A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. – Marcus Garvey
Nothing stays in its organic, original form for long. Just as art and music are constantly changing to reflect our world, belly dance too is evolving. One of the most famous transformational periods that has left a lasting impression is known as the Golden Era.
By studying the past and the dancers that paved the way for modern belly dance, you will gain a deeper appreciation of the roots of the dance, and may begin to see how it is evolving today.
The Classic Period: 1850 – 1959
At the turn of the century, Cairo became a colorful mélange of foreign artists, authors, adventurers, and soliders, all mesmerized by the exotic Egyptian dance and music found in Cairo’s posh nightclubs.
One of the most famous nightclubs was “Casino Badia”, a vibrant venue for music shows, dance performances, stand-up comedy acts, and afternoon events for women. The club’s owner from present-day Syria, Badia Al Masabni, was not only a stunning dancer, but also a solid business woman. She had a remarkable ability to know exactly what her foreign and upper-class Egyptian clients craved, and gave them just that.
Inspired by Hollywood movie magazines, her international travels and western choreographers, she taught her club’s dancers to integrate western stylisations into Egypt’s traditional Sha’abi dance of the Ghawazee. This included traveling steps from ballet and ballroom dance that covered more space on the stage, exotic snake arms and arms placed gracefully above the head.
She also tweaked the fashion to better suit European tastes by creating a more revealing two-piece costume with beads and sequins — the costume we associate with belly dance, even today.
She also introduced mysterious props, such as the veil and the candelabra head piece, and adapted the music by adding classical sounds to the traditional lineup.
All of these stylistic changes led to the creation of a new belly dance genre known as raqs sharqi.
After a little financial hiccup, Badia left Cairo to tour Upper Egypt with her dance troupe. Upon her return in 1940, she borrowed money to start her biggest business venture yet: a nightclub with a movie theatre, restaurant, café and an American-style bar known as “Casino Opera”. Her project was extremely successful with the flood of English and French soldiers that came to Cairo during World War II.
However, what really put raqs sharqi belly dance on the map was the Egyptian film industry. From the 1930s, countless films were produced with playful and filrty musical numbers by many of Casino Opera’s star dancers. For the first time in history, dancers were given celebrity status, putting belly dance for the first time on the international stage. The most famous of these dancers were Tahia Carioca, Samia Gamal, and Naima Akef.
Tahia Carioka, renamed for her proficiency in the Brazilian dance called the “carioka”, was a great talent, known for her half hip circle with her chest slightly leaned back, sultry lower body undulations with graceful arms extended up in the air, and ironic flirting during performances. Not only could she dance, but she could also act and sing. During her career, she starred in over 200 films, theatre plays and soap operas!
Samia is remembered for bringing glamour and energy to the dance with her contagious charm, flashy costumes and high heals. Trained in numerous dance traditions, including ballet, samba, rumba, waltz, tango, and rock & roll, she incorporated many western stylisations into her performances. There is never a dull moment when watching Samia. She would constantly move around the stage like an energiser bunny. Her graceful spins, fluid hip work, and elegant arms captivate even audiences today.
Naima is famous for the grace and beauty she presented in her one-of-a-kind, theatrical performances. Inspired by her childhood in the circus, she brought a rich variety of ballet and theatrical elements, coupled with her lovely voice, to the stage. In addition to her career in the film industry, she was a part of one of the first professional Egyptian folkloric groups, Leil Ya Ain Group.
These are just a few of my personal favorite dancers from the early 1900s. However, there are many more that have paved the way for modern dancers, including Katie, Hagar Hamdi, and Beba Ezzedin, among others.
In the 1950s and 60s, another historic boom caused a small wave in the belly dance world. After the Egyptian revolution in 1952 that finally ended colonial rule of Egypt, the theatre and arts were elevated even more. Open coffee houses were booming, with live music and dance performances. Baladi music and singers became extremely popular. And feminism was making a comeback with many female film directors and unsegregated weddings.
Belly dance evolved once again to reflect the changing ideals with Nagwa Fouad, Souhair Zaki, and Fifi Abdo leading the way.
Who is your favorite Golden Era dancer? Share in the comments!