We've been bringing you the series The Hidden World of Girls, produced with the Kitchen Sisters. Today, we visit a wedding in northern Sudan, where traditional customs often restrict women's lives.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins is our guide.

GWEN THOMPKINS: What goes on between a man and woman is often a mystery to the outside world. But here, in northern Sudan, people pull back the curtain of mystique on one important occasion: After the marriage proposal, after the dowry has been paid and the wedding contract signed, there's a broad expectation that the bride will dance.

(Soundbite of conversations)

THOMPKINS: Thats why we're at this ceremonial hall in Khartoum. It's not what you think. Then again, maybe it is.

(Soundbite of singing and cheering)

THOMPKINS: The dance is one part Salome, one part Beyonce. And the rest is -for lack of a better expression - shimmy, shimmy coco pop, shimmy, shimmy wow.

This dancing bride is on stage with her brand new husband. She was wearing a long sequin shawl called a firka, but she took that off. Underneath, she was wrapped in the long traditional taub that Sudanese women wear - but she took that off, too. And now she's barefoot and rolling her hips in a little black dress: sleeveless, sequined and short.

Her knees are chubby. But here's the truth, people - the curvier you are, the better you look. Head and shoulders pulled back, with your bosom pointed high to the sky. Hands down low near your hips, backfield in motion - it's like watching a tall ship pitch and dive in a restless sea - steady as she goes.

(Soundbite of singing)

THOMPKINS: Only the groom and female relations are meant to see this dance. Mous Dalifa Ahmed Alamin(ph) is a school teacher here. She says that brides used to dance topless in leather hula skirts called rahats. Like her grandmother, it's not what you think. But then again, maybe it is.

Ms. MOUS DALIFA AHMED ALAMIN (School Teacher): Yes, she danced. My grandmother danced with rahat.

THOMPKINS: When she wore the rahat, did she wear any other clothes?


THOMPKINS: Less than a hundred years ago, nearly all young women here wore rahats. And Alamin's grandfather cut the string and threw her grandmother's rahat to the crowd, like a garter belt.

So when her husband took off the rahat, she was naked.

Ms. ALAMIN: Yeah. This habit disappear recently.

THOMPKINS: The throwing of the rahat symbolizes the end of maidenhood.

Fatima Sir al-Khatim was 14 years old when her parents told her she was getting married. She's 60 now.

Ms. FATIMA SIR AL-KHATIM: (Through Translator) I was scared. I just opened my eyes and saw him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: Al-Khatim married a school teacher. And she says she spent nearly 30 happy years with him, deeply in love. But al-Khatim hated her wedding night. Her parents kept telling to get up and do what Lady Gaga is now famous for saying: Just dance.

Ms. AL-KHATIM: (Through Translator) In the past, there was no choice. Their father, your family tell you that and you just have to say, yes. You can't even say no.

THOMPKINS: Now, Im going to say some words that nobody ever wants to hear on their wedding night: syphilis, gonorrhea, leprosy, breast cancer. How do these maladies relate to a nice little story about erotic dancing? Well, in the past, the bride danced to show her husband's family that she was healthy.

Griselda El-Tayeb came to Khartoum from England in 1950.

MS. GRISELDA EL-TAYEB (Author): Her family are showing, look what you're getting. She's a virgin. She has not got leprosy. She has not got small pox. So in a way, same that white, in European weddings, symbolizes purity - whether it's true or not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. El-TAYEB: Likewise, you could say that her semi-nudity was equal to the white.

THOMPKINS: El-Tayeb is publishing on Sudanese traditions that her late husband wrote.

Ms. El-TAYEB: So, as you know, Sudan is both African and Arab, but is also neither African nor Arab. And as far as I know, this dance is unique to Sudan.

THOMPKINS: Nowadays, many women in Khartoum call bridal dancing undignified.

Fatima al-Khatim says she danced because she didnt know any better. But she told her daughters not to.

Ms. AL-KHATIM: (Through Translator) In the past, girls were young and they weren't educated. But now, educated girls, they have status in society, they dont look good dancing like monkeys.

THOMPKINS: Mous Dalifa Alamin says she'd hate to wind up on YouTube.

Ms. ALAMIN: I like dancing very much. I didnt dance when I was a bride but I danced for my husband, you see. I dont...


Ms. ALAMIN: Yeah, alone.

(Soundbite of drums and singing)

THOMPKINS: Shengota, aka Iman Ali, is one of the hottest dance instructors around. She says Sudans educated elite like the glamour of dancing. Their weddings are getting more and more elaborate, like Cirque du Soleil.

Ms. IMAN ALI (Dance Instructor): (Through Translator) Nowadays, it became an obsession. Every bride wants to dance these days. So they say it is the most important part of wedding these days.

(Soundbite of music)

THOMPKINS: Yagreb Mohammad(ph) is a 28-year-old bride-to-be. She bakes herself daily in the sauna to make her skin so soft. She has her dress, her gold jewelry and the weave she'll wear in the back of her hair. Mohammad is also practicing to dance more than 70 songs with three costume changes.

Ms. YAGREB MOHAMMAD: (Through Translator) I chose to dance because it's a tradition, and in our family, basically it's a must.

THOMPKINS: Five years ago, Umer Salah(ph) was on stage with his childhood sweetheart. Usually a man just stands there and snaps his fingers in rhythm with the songs. Then he throws a little money to crowd and some candy, and shares a sip of milk with his wife.

Mr. UMER SALAH: Basically the groom is like an accessory, if you like, cause everyone is there to watch the bride.

(Soundbite of music)

THOMPKINS: Salah says he couldnt wait to see his wife dance. But although his wife treasures the video of her performance, he says he rarely watches. Been there done that, Salah says. It's not what you think. But then again, maybe it is.

(Soundbite of music and singing)

THOMPKINS: Gwen Thompkins, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music and singing)

KELLY: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Mary Louise Kelly.


And Im Renee Montagne.

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