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Singh Interview

Maisonneuve speaks with the writer of "Belly Dancing Blues" (Issue 31, Spring 2009).

Sameer Singh probably knows more about belly dancing than any other journalist-filmmaker out there. In the latest issue of Maisonneuve, he attends an Egyptian belly dancing conference to learn why the country’s religious conservatives want to stamp the art form out. Plus, on Omni television this fall, you can catch his documentary about a longtime friend who happens to be one of Canada’s few male belly dancers. But, as we found out, once you’ve seen nine hundred or so writhing, half-naked bodies, you’ve seen ‘em all.

Drew Nelles: What can you tell me about One Thousand and One Performances: The Diary of a Male Belly Dancer?

Sameer Singh: We’ve changed the title—it’s actually going to be known as Belly Dance Man: From Canada to Cairo. 

I came to the conclusion that documentaries fall into two categories: they’re weighty or they’re weird and novel and quirky, and I decided this fell into the latter category… My friend is a male belly dancer, probably one of four or five in Canada, and certainly the only one in Alberta. Of all places, he actually grew up in Fort McMurray, Alberta, so he chose a very unique career.

DN: What was making this documentary like?

SS: It was kind of neat to learn more about the subculture of belly dancing. I like to compare it to where yoga was five years ago, [whereas it’s not] really a yuppie, bourgeois thing anymore. It’s everywhere, and belly dancing is kind of the same thing.

When we were in Egypt, I was primarily expecting to see an audience of mostly Westerners who would pay and take time off to go to Egypt and learn belly dancing from the masters. But when I got there, I found out that wasn’t really the case. There were people from all over the world, from Central Asia and the Slavic countries, and, most interestingly, from East Asia. Most winners in the competition actually wound up being from that part of the world. So it was really neat to see this phenomenon as a byproduct of globalization, but one that is fully and truly global.

DN: You made this movie about belly dancing, and you wrote this article about it, too. So I’m wondering: are you, like, obsessed with belly dancing or something?

SS: By now, I’m completely sick of it. As a male, a straight guy, it’s obviously titillating to see. At this event in Egypt, there were probably four men and maybe nine hundred gorgeous women from around the world, but about halfway through my senses were completely dulled to it. It washed over me because I was so immersed in the culture for so long. I started out interested, but now I’m definitely interested in looking at other films and other ideas and other trends that are unfolding.

DN: I had a thought when I was reading your piece. Some philosophers accuse the West of focusing on aspects of Muslim women’s modesty like headscarves because we’re more concerned with sexually accessing women’s bodies than with their actual well-being. Do you think that critique might apply to “Belly Dancing Blues”?

SS: That was one of the things I was definitely aware of—essentializing that culture when you’re not from that culture. But that said, I had spoken to a few Egyptian women, [including one] who lives in California now, but was originally from Egypt, and she sort of echoed what I was thinking. When she left Egypt twenty years ago, it was not everywhere that you saw women in headscarves. And when she went back, and when I was there…virtually every single woman that I saw on the street, young or old, urban, English-speaking, sophisticated, no matter who, had a headscarf on. 

And that in itself isn’t a huge thing, because they express themselves and their culture outside of appearance, which is something we in the West tend to emphasize. But overall, it was a huge contrast to see people from all over the world come to this one country to see this aspect of its culture, and then see that aspect subtly attacked outside of this conference’s four walls.

DN: Are you good at belly dancing now?

SS: I’ve tried to stand in one position and do a few leg shimmies. I certainly wasn’t the most graceful person, or the most graceful male, in the room. I definitely have respect for people who do it, because it’s like rubbing your stomach and patting your head, times ten.