York, to conduct a guest workshop and found out that her husband, Rip Wilson, shared our same passion. Our collection grew to one of the most important collections in the world on historical images on the subject of Bellydance and attracted the attention of various cultural centers. We conducted a multimedia tour, an exposition on Oriental dance, and produced a dance performance. From 1993 until 1995, "From Harem to Hollywood" (the title of the exposition), this tour ended as soon as our marriage ceased to exist. Although our professional lives together became a successful formula, involving international shows, television, and a fully booked schedule, our private life went in the wrong direction. My wife and I started a platonic relationship and that was the beginning of the end for us.

In 1995, I left Europe for Africa and started to realize my lifelong dream: owning a restaurant near the beach. Upon arrival in the Sahel, I felt as if I were coming home.  It felt like returning to the cradle, and reclaiming my origins. I married a girl of the Serèr (or Serrer) tribe and my spirit as a researcher came back.

I delved deeply into the history of the Serèr, who claimed to be descendants of a people that lived in Pharaonic Egypt. The information came from indigenous books and research papers that I stumbled upon in Dakar. The theories set forth in the books were founded upon the comparative study of the Serrer language and words found in the ancient Egyptian language.

My RestaurantLater, when I studied the tomb paintings, it became apparent that there could have been a link: the sheer resemblance of the body and facial type, and the hip girdle or leather string around the waist of their otherwise naked bodies. I had not found this type back in neighboring Sudan among the Dinka and the Nuer tribes. They were a completely different body and facial type compared to the Pharaonic wall-painting figures that seemed to be disappearing in Egypt. The second musician-girl from the left on the cover of the Abdel Hazim CD "Hatshepsut and Other Dances" revealed a lot in this respect especially. The instrument that the girl plays is still in use in Western-Africa under the name Xalam, or in Mali, Ngoni.

After a few trips to Africa, I wanted to abandon my idea of settling in Senegal, but just at that moment, I fell in love with the village of Kafountine. We bought a piece of land and started to build a restaurant "The Swimming Pool" which we later renamed into "Yandé’s Place". The restaurant soon became a success, but malaria nearly killed me; so for health and other reasons after 3 years, I decided to return to Europe.

My last trip from Senegal back to Belgium was marked by a huge sandstorm.  Coming from the South of Senegal, I had to cross the Gambia, and by consequence, the Gambia River. No boats would leave that day because there was only yellow smog of sand as far you could see. However, my flight was the next morning, so I had no other choice than to take the overloaded pirogue. This boat almost sank because the "captain" wanted to earn as much money as he could, since no other ship would take the risk. So, we headed for the other side. After half an hour or so, the waves became higher and higher. The sea was nearby the estuary. Nobody talked and everyone looked as if the last hour had arrived. Normally, we should have reached the other side by now! I could see people praying. Because around us was only water and the yellow dust of the desert storm, I asked a young fellow if the crew knew which direction to take. "No!" he said, "They don’t know at all!” 

I told the guy they were navigating in the wrong direction. "Are you sure about that? How do you know?" He must have noticed that I was confident that my intuition was right, and he shouted something in Wolof (the local language) to the crew. They hesitated for a while but then turned towards the direction in which I pointed. After about 20 minutes, the silhouettes of a few huge trees appeared through the pale dust. The dead silence that marked the crossing now transformed into happy shouts of relief! The nice Senegalese chap bought me a meal, something to drink, and gave me some money to continue the journey—as I was completely broke when I left.

Stief's Ouled Nail photo

Arriving back in Europe didn’t have much glamour after that. I had left all my non-Bellydance related belongings in Africa. Now, my money had been consumed completely by my first and second wife. There I stood at my mother’s door, empty handed, with nothing else left than my clothes that I was wearing.

Soon, I found out my collection of Arabic instruments, ancient jewelry, and our shared bank account were all gone along with my ex-wife. The only thing I could find was a small part of my picture collection, which I now had to sell in order to stay alive. I went to New York to visit a friend and to visit Serena Wilson who was interested in buying part of my collection.

After my return from Senegal in 1998, I took up various jobs and picked up a course as a web developer because I could no longer earn a living as a manager of a Bellydancer. One of my tasks was to make a personal website. In 1999, I decided to open up my collection to the world and made a little website around my historic collection on Bellydance; The "Bellydance Museum" was born!

I soon forgot about my website because I was offered a job as developer, but a piece of mail from a web visitor awakened me: "Please remove that stupid animation; your website is pretty interesting and the animation is only wasting time!” That was good advice, indeed! I started to add more material to the museum until the present. Now, I have lots of previously unpublished pictures and interviews but not much time! In fact, I now realize that my Bellydance Museum has celebrated its 10th anniversary!

The Bellydance Museum-

Author’s other

Examples of David Robert’s work

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