Gilded Serpent presents...
Visiting Cairo:
You live a whole lifetime in one week!
 by Paola

You step off the plane, jetlagged, not-so-pretty, with a dull ache in your shoulders.  You stand in a seemingly interminable line while the archetypally nonchalant immigration officers stamp away at passports in what feels like deliberate slow motion.  Your consciousness starts to glaze over at this tedious ritual while dreams of bathtubs and delicate scents fill the remaining time in line.  You are hopeful.

But wait. 

The airline has indeed lost your bags and the dull ache in your shoulders springs back to life, along with a swelling thud in your temples as you realize that the lost baggage counter is clogged with frustrated passengers, a hot cauldron of gesticulation and rapid-fire Arabic. 

You take your place in what appears to be a line and desperately try to conjure back those Calgon images of serenity that buoyed you through the immigration line.

Welcome to Cairo, the Mecca of the Dance.  You’ve come for a weeklong intensive seminar.  You will dance and live with a bevy of other dancers, many of whom you’ve never met before. 

Most of them are coming in today/tonight/tomorrow and there will be dinners, lunches, shopping and sightseeing, and endless hours of instruction that you will all live through together.  This is something you’ve looked forward to for months.  Now if you can only sort out your luggage and get to your hotel.

Outside, the sweltering morning heat is shot through with shouts that all seem to be competing for your beleaguered attention.  A kindly-looking old man is holding up a sign with your name – ah, sweet rescue!  He takes you to a black-and-white beat up Lada taxi with no air conditioning and ...

...proceeds to ferry you through a terrifying death ride in the streets of Cairo.  He is enthused about the opportunity to practice his English, so of course the topic is the NBA.  “Kobe Bryant! Verrrry verrry gut!,” he makes a slam-dunk gesture with his hands, necessitating that he take them off the wheel, which leads to a near-collision with another car.  

Your nervous yelp is of great humorous value to him and he dissolves into laughter.  You dissolve….

I hope, into laughter as well.  Because a sense of humor is the number one survival tool in this life, according to my humble experience.  A city like Cairo, with its dust-choked swelter and roiling, cacophonous traffic jams can overwhelm a person accustomed to the neat and tidy lanes of Hometown Wherever. Your taxi man is just the first of the Caironess you will meet in the Danse Macabre of the Cairo streets on a daily basis.  He cheerfully deposits you at your hotel, this ferry-man, and goes back to his destiny leaving you to await yours.

Yours will take the shape of nine other women from all walks of life – big cities, small towns, language barriers, diet restrictions, belief systems.  One or two of these will room with you in the ensuing Reality Show of the upcoming week.  You slide into the bathtub, close your eyes, and hope for the best.

And what “the best” means is directly proportionate to how willing you are to approach the following week with an open heart and mind, and above all, a sense of humor.

I have found that a willingness to laugh – at frustrations, stress, mishaps, the unknown, and above all – at myself, can have a transformative effect on life.  Laughter can also have a transformative, bonding effect on a group, breaking down barriers and uniting people in moments of levity that transcend personal differences.

Because in the week to follow, it’s as if, on one level, time will accelerate –

opinions are formed, friendships are born and run their course, some fade, some flourish… antipathies seem to be immediately sensed, patience can become strained, projects are completed (or not), and the whole process climbs, peaks, and resolves itself just like a timeless story. 

All this against the backdrop of Cairo with its surging intensities, which can add some unexpected turbulence to the mix.

Groups coalesce through people’s observations of each other.  As dancers, it is inevitable that we watch one another and “compare” ourselves to other dancers.  Anyone who claims to be beyond this is also claiming super-human characteristics (and honestly, I don’t believe them).  As a result, you could find yourself on either end of the “My-God-she’s-good” spectrum. 

If you find yourself on the receiving end of that spectrum, it will be very important for you not to take yourself too seriously and to be humble about your abilities.  Groups of women (especially in a situation of performing arts) can be fertile ground for the blight of envy and

those who are “that good” have a responsibility to the group, whether they want it or not, as they are focal points and unwitting examples to the rest.  It’s important to project accessibility and humbleness, and one of the best ways to do this is through laughter.

Crack a joke at your own expense (don’t go too far, however, it may come off as contrived) when the girls compliment your dancing.  It will lighten the atmosphere, and best of all, a good laugh can be a much-needed breathing break.  Laughter forces us to breathe, which is something too many of us forget to do.  But if you can pull off a light-hearted remark that gets everyone chuckling, that’s also a plus in that everyone is in it together, spontaneously.  It wasn’t planned, there’s no time-frame, it just happens.  And when it does, it brings the group together.  Those who laugh together, dance better together, as it were.

If you’re the one in awe of another dancer, you will probably need your sense of humor even more.  Most of us are secure enough to regard those who dance better than us with a sense of honor and respect.  After all, that dancer is someone who should inspire us to work hard and develop ourselves.  But sometimes there are people who can’t see past their own limitations, and perhaps you have observed this type of woman.  The woman who constantly cries about her faults, pointing them out and loudly contrasting herself with those around her.  Her insecurities are worn on her sleeves and as such make her a burden to be around. 

Don’t be this girl.  Recognize that the pursuit of any art form is a personal journey that must be fundamentally undertaken alone, with no one but yourself as your main competitor. 

People don’t dance well to slight you; they dance well because they dance well; it has nothing to do with you.  So smile and get up every day and get in there!  You’ve invested in the trip for self-improvement, so improve yourself.  If you can’t quite yet pull off that layered shimmy-8-with-a-twist-lock-pop combo, laugh it off, and try again! Accept the journey; it will be much easier if you can just laugh off your temporary clumsiness and get back in the saddle.

Cairo itself will challenge your sanity more than any dance move.  Just wait until the entire group is stranded on the side of the road in the sweltering heat because the van you hired broke down and the driver forgot to charge his cell phone and none of you speak Arabic or know your way around.  This is no time for petty egoistic antipathies; this is a time, first of all, to keep each other calm.  Second of all, if I can help it, I would want to find something funny about the situation.  Laughing at it reduces its power over you and puts it in perspective.  I was with a group of girls once in Cairo when the traffic was so bad that a twenty minute journey slogged on for over two hours, and we ended up missing our master class that evening. 

But a few goofballs in the van decided to while away the wasted time with a Tribute to Freddy Mercury.  By the time we sang “I Want to Break Free!” for the 57th time, everyone was chuckling, including the driver.

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In Egypt, as a foreign woman who practices Raqs Sharqi, you can be scrutinized and can end up feeling pretty defensive at times.  Don’t let this prevent you from making a human connection with Egyptians.  They can be quite sporting!  I remember another Cairo trip; there was a group of us that were visiting Alexandria, and our van kept us waiting and waiting on the sidewalk for what seemed like an eternity.  With our bags, and our blondes, and our watches, we were quite a sight and a group of old men sat nearby on oil cans just calmly watching us.  Some of the girls were unnerved at being observed like this, until one of them got ants in her pants and decided to conduct an experiment.  On the sidewalk.  She went to the mini-mart across the street and bought a 2-liter bottle of diet Coke and a roll of Mentos candies.  Yes, that experiment.  In the middle of Cairo.  The old men exploded into laughter even as the coke bottle exploded into frothy parabolas all over the sidewalk.  The oldsters, of course, had to go get their own “experimental materials” and before you knew it, we had a quite a crowd on the sidewalk making a huge mess and laughing like children.  By the time the van finally arrived, we had the old men, some street children, the fruit ladies, and some guards together enjoying the spectacle. 

For the rest of the time we stayed at that apartment house, the locals waved warmly at us each time they saw us, and there were no more creepy feelings. We had bonded over an exploded Coke bottle.

I could catalogue a vast number of fun stories for you on this theme, but I think you get the point. 

Laughter builds bridges, and in today’s world, bridges – between individuals and between cultures, are becoming more and more of an imperative.

In the peculiar world of Oriental dance, with its interplay of personal and group egos, let us endeavor to lighten the atmosphere of our dance groups and keep the focus where it should be, on our love of the Dance as opposed to our personal obsessions.  Love, laughter, and friendship go a long way in determining the quality of your life’s experience, whether it’s the big picture we’re talking about, or the lifetime you live in one week.   

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