Apr 13

Bari Simon

Bari Simon in the Old DaysSo let me tell you about Bari Simon. Most of you probably haven’t heard of her, but she was one of the most famous and controversial Israeli belly dancers in the 80ies. In the early 90ies Bari exchanged her bedlahs [a two-piece belly dance costume] for a head cover, bought up all of her dance videos and opened a bridal boutique in Bnei Brak [a city east of Tel Aviv, populated by orthodox Jews]. Needless to say since then Bari does not perform in public, however she does tour the country with seminars for women only. This January Bari was one of the guest instructors at the Oriental Dance festival in Eilat. She taught one workshop and gave one lecture followed by a short performance.

The workshop started late. In between fiddling with the mic and hissing away the men who tried to infiltrate the classroom Bari made us thank god for our beauty, health and talent to the sounds of Omar Faruk Tekbilek. Then she proceeded to dance on the stage while we were desperately trying to follow her. Naturally, Bari didn’t explain anything, because how would you break up her majestic poise and grandeur? Self-confidence and the sense of superiority are gained through years of hard work.

The next day the hall was packed even more, as we all gathered to hear Bari’s story. I’m not going to retell this jumble of self-flatter, preaching etc. etc. ad nauseum. Instead let me try to describe Bari’s dancing, because this is something I will remember for many years to come.

After a short change of dress Bari entered the hall to the opening sounds of Inta Omri under a canopy of a long turquoise veil. She briefly scanned the stage and then discarded the veil revealing one of the most stunning costumes I’ve ever seen. The long slinky dress emphasized all the curves, which was rather ironic, giving the sermons we had heard earlier regarding revealing dancer’s flesh. The dress had long draping skirt and sleeves and veils were attached to it from behind to create an effect of wings.

Bari’s dancing was spectacular. She was in total command of time and space. Her hip work was subtle and precise, her arms – exquisite, long and willowy, she was one with the music, she was divine… Bari reminded me of the Egyptian Golden Age dancers, only if I might say better.

Aug 15

Cigarah wa kas (A Glass and a Cigarette)

Cigara Wa Kas with Samia Gamal

I just finished watching ‘Cigarah was kas’ with Samia Gamal. It is a remarkable movie, not only because of Samia’s delightful dancing, but because of the precision with which it portrays the controversy regarding the way dancers are perceived in Egyptian society.

Fananas (female artists) are admired and worshipped by the general public, yet their shameful conduct is condemned along with other disrespectful activities that are attributed to their working environment, such as drinking, smoking and homosexuality. However, they could redeem themselves by giving up their careers and independency in favor of starting a family. The ideal wife should be attractive yet modest, loving yet not jealous, witty yet ready to sacrifice everything for her husband and children.

The movie also provides a glimpse into the dancer’s daily routine: late night performances, followed by dinner, retiring to bed in the daylight. The hardships of foreign entertainers aren’t forgotten either: Azza, the Tunisian singer, laments the restrictions of her contract: foreigners only get a six-month visa and work permit, despite being in demand. Eventually the go-getting Azza settles for a “visa marriage”.

There are several dance scenes, each one with distinct music and costumes. The opening scene is my favorite, where Samia, dressed in white assuit with black head scarf and hip sash, dances in a rural setting while Kouka(Azza) accompanies her by singing and playing sagat.

The movie is distributed by the Arab Film Distribution and is available on Netflix. For an in-depth study on Egyptian female entertainers I recommend “A Trade Like Any Other” by Karin van Nieuwkerk. Bear in mind that this book is based on a PhD, its language is rather dry and academic, but the content is well worth the effort.