Somewhere between the controversy and the compliments, writer Amy Mowafi meets Amie Sultan, the precocious ballerina turned belly dancer, while our Fashion Director Gehad Abdalla and photographer Lobna Derbala take the star into the heart of Downtown Cairo to complete the story…
Let’s start by getting our facts straight. Contrary to popular misconception, Amie Sultan is not an AUC graduate. She did attend the Cairo American College (CAC) for high school and went on to receive a BA in interior design from the Rhodec Institute of Arts. But, whatever, that’s just semantics. The implications are the same: she’s posh. Highly (and expensively) educated, well travelled, globally aware, comes from good family - bent nas. The story’s the same – “what’s a nice girl like you doing as a belly dancer” – right? Because belly dancers are not ‘good girls’, are they? They are women of the night; they bare their bodies and shake their booties to ignite the passions and desires of seedy men in hotel nightclubs. They make sex tapes. “I feel like people are just waiting for my sex tape to come out,” says Amie, only half-joking, between bites of a vegetarian pizza. “So it’s like every single step I take I have this thought in the back of my mind: don’t make a sex tape.”
It’s just after 7 PM on a Sunday evening at Olivo, a short walk from the Zamalek apartment she shares with her cat. Amie is barefaced and simply attired - jeans and a non-descript top, famed purple-streaked long locks casually tied back. American accent. Serious, thoughtful. Her words are carefully considered. Her movements measured. Her posture perfect - a testament to her ballerina past, her years of tireless training around the world, and a career that saw her perform the classics on stages from Moscow to Munich. She is hard to read and probably harder to please. Although I’m trying. Hard. A reaction she probably engenders in a lot in people. “Well, it should be a general rule in life: don’t make a fucking sex tape,” I say. I joke. But it’s not funny. Not to her. Because this whole messy business of seductress versus artist, of stereotypes and clichés, is one she must battle daily.
Sadly, this ain’t the Golden Age of the dance anymore, and the iconic likes of Tahia Karioka, Samia Gamal, and Naeema Akef are long dead. It’s no longer the age of celebrated artists, respected for their craft and their talent - strong, empowered women who defined an era and lit up the silver screen, who were applauded and lauded the world-over by heads of state and superstars alike, who were so much more than the size of their boobs.
The first time Amie got a professional belly dancing gig, booked to perform on one of those tourist-trap Nile boats, the venue manager took one look at her small breasts and said, “de matenfa3sh” (she won’t do). That, of course, wouldn’t do for Amie. So she walked out and decided she was going to play this game her own way, even if it meant changing the very rules of the game. In a brilliant and revolutionary marketing move, she contacted the organisers of an annual wedding festival happening at a five-star hotel and suggested that, instead of taking a branded booth, she would pay the same amount to perform at their bridal fashion show. The agreement fell through, but she clearly left an impression with the hotel management who contacted her when their headlining dancer for Eid cancelled last minute. The famed venue was one where renowned dancer Dina had often performed, and the opportunity was a career-launching one - that, and the fact that she immediately and shrewdly launched her own PR offensive, hiring Marcelo (a talented photographer and videographer) to document her debut, and immediately creating her own YouTube channel and Facebook fan page. The lucrative and prestigious offers starting rolling in, from high-end weddings to the city’s hottest nightlife destinations and coolest events.
Now we know ‘how’, but not the far more important and delicious question of ‘why’? Why did this highly trained classical dancer, born in Singapore, raised by a powerhouse of a single mom (her parents are divorced and she cut off her dad at 18, but that’s a different story), moving in the upper echelons of society, armed with a Bachelor of Arts in interior design from a prestigious European university, decide to become a belly dancer? Well, there was a guy involved. “Because there’s always a guy involved,” I say. Not funny. Again. But anyway…
She was dancing with her ballet company at the time in Istanbul, she tells me, and goes on to explain: “This random German stranger comes into my life and takes me to a cabaret in Turkey, and the cabaret is all decorated with Roshdi Abaza and Faten Hamama, Om Kalthoum music. Hakeem and Shereen are playing; you know, all of the stuff we considered trashy here in Egypt – Hakeem, Shereen, and Saad El Soghayar. Up until then I was just like every other Egyptian, ‘Oh belly dancers, eww.’ I was just this elitist ballerina, like ballet is the queen of everything and other dancers don’t know how to dance. Then I went to that cabaret and I was mind-blown! The dancers were so beautiful and so well trained and versatile. Their costumes were amazing and not like anything I’ve ever seen [in Egypt], because all we see here is… What we see here. I was intrigued, so that became our go-to place. After that, he became my boyfriend and we started travelling together a lot; we would always go to Istanbul because it was our favourite city, and every time we would spend most of our nights at that venue. One night, one of the belly dancers dragged me up on the stage and I started dancing. Then, all of a sudden, all these professional belly dancers were coming up to me and asking me where I’m from. ‘Ohhh, Misr! The land of belly dancing,’ they would all say. I was like, ‘Really?! What?’ I was intrigued. I started researching where I could take classes, just out of curiosity.”
Her curiosity became an obsession. Through a fortunate series of coincidences and chance meetings, she was introduced to famed dancer Rqia Hassan who became her teacher. “That’s how I discovered that there’s an entire world of belly dance we have no idea about,” she says. “There are festivals in Egypt where dancers come from all over the world - hundreds of them, and thousands who attend intensive belly dancing workshops with the experts all year - and we have no idea! I started taking workshops with all the famous belly dancers, including Dina; I even took a private class with Sohair Zaki.” But as with all good obsessions, her ‘hobby’ started to become costly. All those lovely costumes and shiny pretty things can take a toll on a girl’s wallet, especially when you insist on having them custom made - classy concoctions with more than a hint of throwback to that long lost Golden Age of the dance. So, she went to her dance teacher and simply asked her to get her a dancing gig. “I’m never going to forget her reaction,” says Amie. “You know, Raqia never really took me that seriously. I was like this spoiled rich girl who takes classes. So the day I announced I wanted to turn pro, she was like ‘ya mosebty!’ I said that I really want to try, and she said we’ll get you a tabbal. She didn’t want me working in cabarets but said I’d work in boats because boats are upscale. Anyway, she brought the tabbal and introduced me to him, and he started attending rehearsals with us.”
Ok, so we have the how and the why, but we’re yet to get to the crux of it. The real question, the one that niggles the naysayers and tugs at the traditionalists: what the hell? If she herself thought belly dancers were “ewww,” where does it leave the rest of us? How has this impacted her family, her friends, her personal life, and her former professional prestige?
What about the cultural implications, Amie? What about that? You must have thought about that a million times before taking this step.
Believe it or not, no, I didn’t; because I really didn’t understand the implication at all since I’m a dancer, you know? The way media portrayed me is I’m a 'mohandessa' who switched (or ‘left’) her studies to become a belly dancer, which was not the case at all. I am a dancer who just switched the style of dancing from one technique to the other.
But you just said you thought it was “ewww…”
Exactly. But, as I discovered, it took me months of training to reach the point where I realised I want to be a professional, so after months of training I realised this is a serious form of dance and the way I’m going to do it, it’s my way or the high way. If I don’t like the scene I’m going to change the scene.
What about your family?
Of course there was the initial shock, but I explained to them it was just a change of technique. It’s really not that big of a deal.
Maybe not for you, but surely for the people around you…
Look, you do classical ballet, you do jazz to improve your classical technique, you do flamenco to pick up something from the flamenco that will help… For me, it was just another one of those things that I was doing. Down the road, I realised I wasn’t going to be a ballerina forever, you know? You quit ballet at a very young age - why not shift sooner? It was very logical and, to me, I was just in my own little dancer world.
But the thing is, it’s not shifting from ballet to jazz, is it? It’s shifting to something with a whole other set of cultural contexts.
In my mind it was the same.
Come on, Amie! Surely you must have faced serious challenges or dramas because, well, this IS Egypt.
To be honest, like I said, it’s my way or the high way.
OK, let me put it another way, did you lose anyone because of your choices?
In my life? I’ve had feuds with people, but nobody important to me, I didn’t lose anybody important to me. All my friends are my friends; they know me. My family is very supportive; my mom comes to watch my shows now, and she’ll even critique me! She’ll be like, “why are you looking at that side all the time and not at this side? There are people on both sides.” Again, my approach to dance is very different. I approach it as a technique and an art, and the people who know me know that - they know how I feel about dancing. The people who don’t know me, I don’t really care what they think. So, to be honest, I really haven’t had as many problems as you would think.
So what are the problems that you have had?
The worst issue that ever happened to me was this past summer. I had a feud with someone on the North Coast; I was doing his opening and then he actually tried to get his bouncers to attack me. It had been smooth sailing for so long that I really didn’t expect that to happen. Right after that I hired a manager.
The more you probe, the more she makes it seems like it really isn’t that big of a deal, like you’re the crazy one for thinking all of this isn’t just another day in the dance studio. She’s a one-woman force to be reckoned with, who is seemingly intent on changing the belly dance scene along with your perceptions (or misconceptions) of it. “I feel I’ve made a real impact,” she says. “Everyone used to look for that standard Sofinar look,” she adds, referencing the voluptuous dancer whose performances ooze standard-issue eroticism. “Now I’m seeing belly dancers trying to become more elegant and trying to lose weight and, you know, tone it down a bit. People want something more refined, more studied. People want the art of it, not the tattooed eyebrows. I think because of me there’s less vulgarity.”
That’s the type of attitude that’s bound to bring out the cat claws, yet she seems immune to the ripples she must have caused amongst her belly dancing peers. “I don’t actually have any personal contact with other Egyptian belly dancers,” she says. “Only foreign ones and, of course, Dina, because she was one of my mentors. I want to stay out of trouble. I don’t have time for drama. I also have a very tight circles of friends, and that’s enough for me.” She reads, she studies her art; her nights have turned into days and her days into night. She strategizes a lot for her career. She’s hired a marketing agency, a PR company, and a social media agency. She’s a girl boss and she takes no prisoners.
“To be a belly dancer in this country is one of the worst things one can possibly be in society’s eyes, so I’m a fallen woman,” she says, finally, after I push and I prod and we polish off the last drops of red wine. “And if I’m a fallen woman and I don’t have a successful career, then I’m really destroyed. So I have to be a fallen woman who’s really successful so I can raise the standards. That is my struggle; my fight.”