While the art and spectacle of belly-dancing continues to divide opinion, one name has transcended the seemingly infinite debate over the last year: Amie Sultan. Despite only emerging on the scene some 12 months ago, Amie has gone on to become the hottest property in the proverbial belly-dancing game – which was more than enough reason for Cairo Gossip’s Mahmoud Hussein to sit down with the hip-shaking star to talk ballet, the problem with clubs in Cairo, the career that could have been and more.
You’ve had quite a unique upbringing – tell us more about it.
My parents worked and lived in Singapore, so I was born and grew up there. That’s where my love of dance began; I started ballet training at the age of four and continued in Azerbaijan, so I had Russians teachers all my life. I became a ballerina at the age of 15 and that was the time that I started dancing professionally.
Ballet and belly-dancing are worlds apart – does your background in ballet influence what you do now?
Of course it does. But belly-dancing has really changed in Egypt – it’s gone downhill. In the old days, or in other words, the golden age, all belly-dancers were trained in ballet, as well as jazz, Latin and other dances. They were very well trained and you could see it in their style of movement. For me, ballet definitely effects my movement as a belly-dancer and even in real life – it makes me walk in a certain way!
As a ballerina, you’ve performed in many cities across the world – do you have a favourite?
In a way, ballet is the same wherever you go. As a ballerina the crowd is very different than a belly-dancing crowd. As a belly-dancer, you’re very interactive with the crowd, but as a ballerina it’s very different. You don’t really feel the crowd at all, you don’t see them. You’re on stage and practically in another world. But if I had to pick a favourite country, it would be Russia. Russians are much more passionate about ballet. They appreciate it much more than other European or Asian audiences – I got sent flowers backstage all the time.
Why did you make the switch to belly-dancing?
After ballet, I became interested in contemporary dance, before discovering belly-dancing. It took me a while to find a teacher, but I eventually decided to take things to the next level and do it professionally.
At first, my family were kind of shocked. Even the laundry man, who’d known me all my life, was pretty shocked when he first saw my costumes! For me, I was a professional dancer my whole life. I didn’t feel it was such a big deal. It’s like switching to any kind of dance, like contemporary. Plus, I love a challenge. I don’t follow the rules.
Does your preparation for ballet differ from that of belly-dancing?
Ballet is really physically exhausting. Your whole life is in a studio practicing while someone is guiding you. You’re normally much more protected, in the sense that you don’t deal with the public at all. It gives you more time to focus on your body and technique which I actually find very relaxing. Belly-dancing is more chaotic. As a belly-dancer, you become a kind-of celebrity and public figure, and that’s exhausting in itself. It’s much more independent, because, essentially, you’re doing everything by yourself; there’s no teacher guiding you, no coach, no team – you’re on your own. It takes up so much of the day and at the end of the night, when you dance for like thirty minutes or an hour, you start to think, where did all the time go?
Is there a certain type of music you like to dance to?
I like to dance to old music, like Oum Kalthoum, but it’s not what the ‘scene’ wants. You can’t really dance to Egyptian pop music nowadays. When I'm not dancing, I listen to classical music, as well as metal.
Egypt has a long history with belly-dancing, but there’s still a stigma around it? In fact, you could argue that there’s more appreciation for it abroad as an art. Do you think this will ever change?
Well, when we talk about western audiences appreciating belly-dancing as an art, they view it more as a type of exotic dancing. But here in Egypt, it's part of the culture; a wedding isn’t a wedding without a belly dancer, but you’re right, there’s still a stigma attached to it. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the way belly-dancers are portrayed in film and TV. The belly-dancer is usually part of a crime ring or the girlfriend of the bad guy. It wasn’t always like that, though, and it’s very frustrating how the image of belly-dancers has shifted through no fault of their own. I just think that we belittle our own culture; it’s like we’re in a colonist mindset, which means that we value anything that comes from the west more than here.
But it actually differs from city to city in Egypt. For example, whenever I do a wedding in Alexandria, the people are much more appreciative of belly-dancing as art. When I get on stage, they give me space and freedom to perform. People in the Gulf States are also very appreciative; they admire belly dancing and love old music, like Oum Kalthoum and Abdel El-Halim Hafez. They drop everything they’re doing to watch whenever I’m on stage.
How are audiences in Cairo?
Cairo is a different story altogether – audiences here don’t give me the space to perform, but I have to say that it’s the fault of the clubs and venues. In the old days, going out to a nightclub in Egypt would mean having dinner, drink and catching a show.
The culture of ‘going out’ has changed though and clubs are more westernised. It’s great that belly-dancers have become more in-demand, but the venues aren’t giving us enough space and expect us to perform on very small stages. That’s fine for a go-go dancer, but it’s impossible for a belly-dancer. Of course there’s no room for a band, so you end up dancing on the same songs you hear in every club. There are only a handful of tracks featuring good tabla, which takes away from the performance.
Well if you ever get sick of belly-dancing, you also apparently have an interior design degree from London’s Rhodec Institute of Arts to fall back on...
Ha! My parents really wanted me to get a degree and so I chose a field that was both artistic and practical. I design my own costumes, so I’ve always had an element of design in my life and I decorated my own house. It has its uses, but I don’t think I’ll ever pursue a career in interior design.
You design your own outfits?
Yes. It was very important for me to create a signature style. I was the one who created first created and wore the flowers costumes that are so popular now. I have plenty in my wardrobe. I like to play with classic belly-dancing costume elements, too, and I’m obviously I’m inspired by the ballet – I have a white and black swan costume. I have roughly just under 200 different outfits, even though I began belly-dancing a year ago. If we have another interview a year from now, I’ll probably have around 500 – someone needs to stop me!
By Mahmoud Hussein