It’s one in the morning in the Scheherazade theatre in downtown Cairo. The smoke from water pipes is thick in the air and the band has started to play. The first dancer sashays onto the stage in a costume of sparkling zebra print and thick-caked make-up. She is about 50 and moves awkwardly.
The crowd, mostly lone men of middle age and over, stare indifferently towards her, even as the tempo of the music rises: the tune is Teslam al-Ayady – or Bless their Hands, a pro-military song used to rally support for Abdul Fatah al-Sisi during his successful campaign for the presidency. For the mostly poor clientele, a couple of beers here can easily set them back a day or two’s wages. “They come here to feel rich and powerful,” a young waiter said.
Under the year-long rule of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi which ended last July, many dancers feared that the Islamists would crack down on their trade. But there was no real crackdown, and since the ex-army chief Mr Sisi ousted the Brotherhood, there has been no increase in customers. Belly dancing has been buffeted by the rise of conservative Islam in recent decades, which has brought more forbidding social attitudes with it.
But the state’s readiness to regulate the industry predates that – and so it survives.