Even a revolution is no excuse to stop dancing in Cairo.
“My family kept calling, telling me not to go down to Tahrir Square,” said native Californian Ruth Allegra Pena. “But now I consider myself Egyptian, too. This is my home.”
Pena, who uses the stage name Aleya, moved to Cairo in 2008 to pursue the art of belly dancing as a performer and teacher.
There’s more to this sensuous art form than tiny bras, swaying hips and strategically placed jewels. Involving intricate movements of the entire body, belly dancing goes back thousands of years, predating Islam.
Cairo is the honored capital of the ancient art, with perhaps more practitioners than any other city in the world.
“You are a real artist when you dance here. A lot of Americans don’t understand belly dancing -- they think it is stripping,” said Pena. “In Egypt, they are your biggest fans.”
Kazakhstan-native Zhanna Korolkova, now based in Las Vegas, lived in Cairo in 2011. She explained that the American cabaret style of belly dancing uses elements from Lebanon, Egypt and other parts of the Middle East.
“The Egyptian style of belly dancing is loved by all the world, she said.” It’s every dancer’s dream to live in Egypt and study. This is the mother of belly dancing.”
Belly Dance Tour
Pena and I have been friends since college. The last time I visited her in 2010, we toured some of the dozens of belly-dancing clubs in Cairo, ranging from decrepit colonial buildings to Vegas-style show palaces catering to Egypt’s elite, oil-rich Gulf visitors and Westerners.
I came back again this year to be in Cairo for the first anniversary of Egypt’s revolution. Our Thursday night out began at the VIP Club in Giza’s Al Nabila Hotel, where the entrance fee was 150 Egyptian pounds, or about $25.
Gaudy with red carpeting, crimson and silver curtains and a stage worthy of a Milan fashion show, the sprawling venue was virtually empty.
Even so, the heavy-set manager insisted that the vacant tables awaited very important high flyers and stuck us far away from the action, such as it was, with one lonely dancer gyrating in the distance.
Next we hit the Pyramids View Hotel, a third of the price and a popular local hangout, arriving at 2:30 in the morning.
Screaming Fire Trap
Perched on the hotel’s rooftop, the club was a screaming fire trap -- filled with smoke, cheap tinsel streamers dangling from the low ceiling.
Here, we were the only foreigners among gruff, dark-suited men sitting at shadowy tables against the walls. Others wore dishdashas, or long tunics, and brought wives in head scarves.
The smiling, raven-haired belly dancer Somiya was one of the stars here, her costume sapphire blue with rhinestones sparkling in the dim red spotlights.
Endless voluptuous undulations left her skin coated with a mix of sweat and glitter.
Somiya welcomed visitors of both sexes to dance together on the tiny stage. Chubby crooners with slicked-back hair shouted songs into microphones and loudly intoned the names of regular customers.
Waiters in tight black pants and vests squeezed by, trays heaving with 1,000 pound bricks of Egyptian money to be used as tips to shower on Somiya and the other belly dancers performing that evening.
This packed Thursday night, the beginning of the Islamic weekend, was not typical, according to nightclub manager Mohammed Yehia Saed, who bounced among the tables wiping sweat from his shaved head.
“It’s down: Locals can’t come every night like they used to.” he said. “People are not working as much anymore.”
Tourism is also down, and Muslim groups gained a majority in January’s parliamentary elections. What this means for belly dancing in Cairo is unclear.
“Vertigo” is a best-selling Egyptian novel about a belly dancing club and Cairo’s nightlife, due out in May in the U.S. Author Ahmed Mourad, 34, was part of former President Hosni Mubarak’s media photography team.
We met in a crowded Coffee Bean, a cafe chain popular with Westernized Cairenes and expats in Zamalek, a Nile-island neighborhood.
Mourad’s reaction to the ancient art is complex. “I like belly dancing, actually,” he said. “I am against the people who give care to this nightlife and forget the poor,” throwing money on stage while people starve in the streets.
After photographing in Tahrir Square on the first anniversary of the revolution, I joined local journalists and their friends on El Borsa Street.
Ahmed Qasem, 26, joined our group, wearing an American-style hoodie. He was a member of the conservative Muslim Salafist party, but had no problem with my belly-dancing tour.
“The revolution is with the people,” he told me. I asked him for clarification.
“Let me say it this way. If you want to do anything in Cairo, you can do it. There isn’t anything to stop you from doing what you want to do,” he explained. “Not even the Salafists.”
Mourad agrees: “If anything goes wrong, we can still go to Tahrir Square.” According to the novelist, Egyptians don’t want a strict version of Islam, the kind found in the Gulf region.
“Mall, house, car. It’s very sick,” Mourad said of the way of life there. “If I lived in the Gulf I wouldn’t find anything to write about. Egyptians have the right to drama in the streets.”
Despite the tumultuous events taking place in Egypt, Pena doesn’t worry about belly dancing’s future here. “I am still contacted about my classes by foreigners moving to Cairo,” she said.
For tourism information visit: http://www.egypt.travel.
(Michael Luongo writes on travel for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)