this interview on February 28, 2006 over the phone just after
the Little Egypt workshop weekend when Leila along with Aida Noor
and Magdy el-Leisy were in Los Angeles.
I read Gilded
Serpent because it is online; I cannot receive other magazines
in Egypt! I just flew from Los Angeles to Seattle and am now flying
to London tomorrow. Then I will be back in Cairo on March 7th.
I grew up
east of Seattle—on the Indian reservation in Wapato. My mom is
part Cherokee, but because our family married into the Yakima
tribe, our home is on the Yakima reservation. My father is Black
Irish with some English. I went to the reservation schools, which
were awful; they were the worst rated in the area, but they had
an ethnic dance program that allowed me to learn folk dancing
at school. They also had a great music program so dance and music
were the strongest parts of my early education.
did not study Middle Eastern dance with anyone in America, but
I learned by studying the videos of Lucy, Soheir Zaki, Fifi
Abdo and Dina.
I was in a troupe called Nashim Olam with three other
girls. (That was when I first started to dance.) My first solo
gig was in Seattle with the live music of an Egyptian band, The
MB Orchestra, and they are still around. I just did another
engagement with them before coming down to Los Angeles! The band
members are: Baha, Maurice, George, and Shahem.
We did two workshops and shows. I danced with them for four years
in many different venues. They were the house band in different
clubs and brought me with them. I also worked with a Persian musician
whose name was David. I learned to dance through
trial and error with live music and in front of an audience.
One big club, Aladdin, had just opened up in Seattle.
Many of the patrons told me, “You should go to Egypt.” Usually
the clubs had a clientele from the Gulf and Lebanon. I took a
workshop with an American dancer, Hala, who lived
in Egypt, and she put me in touch with an orchestra leader who
was looking for a dancer in Cairo. So, I went to Cairo with the
right set-up for a job—not a guaranteed job. This was before the
Egyptian ban of foreign dancers, and you could still go there
looking for a job! I auditioned at the Sheraton Hotel
and obtained a job within a week of arriving in Egypt, but it
took four months to get my paper work done.
was working for the first two months while they were doing the
paperwork and then another dancer called the police and told
them that I was working illegally. I had to stay for the next
two months without work waiting for my papers.
I was dancing
with the house band at the Sheraton and not the band with which
I came to work, but I was also dancing at weddings with my own
band when I was outside the Sheraton. I worked on the Nile cruise
boat with my band while I was working at the Sheraton. There were
about seven months during which I did two shows a night, seven
nights a week!
I found an furnished apartment in the Harem district on the way
to the Pyramids. I took lessons in technique and choreography
Initially, she was a good person from whom to learn.
Now I have been dancing in Cairo for almost four years. I love
it. It is my art. Yes, I am making enough money now to save.
first 3 years of performing you must reinvest in supplies such
as costumes, choreographies, etc. I was lucky because I was
also working as a model and actress which gave me a second income.
had all her troubles, I received a call to do a wedding to fill
in for her. It was a huge society wedding in a large banquet room,
and my name was not big enough to command a price high enough
to break even, considering the large orchestra I had to bring.
It was as if I had paid to do that wedding. You have to make sacrifices
in the beginning to get your your name out there.
at weddings and nightclubs, I normally have twenty-five members
in my orchestra: including 3 singers, 4 folkloric dancers, a
dresser, two assistants and a technician who go to the gig.
The sound is usually managed by someone else.
I go back, I will be working approximately five nights a week,
one or two shows a night. In high season, I could be working 7
nights a week three or four shows each night. In a nightclub I
do four costume changes, while in a wedding, I do three. On the
boat it is two. My show is fifty minutes long, and I dance only,
(without singing or comedy). There is a bit of a break with a
costume changes. I get home in winter around 1 a.m., but in the
summer, at 5 or 6 a.m.!
This can be
a crazy schedule. If I have to do a commercial or shoot, I might
not sleep at all because I may have to be on the set at 6 a.m.!
After that, I might have to go straight to another show to dance
when I am finished shooting. I spent the first two years in Egypt
completely exhausted. Although, when I do a commercial now, I
am taking more time off and am able to relax. I can turn down
projects if they will conflict with dancing or turn down dance
shows or they will conflict with important shoots. I have to think
about the future, and I am an independent contractor; so, of course,
there are no benefits (such as a health plan).
Regarding Paperwork for Dancers:
the ban, a venue in Egypt must contract dancers while they are
not in Egypt at the same time. Therefore, dancers have to come
and go in order to qualify. There are all these new rules to
make it more difficult for foreigners to dance.
were already in Cairo before the ban, were partially grand fathered
into the ruling. However, we still have to renew paperwork monthly.
New dancers will have to put up with a lot more red tape. They
have to have contracts signed and carry them around to the different
agencies to get them turned in. They may also have to stay without
work for 4 to 6 months while papers are initially filed. These
days it's very risky to work without the proper documents.
come home for Ramadan and in the spring or late winter when the
work is slow. It is a good reason to come home and visit. This
visit, I taught three workshops in Seattle last week, and I will
teach in London for Kay Taylor of Fareeda
My plans for the future are: to continue dancing and acting in
Egypt for movies and TV. I have a couple projects coming up; one
of them is a film with Mazzika TV music videos. It is
an MTV sort of project. I do not know if you will be able to see
it on satellite TV.
tricks," or sleeping with nightclub or hotel owners, is
not required to make it as a dancer in Egypt, but it
is a complicated and questionable industry and there are many
You can choose
to be who you want to be—but it may take longer to be successful
when you do not choose that avenue. For me, no dance gig is worth
that! It can be frustrating when so many dancers use that route
to get work. I have lost jobs before to dancers who became the
manager's "girlfriend." It is the nature of the industry.
I work with many different agents. Many dancers will work with
only one agent but if I learn an agent is legitimate, I will work
with him. I get a lot of work without agents because I work in
television. I receive many direct calls just from media personnel.
Life is going well, and I am starting to be able to relax and
enjoy my work and life. I am married to my orchestra leader; so,
we get to spend a lot of time together. I just bought a car, but
I am not going to drive in Egypt now—maybe later. Somehow, most
of my good friends in my social circle work in cinema. They are
both foreigners and Egyptians. We have a common interest in media,
cinema, or fashion. I also have a few friends who are costumers
and choreographers in dance. My work takes me to Sharm el-Shek
sometimes. I may stay awhile, before or after I dance, to see
the sights for fun. The film I did was in Port Said, and I got
to know the city well. I am in Alexandria all the time for weddings
and it is a nice vacation from Cairo.
I dance in
Aida Noor, Freiz,
and M. Al Boushbeka's Nile Group Festival.
It has been a great opportunity for foreigners to get to know
me. They try and create a positive atmosphere and keep the cost
down. I've also met so many other teachers and dancers from Egypt
as well as foreign dancers.
would like to tell Americans to take classes from Egyptians when
they come to Cairo and not to just to come buy costumes. Take
classes! Take some classes with Egyptian dancers or foreigners
dancing in Egypt who have picked up the style. My favorite dancer
now is Lucy; she is a dancer’s dancer. I like
too. I have heard she is a good teacher, but I have not taken
classes with her. I studied Egyptian folkloric dance with Shalaby;
it was a Saidi class, and he was great! I have taken choreographies
from Aida Noor. She choreographed my new opening
number for my show. Half of my dance is choreographed and half
is improvisation. When I take a choreography I will record a song
with my band, which is just the way I want it, and the choreographer
will use that music. Choreographies are more expensive because
they are a finished piece, but you can pay for technique by the
hour. The choreographer teaches the finished work. I usually do
not need to video it or write it down; I can dance my choreography
that night on stage and it evolves in front of the audience.
Dancing in Cairo is a long-term investment. Three years is a realistic
expectation, if you want to make a name for yourself. You could
do a smaller venue and not make such a time or money investment.
Sharm el-Shek has gigs where you can dance to a CD or a small
band and make a little bit of money and then go home having danced
in Egypt and not having to deal with the nightmare of getting
a licence and work visa.
have a dream, and dancing as a foreigner in Egypt is possible.
It is a huge commitment, and it is not easy. If I had known how
hard it was, I am not sure I would have done it—but now I am glad
that I did. The first years were very hard for me—even having
walked into the opportunities as I did. With modeling and acting,
I had another income and was able to funnel that income into my
costumes, etc. It helped support my dance career while I was getting
started. I feel very lucky to do what I do. It was my dream and
now I'm living it.
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
Leila, An American Dancer
in Cairo by Catherine Barros,
would walk into these huge ballrooms filled with thousands of
people with a huge stage in the middle of the room while television
cameras on cranes are taking note of everything.
Photos of Friday Evening show from
Aida Nour & Magdy El-Leisy Workshop 2006 Photos by Lynette
Harris & staff, sponsored
by Little Egypt held on Feb 24, 2006 in Los Angeles, California,
"Just Dance," says Aida,
a Conversation with Aida Nour by Lynette Harris
likes improvisation, and says that if a dancer has very good technique
and a good ear for the music she should “just dance.”
3-7-06 Streets of Cairo- Egyptian Rhythm,
Language and Dance by Keti Sharif
streets are much like its dance – streams of freestyle movement
guided by intuition rather than rules. There are no 'principles'
as such in both circumstances – it’s the organic-ness
of Egyptian life that creates order in chaos.
Cairo 2005 How to Eat,
Drink, Sleep, and Breathe Raqs Sharqi, Part Two of Four-Dance
Lessons by Andrea
Egypt, if a woman is only going to wear one item of make-up, it
will be black eyeliner.
The Nile Group Workshops in Cairo
it sounds! How could we, in a small country that a lot of people
couldn’t even locate on a world map, compete with her enormous
festival in Cairo?
Making New Musical Inroads
in Luxembourg 2005 by Mark and Ling Shien Bell
Rhythm Diatribes Workshops to Europe. It was extremely educational
for us to watch the learning process in three very diverse regions.
Got Strength? Buffing up for Bellydance
Muscles are like smart-aleck teenagers. If you ask them
to do something, they do just enough to get the job done—and