Lynette Harper watches a powerful Egyptian documentary. Reprinted with permission from the Middle Eastern Dance Association newsletter, Sahda, August 2016.
Dancers is a mesmerizing film set in Cairo. But don’t expect to see the gorgeous costumes or inspiring performances that grace most films made about Egyptian belly dance. Director Celame Barge takes us deep into the lives and struggles of the working dancers of Mohammed Ali Street, revealing daily struggles and difficult choices. We follow them as they walk along crowded Cairo streets at night, down squalid corridors in markets and nightclubs. We watch them carefully applying make-up in their bedrooms, at the hairdressers, and in back rooms before they arrive on stage.
One of the first women we meet is preparing to perform. While dressing, she chats with women of the wedding party about life, work, and her husband. The women help to fix her outfit, give her a pin to secure the dress over her bra, and compliment her well-shaped breasts – before noticing that they benefit from extra padding. Two young men stop by to snap photos on their phones, and young girls hover about asking to join the dancing: “There are no women who can’t dance.” So she first dances for women, teens, and young girls in a small room before entering the large, garishly decorated wedding space packed with men. Onstage she works hard to prevent enthusiastic men from touching her or from making overtly sexual moves.
We see brief clips of many other weddings with different dancers, and it’s hard to miss the striking differences between different social/economic classes. In the same garish space, most of the footage shows lackluster performances by tired-looking dancers. In another more elaborate and expensive-looking wedding tent, we see energetic dancers perform for better dressed audiences, and the stage is sometimes crowded with men, women, and young girls dancing alongside. Similar differences emerge in nightclub settings, where some dancers barely move, rarely smile, and obviously check their watches. Other dancers look vivacious and respond to the music. In one nicely decorated club, a dancer tells us “the nightclubs are better. Nobody knows you. You have boundaries. You have no contact with customers. There may be one or two tables, or a full house”. She earns a fee of 50 LE (Egyptian pounds) and one third of the tips, altogether about 150 to 200 LE (22 to 29 Canadian dollars). Others have to dance in five or six clubs a night to earn that much. And from that they have to pay their manager, driver, hairdresser and more. “On the streets, police stop and search… They know you’re a dancer, so they want you to pay to let you go. You have to give them 40, 50 L. Or you go to the police station.”
Another dancer prefers weddings to nightclubs, because “whether it turns bad or not, you get your money. . . In nightclubs you have to keep an eye on the door for Vice Police . . . Even weddings can turn bad with fights, a man hassles you. But if you know your way, you can enjoy it. It’s up to you. I love it, you go places, you meet people, and at the same time you make money for your children”.
We meet “all sorts” of dancers, who seem remarkably unselfconscious and comfortable in the camera’s gaze. Like homeless street kids in Canada, many of the young dancers were abused or kicked out by their parents, and exploited by men they met on the streets. One young woman, Mona, tells us that her parents think she works in a nursery. Instead she earns “impure money,” money she believes the men should be spending on their families, by sinfully showing her body. She needs money for an essential heart operation; “Circumstances make us work.” She confesses that she is very unhappy and cries a lot now, but hopes to quit dancing soon. She will then put on a veil so she can become “clean and pure . . . to start a new life.”
The film is rich with stories told, glimpses of working conditions, street and domestic scenes. There is much to see and learn from! The film is not much of a source for costuming ideas – though I was surprised by all the outfits consisting of startling bright red cycling shorts worn with matching tube tops or bras, occasionally covered by long semi-transparent robes but most often not. What the film does offer is rare insight into a social world, and personal stories unimagined in Western popular discourse. Informal scenes at the hairdresser and in backstage rooms, for example, convey the support and solidarity among women and dancers despite the competition for work. This casual conversation takes place between two women applying make-up:
“If the client is fair, we need to be fair, too.”
“But not all dancers are like this.”
“Most of them are. But there are all sorts.”
“Most are afraid to lose their job. There are a million of them! If one won’t go, one will take her place.”
“Yes, it’s normal. She’d lose her job, that’s it.”
“I always worry the client will complain about me. I do everything I can to please him, onstage and off. Because at the end, he can say he owes me nothing – ‘You didn’t do your job…’”
In public these dancers are always being stared at: by their audiences, people on the Cairo streets, companions in backstage rooms. One relatively successful dancer describes her life in two worlds, going from home to (performance) work and back home again. She intentionally acts and dresses respectably at home, so her children too will be treated with respect. She is now single, raising five children from 3 months to 21 years old. They once lived in a small room, but when she began to dance, “it paid well… I got a bigger apartment… I love it.” As the camera follows her down the street during the day, wearing hijab and a long black robe, all of the passersby stare at the camera crew – not at her.
The closing scenes echo the film’s beginning. We hear a driving doumbek track while stage makeup is carefully applied on a woman’s face. This time, we’ve already heard the woman’s story of exploitation and abuse by family, being forced to work the on the streets and into a bad marriage, before turning to dance. She may or may not be divorced now, she doesn’t know. But once her make-up is complete, her hair curled and pinned with a long fall that almost matches her natural hair colour, she smiles and calls out, “Bye my dear.”
Just before the credits come up, many women in the film proudly announce their names to the camera: Souad, Warda, Mona, Sabrine, Marwa, Leila, Habayeb, Nervine, Hanane. I am very thankful to them for sharing their stories, and to Celame Barge and her small crew (Ahmad Waahdan and Om Rana) for creating this intimate portrait of dancers.
Watch the Al Ayn Production Dancers (2007, 51 minutes, English subtitles) online on Youtube or at the Culture Unplugged festival website: