“I call myself a belly dancer,” says Sabriye Tekbilek as she sews sequins onto one of her 20+ costumes. She is onstage at Tanoureen Nightclub in Abu Dhabi in just a few hours, but attaching flare and making anti-Oops adjustments are part of her daily routine. “I don’t believe in choosing another word to give people another idea. Whatever they conjure up in their minds is not really what I do.”
What she does do is more along the lines of groom, eat, dance, eat, sleep, eat, repeat. “One thing that is really hard to explain to people who aren’t performers, is how much energy it actually takes to get up and go on stage.” Hence, a lot of time to rejuvenate – a girl’s gotta eat!
Since 2005, Sabriye Tekbilek has been dancing professionally in the Middle East and was dancing throughout America and Europe for nearly 10 years before. She comes from an artistic family – her mother is a belly dancer, American by nationality, and her father is a Turkish musician.
“I didn’t want to be a dancer until I was a little bit older. Maybe 20,” she giggles. “Having parents who were in the industry, I never had a romantic picture of it. I knew what was hard about it. I love the music, I think that’s what really made me keep pursuing it. There’s just nothing like it.”
Devoting herself to an art form with such a rich history, bedded deep in the belly of Middle Eastern culture, the decision of her being a professional dancer was debated.
“My father, he’s been remarkably okay with it. There was a point that he was not happy. As a musician, and a Middle Eastern Muslim, he knew what kind of stigma that entailed for me. He supported me in the end. Being an artist, he understands how important this can be for me.”
But what exactly is the stigma and what is the reality behind it? An impression that Sabriye is typically faced with is that “we are all big fat whores.”
“Sure, if you want to be promiscuous, you can be, but just like you could be anywhere else, with any other job. You know, if you’re a nurse, you could be doing all the doctors.”
Especially in the Emirates, the dance scene has become highly regulated. Nearly every dancer works under a 1-month term contract for a specific hotel or resort. They live at the hotel for that month and dance 7 nights a week. A typical day for Sabriye would be as follows:
2:30 am – Finish work 2:35 – Go to hotel room 3:00 – Take off make-up 4:00 – Eat 6:00 – Sleep 2:00 pm – Wake up 3:00 – Gym and/or manicure and/or hair styling 5:00 – Fix costumes 8:00 – Eat 10:00 – Groom for show 1:30 am – Perform (Repeat)
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“I spend a lot of time grooming,” she says. “It’s insane! It feels really frivolous. They say, once they paint the Golden Gate Bridge, they have to start over again. That’s what it feels like.”
So, it’s not such a bad life, but it can become isolated in the bubble of a hotel room. When asked about her personal life during her working months in either Dubai or Abu Dhabi, she replies, “People want you to be sort of eternally available, so actually having any sort of personal life is really hard. Also, you live at work. Everyone’s in your business all the time. Everyone sees your comings and goings.”
Even becoming friends with someone at work is a futile effort in Sabriye’s line of business. “In Dubai, for example, it’s actually illegal for me to return to the nightclub. I can’t walk off the stage and then stay there. I go from my hotel room to the stage, and then I go right back up… It’s actually really hard for people to get in touch with you.”
In essence, the illusion of the elusive dance goddess is highly protected by, not only the dancers, but by law – this fantasy takes no prisoners.
Take into account how the artform has changed throughout the years. Even just a century ago, belly dancers in the Middle East may not have been as protected by buffers like booking agents, nightclub owners, and regulatory law. Sabriye references a man who once insisted that her shoes were not authentic.
She lowers her voice and mimics, “You’re not wearing the right kind of shoes. You’re wearing open-toed shoes.” She laughs to herself and continues, “Really, if I were trying to be authentic, I should be dancing barefoot, probably naked somewhere. How far back do you want to go?”
The world of belly dance certainly has changed, even though there is still a divide between those who hold a stigma against it and those who appreciate it as art. Take Egypt, for example, “The difference in Egypt is that it’s more built into their culture than anywhere else. There’s such a long history of a belly dancer being present at weddings. In Egypt, more economic classes have access… But I think in Egypt, the interest is waning a little bit because it’s becoming more conservative. We’ll see how it goes down.
“I think it’s more of a socio-economic thing. In a weird way, some of the best response I’ve gotten has been in Tunis. First, I should say that when I danced in Tunis, it was for a certain social elite. They have more of a Western mentality, but also have a love for the music.
“But then, you look at the Emirates. This is a place where you can actually sustain a dance career. They have nightly shows, I dance 7 nights a week when I’m here. So, it’s like a proof of appreciation. Partly because they have money, and they’re interested.”
Appreciation is still generously given to dancers in most circumstances. Sabriye comments on a man at one of her shows who became very emotional during an Oum Kalthoum song, “In Dubai, there was this guy who was not really even looking at me. He would have his head down in his hand, and then he would look up at me, and then he would cry, then he would look up and me, and then cry.”
It’s not just Emirates’ tourists who come to appreciate Sabriye’s interpretation of classic and modern Arabic songs. In spite of Dubai having become a multi-national hub, she still gets audience members who know belly dance well and enjoy watching songs they hold dear to their hearts come to life.
“The ironic thing is, the places I dance at are not touristy, they’re almost all Arabic. The place where I’m working at now, the signs are all in Arabic. You would never find this place.They don’t cater to a lot of Westerners, however, they cater to a lot of Arabic tourists. Being the sort of hub that all the Emirates are.”
And with as many dancers that have entered the professional scene from places like Brazil, Latin America, and Mediterranean countries, the competition is tight and audiences seem to be focused on one common ground – that the dancer looks Arabic.
“My agent, for example, he used to only employ Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian dancers. But now, there’s a whole pool of international dancers. Although he worked with Russians for a while and Eastern Europeans, he can’t find work for them because they don’t look Arabic enough. So now there’s a lot of Latin American dancers, and…me.”
Indeed, the Emirates have become an environment of sustainability for belly dance to flourish, evolve, and retain a modest allure. While socio-economic fluctuations in places like Egypt tend to rock the work stability for dancers, the Emirates are keeping it balanced with a regulatory structure. Instituted for the protection of their dancers, artists like Sabriye can easily support themselves for the love of their craft.
As the lights fade on the stage, and Sabriye shimmies her nightly adieu, she’s contented with the fact that she gets to dance for a living, and saunters, once again, back to her room, while lyrics from favs, Warda, Sabah, or the ever appropriate “Alf Leila Wa Leila” serenade her reality.
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