Diana Esposito, an American belly dancer in Cairo known as Luna, performs on a Nile dinner cruise boat on Aug. 12. / Sarah Lynch for USA TODAY
CAIRO - Studs sparkled on Diana Esposito's dress as she ticked her hips on a Nile boat thousands of miles away from the place she calls home: Brooklyn.
"I have a full-time job doing what I love," said Esposito, 31, sitting outside the docked dinner cruise boat where she dances every evening.
But life is far from easy for her and others working here on boats, in tourist haunts and at late-night spots that embrace a dance both loved and condemned by Egyptians.
"Let me put it quite bluntly: This is not a woman-friendly society," Esposito said. "It's misogynistic at its core. It's very difficult to be an independent woman here. Sexual harassment is intolerable, but it happens everywhere, all the time."
Born and raised in New York, Esposito graduated from Harvard University with a master's degree before heading to Cairo on a Fulbright scholarship in 2008. Her idea was to write a book about dance.
She's a famous belly dancer here, known by her stage name, Luna. Still, she hasn't escaped harassment.
"I have been chased, picked up - literally picked up," she said. "I've had teenage guys spray tear gas in my face as I was riding a taxi. Is it getting better now? Probably, but the past three years were pretty out of control."
Security weakened and crime rates rose alongside political unrest that started with the revolt in 2011 that ousted Hosni Mubarak. Last year, surging violence, sexual harassment and Islamist sentiment were among factors that made Egypt the worst country in the region to be a woman, according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey.
Esposito grapples with navigating a male-dominated and competitive field where women commonly marry venue owners and managers to secure jobs - practices similar to casting couch behaviors, she said.
Scottish dancer Lorna Gow, who performs at a five-star Cairo venue and changes costumes in a restaurant storeroom, said it's important for dancers to find a balance between being sweet and stern.
"If you're straight and talk serious business, they think you're aggressive, and they don't want to know you," said Gow, who is known onstage by her first name alone. "You don't actually get the job - I hate it."
Offstage, many dancers are secretive about their work, some fearing backlash like Esposito saw in 2009, when her landlord kicked her out of her apartment after discovering her job.
That's not the only reason for keeping it secret.
"When you speak with any Egyptian and they do not know that you are a belly dancer, they treat you very nicely and very respectfully," said Amora Shams, a Spanish belly dancer. "But the moment that they find out that you are a belly dancer, they change their tone of voice, they stop looking at your eyes. They start looking at the rest of your body."
Being a belly dancer in Egypt is like stripping in the USA, said dancer Allegra Pena, who is from Los Angeles and known by her stage name, Aleya of Cairo.
"It has the same kind of connotation," she said. "But it's a weird thing because they really love you."
Prosecutors summoned Armenian dancer Safinaz this month for allegedly insulting Egypt by wearing a costume with colors of the nation's flag.
Belly dancers are often hired for weddings and major events where they are applauded in the country where the tradition started.
"Belly dancing is something that is part of our culture - as it's been for a long time," said Oday Noman, an Egyptian doctor, 28, who watched Esposito perform on the Nile boat with his family. "Most celebrations include a belly dancer."
The mid-1940s and the 1970s were the glory days for belly dance in Egypt, said Raqia Hassan, an Egyptian choreographer of the dance, which is known as raqs sharqi. The industry has generally declined and was particularly threatened during the one-year rule of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, she said.
Last year, a court shut down a belly dancing channel, and a hard-line Islamist lawmaker condemned ballet as an "immoral" and "nude art."
"I was very worried about the profession," Hassan said. "If they didn't like ballet, what about us?"
The business waned in recent years as tourists who frequent dance venues stayed away from Egypt, Hassan said. The downturn hit both five-star hotels and dingy cabarets.
Magdalena Alkhayam, who runs a venue downtown, said the past three years were the worst of her life.
"There was not a single piaster of profit," she said.
Dancers who work in upscale venues say their lives aren't as hard as those of people working in late-night cabarets.
"To be able to perform every single day with my orchestra, and then do weddings with an even bigger orchestra - that is a dream of thousands of dancers and dance students all over the world," Esposito said on the Nile boat.
She still misses Brooklyn.
"Being here has really made me appreciate being born American, being born in a part of the world where I have had all these opportunities that wouldn't have been available to me if I had been born here," she said.
Read the original story: Egypt's mood sways on belly dancers