I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity of late, and not just because I’m a milk-bottle white, auburn haired Scot who runs around teaching and performing a Middle Eastern/Egyptian dance.  That said I have had clients mistakenly think I was Turkish and one other who thought I was Israeli.  I presume that’s because expectation can play such a huge role in how we perceive the world, but who knows.  Maybe pale skin, blue eyes and auburn hair is more common over there than I imagined.  Maybe my makeup is just really good.

But seriously, there’s a lot of it around. There is definitely a thing whereby dancers have increased status as both performers and teachers if they can lay claim to one or more of the following:

  • been taught in Cairo – bonus status if it was by one of the ‘Greats’
  • been taught by a native of the Middle East (preferably Egyptian)
  • they themselves are actually from the Middle East, or of Middle Eastern parentage
  • they currently, or have in the past performed professionally in Egypt

As a caveat, this perception of status mainly applies to Cabaret, classic Egyptian, modern Egyptian, Raqs Sharki and (to some extent) Egyptian folk dance audiences, students and practitioners – tribal and tribal-fusion has it’s own set of standard for authenticity too I think, though I’m not as familiar with them.

I wonder how things will change, as they will certainly have to.  Foreign dancers make up an increasingly large proportion of the dancers in Egypt-  a move that had the Egyptian government ban foreign dancers back in 2004 (this was revoked later in the same year). Wikipedia (and others I’ve heard) have claimed that a majority of the professional performers in Egypt are now foreigners (though I’ve not seen any stats one way or another so I can’t be sure that it’s true). There’s certainly an influential element of society there that feels that bellydance goes against the country’s moral values (see this article and/or the book ‘A Trade Like Any Other: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt’ by Karin Niewkerk on amazon or google books) and I’m sure this can’t help but discourage Egyptians from getting involved, leaving a gap in the market for foreigners to fill.

Workshops that offer the latest Cairo moves intrigue me; I wonder how much of it is ‘authentically’ Egyptian, and how much has a foreign influence.  It doesn’t bother me in the sense that I’m not a purist or particularly concerned with authenticity, but it does interest me.  Bellydance has such an inauthentic history.  Even it’s name is a misnomer that has just stuck with it and the sequinned two-piece costume that’s now considered typical Egyptian “cabaret” came about due to the influence of Europe/the USA (Badia Masabni apparently introduced it to Egyptian performances, inspired by Hollywood movies).

There’s so much more to do with authenticity bubbling about in my head, but I think I’ll stop here and let the rest percolate a bit more before I write about it.

A Trade Like Any Other: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt (Paperback)

by Karin Niewkerk (Author)