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Wednesday, 6 June, 2001, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
Belly dancing goes global
Belly dancer, Cairo festival
Belly dancing is getting more popular outside Egypt
By Frank Gardner in Cairo

The classic Egyptian belly dance is a heady mix of quivering limbs, naked navels and suggestive eye contact.

Egyptians say it has been in their blood for thousands of years. Now it has a wider appeal.


It has become an international culture

Amira, costume designer
Egypt has been hosting its biggest ever international festival of belly dancing, with the final night being held on Thursday.

Deborah Koric, from the United States, is one of hundreds of women who have come to Cairo's belly dancing festival, to perfect the art of oriental dance.

"You know, it's ultra-feminine, it's an opportunity to live that goddess that everybody has inside them," says Ms Koric. "There's very few opportunities in the world today with women as they are and having to be masculine and enter the working world.

Belly dancer, Cairo festival
There is a lot of competition to be the best
"For me, I've been living this life for the last 24 years and I never get tired of it. I'm totally obsessed with Middle Eastern dance."

Backstage, in the dressing rooms, there is nervous excitement. Women from New Zealand, Germany, and elsewhere are trying on their new costumes, about to perform in front of a sceptical Egyptian audience. They have been practising for months, but for many, this is their first time onstage.

The lights go on, the women gyrate, the audience loves it. As westerners, the women are allowed to go bare-bellied - Egyptians are supposed to cover their midriffs with see-through gauze.

Better than the rest?

The costumes for this show were made by a well-known Egyptian designer, Amira. She sees this event as a way of bridging world cultures.


They will never, never match us

Suhair Zaki, Egyptian dancer
"It has become an international culture," she says. "It has been a wonderful sort of breaking the barrier between East and West.

"It has become a common language which people said East and West shall never meet, well here we are in belly dancing. They have met."

In the morning it is back to school at the festival's dance classes. The women are learning all they can, from a local expert. At $60 a session, most Egyptians could not afford these classes.

But will the visiting students ever become great belly dancers? Egypt's Suhair Zaki, who once danced before former US President Richard Nixon, thinks not.

Belly dancer
Egyptian dancers are supposed to cover their midriffs with gauze
"They will never be up to the Egyptian standards, the Egyptian belly dancers' standards," she says. "They don't have the lively spirit, they don't have the sense of humour and they don't have the musical ear.

"They only perform steps that they learn - 1,2,3,4. But they don't have the spirit.

"They will never, never match us"

Objections

But out on the streets of Cairo, the Islamic revival has taken its toll on this controversial dance. Most Egyptians now consider its lewd movements to be 'haraam' - forbidden by Islam. Today, there are almost no new faces bursting onto the Egyptian belly dancing scene.

Islamists, like the MP, Mohammed Mursi, say this is just as well, for a number of reasons.

"From the viewpoint of our religion, it's not allowed, it's forbidden," he says. "It's a bad thing for a woman to show off her body to the public.

"And also, the situation we are living in now, when we see [Israeli Prime Minister] Sharon threatening our society, the Egyptian society... I think our priority lists shouldn't be starting by making such a festival".

But back at the festival, the dance goes on. It is almost an act of defiance for an activity that is struggling to survive against the odds. And while belly dancing may now be in decline in Egypt, it looks set to take the rest of the world by storm.

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