Interview with Tarik Sultan- Middle Eastern Dance Expert, NYC USA
Dev – Tarik Sultan welcome to devs. Lets go back 20 years in time, How do you find the Middle Eastern dancing scene in the USA then?
Tarik – Very different than it is now. In the general population, there was a greater deal of ignorance about the dance than there is today, certainly much less exposure. The mention of Middle Eastern dance would cause raised eyebrows. Back then, at least in New York, people thought that the dance was something like strip tease. It wasn’t uncommon to be turned down for participation in cultural events on the grounds that it wasn’t considered respectable entertainment. However, we were beginning to make inroads in important areas. My teacher, Morocco, had already pioneered performances in important cultural institutions around the City, such as Lincoln Center’s Dance out doors festival, The Museum of Natural History and Parks and recreations.
Despite her successes though, there were still a lot of places that slammed their door in her face. No one had even thought about the possibility of teaching dance classes in gyms, even though Aerobics was becoming very popular.
Inside the dance community itself? Well, the prevailing style was American Oriental, or American nightclub style. It was a style that evolved in the ethnic nightclubs in the ’60′s and ’70′s. Back then, the ethnic clubs were a melting pot of people from different Mediterranean and Arabic speaking countries. Therefore, there was a mix of Greek, Turkish and Lebanese dancers. Eventually, Americans began to dominate the field, so they learned by watching all these people and of course, they interpreted things according to their cultural perspective.
There were only 4 main dance schools in the city at that time. Morocco, Serena, Anahid Sofian and Ibrahim Farrah. The main performance venues were still ethnic clubs and restaurants run mostly by Lebanese. However, there was a Turkish nightclub called Fazils, which was an important asset to the dance community in New York. On thing all of the clubs had at that time, which is lacking now, is that they had live bands, a real designated dance floor or stage and it was a family atmosphere. I was lucky to make my nightclub debut in Fazils. I got to dance there twice before they closed. Unfortunately, by the late 80′s all these clubs started closing one after the other as the price of real estate and rents skyrocketed. Today we have many more establishments, but if we have at least a postage stamp to dance on, we consider ourselves lucky, and even then we have to compete with customers and wait staff. Back in the early to mid 80′s, when the dancer was on the floor or the stage, no one set foot on it unless they were invited by the dancer, or they wanted to tip her.
As for the quality of dancing. Well, in a lot of ways the basic skill level is much higher now, even though we still have to contend with the phenomenon of the 6 week wonder who learned from some who watched a DVD. A lot of what I saw being done did not relate in any way to Middle Eastern culture and certainly not to anything I had seen when I visited Egypt three years later. It was a combination of the general misperceptions that the Sharki is a legitimate dance form and the overall poor quality of dance that I decided to become a dancer myself. I wanted people to see how beautiful this dance was and so I decided the best way to do that was to show them, even though I had no ambition of making my living as a dancer, certainly not as a teacher.
Dev – You have mentioned Ibrahim Farah, one of the leading schools from that era, Bobby Farha and The Near East Dance group claimed to preserve and introduce many elements of Oriental dance to Western audiences. Do you think some of them were Bobby Farah’s own creations?
Tarik – To be honest with you, I’d never seen his dance company perform. I think by the time I came around, they might have been disbanded, so I really can’t say how authentic his material was. However, all the dance companies that I knew of, including Casbah, had numbers that were the artistic creations of the directors. Usually they were inspired by a particular idea or folk dance. When that was the case, it was always stated as such in the programs.
Dev – In the Middle East everybody dances, Male, Female and children. But I have identified through my research that there is a negative attitude portrayed towards the male Raqs Sharqi artists. Do you have an opinion on why this is a subject for debate?
Tarik – This is a simple question, but the answer is very complex, so I hope you’ll forgive me if it’s a bit long because I need to give some background to place it in the proper context. Basically, the issue is fear. Fear of being misrepresented, slandered and misunderstood by the outside world. You may ask, why do they care what others think, but you have to understand Egypt and the other countries in the region from the perspective of their historical relationship with the West. That relationship has more often than not, been an antagonistic one for quite a long time. We can see the roots of it during the growth of the Roman Empire in its conflicts with Carthage and Egypt. In the Middle Ages, there wee the Crusades and in the 18th and 19th centuries, up to our present time, Colonialism and the Iraqi and Afghanistan Wars. So there has been a long history of tension between the regions and a tendency for Western powers to portray Easterners and aspects of their cultures in a negative light, whether it is religion, life style or in this case, dance.
The issue at hand finds its roots in the colonial experience of the last two centuries, when various European nations look control of the countries we call the Middle East for the sake of gaining control of their resources and trade routes. Of course, whenever one nation commits an act of aggression against another, they must always have a reason to justify their actions. With the case of the European colonial powers, the justification was always that they were saving the natives from themselves. The subjugated peoples were always made out to be intellectually and morally inferior to the Western powers and so colonization was actually a benevolent act because the benefits of the superior Western culture would be bestowed on them.
One way this moral superiority was shown was to contrast Eastern and Western. The public dancing girl became the image of Eastern womanhood by extension, Eastern Society and so a dichotomy was created. The West was masculine, assertive, logical, and industrious whereas the East was feminine, passive, lazy, emotional, sensually enticing and available. And so, in the minds of Europeans, the East and the dances of the East became sexualized in a way that they never had been in their own cultures.
The mail dancer as evidence of devient sexuality
There had always been the tradition of male and female dancers and entertainers, just as in the West. However, the overwhelming majority of traveller’s accounts focused on professional female dancers. The dance of the ordinary people in celebration was almost without exception, ignored. So too, was the dancing of the ordinary men and the male professional dancers. But on the few occasions when they were mentioned, it was always in the context of female impersonation and homosexuality. Once again we see a situation where the Easterner is not allowed to be equal to the European. They must be deviants. Therefore, when a man is seen dancing, its always referred to as, “he was dancing in the female fashion”, or “they were dressed as half male and half female, or “they were dressed as women…”.
In truth, there always were transvestite dancers in these countries, just as in Europe; there had been a tradition of transvestite singers in the Opera. However, in the case of the Opera, the singers had been castrated in youth to preserve a soprano voice. In the East, male dancers who performed as women were either what we would consider transsexuals today, or they were playing the female role in a skit, a tradition that was also a convention in Europe once upon a time. So yes, these types of performers did exist, but not all men who danced and sang in public dressed as females.
However, this was overlooked and the existence of these types of dancers was taken out of context. No one in 15th century Europe would have seen the men playing female roles in Shakespeare as evidence that English men were sexual deviants. No one would have thought that the existence of castrated men and boys who sang in female dress in the Opera was evidence of the European man’s sexual inclinations. Nor would they have agreed that all male singers were eunuchs. So why then was there not the same understanding with regards to given to Eastern male dance and dancers? The reason was that the truth did not lend itself to the colonialist agenda. The Eastern man and by extension the culture, had to be viewed as brutal, imbecilic, sexually immature and uncontrollable. He had to be shown as a degenerate not only prone to ruining himself with women, but given to the most despicable crime of sodomy.
So it was believed that while in Europe, those of such low character at least had the decency to keep their crimes secrete, the Easterner, being of childish character openly flaunted his degeneracy because he was too ignorant to have shame, just as a child relieves itself in public is ignorant of all sense of decorum. The presence of effeminate dancing boys and the fact that the men danced in a “womanly” fashion was proof of this. It was all part of a propaganda campaign to justify how much in need these people were of the saving grace of European culture and rule.
The impact on perception of mail dancing Inegypt:
The result of this cultural distortion on the part of many Eastern societies was a negative one. You have to understand that within these societies a person’s reputation is of the utmost importance. It dictates whether or not you can acquire a respectable profession, marry into a good family, even where you can live. So to be the subject of talk, whether it is factual or not, can be devastating. The image of Egyptian manhood was slandered before the whole World. Having being defeated and dominated by foreign powers and Christians no less, with the memory of the Crusades still fresh in people’s minds, calling their manhood into question was like pouring salt in an open wound. The result was that within a few decades of British rule in the tradition of male performers who danced and sang at weddings, births and festivals all over Egypt soon died out. Where as in the past these entertainers wee much enjoyed, even in some cases more than female dancers, they wee now seen as old fashioned, backward and shameful. A new type of entertainer replaced them. One that was modern, elegant and sophisticated. The age of the female nightclub dancer was born. And although the image of the female dancer in sheer veils and bare midrift was inspired by Orientalist fantasies of Eastern womanhood, for many in Egypt’s upper classes, who were now European educated in their World views and tastes, it was far better than the earthy unsophisticated ghawazee dancers and a potent remedy to forget the shameful male dancers of the past.
Even after the British had been expelled from Egypt after the Revolution, the sting of colonialism and the slander of Egyptian manhood was still fresh and remains so to this day. The fear of being perceived as homosexuals or encouraging homosexual behaviour is so strong that although it is common to see men dancing at weddings and parties socially, it is strictly forbidden on stage. Today, dancers who perform in nightclubs and weddings must all have licenses and only women are issued licenses to perform Oriental Dance in public. In the state run theatre and folk dance companies; there is a strict policy that the men are forbidden to dance with any part of their bodies other than their arms and feet. This is in stalk contrast to the way Egyptian men actually dance in real life.
As a male Oriental Dancer, my performance opportunities have been considerably limited as a result of the attitude of fear and shame that now exists in the Middle East with regards to the idea of male dancers; however, I have been able to find pockets of acceptance. Experience has taught me that because of the fear, I have to make sure that I do not inadvertently play into the effeminate stereotype if I am to gain acceptance with Egyptian or Arabic speaking audiences on a whole. Costuming is a major issue. While Western audiences love the exotic mystique of shiny sequins and beads, for Eastern audiences, too much of this on a man looks like an attempt at imitating a female outfit. A simple shirt vest and pants with simple decoration is considered acceptable. Also accepted is the simple gallabeya with a scarf around the hips. This is the outfit that Egypt’s first modern professional Oriental dancer wears.
In interviews he stated clearly that had he chosen to wear tight revealing outfits, he would not have been accepted and even with this concession, he and the other men who have begun to perform in Egypt are still not allowed to perform in Cairo nightclubs. Instead, they perform in the Sinai resorts of Sharm el Shiekh and Dahab. The overwhelming majority of people who see their shows enjoy their performances. They are accepted, as am I, because they present themselves as men in dress and mannerism. Time and again, I have had people tell me that what they appreciate about me is that when they see me dance; they never forget that I am a man. And so, whether its in my regular venue at LeSouk in New York, or the occasional shows I do in the Egyptian community in New Jersey where I live, my performances are enjoyed. However, like my counterparts in Egypt, there are still segments of community that have trouble getting past the fear of the stereotypical image and the implications.
On another front, while state regulated companies have forbidden men to shake their hips on stage, popular singers have began to flout the convention of the dignified singer in formal attire who remains stock still. In this decade singers like Hakim began to liven up their shows by showing off their dance moves. Saad il Sughayar took things a giant leap further by not only showing off his moves, but being backed up by a whole line of dancing boys, dressed harmlessly in dress shirts with ties and slacks. They have none of the flash and dazzle of the Oriental Dancer and even though they dance as a group rather than as soloists, what they do is still very radical because in dancing unapologetically as is normal for Egyptians, they are defying the attitudes of the past in which men were made to feel ashamed of this aspect of their culture or made to feel that it had to be hidden from public view. They charge into the crowds at weddings and concerts, finger cymbals clashing, hips shaking with abandon. This sort of thing was unthinkable 20 years ago. And because they are dressed as ordinary guys would be at a wedding, they evade the government sanctions. They may be able to forbid guys from shaking their hips in their dance companies, but they are not equipped to run around to weddings and social gatherings in Egypt and tell the men they can’t dance.
So for things to change to the point where male dancers are able to create a niche for themselves in the mainstream entertainment world of Cairo, enough people in positions of influence have to be shown and convinced that a man can dance and NOT be a reflection of their fears and what they find distasteful. They will have to have artistic merit and entertainment value above and beyond the average female dancer and they will have to present themselves in a manner that is dignified. If they dress and act effeminately, have effeminate sounding names, then the doors will remain closed. It may very well happen that enough men come forward under the right conditions and with the right connections to make it happen. After all, no one, myself included could have predicted the Tito phenomenon, but it happened. It was a monumental achievement, even though its limited to the resorts outside Cairo.
Dev – You have mentioned about the cultural distortion. The Middle East is a part of the new economic and cultural globalisation, how do you see the general publics view of Raqs Sarqi in the next 20 years especially in Egypt. I have heard that belly dance in the local club scene in Egypt has almost vanished and only a handful of premises are in business which are mostly directed to the tourists.
Tarik - To be honest with you, I can’t say. I can only speculate. I am encouraged by the fact that more people in the general public are becoming aware of the dance. People are beginning to take it seriously in a way they didn’t 20years ago. My hope is that this trend will continue. We have also been fortunate enough to have people who have developed very high quality stage productions. People are now seeing it as a true dance form.
I would hope that more people continue to explore and learn the traditional dances and that they remain vibrant.
As far as Egypt is concerned, you are correct that there has been a decline, but you also have to realize that it was always dependent on tourist patronage. There simply isn’t enough people in Egypt who can afford to go to fancy nightclubs in large enough numbers to keep the industry afloat. The high mark was in the late 60′s and the 70′s when tourism, particularly from the Arab Gulf States was at its peak. The number of nightclubs shot up because the demand for this type of entertainment was so high. Now things have changed. There is still dance to be found, but the days when you could see a different celebrity dance star every night of the week is over. Part of the reason is that there are so many different types of entertainment available now. The younger generation want to go to large American style dance clubs like Hard Rock Café and bounce around to Techno Music all night. Another reason is due to the rise in conservatism.
The television stations no longer show dance programs like they use to. It was because of the movies and television that dancers like Nagwa, Souhair and Fifi became household names and hence, people wanted to see them in person. With the loss of this type of exposure, there is no longer the same incentive to spend hundreds of dollars to see a show, when for half that amount, you can go dancing with your friends and socialize. They want to see and be seen. They want to be the show, not watch one. So now that the economy has taken a down turn and there isn’t the potential to make the same amount of money, fewer and fewer young women are motivated to enter the profession.
Perhaps at some point things will change and they’ll be resurgence in its popularity. However, I think in the long run, for it to survive as performing art in Egypt, it has to go beyond the arena of mere nightclub entertainment. The general population has to identify with it and see it as a true expression of their culture. For that to happen, it has to be accessible to a larger demographic. For example, in Sharem el Sheikh the dance venues I saw were family friendly and the dance itself was presented as part of a larger folkloric program. The coast was much more affordable for the average person and because they were out in the open, they attracted people who ordinarily wouldn’t patronize a nightclub. This is only my idea. What will happen in the real world? I’ll have to get back to you 20 years from now.