When the lights go out

Western dancers in the Middle East

This article by MEISSOUN was first published in German in the magazine TanzOriental 5/2000.

Most beginners of Oriental dance are not very ambitioned. They start to dance for fun. But after some time a few of them also want to perform. And finally they see other dancers who "have made it": Those glamorous, glittery beings who show their art night after night for an enthusiastic audience in the 5 star hotels of Arabic metropolises. Well, and that's the moment when some dancers in Europe or America only have one goal: Pack their bags, and go to Cairo to become a big star!

But what is the life of the stars and starlets in the Middle East really like? What happens when the orchestra stops playing and the lights go out? Reality - as most of the times - is much less glamorous. For this article I interviewed several experienced dancers who worked in Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and other Oriental countries. Besides this I analysed some French and German TV documentaries.

 

The Start

Let's start at the beginning: How to get there? Just as for any job in a foreign country, a permit is necessary. Depending on the country this can be more or less complicated. But Arabic countries are famous for their art in bureaucracy... In the Lebanon, a dancer must be a Lebanese citizen, in the Emirates, a sponsor is needed (most of the time the hotel one is working for), in Egypt a sponsor as well as a work permit is demanded. It's possible to work for a short time without a permit in Turkey, but it's better to have one. It's advisable to arrive with all the necessary papers and a contract - or one might have to go home without having unpacked a costume.

There are different motivations for dancers to go to the Middle East. While some are looking for a challenge - "If I can make it there..." - others start their work more through a coincidence while traveling.

For example Tamrahenna from the States: After finishing university, she just wanted to travel and take some dance lessons in Egypt. She started with 3 costumes in her bag - and ended up working in the Middle East for 7 years! Being rather young it was easy for her to start this new life.

It was different for Amera from Australia: After a first job in Dubai she worked in different Arabic countries between 1990 and 1999. When she went there, she was already well known in Australia - but in the Middle East she had to start again from the beginning and leave her "western" self behind which wasn't easy for her.

Mishaal (Japan/USA) landed her first contract rather accidentally when she jumped in for another dancer. Unlike the other dancers she only works in Turkey during the summer and then returns to Japan.

TamrahennaTamrahenna

But when you finally arrive it's not as if everybody has been waiting just for you... There's a lot of competition going on! It can take up to one year to establish a name and being offered good jobs. Many dancers have a manager who arranges the contracts. This can make things easier especially if a dancers works in different countries. These managers might also take over the tasks of visiting banks, offices etc. which can be very time consuming in the Orient. Of course these service have their price too.

It's easier to become known if one works in a limited area like Cairo or Beirut. When dancing in different countries for a few months it is harder because one isn't as frequently seen and will soon be only a distant memory to the audience.

Places for performing

We've all heard about those five star hotels in Cairo. But there are many other countries where the interviewed dancers have worked: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Emirates, Oman, Turkey etc. As luxury hotels are rare almost everywhere they only offer work to a limited number of dancers. Besides the hotels there are night clubs, weddings, circumcisions and other festive occasions as well as tourist shows. Weddings offer the most work opportunities. And one can always count on a numerous audience in a good mood. On the other hand, night clubs have better technical equipment and a dancer has more artistical freedom to choose her dance and music. At a wedding people expect a dancer to support the cheerful ambiance and to dance with the bride and groom and maybe also some of the guests. In the United Arab Emirates where raks sharki is theoretically forbidden, it can bee seen in hotels and Lebanese nightclubs.

Music an dance

Normally dancers work with live musicians whom they have to pay themselves. It's the dancer who decides how big her orchestra will be. If she has a bigger show, she will also hire some folklore dancers. Many dancers told me about the wonderful musicians, especially in Egypt. Therefore one of the best things about dancing in the Middle East is the possibility to work with gifted live musicians.

A dancer discusses the music she wants to dance to with the orchestra - also changes in tempo, accents etc. This way she creates her own show that will fit her. Of course it's indispensable to have some knowledge about Arabic music. Most of the time there will also be an opening peace (mise en scene / majensi) that has been composed especially for the dancer and becomes her trade mark.

For shorter engagements in different countries dancers work with the band of the respective hotel or night club. Most of the time the dancer arrives a day before the start of her contract, talks to the musicians, does some rehearsals - and the next day she starts to work!

amera Amera

Many dancers, like Sahra Saeeda, work with choreographers. Tamra Henna choreographes the opening peace and one or two songs in a show. Amera does mostly improvisation.

Sometimes an audience member wishes to hear a certain song. If the musicians know it, they will play it and the dancer just goes along. So it's vital to have a talent for improvisation.

Education

A dancer who wants to stay on top needs to keep on learning and offering new things. This is why most of the dancers take the opportunity to work with local teachers. It's nearly impossible to talk to one of these dancers without them mentioning the name of Raqia Hassan sooner or later. She is the teacher who has trained most of the Western dancers in Cairo and all over the Middle East. Other popular teachers are Farida Fahmi, Ibrahim Akef, Nadia Hamdi and Aida Nour. But the musicians can teach you as well. Many of them have worked with a range of dancers and know what the audience will like.

How important is it to dance like a "real" Oriental woman? Some dancers, like Amera, just dance from their heart and get it right. As Amera danced in various regions she is not attached to a certain style. Sahra Saeeda, who always worked in Cairo, studied the Egyptian dancers very closely and had to let go of some "Americanisms" that were strange to her Egyptian audience, like certain arm positions. And then one has to know that there are some movements that are forbidden in Egypt!

TamraHenna also thinks it's important to dance like an Egyptian but she also adds some personal details. To dance "Arabic" is not only a question of technique but it is also about feelings and expressing the music. Most of the western dancers regard it as the highest compliment to be told that they dance like an Oriental, because it means that they have captured the essence of the Oriental feeling. In Turkey where there are many styles and tastes it is not as important for Mishaal to dance typically Turkish - besides this many Turkish dancers are very influenced by foreign styles.

Living and social life

If a dancer is lucky, she can live in the hotel where she dances. But there are others who change from contract to contract and have to look for an apartment which isn't easy. Some live with friends. If a dancer works in changing countries every 2 or 3 months she will nearly always live in the hotel. To "live out of the suitcase" is an expression many dancers know only too well.

When a dancer arrives in a new town, very often she knows nobody. It happens therefore that the foreign dancers stick together eventhough the constant competition is not very favourable for friendships. The late working hours make it very difficult to have normal social contacts. Dancers work at night, some until 5 a.m., and sleep during the day.

Of course it's also important to learn the local language after some time. Very often a dancer is on her own and many of her daily contacts include people who speak nothing but Arabic or Turkish. To find local friends is not easy: Oriental men generally have no "friendships" with women and they will see a dancer from the sexual point of view. The women on the other hand mistrust the foreigner and constantly expect her to do something scandalous.

But social control of a dancer is constant and gossip is a favourite pastime: Everybody knows where she has been, she can hardly leave her room without make-up. A dancer has to watch her reputation and even has to justify herself if she's wearing jeans for a change. Amera remarked that in the Lebanon it's very important to speak with the right people, wear the right costume, be seen at the right places...

It's generally recommended not to tell everybody that one is a dancer, as many people see this profession as unhonourable. Some dancers tell people that they are language teachers or journalists. And only when they know someone better they reveal their true profession.

Money

From time to time rumours spread about the loads of money that a dance star earns. But if you're not Fifi, Amani or Asena, the situation is quite different: Even if one is paid well, dancing is not a way to get rich. Most of the income is spent immediately on new costumes, musicians, the folklore group, the hairdresser, tips.... The musician get paid not only for performances but also for rehearsals.

And then there's the rent for the bus and driver to bring the whole bunch to the parties.

With a contract at a hotel a dancer typically works 6 nights a week, wearing 3 different costumes every evening. Which means that she needs to have at least 18 different costumes for variety. This is where she spends a lot of money! Another possibility is to work at 4 to 5 weddings and other parties every night. But very often the additional jobs at weddings pay more than for example the fix engagement at a nightclub and therefore help to make a living.

While it was possible to earn quite good money through the 80ies and 90ies, some places now prefer cheaper (in every sense) dancers to the better, more expensive ones.

It can be generally said that business is going worse, even well known nightclubs are closing down. One of the reasons in Egypt is the political and religious climate. But the taste of the audience has changed as well: Young people will rather go to a disco than to a nightclub to see a show. Fifi Abdo is blaming the "Russians" for the lowering prices - Russians being the synonym for all fair skinned foreigners, no matter whether they're form Rumania or the USA.

A day in the life of a dancer

The main activity of a dancer besides her performances is sleeping. First of all to relax from a long, exhausting night, second to be fresh for the next evening. If she's not dancing or sleeping, the dancer may visit her costume tailor, rehears with her band, work on her choreographies or meet friends.

In the evening her preparations start. Putting on make-up, doing her hair etc. Some dancers have their own hairdresser who is in charge of the perfect fitting of her hairpiece. Finally she takes a taxi or the bus she hired to head for the place of her performance. Dancers who mainly work for weddings and parties will have to hurry up now - It has happened before that someone else who was there earlier had taken over her job! The news about a wedding is spreading fast - who comes first, will dance.

If a dancer has a really busy agent, she might dance at 4 places in one night - each show being 45 minutes. This really uses up all the energy one has and is not very healthy if done for a longer time. Other dancers use the time after their shows to go and see the big stars to study them closely. Those shows only start early in the morning. Which brings us back to sleep...

Future

For dancers who have been in the business for some time it's very hard to imagine a different future. Some of them always tell themselves that "this will be the last year" - and stay much longer.

Amera stopped to go back living in Australia and having a family. She teaches at her own school and abroad for workshops (also in Europe), owns a shop "Amera's Palace" and continues to perform in Sydney.

Sahra Saeeda is in her 40ies now and travels a lot. She not only teaches in America and Europe but also dances from time to time in Egypt.

TamraHenna just returned to the States after seeing no further potential for development in the Middle East.

Mishaal on the other hand is looking forward to her next summer in Turkey and would like to do more traveling to explore and teach the dance.

mishaalMishaal

Of course age is a subject for dancers. Whereas a well established dancer can easily work in Egypt even if she's over 40, other audiences like Lebanese or Turks prefer younger dancers. So some of them cheat a little on their age. And not only there: In Turkey (and probably other places) many of the local dancers have been through cosmetic surgery to survive in a business that is ruled by men who have their own ideas about the qualities of a good dancer.

Pros and Cons

The life of a dancer in the Middle East is a life out of the suitcase. Contracts typically last for 3 months, then you have to move on. Competition is hard and so are the working conditions. Of course there are good sides to this: For some dancers just to be in the Orient is a good feeling. And of course the dancing itself: To work with excellent live musicians for an audience that appreciates Oriental dance not only as a nice show but as a part of its culture. Those are the things that tie Western dancers to the Middle East and hardly let them go...

Sources:

Personal contacts with dancers
TV documentaries
various articles in dance magazines

Links:

www.ameraspalace.com.au
www.sahrasaeeda.com
www.middleeasterndancer.com

 

More resources

A more recent, very informative blog post: thelittlerubylady.tumblr.com

Video documentation by Sabriye Tekbilek about her 6 years in the Middle East

Lorna: lornaofcairo.com

Outi: outiofcairo.com

"Tummy trouble in Cairo" This article talks about the influx of foreigners in Cairo. It also has a photo of Katia performing and a great shot of Dina. Most information in the article is correct, with exception to the references to the Awalim and Ghawazee.
www.middle-east-online.com/English/Features/Sep2000/Belly_dance.htm

"The gyrating belly" This interview definitely gives a different perspective on the popularity of Russian dancers in the Middle East. But remember that this interview is the perspective of the interviewee, not of all Russian dancers.
www.russiajournal.com/ls/article.shtml?ad=391

"The Mystique of Belly Dancing" Although this one contains those irritating adjectives that only someone from outside the dance can come up with, it does have an interesting perspective with the descriptions of the dance clubs aimed at tourists.
savvytraveler.com/show/features/2000/20000422/belly.shtml

"Navel warfare in Egyptian night clubs" Another perspective on the Islamic influence on Middle Eastern dance and interview with Francesca "Yasmina" Sullivan, from London.
www.mg.co.za/mg/news/99jun2/24jun-belly.html