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Modest cabaret divides Morocco

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See the Folies de Marrakech in action

By James Copnall
BBC News, Marrakech

Say the word cabaret, and you think straight away of lines of scantily-clad can-can girls kicking their legs in the Moulin Rouge or Folies Bergeres in Paris.

But now cabaret has come to Morocco - and there is not a topless girl in sight.

Folies de Marrakech has been toned down to fit in better with local cultural norms in this Muslim country.

But even so the dancers have been kicking up controversy.

Claude Thomas, Folies de Marrakech
You have to forget the G-string - forget, forget, forget. But that's not what is important to me
Claude Thomas
Cabaret performer

Claude Thomas, a veteran of cabarets in France, Las Vegas and Reno, is the creative inspiration behind the show.

He cultivates a reverence for Jonny Halliday, and there are several pictures of the ageing French rocker stuck up in his dressing room.

He says he had to sacrifice a few cabaret favourites to the taste of the performers and the public.

"Here you have to forget the G-string - forget, forget, forget," he exclaims, with perhaps a touch of regret.

"But that's not what is important to me. I need my staff to be very happy."

Change of image

The performers trained for nearly a year before the doors first opened, and Mr Thomas said he took into account some of their reservations about the risque nature of some of the routines.

The performers come from diverse backgrounds - some were professional dancers, others students; one was a member of the national gymnastics team; and several came from a circus school for street children.

Amina, Folies de Marrakech dancer

Dancers here, especially oriental dancers, they are not accepted, because they are attractive

Amina
Dancer

Mr Thomas proudly says they all receive a regular and decent wage, which is not always the case in the arts world here.

But all the same many of the performers had to think twice before joining the cabaret.

The word itself has negative connotations in Morocco, conjuring up images of seedy late-night revues which merge with brothels in the popular imagination - and often in reality.

The staff of the Folies de Marrakech have been told to refer to it as "music hall" rather than cabaret to escape this trap.

But that hasn't taken away the stigma.

Amina, a young dancer, couldn't face telling her father she was leaving her studies to join the cabaret - so she pretended she had a job as a waitress.

"Dancers here, especially oriental dancers, they are not accepted, because they are attractive. It's difficult. We are Muslims, and we cannot attract people except our husbands."

Folies de Marrakech has been criticised for its dance routines, and because alcohol is served at the venue - though the latter can be said of many place in Morocco.

"I think that the Moroccan audience, that the majority of Moroccans, don't appreciate this kind of cabaret," says Youness Benslimane, from the moderate Islamist PJD party.

"People like dancing and singing. But a style of cabaret like the Moulin Rouge, I don't think Moroccans are ready to accept this kind of show."

Smile

All the same, the fact the cabaret is here at all is testimony to Marrakech's open nature.

The city's monuments, history, scenic location and - yes - nightlife attract millions of people every year.

Curtain call for dancers at Folies de Marrakech
It's not quite Moulin Rouge but it is racy for Morocco

Tourism is a big part of Morocco's economy, and this regular influx of foreigners, combined with a slow change in Moroccan society, encouraged the cabaret owners to set up here.

It probably would not have been possible a few years ago.

Folies de Marrakech is a giant venue, which seats more than 1,000 people, on the road out of Marrakech. It isn't always full.

But those who go - a mixture of wealthy Europeans, Gulf Arabs and Moroccans - have positive things to say.

"It's Western, but it's also Moroccan, it's also Persian, it's a mix. And here in Morocco we love mixing things," points out a young man in a suit and tie.

"You can always find people that will criticise it and say it is un-Islamic, but I don't think it will be a majority - I really hope not," adds a woman with a smile.

Folies de Marrakech's ambition is sizeable.

However for all the show tunes and the sparkle, Morocco's first cabaret still hasn't proved it can succeed commercially.

But the very fact it is here at all is a sign of how the country is changing.



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