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Author with a wedding couple and folk dancer

Gilded Serpent presents...
Egyptian Wedding Stories
by Leila

Every bellydancer has had her share of mishaps, flubs, and just strange situations and I’ve found here in Egypt that a disproportionately high number of them occur at weddings.  

Egyptian weddings, like wedding all over the world, are bound by tradition.  Usually the wedding starts off with the bride and groom arriving to the reception hall and they are at most times met by a Zafaa.  These are musicians and sometimes dancers (they can be folkloric style dancers, a single bellydancer or I have even seen ballerinas) who escort the couple into the wedding hall drumming and playing traditional rhythms and tunes.  Anyone who has been in a hotel lobby during a Zafaa knows that the noise can be deafening.  The bride and groom are led into the reception hall followed by the guests where they step up onto a raised podium and sit side by side (the bride always on the left and groom on the right).  The dance floor is usually in front of them and the guests sit around tables with the bride’s family on one side and the grooms on the other.  The orchestra or DJ usually faces the couple on the other side of the dance floor.  There is entertainment in the form of a singer, dancer or DJ until the buffet opens.  Sometimes there is the cutting of the cake to disco music and a light show (this was trendy when I first arrived but it seems to be loosing popularity) and then the entertainment continues into the wee hours of the morning. For as strictly as this wedding protocol is followed, as a dancer, I have run into some very diverse situations. I thought I’d share a few of them as they range from interesting to comical to just plain weird.  Five years dancing in Egypt and hundreds of weddings later…I hope you enjoy my “Egyptian Wedding Stories.”

The latest trend in Egypt are garden weddings.  Most hotels have landscaped gardens and guest are moving their weddings from the traditional wedding halls to the hotels. The weather can provide the greatest factor for the unknown, sometimes it just doesn’t cooperate.  There are the weddings booked outdoor in the winter where the guests are huddled in fur coats and the dancer is left with frozen feet and a good cold the next day.  There are also the outdoor weddings in the Egyptian summer – you didn’t believe it was possible to sweat so much and you spend the entire show trying to keep your makeup and hair from melting into modern artworks.  One of my favorite weddings I’ve performed at where the weather was not cooperating was on a tiny island in the Nile inside the gardens of the Mohamed Ali Club.  It was the wedding of a well known modern dancer and it had an amazing line up of entertainment.  Unfortunately the wind was blowing like crazy. 

Within minutes the expensive coifs of the guests had blown to bits, tablecloths and napkins were blown into the Nile and bits of the backdrop for the orchestra kept breaking off and flying away.

 Had it been any other couple the wedding would have been a disaster but most of the guests were other artists, dancers and actors and they took the weather in stride.  They realized there was a respite from the wind if everyone huddled together on the dance floor.

I managed to dance an entire show with my hair in a ponytail and holding my skirts down and packed in between the guests so tightly there was hardly room to move.  

In Alexandria, the El Salamlek Hotel has a beautiful garden wedding spot that overlooks the sea.  At one particular wedding I was supposed to be on stage at 3 am but traffic in Alexandria in the summer can rival that of Cairo and all the entertainers for the evening had arrived late.   By the time I took the stage it was 5 am.  In the cool early morning air, the moisture from the sea had condensed on the stage to make it incredibly slippery.  At the time I had boy dancers who danced the overture before me in the opening number.  They were wearing black dress shoes and they toppled like dominoes as they took the stage. I managed to stay upright only because I was barefoot.

Dressing rooms at weddings are always a source of wonder.  It seems that the better the hotel, the worse the dressing room. The Mena House’s is near the kitchen and without air-conditioning and is hot as Hadies in the summer. Conrad Cairo’s is in the storage space for the room dividers and you squeeze out through an incredibly narrow door to the ballroom.  The Hilton Green Plaza in Alexandria has it’s dressing room across a huge ballroom and up two flights of stairs.  It takes a good five minutes to get to.  In most of the best hotels the dancer changes in a storage closet.  One of my first weddings in Egypt was in the Ramses Hilton.  My orchestra was sent through the kitchen, the back way to the ballroom, while my assistant went to find out where the dressing room was.  He came back 10 minutes later saying that he had to find a manager to unlock the storage/dressing room.  Just then I heard the first strains of my opening number coming from the ballroom.  I had not even seen the dressing room yet and the orchestra was playing!  They must have played the overture 10 times before I finally got onstage.  I noticed from the video playback screens that in my hurry I had gotten my wig (I was wearing one at the time) on a bit crooked.  I spent the first set discreetly trying to tug it back to the center.

At a wedding in Pyramisa I was performing before a well known Nubian singer.  The dressing room was on the other side of a meeting hall that was occupied by the singer’s folkloric troupe dressing for their show.  As I went onstage for my first number I had to walk through their dressing room and an argument had broken out between two of the girls. 

As I came off stage the first time the tiff had escalated to a pushing match.  By my second set they were pulling each other’s hair and by the third set hotel security had been called in and they were dragging the dancers off each other, dressed in full Nubian garb, while they continued to scratch and hurl insults at one another.

Another obstacle at any wedding can be children.  There are more times than not that the stray toddler wanders onto the stage and threatens to trip you at any turn.  Or the little girls who line the stage and slowly get closer and closer until you have to shoo them back.  There is the random little boy who runs up and kicks you and the slightly older one who propositions you.  At one wedding the dance floor was littered with kids and my singer had announced, without any heed, that people needed to collect their kids before the start of the show.  The dance floor was so swarmed with kids I was hardly able to finish my opening number,

...when the singer launched into the first song, the mother of the groom came onstage and grabbed the microphone, stopping the music to scream at the guests that she had paid a lot of money to see this show and for people to come get their @#$%% kids off the stage. 

Sheepishly parents came up one by one to retrieve their children.


Leila with another bride and groom
"The second photo is a wedding that is actually on the set of a movie and i'm dancing at the movie wedding of actors Mina Shalaby and Hany Ramzy."

If you can avoid being tripped by kids then your next challenge can be the stage itself.  Most of the time there is a wooden dance floor but occasionally that detail is forgotten.  I’ve dances on grass, sand (not easy), carpets, lighted dance floors from the 70’s with big pieces missing, stone terraces (incredibly cold in the winter) and concrete. The first time I danced in Crystal Palace in Alexandria I had just come out on stage and I all of a sudden I had horrible vertigo.  It took me a few seconds to realize that the center part of the floor was on hydraulics and had risen to about a foot in the air.  It was only by the grace of God I didn’t fall off.

Many couples opt not to have their wedding in a hotel but in one of the many wedding halls available to the military and their families.  Since military service is mandatory in Egypt, a huge number of weddings happen in wedding halls.  These halls range from grand and glamorous, like the hall reserved for the president and generals, to small and a bit run-down to accommodate even the lowliest private.  All the artists who perform in these halls have to first be approved with a background check and second have to offer a discount from their normal price.  Since anyone serving in the military can rent these halls, from 5 star generals to the lowliest private, as a dancer you see all levels of guests.

One such wedding was in the largest hall available.  Close to 1,000 guests, with a disproportionate number of men to women (most of whom were wearing galabeyas) had come from a nearby village and been riled up by the singer Saad el Soyier.  They were eagerly awaiting the bellydancer.

The management of the hall were in a debate when I arrived if they should let me go on or not.  After waiting for about an hour for the crowd to settle down they lined the edges of the stage with security guards and a group of four escorts took me from the dressing room to the stage.

The guests jumped up and pushed toward the stage.  Every 10 minutes or so they would have to stop the music and push the crowd back. It was weird to look out and see most of the people behind the first row holding their mobile phones over their heads to try and film a glimpse.

Sometimes the guests of the military clubs are not so eager to see a bellydancer at their wedding.  Rarely one family hires the dancer over the objections of the other leaving one side of the wedding clapping and cheering while the other side of the room sits looking annoyed or offended.  In one particular wedding, luckily things never progressed to that point.  The grooms’ family was Egyptian and, while I was on my way to the dressing room, the mother of the groom stopped me and asked me specifically to wear my most sexy costumes.  I changed and waited for what must have been 45 minutes in the dressing room without hearing my music.  Finally my manager came back, paid me my fee and said the wedding was cancelled.  It seems the brides’ family was from Kuwait and they flatly refused to have a bellydancer.  I must have taken a million photos with the Egyptian guests on my way out to pacify the disappointed friends of the groom.

Sometimes finding the wedding can be the biggest obstacle.  Weddings can be in private clubs and villas where you wind back into the farming roads of Monsoraya [check spelling] and in new hotels in “6th of October”, a city which seems to change every day and whose roads are only understood by people who live there. Even when a wedding is in a well known hotel in Cairo there can be confusion.  There was a particular wedding in Movempick near the airport. I arrived late to the hotel with my orchestra and was directed to the garden.  Twenty musicians, technicians and folklore dancers piled into the garden and, knowing we were late starting, unloaded their instruments.  I took one look at the guests and thought, “This is going to be a tough crowd.”  Most of the women were nicab (completely covered) including the bride.  The DJ was not playing the typical dance music and no one was dancing, there didn’t even seem to be a dance floor. 

All the guests were staring at us.  The father of the bride demanded to know who ordered the bellydancer and it seemed a fight was going to break out between representatives of the brides’ family and the hotel organizer.

Just then a wedding planner came running up to us saying that we were in the wrong garden.  We walked around a corner into another wedding and to our relief we saw guests crowded onto a dance floor with music thumping and girls in swaree dresses.

Package weddings may not earn a dancer fame but they can be a way to earn a nice living.  Package weddings are offered by hotels to include the hall, buffet, DJ and sometimes a bellydancer in one low price.  Although the dancers agrees to a generally lower price fixed by the hotel, the advantage to her is she can perform in weddings without having to be requested by name and she may also dance in multiple weddings a night in the same hotel.   When I first arrived in Egypt I decided to accept the offer of Sofitel Maadi, a four star hotel that does a huge business in package weddings.  It turned out that my first package wedding was also my last.  I arrived at the hotel at 3 am to find the small banquet hall literally cramped with guests, many of them staggering drunk (I have never seen a wedding like this since as public drunkeness is taboo in Egypt). About two minutes into my opening number people were already up and dancing on the stage with me.  I threw my planned show out the window and just concentrated on keeping my feet from being crushed by the wild guests.  A woman came up and started to sing into the microphone with my singer and eventually she just grabbed it and finished the song herself.  People kept coming up and grabbing the microphone as if it were karaoke.  Things really got out of hand when I came out for a Saidi number with four folkloric dancers carrying sticks.  The guests grabbed the sticks and started dancing with them wildly.  The folkloric dancers had to duck to keep from being hit.  Had I been a more experienced I might have been able to keep control but I was a very new dancer in Egypt and had no idea what to do. I looked to my orchestra for help and they shrugged and kept playing. My manager, who had been absent for the first half of the wedding, came in, saw the chaos on stage and immediately ended the show.  Needless to say Soffeteil Maadi never called back and I was left to try my chances on the open market.

Sometimes it’s the bride and groom themselves that are the problem.  There are weddings where the bride looks as if she is headed for the hangman’s noose instead of wedded bliss. There is the jealous bride who sits there refusing to dance and clenching her grooms’ hand to keep him from dancing.  There is the drunken groom who has waited all night just to dance with the bellydancer and dances too close for comfort with you or the over zealous father of the groom who is dancing so wildly that you know he will break your toe.  There are the double weddings where one couple is ready to party and the other sits stiffly in their chairs.  There was a huge wedding in the military club where the bride and the groom never showed up.  No one seemed to mind and they enjoyed their free food and entertainment.

Despite the occasional strange situation, most wedding come off without a hitch.  It is nice to be part of a couple’s first days as husband and wife and to take that first step with them.  If nothing else, like marriage itself, you never know what to expect, except that every now and then you will finish your show and say “that will make a good Egyptian wedding story.”

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