In the days since Egypt‘s President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood party were abruptly ejected from power, the world’s attention has beenfocused on the violent events in Tahrir Square and beyond, and the machinations of the country’s military as it seeks to control power.
But one of the most fascinating aspects of the story – little reported in the face of wider events – is how it reflects Egypt’s cultural politics. Although their list of grievances is long, it’s perhaps surprising to hear that one of the many factors galvanising the opposition was the sacking of key figures in the Egyptian arts by the culture minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz.
One of them was Inas Abdel-Dayem, the much-respected director of Cairo Opera House: and as artists and management demonstrated their protest, many believed that it was the ballet, even more than the opera, that had been targeted by the creeping “brotherhoodisation” of Egyptian culture.
Morsi’s own disapproval of dance is well-known. Eight years ago he made a statement on television denouncing dance as a violation not only of sharia law but of the Egyptian constitution. Under his regime, attacks on dance and dancers became commonplace. Some weeks ago, a ballet school was threatened with closure by a member of the ultra-conservative Nour party on the grounds that dancing could inflame public “indecency”, and that ballet is “the art of nudity, spreading immorality and obscenity among people”. On an informal level, too, members of the Muslin Brotherhood began taking it upon themselves to break up public dance performances – including, last month, this rather bland ballet-styled cabaret show in Cairo.
Of course ballet is a problem for any regime that wants to govern by strict sharia law. It is a western secular import, it puts women’s bodies on blatant public view, it sanctions their intimate physical contact with men. Dance in general is anathema to this fundamentalist school of Islam, given its celebration of the beauty and unlicensed energy of the female body.
But it’s precisely that energy that can also make dance a powerful force for change. In Iran, women have been banned from dancing in public ever since the 1979 revolution. Yet an active “underground” dance scene now flourishes, even if it has to categorise itself as “rhythmical movement” or “sport”, to avoid prosecution. One popular manifestation is the number of young Iranian women developing skills in hip-hop and parkour (free running). This fast, free expressive form of movement is both a symbolic and practical act of defiance against a culture where young women are regularly and aggressively harassed on the street
Equally moving is the dance project that was organised two years ago by Anahita Razmi, a half-Iranian artist based in London. She was inspired in part by the violent political protests of 2009, when many young men and women in Tehran literally shouted their anger from the tops of houses and apartment blocks. But in paying homage to that protest, Razmi was using the cool minimalist filter of Trisha Brown’s 1971 work Roof Piece, for which Brown had placed herself and 11 other dancers on the roofs of downtown Manhattan lofts, their bodies silhouetted against the skyline. Back then, Brown’s interest had been liberating dance from conventional theatre: in Razmi’s project, though, the Iranian dancers were making a far braver, more radical statement of emancipation – strong women dancing freely, high above the heads of a disapproving state.
Dance has always been a lightning conductor for religious and moral attitudes. Fundamentalists of many schools and cultures have condemned it as the expression of humanity’s baser, more turbulent and sinful self. Back in the high puritan era of 17th-century England, when Oliver Cromwell tried to ban all forms of public dance, from court masques and ballets to maypole dancing, the effect of the prohibition was to create a generation for whom dance represented sin. When Charles II was restored to the throne, reopened the theatres and encouraged dance and music, Samuel Pepys felt he might be putting himself in moral jeopardy, the first time he tried a few dance steps at a party: “at last we fell to dancing, the first time that ever I did in my life” he wrote on April 10 1661, “[and] I did wonder to see myself to do”.
Pepys’ fear of the moral fallout from dancing was confirmed when he and his wife Elizabeth took professional lessons, and the sexual attraction they formed for their respective female and male tutors created a period of turbulent jealousy (albeit one of many) in their marriage. Pepys was relieved finally when all the capering stopped. He could forget about mastering the tricky manoeuvres of the “coranto” or courante, and at last fall “to quiet of mind and business again”. In Egypt, tragically, quiet of mind and business have become very distant goals.