Mimi* is not usually a shy girl. But as her mother swayed her hips rhythmically in front of her, the eight-year-old looked uncharacteristically uncomfortable. As the tabla (hand drum) picked up tempo, her mother and aunt tried to coax her onto the dance floor, but the girl backed away, trying to blend in with the wall behind her. Studying her expression, I realized the problem: Mimi doesn’t know how to dance. When you’re born to a culture where Oriental dancing, or raqs sharqy, is the heart of family celebrations, that gets a little awkward.
Belly dancing, known as raqs balady, is more than just women in diaphanous, spangle-trimmed costumes entertaining tourists at hotels. In Egypt, no wedding, engagement or even birthday party is complete without half the family and friends on the dance floor shaking their hips and twirling their wrists.
For me, the stereotype of belly dancing as an erotic art was shattered during my first six months in Egypt. I’d been invited to a costume birthday party for a 14-year-old, and the teenagers — dressed as clowns, cowboys, princesses and whatnot — were sinuously shimmying to local pop music while every adult in the room cheered them on. Since then, I have been to numerous celebrations in homes and hotel ballrooms, and watched Egyptians ages four and up demonstrate the art.
I say “demonstrate” because the foreign guest is often encouraged to join the fun. And by encouraged, I mean someone ties a scarf around your hips, takes you by the hand and tugs you out onto the dance floor. Rhythmically challenged, I never manage to keep up with people who make the moves look so effortless. I’m usually about two shakes behind in the wrong direction. Fortunately, as the foreigner, I’m not expected to be good at Oriental dancing — just good natured enough to give it a try when asked.
Mimi, on the other hand, is 100 percent Egyptian, born in Canada to two Egyptian parents, and her mother, aunt and several cousins are talented singers, musicians and dancers. She is expected to be good at dancing, but she’s not had a lot of opportunities to do it; she’s been living in Canada for the last four of her eight years. Mimi is well on her way to being a ‘third culture kid,’ a term that describes people who spend at least part of their developmental years outside their parents’ culture.
As Mimi and I commiserated about not knowing the secret to belly dancing, I jokingly told her my problem is that “my heart is Egyptian, but my hips are American.”
Courtesy Ahmed Zaater
The belly dancing genes don’t travel with you
“I don’t know how to dance because I’m Canadian,” she shyly replied, checking to see if anyone else heard her.
There is a bit of truth to her words.
“You're not ever really taught how to dance, you just pick it up from attending different celebrations or at family gatherings or with your older cousins, aunts, etc.,” says Egyptian journalist Amira Ahmed, who spent a decade of her childhood in the United States. She says she dances very well, “but I guess if you're growing up abroad and aren't integrated in an Egyptian [or] Arab community, then you wouldn't really be exposed to it as a child. I also used to come to Egypt for the whole summer as a kid so I was well integrated with my family here.”
Sarah Shehata, a California-based advertising project manager, has pondered this particular culture gap with several of her Egyptian expatriate friends. Shehata was born to Egyptian parents in the United States, moved to Cairo when she was 13 and back the US when she was 21. “From what I have learned from some of my friends who were born and brought up abroad (including myself), belly dancing does not come to us as naturally as it would for Egyptians living within Egypt,” she says. “I can shake just a little bit, but to any Egyptian, it is obvious that I am an amateur.”
Expatriate Egyptian men also have to play catch up on the dance floor. Rami Boraie, a stand-up comedian and music critic, spent much of his life in Canada before returning to Egypt. “Due to my lack of being at events that involve Arabic dancing, I tend to look like an idiot. However some kids in Canada can dance with the best of them here,” he says. “If family and friends dance [in Canada] like they do in Egypt, then the kid will easily pick it up. I could always belly dance because I saw that move all the time. However, the hand and finger dances [that] guys do make no sense to me, because I never really saw them till I came here.”
On the other hand, Mimi might just be among those people who can’t dance. Soha Hakky, a recent graduate from the American University in Cairo, has lived in Egypt all her life, but says neither she or her sister can do the Oriental dance moves. Their mother, who is quite good at dancing, bought a CD called “Hizz ya Wizz” (Shake it, Goose) and tried to teach them. “It was very traumatic,” Hakky recalls, “and then I gave up.”
But not entirely. Before her sister’s wedding, Hakky signed up for belly dancing lessons at a local gym. “It didn’t turn out so well,” she says. At the wedding, Hakky stayed at the edge of the dance floor, clapping to the music.
It was Mimi’s 9-year-old cousin CeeCee* who got Mimi out on the dance floor and proceeded to try to teach her the moves. As CeeCee wowed the family crowd with her hip action and shoulder shimmies, Mimi studiously watched her cousin and sort of shifted back and forth with the music. On Mimi’s face was an expression I know quite well, that look of concentration as your brain tries to figure out which body part needs to move in which direction.
Mimi is back in Canada now, enjoying the last bit of summer before school starts. Who knows, one day she might grow into her Egyptian groove. Her family may be a little baffled by her lack of dance skills, but they don’t love her any less for it. It’s just one of those minor quandaries you run into when you grow up between two worlds. et
* Names of the children have been changed to protect their privacy.