CAIRO — When undercover police officers in Egypt swooped on an upscale nightclub on the Nile last spring and arrested a Russian belly dancer, the focus of their investigation was her costume — and what, if anything, lay beneath it.
Was the dancer known as Johara, whose sizzling video had become an overnight sensation, wearing the right “shorts,” as modesty-protecting undergarments are officially called? Were they the right size? The appropriate color? Or was she, as some feared, wearing no shorts at all?
Johara, whose real name is Ekaterina Andreeva, 30, insisted on her innocence, but still the police marched her off to jail, where others argued over her fate.
Russian diplomats paid a visit. Her manager and her husband back in Moscow pressed her case. In her dingy cell, Ms. Andreeva gave an impromptu performance for a dozen fellow prisoners, mostly prostitutes and drug dealers.
“Those women treated me so well,” she recalled. “They asked me to dance, and then we all danced together.”
After three days, it seemed she would be deported. But at the last minute, a mysterious white knight intervened — a Libyan businessman with powerful connections, she was told — and she was sprung from jail.
It was a drama worthy of belly dance, a centuries-old art form that has long thrived on sensual intrigue. During the Second World War, German spies mingled with British officers at Madam Badia’s cabaret; in the 1970s, dancers performed for American presidents.
In recent decades, belly dance has inspired conflicting impulses among Egyptians, who see it either as high art, racy entertainment or an excuse for moral grandstanding.
But Ms. Andreeva’s plight also highlighted a rather touchy issue: If Cairo is the global capital of belly dance, then why do its hottest new stars come from everywhere but Egypt?
Kiev to Cairo
At a wedding in a plush Cairo suburb, a barefoot Alla Kushnir shimmied onto the flower-strewn dance floor, a whirlwind of quivers, twists and furious gyrations.
Young men in tuxedos, grinning widely, clambered over one another for a better view of the belly dancer. Little girls in party dresses scurried behind, imitating her moves. A group of veiled women at a corner table clapped in approval.
“Coming to Egypt was my dream,” said Ms. Kushnir, 33, who hails from Ukraine, while stuffing her outfit into a suitcase afterward.
Foreigners have dominated the top flights of Egypt’s belly-dancing scene in recent years — Americans, Britons and Brazilians, but especially Eastern Europeans.
The foreigners bring an athletic, high-energy sensibility to the dance, more disco than Arabian Nights. Their sweeping routines contrast with the languid, subtly suggestive style of classic Egyptian stars. Some are overtly sexual.
Growing up in the port city of Nikolayev, Ms. Kushnir, 33, dreamed of being an archaeologist. She graduated in law. But in 2010, she appeared on a TV show, “Ukraine’s Got Talent,” with an extravagant belly-dance routine that set her on a new career path.
In one performance, she wore a black veil with a tray of burning candles on her head; in the other, she writhed in a pool of water supported by semi-naked men.
Then Ms. Kushnir moved to Cairo, the Broadway of belly dance, where she became a true star. She sometimes performs five times a night at upscale weddings and ritzy parties, where top performers can earn $1,200 or more. One of her videos has nine million views on YouTube.
Purists bemoan the foreign invasion as a cultural travesty. They accuse the outsiders of trampling on Arab heritage for profit and pushing the dance form in a brash direction. Even some foreigners agree.
“In many cases, we lack the nuance, subtlety and grace of Egyptians,” said Diana Esposito, a Harvard graduate from New York who came to Egypt in 2008 on a Fulbright scholarship and stayed to pursue a career in belly dance.
Ms. Esposito, who performs as Luna of Cairo, noted that there were still thousands of Egyptian dancers. But most are in the lower rungs of the industry — seedy cabarets near the Pyramids or tourist traps on the Nile.
“It feels like the Egyptian dancer is an endangered species, which is very sad,” said Ms. Esposito, who recently moved back to Brooklyn. “Sad for the art. Sad for Egypt.”
Even so, Egyptian dance still has one undisputed queen — a dancer who by wide agreement stands above them all.
The Last Egyptian Queen?
It was just after 3 a.m. at the cabaret in the luxury Semiramis Hotel when Dina glided onto the stage, glittering in the spotlight, as a 17-piece band struck up.
Bow-tied waiters bustled about. Puffs of cigar smoke lingered in the air. The audience — Arab couples, Western tourists, as many women as men — watched from red velveteen booths, utterly entranced.
A legend across the Middle East, Dina Talaat Sayed has danced for princes, presidents and dictators in a career spanning four decades. “Ah yes, Qaddafi,” she said with a wry smile, recalling the deposed Libyan strongman. “Funny man. Very funny.”
Ms. Sayed also knows all about Egyptians’ conflicted attitude about her profession.
“Love and hate — it’s always been like this,” she said. “Egyptians cannot have a wedding without a belly dancer. But if one of them marries your brother — oh, my God! That’s a problem.”
The stigma is part of a creeping puritanism that has stifled the arts in Egypt in recent decades. Now even a hint of a kiss is forbidden in Egyptian movies, song lyrics are sanitized, and moral vigilantes hound artists through the courts.
A pop singer, Shyma, is languishing in prison on charges of “inciting debauchery” for a sexually suggestive video; in 2015, a belly dancer was barred from standing for election because she “lacked a good reputation,” a judge declared.
“Egyptians see an Egyptian dancer as a hooker,” said Bassem Abd El Moneim, Ms. Andreeva’s manager. “But a foreigner can be a star.”
There are exceptions beyond Ms. Sayed. One prominent dancer, Amie Sultan, hails from a wealthy family and trained as a ballerina. Another, Fifi Abdou, an Egyptian national treasure viewed with both affection and mockery for her boisterous personality, has been reincarnated in retirement thanks to social media.
Recently, Ms. Abdou, 65, perched before a pair of iPads as she broadcast to her three million followers on Facebook and Instagram in an hourlong stream of affectionate babble, air kisses and trademark catchphrases.
“Scooze me!” she exclaimed randomly as the screen filled with red hearts. “Salma! Love you, love you, love you!”
But for many Egyptians, the price of a career in belly dance can be too high.
Randa Kamel, who runs a major belly dance school in Cairo that attracts students from across the world, was beaten as a teenager by a father who disapproved of her dancing. Even now, her 17-year-old son hides her profession at his private high school, and she pulls off her glittering fake nails before meeting his teachers.
“That’s why I don’t go on TV,” Ms. Kamel said. “I want my son to have a good life. There’s a certain amount of fame that is not healthy.”
Ms. Andreeva, the briefly jailed Russian belly dancer, still isn’t sure what spurred the police raid in February, but she blesses the day.
Since then, bookings have soared, her appearance fee has doubled, and she is sought by the rich and powerful. Recent clients include the family of a major steel tycoon, the daughter of Egypt’s prime minister and an exiled cousin of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
Official concerns about her act — and her “shorts” — appear to have vanished. The shimmering dress she wore in the video that landed her in trouble has become a major part of her act.
Even the police chief who kept her in his jail has become a fan, and booked Ms. Andreeva for several family weddings, said her manager, Mr. Moneim.
“She’s famous now,” he said, as he whisked her between gigs on a Friday night. “People love that.”
Ms. Andreeva admitted that it was hard to match Egyptian dancers on some levels. “We are technically good, but they have that Arab soul,” she said.
But she compensates by channeling the sheer, raucous energy of Egyptian audiences. “There’s an emotion here that is incredible,” she said. “It makes me feel like a rock star.”
Nour Youssef contributed reporting.
Produced by Mona Boshnaq.