The photo of me and Khamis was taken by El Lialy Studio, Cairo.
Gilded Serpent presents...
Teaching at the
2006 Ahlan Wa Sahlan Cairo Festival
by Leyla Lanty

Cairo, July 3, 2006:  "Today is the day!" was my first thought when I woke up that day.  Until then, teaching at Raqia Hassan's Ahlan Wa Sahlan Cairo festival was something about which I could only dream.  On that afternoon at 4:00, I was booked to teach a two-hour class in playing finger cymbals (sagat, zills) at the biggest raqs sharqi festival in the world.  I'll tell more about how this came to be, but first let's get to the experience.

Even though I'd seen and spoken to Raqia several times after arriving in Cairo on June 12th, I didn't find out until the day I registered, June 25th, that my class would be on the last day of the weeklong festival at 4:00 in the afternoon.

My inquiries over those two weeks had been answered "the schedule is not set yet." I reminded myself over and over that in Egypt, many plans are confirmed, if not made, at the last minute.  Contrary to what this may suggest, the festival week was especially well organized in the logistics of registration and people moving.  There were three days for registration, making that process for nearly 1,000 registrants go as smoothly as possible.  There were festival staff members at the doors of each classroom to check people in and give directions to other classrooms. The registration desk was open every day for attendees to make changes or additions to their schedules and there was an information desk in the main lobby outside the ballroom where the largest classes took place.  Raqia and her able crew are to be congratulated on such a well-organized event.

After registering for the classes I would attend, I signed up to dance to live music on teachers' night, the first of the nightly parties.  Performing on teachers' night is a good way for new teachers to attract more students to their classes.  Many students sign up for additional classes after seeing the teachers' performances.

When the day finally arrived, I was ready to teach, but at 3:00 p.m., the class location was not yet assigned. At 3:30, after a soothing glass of tea, I checked again and found out that the class would be on the dance floor in the Mena House's "Abu Nawas" nightclub. It's hard to describe the excitement I felt when I saw the official sign on the door "Leyla Lanty Sagat".

Leyla-" Zelina in the Abu Nawas nightclub at AWS 2003 evening party to show the nightclub where Leyla taught, because Leyla forgot to ask someone to photograph her teaching there at AWS 2006!"

After my performance to live music on teachers' night, playing cymbals with Khamis Henkesh on his drum solo, I'd been stopped several times in the halls by festival attendees who asked for my autograph or to have pictures taken of me with them, some asking if I have an instructional DVD, CD, or book.This was a bit weird at first, but I'd found it fun after a day or two. Now, feeling the need to justify all that attention by teaching a really good class, I felt a little like I was diving off the high board at the Olympics!

Once inside, I asked someone to go to the registration desk and get a door person to check students' registration papers for the class. That person arrived after only a couple of minutes, so he was only a little late, not absent.  Then I introduced myself to the two Egyptian young men already in the room, one who was to operate the CD player and the other who was to be my drummer, as Raqia had promised when I arrived in Cairo.

At the beginning of the class I counted 24 students, fewer than the 90 plus who attended Morocco's class earlier in the week, but more than I thought might attend during the last time slot on the last day. The dance floor was lighted while the seating area around it was in shadow. I could see that there were two or three observers, but could not see who they were so I assumed they were festival senior staff members. Two of them, Magda Ibrahim and DeeDee of Little Egypt had both said they would try to come see my class. I quickly forgot about them when my watch told me it was 4:00 and time to start teaching. When I found out that evening that one of those observers was Raqia, herself, I realized what good thing it was that I couldn't see those observers!

The students in my class were from all over the world, including several countries in Europe, Canada, the United States, Singapore, Japan, and China. I was delighted to find that a large number of them spoke English and helped their classmates when they could. One of my main worries was the potential difficulty communicating with such an international group.

Having a drummer play the rhythms made the teaching process much easier than using CDs. I had only to say "Maqsoum, min fadlak" ("Maqsoum, please") and give the drummer a tempo and we had live music for teaching and practicing. After practice with the drummer for each rhythm and cymbal combination, I asked the CD player operator to play my CD with "whole band" music so the students would be able to practice with melody instruments and drum together.

The only challenging part of using the drummer was making him believe that I really wanted him to play as slowly as I indicated. After the first few minutes, though, he understood that while they already knew how to dance, most of the students were beginners in playing cymbals.

When I began to focus on teaching and forget about where I was, the class became a lot of fun. It was a pleasure to teach students who were so serious about learning. I took care to switch people from the front to the back and vice versa occasionally so that everyone would have the opportunity to hear me talk and to see what I was doing. My four-page handout with advice on how to play with musicality along with lists and diagrams of the rhythms and cymbal patterns that go with them, was well received. There were only a few questions and by the time I finished with each cymbal and drum rhythm combination I could hear that everyone was playing correctly. By the end of the class, everyone could play the cymbal patterns and dance the simple choreography I taught.

During the inevitable discussions after the class, several people told me they learned a lot and that they enjoyed it. My dive off the high board at the Olympics was complete and I hadn't "belly flopped"!

That evening at the Closing Gala, Raqia told me she had observed the class, sitting in the shadows where I couldn't see her. She told me she had really liked my class material, my handout, how I conducted the class and communicated with the students. I felt as if I'd won a gold medal!!

Raqia Hassan, Randa Kamel, Leyla Lanty
at an evening party at AWS

And now the back story on how I was invited to teach and how I prepared for it:
In Cairo in June, 2005, I visited Raqia for our annual luncheon get-together, a tradition that started in the 1990s when I'd studied privately with her. After lunch and during a long conversation about the state of dance in Egypt and elsewhere, she asked me if I would be interested in teaching at the 2006 festival. After I picked my chin up off my chest, I blurted out "Are you serious?!" She laughed and said "Of course!" I said I would be honored and would love to do it. We agreed that I would call and confirm in January or February. So began seven long months of keeping a big secret because I wanted to wait until it was confirmed before telling anyone about it.

In early February, I called Raqia. To my question whether I would teach at the 2006 festival, she replied "Yes, if you like." I happily accepted and in my excitement forgot to ask what she wanted me to teach! In early March, I called her again to find out and "Cymbals" was her immediate reply. I said "Yes I can do that", but inside I was screaming "YIKES! Morocco has been the only teacher of cymbals at A.W.S. ever!!" I asked Raqia and she confirmed that Morocco would also be teaching a cymbal class and a dance class as well.

I decided to call Morocco to let her know and to ask for some advice. She was happy to hear that I would be teaching a second cymbals class. We talked for a long time about her teaching experiences at the festival and how things "work". I'm grateful for her advice which I found extremely helpful. At the end of the conversation I said, "I still can't believe it!" Morocco replied, "Believe it!" I took her advice and announced my good fortune to my friends the next week.

So began two months of intense preparation, devoting almost all of my spare time to doing research, writing, making a syllabus handout, choosing music, worrying...  By the end of May, I had a class plan and rough handout, and I asked some friends for feedback. Zelina, Masouma Rose, and Zemira, all dancers in the San Francisco Bay Area, volunteered for a trial run at Zelina's house. All three gave me valuable feedback that I used in my final class plan and the handout. By doing the trial run, I found out how much I could REALLY teach in 2 hours and it was certainly not as much as I 'd THOUGHT I could teach!

On June 13, the day after I arrived in Cairo, I went to see Raqia to discuss my class plan over lunch. To my great relief, I found out that I'd be teaching what she had in mind, a simple choreography of basic movements while playing the cymbals, with emphasis on the musical aspects, that is how to play with the music, not against it or in spite of it. She was very pleased with my class plans and especially liked the handout and all the musical information it contained.

Then she asked me if I wanted a drummer. Wow! I never thought of that! I quickly realized what a good thing that would be and immediately said "Yes, I want a drummer, please." I didn't know previously that she would have five drummers "on duty" for the teachers at all class times.

In our discussion, Raqia said that she added a second cymbal class because she considers it important that dancers know how to play cymbals.  She also told me that the great choreographer, Ibrahim Akef, who passed away early in 2006, was the last of the good Egyptian cymbal teachers for dancers.  I felt honored to be following in such big footsteps, but thought to myself " pressure..." My dream came true at Ahlan Wa Sahlan 2006.

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