Forget twerking, meet the masters of Egyptian belly dancing

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The dance performance style known as “Belly Dancing” is based on a social dance that originated in the Middle East. This social dance is simply known among Arabs as “Raqs Baladi”.

In the Middle East, belly dancing is performed by people of all ages, both genders, and is such an integral part of culture that simply every family member knows how to do it without technically learning it or taking a single lesson.

While the origin of belly dance is an argued subject among dance enthusiasts, most scholars agree that belly dancing first appeared in Egypt during Pharaonic times as a form of religious dance that was performed during fertility rituals by temple priestesses.

Belly dancing became artistically established in Egypt during the 19th century.

By the start of the age of cinema in the early twentieth century, with its Arab epicentre in Egypt, the craft became an industrial standard and point of pride.

Here is a list of the luminaries that shaped this art and industry in Egypt.

1- Naema Akef:

Many may consider her the founder of modern Egyptian belly dancing. While her life was tragically cut short, she mastered belly dancing and monologue at a very young age.

Her parents owned a circus in Egypt’s Tanta city, where she grew up in an artistic atmosphere.

Due to her parents separation, she went with her mother to the iconic artistic Mohamed Ali Street in Cairo, where she met Hussein Fawzy, one of Egypt’s most respected film directors and producers at the time.

She married Fawzy, who would produce 15 black and white movies for her until their divorce 10 years later.

Naema integrated fluid and sinuous movements into her belly dancing style.

She was named the world’s best belly dancer at Moscow`s international festival in 1958, among competitors from 50 nations.

Given her background in the circus, Akef was the first dancer to mix acrobatic steps with belly dancing.

She starred in 23 black and white movies between 1949 and 1964, and was most known for her role in Egypt’s cinema classic, “Tamr Henna”.

Suffering from cancer, Naema passed away at the height of her career in 1966, at age 36.

Naema Akef (photo: bellydancing classics)

2- Taheya Carioca: 

Born in 1919 as Badaweya Mohamed Karim, she was unparalleled as the star of Egyptian cinema’s Golden Age, and the founder of the harmonic oriental belly dancing school.

Taheya was discouraged by her family from performing as a belly dancer, so she moved to Cairo to stay with an old neighbour, Suad Mahasen, a night club owner and artist.

Taheya had asked several times to work in Suad’s nightclub, but Suad refused under pressure from her family.

Later, Taheya was introduced to Badia Masabni, belly dancing godmother and the owner of the famous Opera Casino. Badia put Taheya in her act and gave her the stage name Taheya Mohamed.

She shined as a solo dancer, and learned the popular Brazilian Samba dance, a variation of which is called Carioca, from which she derived the final component of her stage name.

She was known to be a comprehensive performing artist, mastering dancing, singing, and acting.

Carioca appeared in more than 30 movies, most recognized for her role in “Shabab Emraa”, “A Woman’s Youth” (also released under the title “The Leech”), in 1956.

She died in Cairo in 1999.

Taheya Carioca (photo: alqabas)

3- Fifi Abdou: 

Born Attiyat Abdel-Fattah Ibrahim in 1953, her distinguishable belly dancing style throughout the years of her career crowned her as the “Queen of Belly Dancing”.

She is acknowledged for her female-empowering roles and rough, vulgar features.

Fifi is a great admirer of the legendary belly dancer Taheya Carioca, and dreams to produce a movie portraying her story.

When she was 12 years old, she joined a traditional folklore troupe and later worked as a model.

She began to gain attention in the 1970s when she became the main attraction for Egyptian film-makers.

She ruled the belly dancing scene since the ’80s when she became the most popular name and trademark for belly dancing both in Egypt and worldwide.

In addition to dancing, she starred in a number of movies and plays.

No question, Fifi Abdou is considered Egypt’s most significant contemporary belly dancer.

Fifi Abdou (photo: gololy)

4- Samia Gamal:

Born as Zainab Ibrahim Mahfuz in 1924, was described as the most stunning dancer throughout the years of her career.

When she moved to Cairo, her talent was was discovered by Badia Masabni, the founder of modern Oriental dance. Badia presented an offer to Zainab to join her dance company and gave her the stage name Samia Gamal.

Soon thereafter, Samia became the most sought-after soloist belly dancer, mixing ballet and Latin techniques into Oriental belly dancing.

In 1949, Egypt’s King Farouk proclaimed Samia Gamal “The National Dancer of Egypt”, which brought her international acclaim and stardom.

She took Egyptian belly dancing to the international level, even performing in New York’s Latin Quarter in 1950.

In addition to belly dancing, Samia was a very talented actress, appearing in more than 30 movies and a duet with her second husband, Roshdy Abaza.

Samia Gamal retired from dancing in the 1970s, when she was in her fifties, but took it back up, resuming until the early 1980s.

Samia Gamal died in Cairo in 1994.

Samia Gamal (photo: danassanctuary)

5- Nagwa Fouad:

Nagwa was born under the name Awatef Mohamed Agamy in Alexandria to an Egyptian father and a Palestinian mother.

She was married to the talented violin player, composer and conductor Ahmed Fouad Hassan, who gave her a chance to perform in the popular ’60s variety show “Adwaa Al-Madina”, Lights of the City.

She later joined the National Dance Troupe to study folkloric dance.

In 1976, Nagwa Fouad reached the top of her career when legendary composer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab wrote “Qamar Arbaatashar”, Full Moon, a musical created exclusively for her.

The piece served as a transition for Nagwa, as she became known for mixing the acrobatic techniques of Taheya Carioca, Samia Gamal and Naema Akef into her own unique reverberating style.

Nagwa established her own dance group but it did not last long, as she retired from dancing to pursue her career as an actress.

She starred in a number of movies and later became a film producer.

Nagwa Fouad

6- Suhair Zaki:

Born Suhair Zaki Abdallah in 1954 in Mansoura, she was described as Egypt’s elite dancer.

She was the first belly dancer to perform to songs by the ultra-icon, Omm Kalthoum.

She travelled to Alexandria where she undisputedly staked her claim in the spotlight after performing in the variety show, “Adwaa Al-Madina”, Lights of the City.

Her dancing style revolved around percussive and staccato movements, terms commonly used to characterise music.

She performed in the presence of US president Richard Nixon during his visit to Egypt, and enjoyed official invitations to dance in several countries like Russia, Tunisia and Iran.

Suhair appeared in 50 movies as a dancer and actress between 1964 and 1983, and one of the few who retained her birth name.

She retired in 1983.

Suhair Zaki along with Omm Kalthoum and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab (photo: gololy)

7- Zeinat Elwi:

Egypt’s highest-demanded belly dancer in the mid ’50s and early ’60s, she appeared in many movies throughout the Egyptian Golden Age of cinema.

Zeinat’s stage name was Zurah, and she is most recognized for her roles in the classic film ”Ayyam Wa Layali”, Days and Nights, in 1955.

Her style was an innovated technique of her role model Taheya Carioca, with more concentration on firm, continuous movements of shimmies and shivers.

Surprisingly, she quit belly dancing at the apex of her career in 1965, prompted by what she called negative profiling of belly dancers and restrictions by Egyptian authorities, yet she resumed two years later.

Zeinat was known to be a very conservative and isolated person. She rarely appeared in any interviews or public celebrations.

She died in 1988, 20 years after her retirement.

Zeinat Elwi

8- Dina:

Born Dina Talaat Sayed in Italy in 1965, her father was a news correspondent for the Middle East News Agency in Rome.

Dina earned a Master’s degree in philosophy from Ain Shams University.

Her dancing career started in the early 1970s with the famous Reda folklore dance troupe.

Dina’s talent and innovative dancing techniques helped her to quickly climb to stardom when she became a solo dancer in the 1980s.

In the mid 90s, she was most demanded name to perform at Cairo’s top hotels and casinos.

Dina’s style of dancing combines physical acrobatics with traditional Oriental techniques, contributing to her distinguished career.

In 2011, she released an autobiography entitled “My Freedom in Dancing”, which was also translated into French.

She starred in a number of movies, TV series and plays since 1987.

In 2009, American Newsweek Magazine named her “The Last Egyptian Dancer”.

Dina (photo: photobucket)