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From Café Chantant to Casino Opera

Evolution of Theatrical Performance Space for Belly Dance


by Heather D. Ward (“Nisaa of St. Louis”)
posted January 10, 2013

Most students of Egyptian belly dance are aware of Badia Masabni and her famous nightclubs, and many believe Badia’s clubs to be the birthplace of theatrical belly dance, or raqs sharqi.  However, fewer are aware that Badia’s clubs were neither the first nor the only venues of their kind. 

In reality, clubs like Badia’s grand Casino Opera were the culmination of a trend in Egyptian entertainment venues beginning in the late nineteenth century, and the transformation of awalem and ghawazee dance into raqs sharqi was already underway in the earlier, lesser-known cafés chantants or salat of Ezbekiya and Shari’ Emad ad-Din. 

This discussion explores how developments in popular entertainment and performance space in Cairo impacted the evolution of belly dance and ultimately gave rise to the dance form we now recognize as raqs sharqi.

In the nineteenth century, the modernization projects of Mohamed Ali and his grandson Isma’il transformed Cairo into the Paris of the Orient, and the environs of the Ezbekiya Gardens emerged as the bustling hub for arts and entertainment in the city (Hassan 1998, 1999).  Ezbekiya was originally the site of a lake that formed annually during the flooding of the Nile.  Many of Egypt’s rulers built their palaces on the periphery of the lake, and Napoleon based his headquarters there during the French occupation.  Under Mohamed Ali, the lake was drained and gardens were laid out on the site.  Isma’il continued the development of the gardens, employing a French landscape architect to create a lush setting styled after the public parks and pleasure gardens of Britain and France.  Hotels, theaters, restaurants and cafés were established in and around the Ezbekiya Gardens as the area became increasingly popular as a travel and recreation destination.  The grand Shepheard’s Hotel, located at the northwest corner of the gardens, rivaled European hotels of the time in luxury and opulence, and the original Cairo Opera House, located just south of the gardens, was the site of the world premiere of Verdi’s “Aida”.

survey map of Ezbekieh Gardens and environs 1920 – from Library of Congress
(top photo- Egyptian hotels Ltd., Cairo. Shepheard’s Hotel. Exterior – 1920s or 1930s)

By the turn of the century, numerous venues in Ezbekiya were offering “variety shows” that included music, singing, dancing, theatrical performances, and more – in the mold of European cafés chantants and music halls.

There seems to have been no unifying term for these establishments at the time, (1) though the generic term sala (“hall,” plural salat) was sometimes used and is adopted throughout this article for convenience.  Some of these venues were referred to by Western travelers and tourists as cafés chantants or occasionally cafés concerts.  An 1886 article by an Australian correspondent in The Queenslander newspaper writes of El Dorado, a sala that turns up frequently in travelers’ accounts and guidebooks:

At the El Dorado Café a troupe of danseuses with singers, acrobats; while in the next room merrily goes the roulette ball, while the fascinating baccaret and trente et quarante attract the jeunesse dorée, who, if they win have champagne suppers, and if they lose take ditto for consolation.  (The Queenslander 27 February 1886, 336)

Two years later, the Arabic-language daily Al Ahram mentions that the owner of El Dorado was adding theatrical performances to the program (Al Ahram 1 December 1888, 2).  Thus, like music halls in Europe and the United States, these venues offered a broad range of entertainments.  However, dance was certainly on the bill at many of these establishments.  Indeed, by the 1910s, female professional dancers, or awalem, could be found performing in salat throughout Ezbekiya (Sladen 1911: 114-115).

Prior to the nineteenth century, the term almeh (plural awalem) had designated a “learned woman” – a skilled female entertainer who wrote and recited poetry, composed and sang songs, and occasionally danced, but only in the hareem, or women’s quarters, of an Egyptian home (Lane 1836: 354-355).  The awalem contrasted markedly with the ghawazee (singular ghaziyeh), dancers who performed publicly (in streets, in courtyards, and at saint’s day celebrations) in provocative dress (by the standards of the time) and who were thus considered less than respectable (Lane 1836: 372-377).  In the early nineteenth century, there was increasing overlap between lower-class awalem and ghawazee (Van Nieuwkerk 1995: 35).  In 1834, both the awalem and the ghawazee were banned from Cairo, and by the time that the ban was formally lifted (under the reign of Abbas Basha, between 1849 and 1854), the distinction between these two classes of female entertainers had been irrevocably blurred. 

By the end of the nineteenth century, the term almeh came to designate a professional singer/dancer, while the term ghaziyeh increasingly referred to dancers in the rural villages outside of Cairo (Rushdy 2010, Van Nieuwkerk 1995) (though Western travelers and tourists still frequently used the terms almeh and ghaziyeh interchangeably).

Although the awalem and ghawazee were permitted to return to Cairo, there were apparently restrictions placed on where they could perform within the city (Leland 1873: 126-137, Van Nieuwkerk 1995: 36-37).  Reynolds-Ball states:

Genuine performances of these dancing girls are seldom seen in Cairo, except occasionally at weddings among the rich Cairenes; and, in fact, the public dances of the Ghawazee are forbidden by the authorities. They can, however, be seen at most of the towns of the Upper Nile Valley, especially at Keneh and Esneh. (Reynolds-Ball, The City of the Caliphs, 1898: 191-192)

Dancers and other entertainers were omnipresent at Cairo’s Moulid An-Nabi (the immense annual festival celebrating the birth of the prophet Mohammad) in the 1880s (Charmes 1883: 179-181).  Yet, S.H. Leeder, describing the moulid in 1912, states:

The dancing-girl no longer has a place in such festivities, and the buffoons and conjurers had no stage here that I could discover; and I could find no representative of the lower orders of dervishes who used to chew and swallow red-hot coals and crunch and swallow glass with apparent enjoyment. (Leeder 1913: 253)

Nevertheless, as Reynolds-Ball notes, dancers could be found in the cafés chantants of Cairo, such as El Dorado:

There are several good cafés and cafés chantants, such as Café Egyptien, close to Shepheard’s, the Eldorado, Rue Ezbekieh (native dancing girls). (Reynolds-Ball, Cairo To-Day, 1898: 12)

Toward the turn of the century, although dancers continued to perform at a variety of private functions for the upper classes, at weddings for the middle and lower classes, and at saint’s day celebrations (mawalid, singular moulid) in rural towns and villages, in Cairo at least, the sala was becoming a significant performance venue for dancers.

The move of belly dance in Cairo from traditional performance settings such as weddings and mawalid to the salat of Ezbekiya marked a fundamental shift in the nature of the dance.  In traditional contexts, belly dance was embedded in an occasion.  In other words, professional dancers were engaged for a performance if there was an occasion to observe, such as a wedding, a moulid, a sebo’ (party for a seven-day-old baby), or even a dinner party for visitors(2).  The sala, on the other hand, was a formalized performance venue – one which existed specifically for the display of performing arts like music, dance, and theater.  The attending audience was composed entirely of paying customers who attended with the intent of seeing the show, as opposed to a gathering of family, friends, and neighbors (as in a neighborhood wedding) or a casually aggregated mass of observers (as in a moulid).  A 1902 newspaper article describes admission at El Dorado:

The entry is generally free, but one is expected to order at least five piastres worth of something, or else pay that money for a seat.  (Star, Issue 7512, 20 September 1902, 2)

Further, the dance of the awalem and ghawazee in traditional contexts was not a strictly theatrical dance.  Theater dance, or concert dance, is performed as entertainment for a non-participating audience, and there is a clear distinction between the performers and the audience.  While the awalem and ghawazee were certainly performing for others, the boundary between the performers and the audience was not precisely defined.  As Van Nieuwkerk (1995: 36-37) notes, some Western observers were shocked by the casual air of association between female entertainers and their clients.  Lane writes:

In some parties where little decorum is observed, the guests dally and sport with these dancing-girls in a very licentious manner. I have before mentioned (in a former chapter) that on these occasions they are usually indulged with brandy or some other intoxicating liquor, which most of them drink to excess. It is a common custom for a man to wet with his tongue small gold coins and stick them upon the forehead, cheeks, chin, and lips of a Gházeeyeh (Lane 1836: 494-495).

Consider also Lady Duff Gordon’s description of an experience with a dancer in the Sa’id:

I dined last night with Mustafa, who again had the dancing-girls for some Englishmen to see. Seleem Efendi got the doctor, who was of the party, to prescribe for him all about his ailments, as coolly as possible. He as usual sat by me on the divan, and during the pause in the dancing, called “El Maghribeeyeh,” the best dancer, to come and talk to us. She kissed my hand, sat on her heels before us, and at once laid aside the professional gaillardise of manner, and talked very nicely in very good Arabic, and with perfect propriety, more like a man than a woman; she seemed very intelligent. What a thing we should think it, for a worshipful magistrate to call up a girl of that character to talk to a lady! (Duff Gordon 1865: 224-225)

The setup of the sala, with its clearly defined performance stage for the entertainers, established greater distance between performer and audience (3).  In essence, the movement of the dance into the formalized performance setting of the sala signified the transformation of belly dance into a fully theatrical dance form by the end of the nineteenth century.

It is clear that two significant features of what would become raqs sharqi – performance for the sake of performance, and performance for a primarily non-participating audience – were in place much earlier than the establishment of Badia Masabni’s first sala in 1926 (4).  Yet belly dance was only one among many entertainments offered in the salat of Ezbekiyah.  When entertainment venues expanded west from Ezbekiyah into Shari’ Emad Ad-Din and neighboring streets in the early twentieth century, the salat that opened there followed the already well-established model for variety entertainment.  Research by Priscilla Adum (n.d.) regarding the history of Badia Masabni’s establishments in Cairo reveals that dancing was not the only draw at the Sala Badia on Shari’ Emad ad-Din when it first opened its doors in 1926.  In fact, though Badia included some dancing (her own) in the show, no other dancers were on the bill, and the show seems to have been focused primarily on singing and acting (ibid.).  When Badia did begin including dancers in her programming the following year, some of those she hired were already established entertainers (ibid.).  Badia did not set out to create a new dance form; rather, quite successfully, she attempted to out-do her competitors in an already proven format for variety entertainment that included dance.  The stage for raqs sharqi had already been set within the walls of the salat of Ezbekiya.

Der Esbekieh-Garten in Kairo, Ägypten, fotografiert aus einem Ballon – aerial photograph by E. Spelterini created in 1904 published in 1928
  • Adum, Priscilla. "The Lady and Her Clubs."  All About Belly Dancing, by Shira, n.d.  <>.  Accessed November 15, 2012.
  • Al Ahram.
    1 December 1888, 4 February 1911, 1 July 1925.  <>.
  • Arab Music Magazine, “Sheikh Salama Higazi, Pioneer of Musical Theater.”  Arab Music Magazine, 2012.  <>.  Accessed November 15, 2012.
  • Charmes, Gabriel. Five Months at Cairo and in Lower Egypt.  London: Bentley, 1883.  From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA).  <>.
  • Duff Gordon, Lucie, Lady. Letters from Egypt, 1863-65.  London: Macmillan, 1865.  From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA).  <>.
  • Hassan, Fayza. "How Green Was This Valley."  Al-Ahram Weekly Online.  Issue No. 400.  22 – 28 October 1998.  <>.
  • Hassan, Fayza. "Well May They Weep."  Al-Ahram Weekly Online.  Issue No. 427.  29 April – 5 May 1999.  <>.
  • Lane, Edward. Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians.  1836.  New York: Cosimo Classics, 2005.
  • Leeder, S.H. Veiled Mysteries of Egypt and the Religion of Islam.  New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1913.  From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA).  <>.
  • Reynolds-Ball, Eustace A. Cairo of To-Day: A Practical Guide to Cairo and Its Environs.  London: Adam and Charles Black, 1898.  From Hathi Trust Digital Library.  <>.
  • Reynolds-Ball, Eustace A. The City of the Caliphs; a Popular Study of Cairo and its Environs and the Nile and its Antiquities.  Boston, London: Estes and Lauriat, T. Fisher Unwin, 1898.  From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA).  <>.
  • Rushdy, Noha. "Baladi as Performance : Gender and Dance in Modern Egypt."  Surfacing 3.1 (2010) : 71-99. 
  • Sladen, Douglas. Oriental Cairo: The City of the "Arabian Nights."  Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1911.  From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA).  <>.
  • Star. “The Ghawazee of Cairo: The Picturesque Dancing Women of Egypt.”  Star [Canterbury, New Zealand].  Issue 7512.  20 September 1902: 2.  <>.
  • Timaru Herald. "Social Egypt."  Timaru Herald [Timaru, Canterbury, New Zealand].  Volume XXIV, Issue 1417.  13 May 1876 : 3.  <>.
  • The Queenslander. "Our Cairo Lettter."  The Queenslander [Brisbane, Queensland, Australia] 27 February 1886 : 336.  <>.
  • Van Nieuwkerk, Karin. A Trade Like Any Other : Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt.  Austin : University of Texas Press, 1995.
  • Leland, Charles, The Egyptian Sketch Book. London: Strahan and Co., Trubner and Co., 1873. From Open Library. <>.
  1. For example, Sheikh Salama Higazi, pioneer of Arabic musical theater, performed at “Sala Santi” in the Ezbekiya Gardens before opening his hall “Dar Al Tamtheel Al Arabi” in 1906 (Arab Music Magazine 2012).  Sala Santi was still in existence as late as 1925; an Arabic newspaper advertisement from that year announces an upcoming performance there by Um Kulthum (Al Ahram 1 July 1925, 5).  (It is unclear whether “Sala Santi” is the same as the restaurant “Santi” that is referenced in Western sources.)  On the other hand, Higazi’s “Dar Al Tamtheel Al Arabi,” though clearly offering variety shows – a 1911 advertisement describes a program that included a play, musical performances during the intermissions, and a comedy show (Al Ahram 4 February 1911, 3) – was generally referred to as a theater.
  2. Although it was apparently frowned upon to engage dancers for “common” occasions, this did occur (Lane 1836: 191, 496; Van Nieuwkerk 1995: 25).
  3. However, the practice of fath – sitting, socializing, and drinking with customers – kept the performer/audience boundary somewhat blurry.  Fath was commonplace  in the salat of the 1920s and 1930s (Van Nieuwkerk 1995: 43-45), but the practice occurred as early as the 1870s (Timaru Herald, Volume XXIV, Issue 1417, 13 May 1876, 3).
  4. It is worth noting that other forms of traditional entertainment (music, singing, acting, comedy) were following a similar path at this time.

Coming soon – a description of the sala El Dorado, its precise location in Cairo, and the famous Egyptian entertainers who worked there.

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  1. Sahra C Kent

    Jan 10, 2013 - 05:01:12

    Well researched article – I look forward to the next installment! Now I have to re-word part of my information for JtE-1.  Very good work, Nisaa.

  2. Catherine Barros

    Jan 11, 2013 - 08:01:03

    Very enjoyable article.  It is nice to have someone who is willing to do the research and put it together, so that we have a better understanding of how our dance has developed and evolved for so many years.

    Thanks so much, Nisaa!!! 

  3. Monica B.

    Jan 13, 2013 - 04:01:24

    This article is a wonderful addition to the writing about the rise of raqs sharqi! I appreciate the clear references, and look forward to reading more work from Nisaa. Thanks for publishing this.

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