Written and photographed by Ahmed Kafafi
Photos of belly dancers in costume courtesy of Ahmed Diaa Eldin
In spite of the numerous stigmas associated with belly dancing, this classic oriental tradition remains hugely popular in Egypt. And while the close association between belly dancing and late nights spent drinking at cabarets often casts the profession in a negative light, the largely revealing costumes that are typically worn by belly-dancers only adds fodder to arguments made by critics.
That some people look down on belly dancing does not negate the fact that it is an old and venerated form of art. Centuries before it boomed in nightclubs and cabarets, belly dancing flourished as a representation of human expression. And it is doubtless that this expression is enhanced by the dancer’s attire, which is why, for many performers, the belly dancing costume designer is crucial to the art as a whole. Whether it is showbiz, cinematic and theatrical musicals, folkloric festivals, or solo presentations, the design, colors, and embroidery of a costume are often the first attraction of a performance, and keep eyes riveted to the scene.
In a nutshell, this is the role of belly dance costume designer Diaa Eldin. Eldin’s career spans more than four decades and a diversity of designs, all of which are carefully documented on his computer; the sharp contrast between his online ordering system and his small workshop on the famed Mohamed Ali Street in Attaba is striking. The street, which was for years home to famous musicians, vocalists, belly dancers, and performers who roughed it before rising to stardom, is now a downtrodden backwater that has gained a bad name for its association with “b-class” cabarets and night clubs.
Diaa Eldin started out as an amateur with belly dance costume designers Abla, Hikmat and Nawal – three late figures who pioneered the business at Mohamed Ali Street. He later went on to work at Safia Helmy nightclub in Opera Square during the 1970s. Decades later, Diaa Eldin is a world-famous designer, and his breathtaking costumes shine on the bodies of German, Italian, Japanese and Arab belly dancers worldwide.
Today, Eldin has orders flowing in to his email everyday, although he refuses to move to a bigger place and remains rooted in his workshop. Speaking to the master who was the first to introduce belly-dancing costumes to the West, I learn more about the intricacies of the profession, as well the amount of effort, cost and hard work involved in a business like his. He lets me on the secrets of the trade and shows me the latest trends; more interestingly, he explains what it means to common women.
“I regret the fact that the bulk of my production is now demanded by costumers abroad. Egyptians make up only 3% of my clientele,” laments Diaa. “The art has deteriorated dramatically in Egypt, and because of this, those who claim to be oriental dancers are no longer keen to appear in a traditional belly dancing costume. They show up in costumes that are overly revealing – more like erotic lingerie – and their performances aim to seduce. None of these women who now perform in nightclubs are real dancers – they just work to make money, unlike foreign belly dancers who come here to learn, train at reputed dancing schools and purchase costumes that they wear to festivals,” he adds.
The tailor stresses that the costume is an integral part of the performance’s success, and that, the more professional a belly dancer, the more attention she pays to her costume. “This isn’t an easy job for the tailor who has to meet the dancer, check her body shape and get an idea about the kind of show that she will perform in. But the job is get even more difficult when it comes to folkloric performances, musicals and other collective shows like Fawazeer Ramadan. The costumes for these performances are designed in coordination with the production, which dictates certain requirements. In these cases, I set up a large team to meet their deadlines.”
“Belly dancing costumes have certain standards. If a dancer asks me to design a piece for the sole reason of showing off her body, I turn down the order”
For solo belly dancing shows, the task is very different, and in the majority of cases, Eldin does not wait for the customer to dabble with a design of her own. “I make several designs and show them to the dancer. If she likes it, she will simply select one of the designs; others ask me to introduce certain adjustments. In other cases, customers come with a certain design in mind, so I have to be flexible to work in different ways.”
He explains that, in some cases, customers come to him with the preconceived notion that a costume should be, above all, revealing. He notes that this is especially true of Egyptian dancers who have deserted traditions of the industry and are largely influenced by popular trends in Egypt.
“Belly dancing costumes have certain standards. If a dancer asks me to design a piece for the sole reason of showing off her body, I turn down the order. And while some opt for a cut that would reveal parts of their body, others are more conservative. I don’t have a problem with either, on the condition that the design follows the standards. With foreigners, nudity is never a highlight and it is rarely discussed, since they only care for a traditionally attractive oriental garb.”
Eldin points out that, traditionally, it was obligatory for the belly dancer to wear a costume with a silk or fishnet stretch that covers the belly. And while that obligation is no longer applicable, belly dancers that perform for tourists often request a belly cover in order to remain faithful to oriental dancing traditions.
According to Eldin, the costume basically consists of the top (the cups), the skirt and the embroidery. “The design is perhaps the easiest part of the work; the biggest challenge comes with the embroidery,” he explains. “For this, I recruit a team of girls who work for several nights.
The challenge is bigger when the costumes are made for groups, of course. I cannot do without these girls, and even when they resign to get married and settle down, I send them the work to do at home.”
According to him, Eldin was the first to export belly-dancing costumes; and since most of his customers are companies and individuals who request custom-tailored pieces, he adapted a system that revolves around online orders to ensure that his costumes are well fitted to their wearers.
“There are certain standards that govern belly dance training abroad. One of them is the choice of body shape and size, so you will find out that the sizes of dancers there are almost identical, which helps me produce several pieces with the same measurements. Sometimes, customers fail to give me the right sizes, and this usually happens with individual orders; in these cases, customers return the piece for me to adjust it.”
According to him, even when the market at Khan El Khalili and elsewhere is flooded with readymade costumes, the business of the few designers in town is never affected. And although the pieces sold on the market are handmade, he explains that the material, embroidery and designs are cheap and unprofessional.
“You can’t really get a perfect outcome producing such big quantities, especially when the work is entirely handmade,” says Diaa. “But neither has using a machine for mass production proven to be any better. China produces machine-made costumes and invented an embroidery machine, but the results are not satisfactory – imagine producing a thousand pieces that all look the same. I brought the embroidery machine thinking it would save me the cost of hiring the girls, but it was no substitute for hand embroidery,” he adds.
He explains that mass production of this sort is meant for non-professionals; surprisingly, when ordinary women want quality costumes, they too come tapping on his door – which, according to him, is not uncommon. He explains that many orders come from brides who want to wear tailor-made belly dancing costumes on henna nights, but that others come from women looking to spice up their life or attract their spouse’s attention.
Eldin explains that, although there is some competition in the market, it does not concern him; his sincerity and love of his profession is evident from his passion when talking about the subject, and he is proud that, over the years, he has managed to provide a decent living for his family of five.
Above all, however, he is a vehement defender of a profession and tradition that has deep roots in oriental culture, and his criticism of those who try to turn this venerated art form into a sex show and a platform for prostitution is scathing. In spite of this, however, he too is the subject of criticism by conservatives who accuse costume designers of encouraging nudity and catering to a “loose” profession.
“What do I tell them?” challenges Diaa Eldin. “If the profession contradicts their ethical standards, I have to wonder if all the corruption that has ruined the entire region is ethical. This is an issue that definitely goes beyond what a belly dancer wears. This is my place here at the workshop and here I will stay.”