Tahia Carioca and the lost art of raqs sharqi
There is almost a sense of vulgarity one feels upon hearing the term ‘belly dance’; it is like a dehumanisation of some sort, bringing to mind a woman of an exotic nature that has been kidnapped and forced to bare all without the ‘veil’ of mystery and a right to expression. Many are not necessarily aware of such connotations, but globally, the idea of belly dance has been reduced to a sexualised ritual with only traces of culture. What is even more disappointing, however, is that belly dance is also looked upon by many in the same way in the region it once bloomed and flourished.
Talk of belly dance as an art or respected dance form, such as ballet or flamenco, has been seldom heard of in the Middle East for years. No longer valued, this art form seems to have lost its touch with its grand legacy in Egyptian cinema, and is underestimated to the point that it is now only vaguely referred to as a dance, and more so as an undignified rite practiced among the ranks of immoral women. This sentiment may be influenced by anecdotes and legends that have yet to be substantiated, from stories of dancing sex slaves in the seraglios of the Ottoman sultans, or, going back further, to ancient Egypt, Greece, and India, where it was supposedly used to worship the gods and help with fertility. Even Moorish gypsies in Spain have made the ‘purpose’ of this dance form difficult to pinpoint; from one perspective, it emphasises sexuality in a patriarchal setting, whereas from another, it is more of a sacred and divine practice. There was once, however, a time when the two notions met to create beauty.
The New York politician Sol Bloom coined the term ‘belly dance’ – or, danse du ventre – after its introduction at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Prior to that, it was simply referred to as raqs sharqi (lit. ‘Oriental/Eastern dance’). Though this dance feeds on influences from a mythical and ambiguous past, its familiar form today has roots in a more documented time in history. Before its rise to popularity in the elite nightclubs and cabarets of 1920s Cairo, the dance was performed in public by the so-called ghawazi, documented by European travellers such as Flaubert, who witnessed these nomadic Egyptian entertainers that often frequented the city’s Mohammed Ali Street. Inspired by his observations, Flaubert featured the ghawazi in his fictional tale Herodias:
She danced like the priestesses of the Indies, like the Nubian girls of the cataracts, like the bacchantes of Lydia. She twisted from side to side like a flower shaken by the wind. The jewels in her ears swung in the air, the silk on her back shimmered in the light, and from her arms, her feet, and her clothes there shot invisible sparks which set the men on fire.
Though most travellers saw the ghawazi as savage and cheap in comparison to the exotic fantasies of the East depicted in European Orientalist art and literature, some, like Flaubert and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, saw a more artistic appeal in these public dances, which bore a likeness to its future and evolution as raqs sharqi. ‘Nothing could be more artful or proper to raise certain ideas’, wrote Montagu of an episode during her stay in Constantinople. ‘The tunes so soft! The motions so languishing! Accompanied with pauses and dying eyes! Half-falling back and then recovering themselves in so artful a manner …’
In Homage to a Belly Dancer, a lesser-known essay by the late Edward Said, the author discussed raqs sharqi in its more authentic form by reminiscing on the life of one of its most prominent and renowned classical exponents, the Egyptian femme fatale Tahia Carioca. Carioca, as well as the acclaimed Egyptian dancer Samia Gamal, are examples of a time when this folk dance evolved to enjoy a more private and formal setting. While the ghawazi’s income came from the streets of Egypt, dancers trained by the ‘godmother’ of raqs sharqi, Badiaa Masabni, were in a more controlled and professional one. With Masabni, the upper classes could enjoy a higher artistic level of trained dancers, as opposed to that of the street performers. The music of Masabni’s dancers – taqasim – was slow and arrhythmic, in contrast to the more upbeat folk melodies of the ghawazi, known as baladi music.
In the essay, Said emphasised a vital feature of raqs sharqi often overlooked by his contemporaries; simply put, that less is more. ‘As in bullfighting, the essence of the classic Arab belly dancer’s art is not how much, but how little the artist moves’, Said wrote, further adding that ‘Only the novices and the deplorable Greek and American imitators go in for the appalling wiggling and jumping around that passes for “sexiness”’. Carioca did just the opposite. Recounting his experience watching her perform live as a young teenager, Said remembered that she ‘never jumped or bobbed her breasts, or went in for bumping and grinding’; instead, Carioca’s ‘grace and eloquence suggested something altogether classical and even monumental’.
Dominating the room whilst delicately – and fully – stealing the attention of all unknowingly, is the hypnotic power of raqs sharqi that Carioca was able to amplify and exude in the hundreds of films she featured in during her reign in Egypt’s ‘Golden Age’ of cinema. It was not the technical work of a flexible stomach, circus-like bodily contortions, or the distracting display of obvious flirting that set her apart from other dancers; it was her charisma, and the fluidity between her body and spirit, one may argue, that allowed anyone watching her – like Said – to become part of her aura in the room. Carioca was able to do this without allowing one to objectify her or liken her to a moving doll, or even feeling ‘entitled’ to touch her. Such was the prowess that Said was able to glimpse live:
She had what appeared to be a small self-absorbed smile on her face, her mouth open more than is usual in a smile, as if she was privately contemplating her body, enjoying its movements. Her smile muted whatever tawdry theatricality attached to the scene and to her dance, purifying them by virtue of the concentration bestowed on her innermost and most self-abstracted thoughts.
Just as Om Kolthoum’s emotionally-charged voice was one of power, visually, Carioca – whose essence as an esteemed icon of Arab culture, beyond that of just dance – was able to create power within movement. Largely remembered only for her role as an entertainer, Carioca, whom Said referred to as an almeh (an educated/learned woman), was also politically engaged in Egypt through various movements she joined. She was a passionate activist, to the extent that she was even jailed in the 50s for belonging to a group that Gamal Abdel Nasser, the then-President of Egypt, opposed. A rise in religious conservatism, however, has changed views regarding the likes of Carioca and her profession, leaving little room for the almehs of today.
Said remembered that she ‘never jumped or bobbed her breasts, or went in for bumping and grinding’; instead, Carioca’s ‘grace and eloquence suggested something altogether classical and even monumental’
As a Westernised half-Arab ballet dancer, one can only image how far I was, growing up, from appreciating the melancholic voice of Om Kolthoum, or the legacy of classical belly dance. I have come, however, to learn and value the artistic appeal in the instrumentals accompanying raqs sharqi, and am now unable to dance authentically without the rhythm of the oud, and haunting heart-rending voices. Ignoring the degrading status it often holds today, I found a beautiful freedom and sacredness in this dance, where I could ignore and lose touch with technicalities, structure, and rationality, instead finding myself vulnerably spilling truth from my movements in the genuine space I created. I thought I would somehow feel ‘less’ as a student, as a journalist-to-be; but, performing in school – the only safe and dignified environment I had – as my parents watched from the front row, I was not thinking of challenging the misogynistic stereotype of belly dance; instead, I was thinking of how this would somehow reflect on my reputation, and make me feel less as an academic: thoughts that never occurred to me whilst performing other forms of dance throughout my life.
This struggle to maintain the reputation of a learned almeh is what affected Carioca’s reputation during her later years and the end of Egypt’s cinematic Golden Age. I know after I graduate that I will not be able to ‘belly dance’ outside my campus walls, as the art’s sexualised reputation echoes still, and also because I have no professional, dignified space to do so in. Preserving and reclaiming some of the authenticity of raqs sharqi in a world in which it has been so misunderstood may be unrealistic. Though I was smothered with compliments from friends and non-Middle Eastern audiences, I was asked by many why my performance lacked a more fast-paced energy, and why my interpretation was so ‘silent’. Such comments led me to believe that accepting this form of dance as more than mere sexy entertainment was something that many were not able to accept.
Karin Van Nieuwark, in her book A Trade Like No Other, wrote that ‘art and entertainment [are] a two-edged sword’. Even more worrisome is that this endangered art form is, some might suggest, unknowing of its predicament. In her last interview with Said before she passed away at the age of 79, Carioca showed a more conservative and religious outlook after years of resignation as a dancer. Even as her black scarf covered her head, though, Carioca did not repudiate her career as a dancer; rather, she expressed her respect for the art form. Referred to as a Hajja – an honorific given to Muslim women who have returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca – by Said, Carioca described dancing as ‘being in a temple’, and told Said that ‘My life as a dancer has been beautiful, and I love it’.
‘We have to look at a whole, complicated, interchanging, developing world of many different kinds of dances’, remarked University of North Carolina professor Andrea Deagon with reference to the origins of belly dance in her article The World’s Oldest Dance. Raqs sharqi is bound to evolve in the future, but hopefully without completely letting go of the enigma that makes it so special. In recapturing the ‘Oriental’ in the art form and focusing less on the physical belly, one hopes that practitioners of the future will continue to give birth to new, yet rooted forms of this dance and pass it on to future generations, such that it may retain its original character and transcend its current reputation to one of high art again.
Cover image: Youssef Nabil – Natacha with Eyes Closed (detail; courtesy the artist and Nathalie Obadia Gallery Paris/Brussels).