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.

Pining for Pina

If you’re anywhere near a movie theatre that’s playing Pina right now, open a different browser window, buy a ticket, and go to see it immediately. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, just head straight to the cinema. Trust me.

Some of the theatres in my city are playing it, both in 2D and 3D, and I’ve been recommending the movie like mad to anyone who will listen. I saw it twice this past summer in 3D while I was in Germany, and will probably see it again, in however many dimensions I can, before it leaves the cinemas again. “Pina” is probably one of the most exquisite things I’ve seen on a movie screen. If you love dance, if you love art or music, heck, even if you just like seeing beautiful things or fascinating people, you will love it.

“Pina” was originally planned as a documentary. Pina Bausch, one of the leading choreographers of modern German dance, was working with director Wim Wenders when, a few days before beginning the shoot, she died suddenly of cancer. Wenders wound up making the piece anyway, but it became an homage to Bausch herself. Pieces from her dance works are interlaced with her dancers’ recollections of working with her,of  learning their craft from a charismatic, understated, and powerful woman.

Why see it? The dancing is passionate, stunning, sometimes joyful, often troubling. The dancers themselves are equally fascinating; we are used to seeing the sameness of Hollywood faces on the big screen, but here are artists who can control every muscle and the intention behind it, and whose faces show the individual lines of long experience. The discussions of dance are incredibly subtle, and would be of interest to any practitioner. For example, in archival footage, Bausch describes performing a choreography that demanded she keep her eyes closed throughout, but feeling that this repetition was somehow different, not right — then realising that it made a difference to the feeling of the dance whether she looked up or down behind her shut eyelids. See it also because the cinematography beautifies Wuppertal, an industrial German city made enchanted by the dancing filmed in its parks, public transit, and mines.

Really — just go see it. Then come back and tell me what you thought.