Somewhere between the erotic and exotic, between the aerobic and the artistic, the bellydance is an art which occupies a very specific cultural place. In Egypt, for a girl to choose to become a bellydancer is to court fame and shame in equal measure. But it exerts a particular fascination on the western mind. Ever since the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition, when A Street In Cairo featured on the Midway and Little Egypt and her other danseuses du ventre burst onto the scene, the American imagination has been in thrall to the scanty costumes, the thrilling moves and the undulating diaphragms of the hoochy coochy dancer. Cultural commentators would see it as the ultimate feminisation of the orient and this spectacle an example of orientalism at its most (literally) naked. Tell that to the QEH audience - amateur bellydancers to a woman - who observed every shimmy, every ting of the finger cymbals, with studious awe.
The Bellydance Superstars touring show has breathed new life and new commercial possibilities into the genre. The merchandise stall is crammed, souk-like, with nine DVDs and three CD compilations, not to mention t-shirts, coin-belts, scarves and tribal jewellery. The show tours easily with a simple painted backdrop and most of the music coming off backing tapes, and excepting one or two Vegas-style winged numbers, the costumes are skimpy and diaphanous enough to fit into the dancers’ hand luggage.
The single most striking development of the traditional bellydance that this show offers is quantity of dancers: a chorus line of synchronised bellydancers, moving with choreographed gyrations is a new spectacle, and an impressive one. It’s not the best bit, however. In fact the show’s strongest moments are those closest to a traditional cabaret show. When the show’s artistic director and lead dancer, the redheaded Jilina, performs a solo dance to live darbouka percussion, the stage comes alive. The dancing suddenly feels fun and spontaneous and the audience lose any inhibition and clap along. The show has no narrative and little structure to speak of, effectively parading a series of variations on the theme of bellydancing, although the producers do manage to shoehorn in a hula number at one stage and Hisham Abbas’ Egypt-meets-Bollywood hit “Habibi Dah” is sufficient excuse for an Indian dance routine. Individual highlights of a show include a gymnastic solo routine from the whip-thin, magnetic Adoré from New Jersey (the featured dancer in the Truth Hurts Addictive video) and the Tribal Dance trio performances which are peppered though the evening. Choreographed by dancer Rachel Brice, these are altogether edgier and more modern pieces where her punkish San Francisco take on bedouin garb and tattoos meet noisy electro-arabic music. Taking the wise precaution of saving the best music till the end, REG Project’s “Harem” provides a sweeping background to a stilt-walking, winged dancer while Amr Diab’s majestic “Wala Ala Balo” soundtracks a finale bathed in dappled golden light. Over all, opportunities were missed in terms of lighting which was for most part flat, and the sound reproduction was not as crystal clear as the venue is capable of, but for flair, spectacle and sheer stomach-wobbling virtuosity it’s clear there’s still plenty of life in the old hoochy coochy.