Tuesday, 28 August 2012

A darkness at the heart of bellydance

I was intending to write today about my joy on signing my contract with the film studio. But a Facebook posting from Lorna Gow, the only British dancer working professionally in Cairo today, has driven me to come clean about something I feel very strongly about, and which has affected me personally on a very profound level.

WARNING: This story details experiences of rape and may be traumatic for anyone who has been through such an experience themselves.

Lorna wrote:
“So very very sad… Landlady discovered I am a dancer and has thrown me out. I have spent the entire week packing and crying. I am totally gutted. This flat has been my home for nearly 6 years and I can't count how many fun times I have had here not to mention all the wonderful people from all over the world who have stayed here with me. Thank you all. Here's wishing for a more tolerant, accepting Egypt in the future....”

Most women who learn bellydancing in the West find it incredibly empowering. The community is largely supportive and accepting of all and women tell me again and again that bellydance has changed their lives. They say they have learned to accept themselves and their bodies for the first time since adulthood, that it has helped them overcome fears and phobias and that they have made wonderful new friends as well as discovering a rich culture and a beautiful art form.

But the dark alter ego of our dance is the attitude in its home country towards dancers. There’s a very strange dichotomy in Egyptian society. Egyptians love music and dancing and elevate famous dancers to the status of megastars, yet at the same time, they look down on them, viewing them as ‘haram’  or sinful. In films, bellydancers are portrayed as sexual temptresses, trying to lure the hero away from the heroine and to have a dancer in the family is a cause of terrible shame.

In Egypt, dancers are assumed to be prostitutes. And indeed some are. The reason most top dancers in Cairo are Westerners is that nice Egyptian girls do not dance in public. And certainly not in revealing clothing. The natural extension of this attitude is a belief that all women who dance in public are sluts.

And it’s not just dancers. There is a firm conviction amongst Arab men that all Western women are sexually rapacious – desperate for sex with any man, at any time of the day or night. It’s an attitude I discovered when I lived in the Middle East and which is confirmed by female friends who live out there now. And I experienced the horrible consequences of that attitude myself, the first time I visited Egypt.

I first visited Cairo in 1982, at the age of 24. I was living in the Gulf at the time and wanted to learn more about bellydance in its spiritual home. While I was there I was gang raped. I had met two young men who were also on holiday in Cairo and we had stopped off at their apartment before going on to a nightclub. There was suddenly a frantic knocking at the door from the concierge, who told us the police were in the building because they had learned that there was a girl in an apartment with two men. He insisted that what we were doing was illegal and we would be arrested. He suggested the boys went out the front way and he would take me down the back stairs to safety.

You can guess the rest. Half way down the stairs I was pushed into a side room where he raped me. He then brought men from other apartments in the building to have sex with me. I assume he charged them for the privilege. Although I wept and begged them to stop, only one did. One Japanese man at least had the decency to stop raping me in response to my pleas.  The Arab men just continued.

I would guess that these men assumed I was a prostitute because I was with two men. And that therefore I was fair game. In recent years, when I talked about it to friends who live in Cairo or who visit regularly, they told me that sort of thing doesn’t happen there. But I have a feeling that military rule may just have kept a lid on it. Because the public gang rape of Western women is becoming frighteningly prevalent in Egypt since the revolution.

In Tahrir Square on the very day of Mubarak’s resignation, a Western female reporter was violently gang raped with hundreds of men watching on. It happened to a French woman in January this year and then, just eight weeks ago a British female student was violently and publicly raped in Tahrir Square, even though she was with two Western male friends. Her friends were overcome and the woman was brutally sexually attacked by an enormous crowd of men. In public. In broad daylight. In the middle of the biggest square in Cairo.

And it has been going on for years much closer to home. In our very own bellydance community. Not gang rape as far as I’m aware, but the sexual abuse of Western dancers by certain Arab men who believe that all dancers are sluts and are asking for it.

I don’t actually blame these men for their attitudes – if you have been told something all your life, of course you will believe it. And this belief in the sexual rapaciousness of Western women, compounded by a belief that only bad women dance in public, is all pervasive and very, very strong.

In America last year there was a high profile scandal when the wife of Yousry Sharif – one of the best known and most respected Egyptian dance teachers in the world – accused him of years of physical and sexual abuse. And shockingly she said that he had always made it clear to her that he believed that all Western women who bellydance are sluts (yes, those same women who give him his living as a bellydance teacher). Furthermore, she challenged all women married to Arab men to acknowledge that their husbands despise Western women.

Now I know that it’s absolutely not true that all Arab men despise Western women. Wonderful men like Khaled Mahmoud and Hossam Ramzy respect us enormously and are good and kind and supportive to us and our community. They have been living in the UK for a long time and understand and respect our values. And I’m sure there are many other Arab men here who are just as respectful.

But I also know of shocking incidents in our own UK bellydance community. One of my closest friends was raped several years ago by a prominent member of the community. This man then told her friends, other dancers and even some potential employers that she had come on to him and begged him for sex. She was so traumatised by the event that for two years she wouldn’t leave the house alone. And I understand it has happened to others.

I know this is difficult stuff to talk about – to say that many Arab men think we are sluts for being Western AND bellydancers is not only tough and unpleasant, it also risks feeding the Islamophobia that is increasingly prevalent in our society.  But it is very important that we Western women understand that attitudes are different in other societies and our modern ways can be very easily misinterpreted by men who hold ugly, outdated beliefs about us.

And I believe passionately that women should be open and honest about the abuse that happens to us and fight prejudice with all our might. It’s only by bringing things out into the clear light of day that we can look at them honestly and attempt to change the world for the better.

Cairo is a wonderful, amazing, exciting city. I love it and I love the Egyptian people, despite what happened to me in the past. But if you are going there at the moment, please dress modestly and do everything you can to keep yourself safe. And ideally go with an organised group such as Kay Taylor’s Farida Adventures.

Most of all, behave with propriety and self respect, both here and abroad. And of course continue to enjoy all the beauty and pleasure that there is in bellydance.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

How I teach - a clarification

Someone wrote to me via Facebook the other day with reference to a statement in my previous post Challenging and Changing the Way I Teach that "for years I’ve only taught moves that are manageable for the least fit at any particular level." She was concerned that the way I had written the post gave the impression that I teach to the level of the least able students in class - the 'lowest common denominator' and that I was thereby not challenging the more able students enough. That's definitely not the case so I replied to her to explain and she suggested I write up a clarification in my blog so there was no confusion. So here goes...

Like most bellydance teachers, I have a very wide mix of ages and fitness levels in every class. When I started teaching in Croydon my oldest student was 84 (see Memories of Lilian in this blog) I also had a student aged 75 who had recently had two hip replacements and was walking with a stick and another who was, by her own admission, mortally obese.

It would not have been safe or appropriate to have taught deep stretches or a jazz-style warm up for those women. So, given that I was focused on creating a class that was accessible to all, rather than one aimed at preparing professional dancers for a career in bellydance, I tailored my teaching accordingly.

All my classes are challenging in terms of moves - at beginners level, learning upwards 8s or the Egyptian Walk is a challenge for anyone. At improver/intermediate level I bring in more complex step patterns, prop work and short choreographies as well as more challenging moves. And I make the class more aerobic to encourage greater fitness. If students get as far as my Croydon advanced class (and this is not for everyone - I have to be convinced that a student can manage it) then they get a far more demanding class with very challenging technique and choreographies. At this level I also introduce some physically demanding drills and latterly I've brought in half an hour of the dance conditioning that I teach in my London Project Lift Off class.

Oh and a clarification too for those people who have said they don't have time to teach body conditioning as they want to spend the time teaching dance. I agree it's hard if you only teach an hour's class, but early on I decided to make my Croydon advanced class one hour 20 minutes long, so with 30 minutes of conditioning we still have nearly an hour of bellydance technique etc. And my Project Lift Off classes are two hours - so 45 minutes of body conditioning gives us loads of time for everything else! However, it's fair to say that I currently go to a demanding jazz class at the Pineapple which is an hour long, of which 35 minutes is dance conditioning and only 25 minutes is taken up with 'dancing'. And it's packed to the gunnels every week with dancers at both student and pro level.

It's also fair to say that until recently even my Croydon advanced class was aimed at a fitness level that I felt everyone in that class could achieve. I was aware that several of the women were unable to get down on the floor (or as they say, they can get down, but they can't get up again!) So I didn't teach floor work and I also didn't do deep stretches or strength work such as press ups. But I've had such remarkable results with my London Project Lift Off classes that I decided I would go ahead and introduce those things to the Croydon class. The ladies that struggle with floor work do the moves standing up and everyone does as much of the body conditioning as they can cope with and then sits and laughs at the rest of us if they retire defeated at any point!

I should also point out (as someone also mentioned on Facebook) that I have decades of experience in this stuff. As well as having a degree in dance and education, I was one of the first teachers of stretch classes in London in the early 80s and I have been a dancer for five decades. I also have a decent understanding of anatomy and physiology as well as a good knowledge of safe exercise and a deep interest in current exercise practice, injury prevention and sports science. And, at a time when people can qualify to teach Zumba in a weekend, I care passionately about standards in teaching.

I hope this clears up any ambiguities in my previous post and please do feel free to comment on anything I write - I'm always really happy to answer questions or comments. Most people tend to comment via Facebook or by private message or email but it would be lovely to get them in the comments box below, so that the questions and answers are there for everyone to see and join the debate. A couple of people have said that they have had trouble adding comments here on the blog, so I've changed some of the settings and hopefully it will work now. Do let me know if you still have trouble posting here and I'll try to sort out what's going wrong.

But of course, do also feel free to comment via Facebook or email if you prefer!!