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Dance Like An Egyptian? Famed Belly Dancer Fears Ancient Art Is Target Of Egypt's Islamists

The guardian of Egypt’s ancient tradition of belly dancing, Dina Talaat is a fierce defender of her art as it comes under pressure from Islamic fundamentalism.

Egyptian belly dancer (ff137)
Egyptian belly dancer (ff137)
Jean-Gabriel Fredet

PARIS - Forget the stereotypical image of the oriental dancer: the portly build of famed Egyptian singer Oum Kalsoum, the aura of lasciviousness. Instead, the last grand dame of Egyptian belly dancing has a toned figure that might tempt an imam. And with her black velvet eyes, sculptured silhouette, wrists adorned with bracelets and index finger sporting a diamond the size of the Ritz, Dina Talaat Sayed Mohammed is a picture of grace, beauty, luxury, serenity and voluptuousness. Sitting in the lounge of the Hotel Raphael, recounting her extraordinary life, she takes your breath away.

A dancer since the age of 15, Dina Talaat is a huge star in the Middle East, part Scheherazade, part queen of the entertainment scene. She has nothing left to prove. But something's worrying her: the fate of her art in her homeland.

"I can't see a future for dancers in Egypt. Abroad, the popularity of oriental dance – of belly dancing – has exploded. But in Cairo, in the school where I try to pass on the soul of the music, I don't have a single pupil with a feel for it in their blood," she says. "The world might admire us, but not our compatriots. The future star of belly dancing has perhaps already been born... but far from the land of the Pharaohs."

Has Egypt really turned its back on this ritual dance dating back to the mists of time? We recognize its ancient provenance, represented a thousand times on the ruins of temple walls: the profile of a dancer, one arm at a right angle, the other out straight, palm upturned as if to ward off an invisible snake.

Dina Talaat practices her art barefoot so as "to better capture the earth's energy." So that her hips and shoulders can move freely, gyrating in such a way that suggests both the pain of child birth and joy of fertility, the dancer has abandoned the traditional garb with its heavy veils and bell-covered belts. Favouring skirts split up to the thigh and assorted bustiers, she has her own orchestra and commissions the best composers to write "made-to-measure scores."

The guardian of an ancient tradition and acclaimed the world over, could this passionate woman, who hails from Cairo's upper classes and has a Masters degree in philosophy, be the final incarnation of the right to dance in Egypt?

She speaks nostalgically of the golden age of the 1960s and 70s when "women wore short-sleeved tops and thought nothing of showing off their legs'.

Dina worries about the anger of the religious sectors of Egyptian society. Certainly, in light of the openness of its people, who have always loved dancing and laughing and been eternally devoted to the cult of music, Islam used to be more of a tradition in Egypt than a mechanism for exclusion.

But as President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian state spanned across more than 30 years, Islam has become a "substitute for an opposition" explains Claude Guibal, the co-author of Talaat's memoires.

Such were societal pressures, that Egypt's 1971 Constitution was amended to make Islamic Sharia law the principal source of legislative law. This move gave the country's oppressive police force an excuse to check up on dancers to ensure they did not contravene dress codes. On top of this, explains Dina Talaat: "Because of the population explosion, Egyptians left to work in the more conservative countries of the Emirates and Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War, and have returned with a much more rigid form of Islam."

Today in Egypt, 80 percent of women wear the hijab headscarf and 15 percent the full-robed niqab. The regime, playing alternatively the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafist cards, has used religion to divide the opposition.

"In a society which loves dance but is also governed by religion, the belly dancers became the scapegoats for these tensions," says Guibal.

Convinced that the Koran has the greatest respect for women, Talaat made a pilgrimage to Mecca after a tape showing her in flagrante with an ex-husband was made public. She doesn't dare speak of fundamentalism with her sister Rita, a former singer who today wears the niqab.

Still, she says she sees the first signs of an opening of spirit in the younger generations – 50 percent of the Egyptian population is under 25 years old -- "brought up on satellite television and the Internet."

But this indignant feminist -- who has made her right to dance a symbol of emancipation, refused arranged marriages, divorced seven times and devoted her body and soul to her art -- is also sensitive to her friends' advice, "Play around, Dina, but stop dancing!" They worry about the trajectory of this liberated and liberating woman. For the time being, she's not listening. She cites the phrase, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." But others wonder whether she is dancing on the edge of a volcano.

Photo - (ff137)

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