Foreign women are flocking to Egypt to work as belly dancers for restaurants and clubs. Managers have been booking more and more foreign dancers since a crackdown by the country’s morality police frightened away many Egyptian dancers. Yet for many dancers who come to Cairo from all over the world with the hope of making it big, the “Egyptian dream” is turning sour. Ekaterina Andreeva is one such dancer, a Russian who was arrested on February 6 after smartphone videos of her sexy dancing went viral.

This article is the second part of our investigation into the belly dancing scene in Cairo. To read the first part, which explains the reasons why police are cracking down on Egyptian dancers, click here.

>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Authorities force Cairo’s bellydancers to cover up (1/2)

Ekaterina is not the only woman to find herself in this situation. Like dozens of other dancers, she came to what is known as the “Mecca of belly dancing” with the hopes of becoming a celebrity now that many Egyptian dancers have left the scene.

Since a police crackdown resulted in many Egyptian dancers fleeing the scene, American, Russian and Chinese dancers have been coming to Cairo to replace them. Although there were more than 5,000 bellydancers in Egypt in the 1940s, now there are just a few dozen, most of them foreign. These foreigners come to Egypt to perfect their skills and end up becoming local stars and taking part in competitions.

Kamelia is one of the few Egyptian dancers who is still part of the scene. Kamelia moved to Cairo from Alexandria in 2008.

When I started to dance, there were just a handful of foreign dancers. But the scene began to change quickly after the 2011 revolution. Society began to judge Egyptian dancers more harshly. Many were forced to clean up their acts to embody the morality and conservatism of the regime. A lot of bars and cabarets closed shop. At the same time, club managers started calling on foreign dancers. The foreign women who had already moved to Egypt before the revolution spread the word that there were possibilities for work.
Kamelia during one of her performances in June 2013 in Cairo.

"Foreign dancers aren't obliged to be perfect models of morality and religion"

Egyptian sociologist Madiha El Safty noticed this trend even before the 2011 revolution.
For the past 20 years or so, the conservative and religious movement has become firmly entrenched in Egyptian society. Local dancers felt the vice closing around them. Under pressure, many decided to give up their careers, get married and live a more “normal” life. Those who continued to venture into the cabarets were shunned by club managers, who didn’t want all the complications that come with hiring local dancers: they're more expensive and they understand labour laws so are harder to manipulate.

The Egyptian society is also more lenient towards foreign dancers, even though, technically, they fall under the same laws. The only difference is that they aren’t obliged to be perfect models of morality and religion.

The result is that Cairo, which used to be the world capital of belly dancing, is now led by people who don’t even come from Egypt, dancers without “roh” (Arabic for soul). If there is a future for belly dancing in Egypt, then it will have to be without Egyptians.

What is happening is the perfect illustration of what we call the “the foreigner complex” (“Awdet el khawaga”): the idea that something Egyptian isn’t worthy of interest. People just aren’t interested in something Egyptian like belly dancing.

"They start by dancing illegally in small restaurants"

The foreign dancers who started coming to Egypt after 2009 struggled to make ends meet amidst the tough economic situation in the country prior to the revolution. Disillusioned and unable to trust their managers, many of these women organised amongst themselves.

The Shira network was launched in 2011 to give dancers a forum. The founder, also named Shira, is a dance teacher from Iowa. Shira spent time in Cairo in 2008 and spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers team about what it is like for foreign dancers there.

There are a few steps before you can really set up shop in Cairo. Most dancers come on a tourist visa. They start by dancing illegally in little restaurants to make a name for themselves. Once they’ve been spotted by a manager, who is often from the same country as they are, then they have to find a bar or restaurant willing to sponsor them for a work permit. They undergo two auditions. If they succeed, a restaurant will hire them and pay for their work permit. It’s a difficult system that results in vicious competition between dancers.
"There are a lot of managers who think foreigners have looser morals"

Some dancers don’t wait to have their work permit to start working and performing. Magdalena is from Argentina. In Cairo, she is known as “Magdalena of Cairo”. She arrived in Cairo in 2008 and danced for two years without a work permit.

I arrived in Cairo with a tourist visa. My first contract was with a restaurant who hired me to cover for their dancer. At the same time, I was also working in the town of Sharm el-Sheikh because the industry is much less regulated outside of the capital. Finally, I found a hotel that was willing to pay for the licence to employ me.

So, I worked for two years without a permit but the authorities didn’t really police foreign dancers. We were still a minority. These days, there are too many foreign dancers to count. Honestly, I have trouble understanding [why so many come] considering the way it's got increasingly harder since the revolution. [Editor’s note: Some of the difficulties facing dancers include the closing of cabarets, competition with other dancers, difficulties with visas and other red tape.]

Competition, abuse of power from managers, red tape: it’s not an easy path for these new arrivals. Some, like Diana Esposito, an American who moved to Cairo in 2008, have bad memories of the early days of their Cairo careers.

Diana Esposito performing at a nightclub on the banks of the River Nile in November 2017.
There are lots of managers who work at the hotels and boats who think that foreigners have less morals. Some asked me to marry them, others wanted to have sex. Refusing the advances of a manager can kill your career. When I arrived in Cairo in 2008, I had a contract with Semiramis Hotel. In 2009, one of the managers at the restaurant wanted to date me. I refused. He sabotaged my career and I found myself without work. I had a work permit but no one was giving me any work, so I lost my permit.
Article written with
Kenza Safi-Eddine

Kenza Safi-Eddine , Journaliste