There are so many great belly dancers who have taught and performed over the last few decades that it is very hard to choose the best. I have chosen though ten of the most famous performers from the late 1800s / early 1900s and from the golden era of Egyptian dance and below you can read my choices. Please feel free to add your comments and suggest your own favourites! Many of them danced during the Golden Age of the Egyptian cinema, in the 1950s, and they are the founders and those who inspired the cabaret style of belly dance as we know it today.
1. Badiaa Masabni – she was the founder of the ‘Opera Casino’, in Egypt, and the inspiration behind raks sharki or Egyptian cabaret style, as we know it today. Badia Masabni was born in Lebanon around 1892/4 and moved to Egypt in the 1920s, where she opened the ‘Opera Casino’. There, comedians, singers and dancers from different countries used to perform. Her target audience were upper classes and westerners, for whom she created a belly dance style that incorporated western elements, such as floor patterns that were unknown until then in Middle Eastern dance. Stars like Tahia Carioca, Samia Gamal, Naima Akef and many others started their careers in Badia’s ‘Opera Casino’.
2. Tahiya Karioka – is one of the dancers of the Golden Age of Egypt and was born between 1915 and 1923 in Ismaileya, Egypt. As a teenager she fled to Cairo, due to contrasts with her family, where she started her career as a dancer and was introduced to Badeia Masabny. Taheyya Karioka then started dancing in Badia’s troupe and she gradually became famous and starred in not less than 150 movies.
3. Samya Gamal – She was born in Egypt in 1924 and, like Tahiya Karioka, started her career in Badiaa Masabni’s Opera Casino. Samya was trained in ballet and modern dance. She soon became famous and starred in movies, including ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ (1954) with French comedian Fernandel and ‘Valley of the King’ (1955) with Robert Taylor. Samya’s film career was linked to her love story with Farid el-Atrash, the famous Lebanese composer, singer and oud player, from whom she eventually split up as he refused to marry her. Samya Gamal’s style is well known for her veil work, gracious arm movements and elegance.
4. Naima Akef – together with Tahiya Karioka and Samya Gamal, Naima Akef was one of the stars of the ‘Golden Age’ of Egyptian cinema. She started her career working for Badeia Masabny. Naima also starred in many movies and theatre productions and once won the first prize at a festival of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
5. Farida Mazar Spyropoulos – also known as ‘Little Egypt’, she was born around 1871 in Syria and appeared at the “Street in Cairo” exhibition on the Midway at the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893. That was the first time raqs dancers performed in the USA.
6. Hekmet Fahmy – she worked at the Kitkat cabaret, founded by Beba Ezzedin (former dancer at the Opera Casino). Hekmet is also famous for having been involved in espionage in Egypt during the Second World War. As an Egyptian nationalist, she used her charms to extract information from the English, and pass it on to the Germans.
7. Shafiqa Al-Qibtiyya – She was born in Cairo, in 1851 and was the student of Shooq, the first Oriental dancer in Egypt. Shafika was already famous in the 1920s and she is said to have been the first to do the candelabra dance. She danced in a club called El Dorado and she later opened her own club, ’Alf Leyla’. Unfortunately though, she later became addicted to cocaine and died destitute in 1926.
8. Houreyya Mohammed – she was one of the dancers of the Golden era of Egyptian cinema and started her career working for Badiaa Masabni
9. Hagar Hamdi – another dancer of the Golden Era, Hagar danced in clubs and in films
10. Beba Ezzedin – she too danced during the Golden Age of Egypt and opened her own club, called Kitkat, in which danced, among others, Naima Akef.