Other dancers might go in for acrobatics, or slithering about on the floor, or modified stripteasing, but not Tahia, whose grace and elegance suggested something altogether classical and even monumental. The paradox was that she was so immediately sensual and yet so remote, unapproachable, unobtainable. In our severely repressed world these attributes enhanced the impression she made. I especially recall that once she started dancing, and continuing through the rest of her performance, she had what appeared to be a small self-absorbed smile on her face, her mouth open more than is usual in a smile, as if she was privately contemplating her body, enjoying its movements. Her smile muted whatever tawdry theatricality attached to the scene and to her dance, purifying them by virtue of the concentration bestowed on her innermost and most self-abstracted thoughts. And indeed, as I have watched her dancing through at least twenty-five or thirty of her films, I have always found that smile, lighting up the usually silly or affected setting â€“ a still point of the turning world.
That smile has seemed to me symbolic of Tahiaâ€™s distinction in a culture that featured dozens of dancers called Zouzou and Fifi, most of them treated as barely a notch above prostitutes. This was always evident during periods of Egyptian prosperity, the last days of Farouk, for instance, or when the oil boom brought wealthy Gulf Arabs to Egypt; it was also true when Lebanon was the Arab worldâ€™s playground, with thousands of girls available for display or hire. Most belly-dancers would appear in such circumstances to go to the highest bidder, the nightclub