“When you’re a professional dancer doing jazz, or even contemporary for example, and you want more freedom of emotional or physical expression, you’ll find yourself going for belly dance,” says Esmeralda Colabone. The Brazilian dancer comes from a country abounding with forms of dance and physical expression, from those molded around rigid rules to those crowded with movement and noise. She now runs a dance school in São Paulo, and has become well-known in Egypt since producing a dance video set to Om Kalthoum’s song Enta Omri (You Are My Life).
Freedom is the door to dance
Looking at footage of her performances, I find Esmeralda moves in a way that one’s eyes cannot escape or simply skip over.
Some see her movements as lightening speed and not over-sexualized, others see them as too calculated and structured. This is at the core of the division among her Egyptian audience. Her fans believe she brings belly dancing back to its original artistry, going beyond commercial performances and crude random shaking, so much so that it’s hard to watch any other dancer after her. Her detractors believe her moves are molded in tradition, and follow the script without much effort.
“By my 16th birthday I was infatuated by belly dance,” Esmarelda tells Mada Masr. “I saw it as representing freedom — it gave me the freedom to express what I wanted, and the way to express it, technically and emotionally. I was already a professional ballerina and I studied jazz and contemporary dance, but the freedom it offered sealed my decision to start learning belly dance.”
“I gathered all my willpower to embark on this path, and my priority was body language. There’s a great challenge in connecting to a crowd of people through your body, putting aside differences in cultural background and nationality, whether between you and them or within the crowd itself. You must first be sure of every move and gesture your body can make. The more you know, the more you can express, and the stronger your connection with people can be. This was the beginning of my understanding of body language. The second priority is controlling the moves and separating them from each other. In the end, you have a complete and different understanding of identity.”
The secret is in the hands
When Esmeralda dances, it’s like she is inviting the viewer to dance with her. She moves with every fiber of her being to capture our senses, then play with them, pushing them away with her moves, then returning to take them with both hands. The hands are the secret and they are the clearest remnants of ballet training in Esmeralda’s dancing. Her hand movements don’t just fill the space between the beats — they are a major part, sometimes the main part, of the dance. Movements travel between her waist, chest and hands, to create the same rhythms but with different feelings.
“When it comes to dancing, the hands are a very important tool,” she says. “They are essential for their inherent energy inherent and their ability to direct it through the whole body. With words you can communicate, manage, control, help, et cetera, but you can also do all this through a wave of the hand, through natural communication with people. The hands can convey complex emotions and difficult feelings to people. In short, the hands are connected directly to the heart, so they can never be forgotten in any dance — they determine the perspective from which you look, and how you master the idea that your heart is the main source of what you want to express.”
Egypt is the biggest prize
Despite her obvious skill in expressing music with her body, understanding lyrics is still a obstacle for Esmeralda. “Unfortunately, I don’t speak Arabic fluently. This is my big failing, but I use musicians and teachers to overcome it,” she says. “I seek to understand the music, the lyrics and the emotions behind them. I want to understand the singer’s background, the ideas behind the song and every instrument that went into producing the tone, which is, obviously, very important to present a complete show.”
Her audience consists largely of Brazilians and tourists visiting Brazil, but there are exceptions. “Especially in North and Central America, there’s an audience for my shows and I teach belly dance too. Also for my shows in Arab countries like the UAE, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria and Oman. Having an Arab audience is amazing. And after the Enta Omri video, views from Egypt have increased. For me, having an audience in Egypt is like a prize. It would be a reward for anyone taking up belly dance.”
Not a tiger in the forest
The trajectory of belly dance in Egypt particularly has seen it undergo many transformations. Recently, with the rise of mahraganat music, dance moves have become more aggressive, with a focus on animalistic sensuality. This is true for both Egyptian and visiting belly dancers, as if it’s now a condition for a career in Egypt.
Esmeralda’s thoughts on this put her somewhere between two poles: one opposing traditionalism and supporting natural evolution, and the other reserving the right to experiment while preserving at least a minimum of artistic tradition.
“It’s hard to live, do your work and defend the art you do, especially if it intersects with the cultural and social view of things,” Esmeralda says of the context in Egypt. “This is unprecedented — I’ve never seen it in Brazil for example, not with flamenco, ballet or contemporary. There are several reasons in my opinion why belly dance shifted from being a style of performance and dance to a pure expression of sexual obsession, all related to society, and by society here I mean a wide group of people from various geographic areas who have a specific cultural understanding. Let’s talk about dancers who come to Egypt to take up the practice professionally, for example. They go to the country of belly dance without a clear understanding of the practice, they just see it as something comfortable and sexy in a way they’ve never seen at home, and from there the snowball effect begins.”
“I was once asked to perform at a graduation day and I asked them why they wanted belly dance, specifically. They said that, aside from their steadfast appreciation for it as an art, they wanted a brutal, exciting and crazy show. I told them if they wanted something exciting and brutal, a tiger in the forest would be more suitable. But in terms of dance, why not salsa or flamenco? Their response was simple: ‘Okay, thanks for your time. We’ll keep in contact. Bye.’ Who’s to blame for this situation? Young men who’ve watched belly dancers many times? Or dancers who have accepted this form of belly dancing? Who started the confusion? And we haven’t touched yet on the market, the dance schools, marketing and festivals. In reality, there’s a lot that needs to be revised and rescued. If you’re asking me if these changes have affected the main aspects of the art of belly dance, then my answer is ‘yes’.”
Translated by Ahmed Bakr