News & Current Affairs

July 20, 2009

Enduring allure of Egyptian belly dance

Enduring allure of Egyptian belly dance

Ahlan Wa Sahlan belly dance festival

The Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival has been a big hit this year

Hundreds of women of all nationalities sway their hips and twirl in time to the beat of a drum in a hotel ballroom by the pyramids in Cairo.

Belly dancing is said to have been practised in Egypt since Pharaonic times and now it has caught on around the globe.

It is well-established in Europe and the US and has recently spread to Asia. This year dozens of dancers travelled from China for the Ahlan Wa Sahlan belly dancing festival.

“Because this is the land of dance, women have to come!” declares Raqia Hassan, the festival organiser.

“When she comes she can meet famous dancers and musicians. She can see the pyramids. Anyone who comes to Egypt one time, she cannot stop coming back.”

Japanese belly dance fan

Safa Bakr’s shop attracts women from all over the world

Raqia, who has taught many belly dancing celebrities, leads her large class through the basic moves of the dance putting together a routine.

“It’s fun and you can do this at any age,” says Ewa Horsfield from London. “You can express your own personality. It’s an individual dance. You just listen and respond to the music.”

Many speak of the fitness benefits of belly dancing.

“In China all ladies like for their health,” says Angel from Shanghai.

“This kind of dance began here. Here teachers [are] very, very good so all Chinese ladies want to come.”

Contradictions

Belly dancing is big business in Egypt thanks to the global market.

Designer, Safaa Yasser Bakr, runs a belly dancing costume shop in the historic Khan el-Khalili bazaar.

She helps a Brazilian woman try on a sky-blue sequinned bra and a matching skirt with a split up one side.

“In one show big stars change costume many times,” she tells her. “You need maybe five different pieces.”

Nowadays Safaa sells most of her alluring outfits to foreigners.

Safa Yasser Bakr

Safa sells her wares in Khan el-Khalili – Cairo’s Islamic heart

“I see people coming from France, Italy, United States, Argentina, Spain, Japan,” she says.

But in Egypt at large, many experts fear the dance is losing its appeal.

Society has become more religious and conservative over the past generation and belly dancing is not considered a respectable profession.

“I don’t like belly dancing. I don’t like to see a woman half-naked dancing and moving her body like that,” says one man on the street in central Cairo.

“It has a kind of sexual movement. That’s why I don’t like to watch it,” adds his friend.

An older passer-by remembers the famous dancers of the 1960s with affection but says he would not let his wife or daughters dance in public today.

“I liked the old belly dancer because you could not see a lot of her body,” he remarks. “They were very respectable – not like the new ones now.”

Enduring art

Dance historian, Mo Geddawi, accepts belly dancing is facing a challenging time in Egypt but says this must be seen in perspective.

“Forget about different governments and religion,” he says. “When Christianity and then Islam came the dance was taboo, but people continued to dance.”

“Sometimes in public it is less but the dance never died.”

For now though international devotees help to ensure the dance goes on.

Diana Esposito from New York came to Cairo on a scholarship to study the social and economic reasons for its decline but has become an accomplished belly dancer herself.

“The first time I saw it I thought the movements were so sensual,” she says. “I decided to try something new and it became an addiction.”

“I don’t see the dance being done properly anywhere else in the world. That’s why everyone flocks here – this is the capital of belly dance.”

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September 7, 2008

Venice wowed by Rourke comeback

Venice wowed by Rourke comeback

A new movie starring Mickey Rourke as a professional wrestler has received a rapturous response at the Venice Film Festival.

Mickey Rourke

Rourke’s performance is already being tipped for awards recognition

Actor, hellraiser and one-time professional boxer, Mickey Rourke has taken plenty of punches over the last 15 years.

But a film in which he plays an aging wrestler could put the ’80s heart-throb back on his feet.

In The Wrestler, the 51-year-old plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed-up fighter who is told another bout in the ring is likely to kill him.

Screening in competition at this year’s festival, it is directed by Darren Aronofsky of Requiem for a Dream fame.

According to Rourke, the filmmaker didn’t pull any punches. “He was brutally honest,”.

“He sat there and said, ‘You’re a great actor but you messed up your career and no one wants to hire you.’

‘Blessing’

“‘I have a film I want to do with you. But you have to listen to me, you must never disrespect me, you can’t go out every night – and I can’t pay you either.'”

Rourke got off to a promising start in acting in the 1980s with films like Diner, Angel Heart and the infamous Nine-and-a-Half Weeks.

Evan Rachel Wood and Mickey Rourke

The actor at the festival with co-star Evan Rachel Wood and a dog, Rocky

But he failed to live up to his potential and became better known for his off-camera activities. In the 1990s he briefly returned to his original career of boxing.

“I didn’t mind what Darren said about screwing up my career, because I did do that,” says Rourke. “I didn’t know how to get it together for a long time.”

A chance to return to the limelight came and went when Rourke turned down a part in Pulp Fiction.

In 2005, though, he gained rave reviews for his supporting role in dark comic-book saga Sin City.

The Wrestler, he says, is the next step on the comeback trail. “I’m thrilled about this movie. To me, it’s a blessing.

“I’ve been out of work for 15 years and I truly believe this movie will turn things around.”

His role as a scarred, pumped-up fighter with long blond tresses and a capacity for self-destruction has impressed the critics at Venice.

I realised Darren needed me to revisit some dark places where I didn’t want to go
Mickey Rourke

According to Variety, it is “a galvanising, humorous, deeply moving portrait that instantly takes its place among the great, iconic screen performances.”

Rourke says his boxing background was no help for the intensive three months of training he had to do for the gruelling wrestling scenes.

“I didn’t have a lot of respect for wrestling,” he reveals. “I thought it was just entertainment.

“Then I found out these guys take 10 years to learn how to land on the floor without hurting themselves.

‘Pound of flesh’

“I just landed like a brick. My neck went, my back went and I spent more time in the doctor’s office than I ever did in six years of boxing.”

Even more painful was the realisation he would have to delve into his own past in order to bring “The Ram” to life.

Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler

The Wrestler sees Rourke playing a fighter who has seen better days

“What frightened me was I realised Darren needed me to revisit some dark places where I didn’t want to go,” he explains.

“I didn’t want to think about my ex-wife, or my family. But I knew he would want his pound of flesh and there was no way I could skirt round it.”

The actor even admits relief when the film was temporarily canceled. Now, though, he acknowledges he has been given a second chance.

“I didn’t realize it would take so long for me to patch things up,” he says. “But it’s not about raising hell and thumping my chest with me now.

“I don’t have another 15 years to sit on the bench. Hey, I have splinters in my ass from sitting on the bench for so long.”

The Wrestler will be released in the UK in 2009.

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