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Gilded Serpent presents...
Facing Truth
Working as a Dancer in Egypt


2012
Saidi Tableaux at a wedding at the Semeramese Hotel.
Costume: Leila Farid, Photo: Mohab Magdy
by Leila Farid
all photos are from author’s archives
posted January 19, 2012

Gilded Serpent presents...
Facing Truth
Working as a Dancer in Egypt


2012
Saidi Tableaux at a wedding at the Semeramese Hotel.
Costume: Leila Farid, Photo: Mohab Magdy
by Leila Farid
all photos are from author’s archives
posted January 19, 2012

Most of the documentaries, videos, and blogs I have seen that have been written by foreign dancers in Cairo about their life here inspire feelings of an Oriental fantasy–as opposed to the real, the gritty truth of life as a dancer. There is a certain amount of glamor and mystery that surrounds dancing in Cairo, and no dancer wants to shatter that illusion with the dirty facts. It is easy to romanticize dancing in Egypt.

What is not so easy, is to admit that rejection, harassment, and discouragement usually precede even the smallest achievements.

Dancers usually have faced this with silence and perseverance–qualities essential to negotiating pre-revolutionary Egypt. The truth is that dancing in Cairo is hard! Honestly; had I know how difficult it was going to be, I most likely would not have come. There are many reasons in my life why I am still in Cairo but dancing is only one of them; there were numerous times that I thought of giving up. The industry as seen from the outside is nothing like it looks on the inside. Dancing with a four-member tahkt in a hotel lobby for little money is possibly not what a dancer envisioned when she thought of performing in Cairo, but even this job could have been gained at great expense. In print, this job can be a “nightly contract in a glamorous five-star hotel”, giving little indication of the reality of the situation. In Cairo, the physical, emotional, and psychological stresses to which a dancer is subjected can be high. It is not easy to negotiate an industry that she (most likely) does not fully comprehend due to foreign language complications, culture barriers, and governmental restrictions and to maintain an image of success in the dance community.

With the Egyptian Revolution of January 25th this year, a veil of silence has been lifted and Egyptians have become free to voice their grievances, divulge old wrongs, and speculate on the future. Perhaps it is time to discuss some of the hardships that dancers have faced when dancing in Cairo. From sleazy nightclub managers to vengeful government officials, to hate-mail on the Internet, I am sure that my own stories reflect similar experiences faced by many dancers in Cairo.

Sometimes the dirty facts of dancing in Cairo can be more interesting than the pristine Oriental fantasy… at least, it is when you tell the story later!

Even before the Egyptian Revolution, the amount of work available to dancers had started to decline. When I first arrived in Cairo, the industry was still thriving, and work was plentiful. In the past, one of the hardest things with which one had to deal as a dancer in Cairo is exhaustion. The toll that daily performance can take is high. At the beginning of my career, I was dancing from 2 to 4 shows every day. I remember times in the dressing room at 5 a.m. when I was wondering how I was going to do show #4 of the night because my feet wouldn’t move any more. Once, I started working additionally as an actress; the only time I would take off from dancing was to shoot a film project. I can recall being on the set at 4 a.m., then shooting all day, and leaving the shoot to dance a show on the boat and at a wedding and then returning to the shoot to continue the rest of the night.

Looking back, I’m not sure how I did it! (or why…) I do know that I was exhausted most of the time.


2005
Back to work after the 2004 ban of foreign dancers performing at the Haroun il Rashid Nightclub in Semeramese.
Costume: Eman Zaki

When you are exhausted you get sick. Like most performers, I have danced with many kinds of illness: fevers, intestinal problems, and bronchial infections. When you are exhausted you also get injured. I have performed with a dislocated knee, dislocated hip, and a concussion (suffered on the set when a cash from on top of the camera fell on my head). Why would I perform sick or injured? Sometimes the place I worked put pressure on me, saying they couldn’t find a replacement. Sometimes I feared that they would find a replacement. Keeping your job in Cairo, early in your career, is a constant worry–especially for a foreigner who needs a contract to make her work visa. There is always another dancer willing to take your job; so, if it is all you can do to drag yourself out of bed to make it to the show (even if it means turning out a dire performance) you usually do it.

In all the arts, in all countries, the casting couch exists, but in Egypt, the idea of it seems interconnected with the dance profession and can cause a dancer no end of frustration.

In Egypt, a club or hotel owner may try to form a relationship with a dancer he is hiring. Sometimes his hints are subtle and sometimes he just states what he wants. Sometimes he will hire you and let his affections be known over a period of months and if he realizes you are not interested, you will find yourself replaced. Saying “yes” to a manager’s affections can lead to a job–but not always. I have known of dancers who dated managers and never found their way to the stage. Saying “no!” does not always mean you won’t get the job. A dancer develops a reputation in the industry here and if the manager knows he will not get anywhere with her from the start (and if she has large enough fan base) then negotiating the job becomes purely about business–because her name brings in guests.

It is when a dancer is new to Egypt that she faces the most harassment. Finding and keeping that first contract is difficult.

I would wager to say that most dancers who have danced, or tried to dance, in Cairo have faced harassment like this. I have lost jobs because I wasn’t interested in being the manager’s girlfriend. It is one of the most difficult situations to accept because you have no recourse. You can report the manager, but I have never heard of a manager being reprimanded. By reporting someone in our industry you are labeled a “trouble maker” and even respectable bosses become wary of you. So you quietly move on to the next audition and hopefully the next job while trying to establish your name.


2009
Party at the Pyramisa Hotel.
Costume: Eman Zaki

Hotels usually have an impresario who handles their artist. This is not a manager but the go-between for the hotel and artist’s management or the person who brings the entertainment to weddings. This is a very competitive and dirty business. Sometimes a performer must ally herself with an impresario to get or keep a job, and he can take as much or more money than the performer–just for booking her into the venue. Some dancers choose to work with only one impresario and others will work with many. I have known of dancers who lost their jobs because their particular impresario lost the hotel contract and all his artists had to leave with him. If you choose to work with many impresarios, then you have more options for work, but they have no real stake in finding you a job unless you tip them more than the other dancers do. My first contract in Cairo was with a very powerful impresario in a restaurant with it’s own band. If I called in sick, the impresario would send his own doctor to verify that I was actually ill and not working somewhere else. If the doctor said I could work, then I would work no matter how sick I was. There were constant fights with the band who worked for him, not me, and who took tips to play whatever song the guests requested, whether I knew the song or not.

It is always risky to try not to pay the impresario’s commission and to go direct to the hotel.

Their hold on the industry is strong and they usually find a way to punish you by ruining future jobs, especially if they have a score to settle. Over the years, I have worked with almost every impresario in Cairo. Some are honest and some are thieves. For two years, I worked exclusively with one impresario for weddings in Alexandria. I worked a lot, but I was not happy with the price. He claimed that if I increased my price, I would lose the work. It happened that a guest called me direct to ask me to give them a discount. I was confused as I felt my price was more than fair. The guest told me how much the impresario was charging for me and it turned out that he was adding another 70% to the money he was giving me and my price was one of the highest in the market! I called all the other impresarios in Alex that same day.

Dealing with impresarios is like walking in a minefield until you establish yourself. It is a battle you must face if you want to work.

For the last 15 or so years, the old regime had not been friendly to dance. They informally banned dance performances from television and although shows about dance would surface now and then, they never lasted very long. (Since the Revolution, at least 3 TV channels are running programs with dancers-one 24 hours a day!) Performers ran the constant risk of upsetting the wrong government person and finding themselves finished as a dancer. There is the famous story of the Syrian dancer who was dancing at a party with the ex-president’s son. She asked him to dance with her, and when he refused, she chided, “Are you afraid of daddy?” She found herself on a plane back to Syria that evening! My own experience was less dramatic–most likely because I am American. I unknowingly took the job of the girlfriend of a top government official. The next night, the nightclub manager showed up at my door begging for the contract I had signed. Over the next month, it became apparent that my work visa had disappeared! For three months, I sat without working because my paperwork had been lost. Finally, I appealed to someone in the National Security and told him my story. He called the next day to tell me to go back to work, but strangely, two of the hotels where I had been working had taken me off their schedules. It was only after the Revolution, years later, that the hotels called asking me to come back to work. They told me that a government official, now safely in jail, had blacklisted me. The only reason I still work in Egypt is because the National Security agent had warned the official that loosing an Americans’ work visa would result in an investigation.

Until recently I didn’t know who was behind this. I had falsely blamed an impresario with whom I’d had a dispute over tips. After an amir’s birthday party, where tips were flying, I was called into his office; with two big body guards present, he demanded 2/3 of the tips instead of the half I had given him. He threatened that I would never work in Egypt again if I didn’t give him my tips. I refused–and a few weeks later, my work visa disappeared. It is nice to know that the person actually responsible is in jail, and I have since worked with this same impresario in many weddings.

For this same reason, dancing at the top military or government weddings was always full of stress. I have danced at the wedding hall across the road from the ex-president’s old residence. (I am the only foreigner and Dina is the only Egyptian to dance there in the 8 years it has existed.)

The amount of security and rules pertaining to how the show proceeds is staggering!

As a foreigner, I couldn’t recognize top officials by sight; so I was assigned a secretary to follow me to and from the stage and tell me which tables I could go near and which ones were off limits. In a banquet hall that seats more than 1,000 guests, this could become confusing quickly. At one point during a wedding an “off limits” minister was motioning me toward his table and my secretary was shaking his head “no.” It was comic and unnerving at the same time! Also, when Mama Suzan, as they called her, would decide to make her entrance to the wedding, my show would be brought to an end; she did not watch dancers publicly. We were apparently not on her list of approved entertainment.

Early in my career in Egypt, I learned not to mix art and politics. I was dancing at a live TV show for the Eid holiday and the presenter, knowing I was American, asked me about my opinion of our then president Bush. I commented that I did not agree with his domestic or foreign policies, especially pertaining to the Middle East (Axis of Evil and all). When we went to break, the people in the studio looked worried and expressed concern that I voiced such a strong opinion. In fact, the next day, Al Akbar Newspaper ran a short blurb that I had bashed my president on television. I got calls from everyone who had seen the show and a few journalists telling me I should be careful. I was on edge for weeks. Until the revolution of January 25th, I never again talked about politics in a public arena.


2010
Performing on Nile Maxim. Costume: Leila Farid

The whole idea of working in Egypt, at least for me, was to become known to the Egyptian public. I had a great bit of luck in that I acted and danced in a comedy early in my career that was banned from the theaters the day after it was released. The court case was eventually settled, but it left everyone wanting to see the film. The film was picked up by every major cinema channel in the Middle East and became a cult classic. It was a huge boost to my career! In fact, every well-known dancer in Egypt has danced in a film or on television. It puts her name out to a wider audience. It also helps her build fans. Fans are what you hope for as an artist, but they can also be overwhelming. Some of the weddings in which I have danced have gotten out of control with people wanting photos and rushing the stage. I have been pushed, my feet trampled, my hair tangled in the string of a lens cap of a video camera. I’ve almost had my arm pulled off by an old man, with a surprising strong grip, who would not let go until he had taken a photo with me. (The problem was my bodyguard who was trying to pull me through the crowd was unaware of the grip the old fellow had on my arm.)

Recently, my car was surrounded on 6th October Bridge by cars of guests coming out of a wedding at the same time I did. They were shooting off firecrackers through the sunroofs and yelling funny things to me on a megaphone; unfortunately, they didn’t see the guy on the motorcycle. They hit him, he went down, my car crashed into the cars in front of me, and the rest piled into the back of me. Although the father of the bride apologized profusely, it did quite a bit of damage to my car. Gratefully, the guy on the motorcycle was able to walk away.

On the flip side of the coin are the anti-fans. Anti-fans use YouTube as their platform for voicing their opinion.

Dancing in Egypt brings a particular kind of scrutiny from the dance community. Dancers outside of Egypt generally have very strong ideas about what makes a dancer’s style ”Egyptian” or not, and you must fulfill these notions to pass board. In Russia they have a name for it: “Arabism”–gestures and facial expressions that signify you are dancing like an Egyptian. In the past few years, there have been one or two fellow dancers who have taken it upon themselves to visit every YouTube clip of me and leave scathing comments about my dance. I don’t fit into their idea of what a dancer should be in Egypt. They accuse me of things like not having Egyptian feeling, to being too tall and thin to be a Belly dancer. Then there are the more personal comments about what I must have done to become successful in Egypt (Surely, it wasn’t my dancing!) even going as far to bring my family into it.

Everyone is free to like or dislike a performer, but there is something about the anonymity of the Internet that seems to bring out the worst in some members of our community.

Many times, dancers criticize the Egyptian view of Belly dance, saying dancers are not respected here. However, sometimes I feel that we don’t respect each other within our own community. I have never had an Egyptian attack me verbally or criticize my dance; on the contrary, people are generally respectful and excited that an American is succeeding at their dance. If they don’t want to watch the show, usually based on religious reasons, they just leave and do not stalk me later on the Internet. Belly dancing is extremely personal; so I understand that dancers become passionate about other performers but such negativity is rarely constructive. Since I most likely will not become shorter (and it remains to be seen if I will become more fat) hopefully, my anti-fans can accept that it takes all types.


2010
Posing with the guests at a wedding in Meridian Heliopolis Hotel.
Costume: Leila Farid

One of the important struggles facing every dancer in Cairo is the same that faces a dancer around the world: finding her own style. In Cairo, the parameters for dance may be more rigid in that the Egyptian public expects certain things from a dancer that foreign audiences may not. The dance usually follows a traditional format, but dancers are expected to have their own, individual style and personality. Fusing nontraditional elements into the show can make you stand out, but if you deviate too far from the expected–very strange costuming, non-Arabic music, too many non-Arabic or aggressive movements–you will lose your audience and your chances of success. Dancing in touristic venues does give more freedom of style, but for Egyptian audiences, developing a style is subtler inside Egypt than outside.

The path to discovering your own voice in the dance is sometimes the most frustrating and difficult challenge.

When I first arrived, the trend for new dancers was to copy Dina. She was, and still is, the only major Egyptian star to work consistently. (Lucy could still be seen at The Parisiana, but she has been focusing on her acting for the last few years.) Although Dina is one of my favorite dancers, I made a decision to try not to copy her although her influence on the dance has been so strong that was hard to avoid.

In my first year, I studied with Mdm. Raqia Hassan and Mdm. Aida Noor, both powerhouses of Egyptian technique and choreography in very different ways. In my first year in Egypt, they choreographed everything I put on stage. My manager, Safaa Farid, was also helpful, having worked with dancers for 25 years. His advice was usually in the form of song suggestions and admonitions such as “Don’t do that again!” whenever I did something incomprehensible to Egyptian audiences. I was lucky to see both Dandesh and Safwa perform a couple of times before they retired. Dandesh had a profound influence on my dance because she was so subtle and funny. Safwa was tall and thin (plus, she wore very high heels!) with a stoic grace that drove the guests nuts. Neither of them used choreography.

After a few years, I started to leave choreographed dance behind in order to improvise more. I put new numbers in the show every few weeks. My band would freak out when I would request a song on stage that we had not rehearsed. At times, it went well, but sometimes it was horrible. This was probably the most inconsistent dancing I have done in my life, but I learned so much from that time! I paid attention constantly to the feedback from the audiences.

I was working continually: sick, tired, inspired at times by my progress, and sometimes, completely depressed by my lack of understanding.

I took a year off, and when I came back to work, with a good bit of experience under my belt and much better Arabic, I decided to do everything myself-to make the show more “me.” I choose all the music for the show and designed my own costumes. My choreography was simple and left room for improvisation and interaction. I discovered a stronger connection to the music and the guests. My feedback from Egyptian audiences was extremely positive. The number of weddings at which I danced increased exponentially. It was shortly after this that the nasty comments on the Internet started.

Unfortunately, if you gain one audience you may lose another.

All I can hope is that I continue to develop. It was this psychological process of artistic self-discovery that was probably the most difficult part of my Cairo dance experience. I hope it may also be the most rewarding.

The months following the Revolution of Jan 25th, there was essentially no work, but as the summer approached, things started to pick up. I had one of the best wedding seasons I’ve ever had. There was a sense of euphoria and freedom and the Egyptian people were in the mood to party. Even before the curfew was lifted, I was dancing weddings at 5 p.m. Before the revolution, it had become trendy to have only a DJ at your wedding, but now, everyone seems to want live entertainment.

Unfortunately, as the political and economic uncertainty continues, weddings have started to drop off. Even with the decline in weddings, I am lucky that they have always been my bread and butter because the work that relied on tourism is suffering. On the Nile Maxim, we went from working three cruises a day to one, usually at half capacity. I have heard similar stories from other boats and hotel nightclubs. Harem Street, which has been restored close to its former glory, is working but definitely feeling the absence of Arab tourists. The huge parties for tourist and investors that were held at the pyramids and in Luxor and Sharm el Sheik have disappeared. As for the dance festivals here in Egypt, the attendance numbers are low. I will continue with the live music dance camp that I run (The first two camps in 2010 and early 2011 were sold out, but the event in September 2011, after the Revolution, ran at 1/3 capacity.) Hopefully, Egypt will secure a stable government that will inspire confidence in the country for it’s own people–as well as tourists. Optimistically, our next Camp Negum is scheduled for April 2012.

Since the Revolution, I have been part of a team working on a large-scale fundraiser for children’s music and art programs, inspired (in part) by Amina of San Francisco and with the support of Debbie Smith of Cairo. However, with the tragic clashes between the demonstrators and police this November in Tahrir Square, our corporate sponsors have been discouraged, and it has become next to impossible to secure permits from the Egyptian army for a large event.

We will try to find a way, through art, to help kids who live in the poorest sections of Cairo, but we will have to postpone everything until after the presidential elections.

With the Parlamentary elections complete, a majority Islamic government has been elected. We can only speculate as to what effect this could have on the dance industry here in Egypt. We may have jumped out of the flying pan and into the fire. For the moment, we are free to reflect and discuss and to hope for change for the better for all people, even dancers.

What are my plans in Egypt? I suppose that as long as there is work as a dancer, I’ll dance, and as long as I feel like a contributing part of the society here and the society accepts me and my profession, I’ll stay.

One thing I have learned from dancing in Egypt is that things never come easy, but when they finally happen, it is usually worth the effort.

Most of the documentaries, videos, and blogs I have seen that have been written by foreign dancers in Cairo about their life here inspire feelings of an Oriental fantasy–as opposed to the real, the gritty truth of life as a dancer. There is a certain amount of glamor and mystery that surrounds dancing in Cairo, and no dancer wants to shatter that illusion with the dirty facts. It is easy to romanticize dancing in Egypt.

What is not so easy, is to admit that rejection, harassment, and discouragement usually precede even the smallest achievements.

Dancers usually have faced this with silence and perseverance–qualities essential to negotiating pre-revolutionary Egypt. The truth is that dancing in Cairo is hard! Honestly; had I know how difficult it was going to be, I most likely would not have come. There are many reasons in my life why I am still in Cairo but dancing is only one of them; there were numerous times that I thought of giving up. The industry as seen from the outside is nothing like it looks on the inside. Dancing with a four-member tahkt in a hotel lobby for little money is possibly not what a dancer envisioned when she thought of performing in Cairo, but even this job could have been gained at great expense. In print, this job can be a “nightly contract in a glamorous five-star hotel”, giving little indication of the reality of the situation. In Cairo, the physical, emotional, and psychological stresses to which a dancer is subjected can be high. It is not easy to negotiate an industry that she (most likely) does not fully comprehend due to foreign language complications, culture barriers, and governmental restrictions and to maintain an image of success in the dance community.

With the Egyptian Revolution of January 25th this year, a veil of silence has been lifted and Egyptians have become free to voice their grievances, divulge old wrongs, and speculate on the future. Perhaps it is time to discuss some of the hardships that dancers have faced when dancing in Cairo. From sleazy nightclub managers to vengeful government officials, to hate-mail on the Internet, I am sure that my own stories reflect similar experiences faced by many dancers in Cairo.

Sometimes the dirty facts of dancing in Cairo can be more interesting than the pristine Oriental fantasy… at least, it is when you tell the story later!

Even before the Egyptian Revolution, the amount of work available to dancers had started to decline. When I first arrived in Cairo, the industry was still thriving, and work was plentiful. In the past, one of the hardest things with which one had to deal as a dancer in Cairo is exhaustion. The toll that daily performance can take is high. At the beginning of my career, I was dancing from 2 to 4 shows every day. I remember times in the dressing room at 5 a.m. when I was wondering how I was going to do show #4 of the night because my feet wouldn’t move any more. Once, I started working additionally as an actress; the only time I would take off from dancing was to shoot a film project. I can recall being on the set at 4 a.m., then shooting all day, and leaving the shoot to dance a show on the boat and at a wedding and then returning to the shoot to continue the rest of the night.

Looking back, I’m not sure how I did it! (or why…) I do know that I was exhausted most of the time.


2005
Back to work after the 2004 ban of foreign dancers performing at the Haroun il Rashid Nightclub in Semeramese.
Costume: Eman Zaki

When you are exhausted you get sick. Like most performers, I have danced with many kinds of illness: fevers, intestinal problems, and bronchial infections. When you are exhausted you also get injured. I have performed with a dislocated knee, dislocated hip, and a concussion (suffered on the set when a cash from on top of the camera fell on my head). Why would I perform sick or injured? Sometimes the place I worked put pressure on me, saying they couldn’t find a replacement. Sometimes I feared that they would find a replacement. Keeping your job in Cairo, early in your career, is a constant worry–especially for a foreigner who needs a contract to make her work visa. There is always another dancer willing to take your job; so, if it is all you can do to drag yourself out of bed to make it to the show (even if it means turning out a dire performance) you usually do it.

In all the arts, in all countries, the casting couch exists, but in Egypt, the idea of it seems interconnected with the dance profession and can cause a dancer no end of frustration.

In Egypt, a club or hotel owner may try to form a relationship with a dancer he is hiring. Sometimes his hints are subtle and sometimes he just states what he wants. Sometimes he will hire you and let his affections be known over a period of months and if he realizes you are not interested, you will find yourself replaced. Saying “yes” to a manager’s affections can lead to a job–but not always. I have known of dancers who dated managers and never found their way to the stage. Saying “no!” does not always mean you won’t get the job. A dancer develops a reputation in the industry here and if the manager knows he will not get anywhere with her from the start (and if she has large enough fan base) then negotiating the job becomes purely about business–because her name brings in guests.

It is when a dancer is new to Egypt that she faces the most harassment. Finding and keeping that first contract is difficult.

I would wager to say that most dancers who have danced, or tried to dance, in Cairo have faced harassment like this. I have lost jobs because I wasn’t interested in being the manager’s girlfriend. It is one of the most difficult situations to accept because you have no recourse. You can report the manager, but I have never heard of a manager being reprimanded. By reporting someone in our industry you are labeled a “trouble maker” and even respectable bosses become wary of you. So you quietly move on to the next audition and hopefully the next job while trying to establish your name.


2009
Party at the Pyramisa Hotel.
Costume: Eman Zaki

Hotels usually have an impresario who handles their artist. This is not a manager but the go-between for the hotel and artist’s management or the person who brings the entertainment to weddings. This is a very competitive and dirty business. Sometimes a performer must ally herself with an impresario to get or keep a job, and he can take as much or more money than the performer–just for booking her into the venue. Some dancers choose to work with only one impresario and others will work with many. I have known of dancers who lost their jobs because their particular impresario lost the hotel contract and all his artists had to leave with him. If you choose to work with many impresarios, then you have more options for work, but they have no real stake in finding you a job unless you tip them more than the other dancers do. My first contract in Cairo was with a very powerful impresario in a restaurant with it’s own band. If I called in sick, the impresario would send his own doctor to verify that I was actually ill and not working somewhere else. If the doctor said I could work, then I would work no matter how sick I was. There were constant fights with the band who worked for him, not me, and who took tips to play whatever song the guests requested, whether I knew the song or not.

It is always risky to try not to pay the impresario’s commission and to go direct to the hotel.

Their hold on the industry is strong and they usually find a way to punish you by ruining future jobs, especially if they have a score to settle. Over the years, I have worked with almost every impresario in Cairo. Some are honest and some are thieves. For two years, I worked exclusively with one impresario for weddings in Alexandria. I worked a lot, but I was not happy with the price. He claimed that if I increased my price, I would lose the work. It happened that a guest called me direct to ask me to give them a discount. I was confused as I felt my price was more than fair. The guest told me how much the impresario was charging for me and it turned out that he was adding another 70% to the money he was giving me and my price was one of the highest in the market! I called all the other impresarios in Alex that same day.

Dealing with impresarios is like walking in a minefield until you establish yourself. It is a battle you must face if you want to work.

For the last 15 or so years, the old regime had not been friendly to dance. They informally banned dance performances from television and although shows about dance would surface now and then, they never lasted very long. (Since the Revolution, at least 3 TV channels are running programs with dancers-one 24 hours a day!) Performers ran the constant risk of upsetting the wrong government person and finding themselves finished as a dancer. There is the famous story of the Syrian dancer who was dancing at a party with the ex-president’s son. She asked him to dance with her, and when he refused, she chided, “Are you afraid of daddy?” She found herself on a plane back to Syria that evening! My own experience was less dramatic–most likely because I am American. I unknowingly took the job of the girlfriend of a top government official. The next night, the nightclub manager showed up at my door begging for the contract I had signed. Over the next month, it became apparent that my work visa had disappeared! For three months, I sat without working because my paperwork had been lost. Finally, I appealed to someone in the National Security and told him my story. He called the next day to tell me to go back to work, but strangely, two of the hotels where I had been working had taken me off their schedules. It was only after the Revolution, years later, that the hotels called asking me to come back to work. They told me that a government official, now safely in jail, had blacklisted me. The only reason I still work in Egypt is because the National Security agent had warned the official that loosing an Americans’ work visa would result in an investigation.

Until recently I didn’t know who was behind this. I had falsely blamed an impresario with whom I’d had a dispute over tips. After an amir’s birthday party, where tips were flying, I was called into his office; with two big body guards present, he demanded 2/3 of the tips instead of the half I had given him. He threatened that I would never work in Egypt again if I didn’t give him my tips. I refused–and a few weeks later, my work visa disappeared. It is nice to know that the person actually responsible is in jail, and I have since worked with this same impresario in many weddings.

For this same reason, dancing at the top military or government weddings was always full of stress. I have danced at the wedding hall across the road from the ex-president’s old residence. (I am the only foreigner and Dina is the only Egyptian to dance there in the 8 years it has existed.)

The amount of security and rules pertaining to how the show proceeds is staggering!

As a foreigner, I couldn’t recognize top officials by sight; so I was assigned a secretary to follow me to and from the stage and tell me which tables I could go near and which ones were off limits. In a banquet hall that seats more than 1,000 guests, this could become confusing quickly. At one point during a wedding an “off limits” minister was motioning me toward his table and my secretary was shaking his head “no.” It was comic and unnerving at the same time! Also, when Mama Suzan, as they called her, would decide to make her entrance to the wedding, my show would be brought to an end; she did not watch dancers publicly. We were apparently not on her list of approved entertainment.

Early in my career in Egypt, I learned not to mix art and politics. I was dancing at a live TV show for the Eid holiday and the presenter, knowing I was American, asked me about my opinion of our then president Bush. I commented that I did not agree with his domestic or foreign policies, especially pertaining to the Middle East (Axis of Evil and all). When we went to break, the people in the studio looked worried and expressed concern that I voiced such a strong opinion. In fact, the next day, Al Akbar Newspaper ran a short blurb that I had bashed my president on television. I got calls from everyone who had seen the show and a few journalists telling me I should be careful. I was on edge for weeks. Until the revolution of January 25th, I never again talked about politics in a public arena.


2010
Performing on Nile Maxim. Costume: Leila Farid

The whole idea of working in Egypt, at least for me, was to become known to the Egyptian public. I had a great bit of luck in that I acted and danced in a comedy early in my career that was banned from the theaters the day after it was released. The court case was eventually settled, but it left everyone wanting to see the film. The film was picked up by every major cinema channel in the Middle East and became a cult classic. It was a huge boost to my career! In fact, every well-known dancer in Egypt has danced in a film or on television. It puts her name out to a wider audience. It also helps her build fans. Fans are what you hope for as an artist, but they can also be overwhelming. Some of the weddings in which I have danced have gotten out of control with people wanting photos and rushing the stage. I have been pushed, my feet trampled, my hair tangled in the string of a lens cap of a video camera. I’ve almost had my arm pulled off by an old man, with a surprising strong grip, who would not let go until he had taken a photo with me. (The problem was my bodyguard who was trying to pull me through the crowd was unaware of the grip the old fellow had on my arm.)

Recently, my car was surrounded on 6th October Bridge by cars of guests coming out of a wedding at the same time I did. They were shooting off firecrackers through the sunroofs and yelling funny things to me on a megaphone; unfortunately, they didn’t see the guy on the motorcycle. They hit him, he went down, my car crashed into the cars in front of me, and the rest piled into the back of me. Although the father of the bride apologized profusely, it did quite a bit of damage to my car. Gratefully, the guy on the motorcycle was able to walk away.

On the flip side of the coin are the anti-fans. Anti-fans use YouTube as their platform for voicing their opinion.

Dancing in Egypt brings a particular kind of scrutiny from the dance community. Dancers outside of Egypt generally have very strong ideas about what makes a dancer’s style ”Egyptian” or not, and you must fulfill these notions to pass board. In Russia they have a name for it: “Arabism”–gestures and facial expressions that signify you are dancing like an Egyptian. In the past few years, there have been one or two fellow dancers who have taken it upon themselves to visit every YouTube clip of me and leave scathing comments about my dance. I don’t fit into their idea of what a dancer should be in Egypt. They accuse me of things like not having Egyptian feeling, to being too tall and thin to be a Belly dancer. Then there are the more personal comments about what I must have done to become successful in Egypt (Surely, it wasn’t my dancing!) even going as far to bring my family into it.

Everyone is free to like or dislike a performer, but there is something about the anonymity of the Internet that seems to bring out the worst in some members of our community.

Many times, dancers criticize the Egyptian view of Belly dance, saying dancers are not respected here. However, sometimes I feel that we don’t respect each other within our own community. I have never had an Egyptian attack me verbally or criticize my dance; on the contrary, people are generally respectful and excited that an American is succeeding at their dance. If they don’t want to watch the show, usually based on religious reasons, they just leave and do not stalk me later on the Internet. Belly dancing is extremely personal; so I understand that dancers become passionate about other performers but such negativity is rarely constructive. Since I most likely will not become shorter (and it remains to be seen if I will become more fat) hopefully, my anti-fans can accept that it takes all types.


2010
Posing with the guests at a wedding in Meridian Heliopolis Hotel.
Costume: Leila Farid

One of the important struggles facing every dancer in Cairo is the same that faces a dancer around the world: finding her own style. In Cairo, the parameters for dance may be more rigid in that the Egyptian public expects certain things from a dancer that foreign audiences may not. The dance usually follows a traditional format, but dancers are expected to have their own, individual style and personality. Fusing nontraditional elements into the show can make you stand out, but if you deviate too far from the expected–very strange costuming, non-Arabic music, too many non-Arabic or aggressive movements–you will lose your audience and your chances of success. Dancing in touristic venues does give more freedom of style, but for Egyptian audiences, developing a style is subtler inside Egypt than outside.

The path to discovering your own voice in the dance is sometimes the most frustrating and difficult challenge.

When I first arrived, the trend for new dancers was to copy Dina. She was, and still is, the only major Egyptian star to work consistently. (Lucy could still be seen at The Parisiana, but she has been focusing on her acting for the last few years.) Although Dina is one of my favorite dancers, I made a decision to try not to copy her although her influence on the dance has been so strong that was hard to avoid.

In my first year, I studied with Mdm. Raqia Hassan and Mdm. Aida Noor, both powerhouses of Egyptian technique and choreography in very different ways. In my first year in Egypt, they choreographed everything I put on stage. My manager, Safaa Farid, was also helpful, having worked with dancers for 25 years. His advice was usually in the form of song suggestions and admonitions such as “Don’t do that again!” whenever I did something incomprehensible to Egyptian audiences. I was lucky to see both Dandesh and Safwa perform a couple of times before they retired. Dandesh had a profound influence on my dance because she was so subtle and funny. Safwa was tall and thin (plus, she wore very high heels!) with a stoic grace that drove the guests nuts. Neither of them used choreography.

After a few years, I started to leave choreographed dance behind in order to improvise more. I put new numbers in the show every few weeks. My band would freak out when I would request a song on stage that we had not rehearsed. At times, it went well, but sometimes it was horrible. This was probably the most inconsistent dancing I have done in my life, but I learned so much from that time! I paid attention constantly to the feedback from the audiences.

I was working continually: sick, tired, inspired at times by my progress, and sometimes, completely depressed by my lack of understanding.

I took a year off, and when I came back to work, with a good bit of experience under my belt and much better Arabic, I decided to do everything myself-to make the show more “me.” I choose all the music for the show and designed my own costumes. My choreography was simple and left room for improvisation and interaction. I discovered a stronger connection to the music and the guests. My feedback from Egyptian audiences was extremely positive. The number of weddings at which I danced increased exponentially. It was shortly after this that the nasty comments on the Internet started.

Unfortunately, if you gain one audience you may lose another.

All I can hope is that I continue to develop. It was this psychological process of artistic self-discovery that was probably the most difficult part of my Cairo dance experience. I hope it may also be the most rewarding.

The months following the Revolution of Jan 25th, there was essentially no work, but as the summer approached, things started to pick up. I had one of the best wedding seasons I’ve ever had. There was a sense of euphoria and freedom and the Egyptian people were in the mood to party. Even before the curfew was lifted, I was dancing weddings at 5 p.m. Before the revolution, it had become trendy to have only a DJ at your wedding, but now, everyone seems to want live entertainment.

Unfortunately, as the political and economic uncertainty continues, weddings have started to drop off. Even with the decline in weddings, I am lucky that they have always been my bread and butter because the work that relied on tourism is suffering. On the Nile Maxim, we went from working three cruises a day to one, usually at half capacity. I have heard similar stories from other boats and hotel nightclubs. Harem Street, which has been restored close to its former glory, is working but definitely feeling the absence of Arab tourists. The huge parties for tourist and investors that were held at the pyramids and in Luxor and Sharm el Sheik have disappeared. As for the dance festivals here in Egypt, the attendance numbers are low. I will continue with the live music dance camp that I run (The first two camps in 2010 and early 2011 were sold out, but the event in September 2011, after the Revolution, ran at 1/3 capacity.) Hopefully, Egypt will secure a stable government that will inspire confidence in the country for it’s own people–as well as tourists. Optimistically, our next Camp Negum is scheduled for April 2012.

Since the Revolution, I have been part of a team working on a large-scale fundraiser for children’s music and art programs, inspired (in part) by Amina of San Francisco and with the support of Debbie Smith of Cairo. However, with the tragic clashes between the demonstrators and police this November in Tahrir Square, our corporate sponsors have been discouraged, and it has become next to impossible to secure permits from the Egyptian army for a large event.

We will try to find a way, through art, to help kids who live in the poorest sections of Cairo, but we will have to postpone everything until after the presidential elections.

With the Parlamentary elections complete, a majority Islamic government has been elected. We can only speculate as to what effect this could have on the dance industry here in Egypt. We may have jumped out of the flying pan and into the fire. For the moment, we are free to reflect and discuss and to hope for change for the better for all people, even dancers.

What are my plans in Egypt? I suppose that as long as there is work as a dancer, I’ll dance, and as long as I feel like a contributing part of the society here and the society accepts me and my profession, I’ll stay.

One thing I have learned from dancing in Egypt is that things never come easy, but when they finally happen, it is usually worth the effort.


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Про арабизм очень интересно!!

Эту статью обсуждали в широких просторах инета. И с разрешения Татьяны Эшта я процитирую тут ее и Невену Богачеву. А точнее их точку зрения и комментарии к данной статье:

Arusa Nanu я даже об этом не могу начинать говорить. меня уже всю крючит))потому что имитация- это всегда факт признания ТВОЕЙ ТРУСОСТИ ИДТИ В НАСТОЯЩЕЕ. Почему они не наши ни времени,ни сил для настящего погружения? для поездок? для бессоных ночей? для раздумий - о том,почему так бывает? для анализа? для чтения, для смотрения? для любовного отношения к другой культуре? почему НЫРЯТЬ побоялись?

Tatiana Eshta НАНУШ, А ЗАЧЕМ? ВОТ ПОСМОТРЕЛИ НА ВИДЕО, ЧТО ДИНА БРОВИ ДОМИКОМ ПОДНИМАЕТ, НУ И ПОДУМАЛИ - Я ТОЖ ТАК МОГУ, И ДАЖЕ ЛУЧШЕ МОГУ! А ЕЩЁ У НАС И ХОРЕОГРАФИЧЕСКАЯ ПОДГОТОВКА ЛУЧШЕ, ТАК ЧТО У НАС ПОКРУЧЕ БУДЕТ - МОСТИК С БРОВЯМИ ДОМИКОМ - ВОТ ЭТО СТРАДАНИЕ!)))) А ВЫГОВОРИТЕ ЕХАТЬ ПОГРУЖАТЬСЯ))


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