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Gilded Serpent presents...
Interview with
Kay Taylor
by Leila of Cairo

About a month after I arrived in Egypt, I met an Englishwoman, Kay Taylor, who would be my flat mate for my first summer in Cairo.  Kay was already a Cairo veteran, having bought costumes there for many years, and now as a fledgling tour operator, she was spending the summer in Cairo taking dance classes and Arabic courses that would allow her to better serve her guests. Kay became an instant friend and out of interest came along with me to some of my first auditions, rehearsals and interviews and in turn she introduced me to many of the costumers she’d worked with for years. 

As Kay seemed a bit older and wiser to the ways of Cairo, many people assumed she was my manager. They would address their questions about my fee or my experience to Kay. I remember sitting in our sweltering Harem apartment in August, laughing about encounters with nightclub managers who would try and negotiate my new career with Kay.

Her Arabic at the time consisted of only a few sentences but she carried such an air of authority, she seemed the likely boss.  It has been great to watch Kay as her dance souk, classes, and workshops in the United Kingdom have expanded enough to let her leave her long-time job at British Telecom and concentrate completely on dance.  Her dance tours, which she leads to Egypt and now Turkey, keep her traveling four to five times a year.  With the Farha Tours, she has become the largest promoter of shows involving Egyptian dancers and live Egyptian orchestras in the UK. This summer, she will sponsor the first festival in England to feature a live Egyptian orchestra.  Last time Kay was in Cairo, I sat down with her to pick her brain about the current British Belly Dance scene, her impressions of dance in Turkey and Egypt, and to explore her motivations for bringing dancers and musicians from Egypt to tour the UK.

Kay, what is your dance background? 

I’ve been dancing for about 20 years and started learning in the UK.  My biggest influence was Josephine Wise.  I went on to successfully complete my Josephine Wise Academy of Arabic Dance (JWAAD) teaching diploma and am now head of the teacher training course in the UK.  I started traveling to Egypt in 1996 then Cairo in 1998. 

When I moved to Cairo for 3 months (and met Leila), I studied with top Egyptian dance teachers and really felt my dance developed and changed at this point.

I have no other background in dance – other than the dubious honour of being thrown out of ballet classes as a 5 year old for being completely uncoordinated!  Obviously my coordination has improved.

What was your impression the first time you saw an Egyptian dancer dancing in Egypt?

My first dancer was on a Nile Cruise between Luxor & Aswan.  I wasn’t very impressed.  When the boat crew saw I knew something of Egyptian dance, they would get me up dancing whenever I went into the bar.  I even got to dance at a wedding.  What an experience!  It was, such a confidence builder!  I felt like a pop star.  It must have been the novelty factor as, back then, I wasn’t particularly good!

The first dancer I saw in Cairo was Lucy.  A completely different experience!  I found her style very understated and precise but with an unpredictability that keeps you riveted!  I still take groups to see her even though her show doesn’t start till 3am.

Were the dancers in Egypt much different than the dancers you had seen and studied with in England?

Yes.  The style I learnt in the UK was influenced by Fifi Abdou who was a big favorite.

Big and umphy - and that suited my personality.  I found the modern Cairo style much more intricate with tiny little moves and complex combinations. 

There are very few dancers in the UK that earn their living through this dance as there are limited performance opportunities.  To see the professional dancers in Cairo was just fabulous.  Now, there are lots of UK teachers up to date with the modern Cairo style.

Is this part of what motivated you to start leading dance tours to Egypt?

Kays group on nile mixim with Leila Oct 06Partly.  I was going over to Cairo regularly to buy inventory and made lots of friends, contacts and got to know the layout of Cairo as well as places to go.  I went with Maggie Caffrey, another dance teacher, and took her around.  ‘Why don’t you lead tours?’ she asked.  I had never considered it. I saw it could be a means of me getting to Cairo more regularly and I would get to do what I loved:  Introduce people to a place I love.  Cairo can be very overpowering, but if you go with someone who knows the ropes and takes the time to help you find your feet, it can be a completely magical place.

What was your first tour like? Any mishaps? 

My first one was a complete nightmare.  We were based in a hotel in Zamalak (this is an island) and we had to get taxis and buses everywhere and the logistics were really difficult.  On arrival, there was a mix-up with the hotel and they weren’t expecting us, but fit us in.  This was before I had an Egyptian mobile phone. Trying to coordinate everyone was difficult. I lost two people and spent a fortune on British mobile charges before I tracked them down.  I now have an Egyptian phone and it makes the organizing so much easier.

Now we are based in downtown Cairo which is so much more accessible.  It can’t have been so bad because I keep doing it. 

What do you think the most important thing foreigners learn from studying with and watching dancers in Egypt?

A more in depth feel for the music, understanding the words of songs and an effortlessness which is a joy to watch.  The interaction between dancer, musicians & audience.
Most dancers do not get to work with live music, yet it is the unique interaction between dance & music that makes this dance form so special.  Working with CD’s means you get to hear the music and dance to it – but you do not feel the connection as you would with live music.  Nor will it ever change, whereas in a live situation the interaction is constantly open to change. 

You have been coming to Cairo, at least three times a year for the last 7 years, to watch belly dancers.  How has the dance scene changed in that time?

Many dancers have come and gone in this time.  The constant has been Dina.  The scene has changed and there are now less places to go to see dance shows than there used to be.  Night clubs close and re-open then close again.  Nothing stays the same.

What are your feelings about the state of belly dance in Cairo today?

At the moment it seems like there are good dancers around.  There was a very thin period around three years ago when they banned the foreign dancers. It was hard to find someone to see.  The good Egyptian dancers are fabulous but there are only a few. There seem to be many other mediocre Egyptians who are okay but nothing special.  For a foreigner to get a job in Cairo they have to be pretty good dancers so you are more likely to be guaranteed a good show than when you just go see any Egyptian. 

The dance scene is richer when the foreigners are here.

What do you think are the main difference between the foreign dancers in Cairo and the Egyptians? 

Foreigners often perform tableaux; for instance, a tableau with a shisha or with the tabla player.  Egyptian dancers currently do this less so.  Randa just dances.  As does DinaDoa has a folklore element in her show but doesn’t do tableaux. Lucy on the other hand has lots of elements in her show.  I think that audiences find tableaux interesting and entertaining and foreigners make good use of them.

How do dance tours of Egypt differ from those in Turkey?

Istanbul is more westernized.  It is a more relaxing place to take people to. 

The main places to see dancing in Istanbul are tourist venues that are full of tourists and not Turks.  It’s almost as if belly dance in Turkey has been separated out from real life.  Whereas in Cairo

when you go to see a dancer you will get equal number or more Egyptians than you would get foreign tourists at the shows.  In Cairo, the dancers have their own orchestra, but in Istanbul, it is either recorded music or a small tahkt and the shows consist of a lot more folklore than raks sharki.  Folklore seems to be the strength of Turkish dance shows.  As a dancer to go and see dancing, Cairo is by far the better place but Istanbul offers more relaxation, a different range of costume shopping and some fabulous sightseeing.

How would you compare Turkish and Egyptian belly dancing?

I would say Turkish dance is more gypsy or gymnast based.  The girls use far more floor work and are more overtly sexy.  I find it more showy – it has a feel of its own which I find very different to Egyptian dance. I find Egyptian dance is more sensual than sexual. Both are skillful but the Turkish style relies on more razamataz whereas the Egyptian style relies on the technical skill and interpretation of the individual. Saying this, I am not an expert on Turkish dance but this is the feel I get.  I love the Turkish folk dance from the different regions – but that is completely different.

Tell us about the dance scene in the UK.  For years it seemed to follow in the footsteps of America.  Do you think it is finding it’s own voice?

I have never felt it followed in the American footsteps. 

Certainly none of my teachers in the UK were influenced by Americans, they were all influenced by the Egyptians: Samia Gamal, Naima Akef, Nagwa Fouad, Fifi Abdou and Soheir Zeki.  These were the videos we had access to.

Kay and DesireeSince Miles Copeland brought the Bellydance Superstars to the UK, they have had a much bigger influence.  Of course, some people love them, others hate them.  I think they are all incredibly hard working dancers who do American style Bellydance.  What they do bears very little resemblance to anything I have see in Cairo.  That doesn’t make it bad, just not the Egyptian style.  Miles himself said that they were not going for authentisism but presenting entertainment to a wider audience.  The Tarab Dance Company (of which I am a principal dancer) were invited to perform at the BDSS festival last year in the UK.  We did an interactive folklore set with Desiree, the only Egyptian pantomime horse currently resident in the UK.  We heard after that Miles was interested in signing her up.  Not us, just the horse … ah well!!  I wait with interest to see if the next BDSS show incorporates a horse.

Can you describe the Farha tours and tell us how the idea came about? 

In 2005 and 2006 I brought famous Egyptian dancers, two folklore singers and a live Egyptian orchestra to the UK for a four-city tour. I had the idea when I started traveling to Cairo.  What inspired me and made me passionate about the dance was the connection between the dancer and the live music.  In the UK there is very little access to Arabic live music.  Working with a CD is not the same.  Lots of people learn in isolation and never travel to Cairo. They don’t understand this connection.  There is also some confusion about standards. Most people come into belly dance for the socializing and it‘s about the costume and having fun and building confidence, but the professional performance side of belly dance is limited in England.  I wanted to bring a show that combined the music and dance at a professional level for people to see in England who wouldn’t have the chance to travel to Cairo.

 What kind of challenges did you face organizing tours of that size and scale?  Did anything unexpected happen on either tour? 

Having never promoted anything on this scale before, it was a huge learning experience and that is an understatement.  The costs associated with it where huge and quickly spiraled out of control. 

Transport around the UK was a logistical nightmare and on the first tour I made the mistake of going from the North of England to the South and then back to the middle.  But for 2006 I made sure to do the cities in order of placement on the map. 

Christine with dreads biting Julie!

We did have a few mishaps. On the 2005 five tours after one of the shows the performers were loading on the bus and I was finalizing things with the theater and imagine the panic I felt when I saw the bus pulling away with Aida Noor behind the wheel.  In the 2006 tour Randa Kamel requested a hair dresser for each show and unfortunately for one show the hairdresser cancelled and I rang one of my students who looked like she might know how to fix hair nicely and sent her to the hotel.  She rang me to say that Randa was refusing to have her hair done.  After a very confusing few minutes we realized that my student had been trying to style the singer, Heba’s hair, thinking it was Randa. On the first tour, Dandesh missed her flight to the UK and my father volunteered to drive her the seven hours up to New Castle for out first show.  He was full of cold and she was chain smoking but by the time they arrived he had learned the Arabic words “habibi” and “wahstini.” They were both relieved to have arrived.

I read many rave reviews of the tours but I also read a review, “Lost in Translation” that criticized the show as not crossing over culturally to reach the British audience. Do you think Westerners audiences may need more Westernized belly dance shows to bridge this gap? This review was written after the 2005 show and we published it in NADA (A UK dance publication).  I was very pleased it was published as it generated a huge amount of responses mainly along the lines of ‘What a load of rubbish’!  It was an interesting point of view expressed in the article but I think the more popular consensus was that the show translated really well.  Yasmina (British dancer based in Cairo) focused on various tableaux which were very accessible to the audience, the whirling dervish received a standing ovation at each show & our Egyptian stars, Dandesh & Aida had some audience members in tears.  In 2006, Randa Kamel was just spectacular.  Yasmina & Mohamed Kazafy did some fabulous tongue in cheek tableaux along with funny man Sayed Tura, our sagat player. 

One woman did say she ‘didn’t get the scruffy little fat man’.  That was Sayed Tura, sagat player extraordinaire.  You cannot please everyone all the time. 

For me, this gave UK dancers the opportunity to see professional dancers from Cairo with live music – and it is what the dance is all about. I think no performance in any art form is understood by every person that sees it but I think the majority were thoroughly entertained.

You and fellow “Zombie” belly dancer Christine recently traveled to America for the first time to attend the dance fesitval in Richmond, California.  How did you find American belly dancers?

Very friendly.  Christine was over the moon as she got to see her favourite band, ‘Sisters of Mercy’ (death metal) in San Fransisco while we were there.  We had taken Desiree, her Egyptian pantomime horse with us and she lined up Sisters of Mercy queued with Christine for the Sister of Mercy concert – much to the amazement of fellow fans.  We persuaded someone to get inside her so I could take some photos of Desiree amongst all these black clad followers of the Sisters!

My love though is the Egyptian style.  And that is why I organized the Farha Tour – and this year (27th – 29th July) I am organizing the Farha Festival.  A unique opportunity for dancers to work with a professional band from Cairo.  Scary, but oh so much fun!

More info on Kay's tours

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

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