A disruptive voice on a stagnant ‘belly dance’ scene, Amie Sultan offers a raw and honest reflection on how our native dance has been stripped of its heritage and what she’s planning to do about it.
In 2015, when I began my journey in Egyptian dance, I made a huge shift in my career. It was so huge, in fact, that the media caught onto it and I became a celebrity overnight - the ‘interior designer who became a bellydancer’. The media was mistaken, though. Yes, I had a bachelors degree in interior design, but I’d never used it, and was never really interested in it. My career for the prior 15 years was as a professional classically-trained ballerina. Here in Egypt, when we think of classical ballet, it conjures images of pristine girls floating in white tulle. Flawless high-art, the epitome of elegance and aristocracy, the exact opposite of the gritty, vulgar, ‘baladi’ world of our own local dances, the same dances we’ve been seeing on our screens for the past 30 years.
So venturing into the world of Egyptian dance was the biggest career shift imaginable for me, for more than one reason. We hate it, but we enjoy it and we’re ashamed of admitting it to ourselves. And so the narrative was written; the angel has stripped off the tulle and has donned a jingling coin and bead-covered two-piece costume. The media portrayed me as the up-and-coming celebrity dancer, one taking up the dance scene by storm and threatening other dancers' careers. Little did they know that my plan from day one was to trigger a revival. It is no longer sufficient to put on a pretty costume and dance to the same playlist. Jumping in and out of weddings only to repeat the same cycle over and over again, wasn’t enough. It was time to showcase the heritage behind our dance, it was time to take control of this a native form of art that had lost its way.
Coming from a classical ballet background, my education as a ballerina taught me that my training wasn’t just technical. It involved visual and theoretical aspects as well. Going to museums, exposing myself to all forms of art possible, doing research and diving into archives was critical to rounding out my technique and forming myself as a full-blown artist. How else can one build and conjure an informed character without references? With this mindset, I went on a journey to discover the dance of Egypt and this was where I was hit with some very harsh realities.
In my search for resources, the only archives readily available to me were some scattered online sources that were based in the west. This meant that the very essence of the research I was undertaking was inaccurate.
For one, I learned why it was called bellydancing. Back then, I thought nothing of it and even proceeded to use the name @amiebellydance for all my social media handles. Fast forward six years later, with all of the knowledge I had acquired, my new understanding of my place as an Egyptian dancer, I realise how problematic this is and what a ridiculous and fetishised word it is. How did a dance that expresses such deep and soulful human emotion become centered around a tiny part of a female’s body? How objectifying, how completely inappropriate and inaccurate!
Another thing I observed was this glorified idea of the ‘exotic’ and the ‘Orient’. It threw anything Middle Eastern, Subsaharan African, Indian or Chinese together into one big mishmash of junkyard robabekya that humans are supposed to carefully tiptoe into, trying to unwind and untangle the pieces. Throw in images of the ‘bellydance costume’, finger cymbals, swords, snakes, camels and Indian sari, a pair of Turkish harem pants, even a pyramid, and underline it all with some smokey black kohl and an Oum Kalthoum song or a shaabi song (it’s all from the east, right? ) and there you have it - BELLYDANCING! In the meantime, the very essence of its collaborative nature, the sense of respect and empowerment inherent to this tradition has lost its role, reduced to colonialist gimmickry.
It is no secret that, in Egypt, the word ‘bellydancer’ paints a picture of a wicked woman, never at home, out at all hours of the night, gyrating her body for the entertainment of drunk men. In this conservative culture, that can be a very heavy stigma. The Hollywood stamp on exoticism and the festishisation of foreign cultures further exacerbate this image. The whole concept of Orientalism captures this side of the world as one ruled by savages, shisha-smoking sheikhs who kidnap women to add to their collection, part of a harem that exists to cater to their desires - sexual paraphernalia, if you will.
This agenda, political or otherwise, has stripped away the real identity and purpose of a dance that first emerged as a form of worship to female goddesses of fertility and arts. It was performed in groups of women for each other to celebrate and honour life milestones. What really hits hard is that, in the face of this cultural appropriation, Egyptians have turned against their own heritage. They look down on it, they stand by while it gets deformed in the hands of others.
You can go back as far as pre-dynastic Egypt, or the Naqqada period, and you’ll find the first records of groups of women celebrating through dance, with blind harpists accompanying them. Yes, one of the most expensive and highly coveted instruments in the classical orchestra is actually Egyptian and was used to accompany women in dances that expressed joy, sadness, despair and hope. The Ancient Egyptian civilisation was largely dependent on documentation of it’s every activity and the simplest form of documentation is body movement accompanied by instrumentation. So if this very sophisticated system of documentation was used to show glimpses of such an influential civilisation, where did it all start to go so very astray?
In the interest of reclaiming a dying art form that belongs to this country’s vast history and is being subjected to abuse and cultural appropriation, we have to confront the tragedy of losing artistic ownership, something that is part of the fabric of society. I invite everyone to connect with Tarab Collective via our different social media channels and our website to be part of a national dialogue regarding. As a collective, we tackle preservation on several fronts and through several projects. Tawtheek is a research and documentation project; Taqseem Institute has been established to train future female performing artists; and Tarab Productions aims to produce Egyptian dance and music-related performances and merchandise authentically. This is a movement that should involve every woman, man and child across all demographics. Every tool, whether media or education, governmental, cultural or even industrial should be involved in this process of restoration. All points of view and all contributions can and should be considered to revive what is the oldest existing form of human expression that this country owns.
We need to take back what’s ours. Not for vanity, not for any kind of power or sense of entitlement - but for the sake of our future and the future of our other native arts.
Find out more at tarabcollective.org.