Some thoughts on “Dancers,” the documentary about Egyptian performers

What those of us outside the Middle East tend to call “bellydance” has always been the stuff of fantasy and a bit of willful blindness. The international dance community is, I think, aiming all the time towards more education, more background, more understanding of this dance we find so fascinating. It’s true, there are still so many six-week wonders and perhaps also some highly technical dancers who don’t really care about history, musicality, culture… but there is also so much information, so much scholarship being done, that it’s really a great time to be curious about oriental dance.

dancers documentary - egyptian dancer getting makeup done

Still, we have a problem. It’s a pretty well-known conundrum. We want to raise up the dance, help it be recognized as the art form it really is. We also want to respect its countries of origin, the cultures that gave us such beautiful music and dances. But dancing in public is not exactly looked upon well in those countries of origin. From everything I read, if you are Egyptian you do not want your daughter to be a professional dancer. Dancers are associated with immorality and prostitution, and sometimes that hits close to the truth. (By the way, in the west we also have a long tradition of associating performers with sexual availability… and a long tradition of that often being the case.)

dancers documentary - egyptian dancer mona

Dancers, a free-form but compelling documentary about lower-class Cairo entertainers (which you can watch free online here), is disturbing, but not just for that reason. I came across this via a Facebook link from Saqra Raybuck, who enjoined non-Egyptian dancers to be informed about the various tiers of dance in Egypt. We might coo over Fifi Abdo, tsk-tsk over Dina’s skirts, and pay big bucks to take that workshop with Randa, but as Saqra pointed out, that’s only a limited slice of the dancing pie in Egypt. Far more common is the hard-working, rather poor dancer traveling from gig to gig to make ends meet, moving — often raunchily — in a cheap, ill-fitting costume before a crowd of men eating her up with their eyes.

dancers documentary - egyptian dancer asking for tips

It’s a hard reality to face. It’s hard to see how many of these women “wound up” dancing as a result of a series of misfortunes, parental and spousal abuse, general poverty. It’s the narrative we usually hear about prostitution, not the hired wedding entertainment. It was hard for me to see the 17 year old Mona state in no uncertain terms that she hates what she does, because men take money from their families to spend it on her, because she’s not a respectable, “pure” girl. It’s hard to hear about an attempted rape, or about the way one poor dancer had to be “bought” from her manager by another manager, in what seems to be bordering on pimping or slavery.

And… dare I say it?

It was hard…. to see how bad so much of the dancing was.

Because that’s also part of the fantasy of Egyptian dance, not just the sparkles on the big stage, but that the “common people” have an authentic connection to the dance and movement, and a deep joy in it. It’s sold to us in the workshops, described as “baladi” or what have you. But common people aren’t just on the farm, they are also the city poor, and while it was clear that many men and women — and children — enjoy dancing socially, often quite well, many of the pros were frankly awful. Sometimes barely moving, minimally interpreting the music, dead in the eyes (which may speak of deeper sadness), and the one reliable dance move being the checking of one’s wristwatch. They might have been able to dance, but they very much didn’t want to. Weirdly, many of the men who came up to dance with the entertainment often moved more impressively than the hired dancer.

dancers documentary - bored egyptian nightclub dancer

The documentary does offer some balance: near the end there is an interview with a mother of five who supports all of her children alone through dance, and who loves it. But overall the feeling was one of performed lifelessness on stage, of the most perfunctory kind of movement. The real warmth is in the private scenes, especially in one longer segment in which a wedding dancer hangs out with the women in the family before going out to dance with the men. She talks to them, is given a plate of food, bothers them for needle and thread to tighten up her costume (“I’m not going to pray”), and eventually dances for the women and kids privately before the big show which the men won’t let them see. There, in that room full of intently watching women, the dancer seems, at last, to enjoy herself.

Two Ahmeds, two Saids

A quick note about a fun and filled Saturday. It began with my hightailing it up to Prenzlauer Berg to attend two workshops by Ahmed Said. Now, I was a bit early, so I treated myself to a really convincing cappuccino and a good-enough croissant before going in search of the dance studio at the Kulturbrauerei.

I finally made it, and was in for more than five hours of energetic dance. The first workshop was on Egyptian folkloric dances, namely Nubian and Debke. I had no experience with either. I adoooored the playfulness of Nubian, the groovyness of it, to say nothing of the music. Debke was more challenging. By that point, I was really feeling the impact in my feet and knees, and it made it hard to keep up. I think I could learn to like it if I got the basic step down, but for now I’m happy to leave it to the menfolk.

The second workshop was devoted to a shaabi choreography. It seems like every dancer who’s coming through Berlin these days is offering a shaabi choreo. And this is a Good Thing. I love the peppiness of the shaabi music I’ve heard so far, for starters. And Ahmed mixed up bellydance steps with some moves that were practically out of the disco, which I especially loved because it reminds me that this dance is, ultimately, about joy in movement and music. You can’t take yourself that seriously when you’re pretending to stab yourself out of heartache.

I had just enough time to jump on the subway — no doubt grossing out my fellow passengers — go home and take a shower before it came time to… go to the ballet! At that point I couldn’t even walk anymore, so hubby and I got a taxi to see La Péri at the Staatsballet Berlin. In a way, it was incredibly fitting. A nineteenth-century “hijinks in the harem” ballet newly choreographed by Vladimir Malakhov, it was the most unapologetically orientalist production of, well, anything I’ve ever seen. In it, Achmed — the second Ahmed of the day — is tired of all the available ladies and romantically dreams of the pure and eternal love of a supernatural Peri.

The second Said of the day had to be Edward Said, who was no doubt doing pirouettes in his grave. I mean, at one point Achmed is in prison, and while the previous backdrops had suggested his harem was in Istanbul, the prison has giant, Pergammon-style Mesopotamian wall carvings.

The production was gorgeous — although one of the poor little corps Peris did accidentally run into Achmed at one point — and the costuming was enough to make any bellydancer swoon. (Nourmahal, Achmed’s former favourite, had on a tribal kind of look — I had to wonder if that was on purpose.) But it also made me realise that if it hadn’t been for Balanchine, I would never have fallen in love with ballet. It’s the modern take on the dance that draws me, as well as the athleticism.