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Originally from the Los Angeles, California area, Sahra Saeeda lived, danced, and researched in Egypt from 1989 to 1995.
-from Sahra's website

Gilded Serpent presents...
So You Want to Dance in Cairo?
by Leila

The summer dance festivals have long finished in Cairo and most of the foreign dancers have returned to their countries. However, there are a few who have stayed on, braving the heat of the waning Egyptian summer, using their recently made contacts and new designer costumes to try finding work in Cairo.

The glamour of the festivals and the knowledge that other foreigners have succeeded here before is seductive. It only takes a few years of dancing in Egypt to boost a dancer’s visibility in her own country and on the workshops circuit. Just working in the resorts along the Red Sea or teaching in a health club in Cairo give dancers credibility. Then, there are the success stories of foreigners who found fame and fortune among the Egyptians.

Working in Cairo can be a dream come true, but many dancers are unaware of its nightmarish side. Cairo can be a confusing and disorienting place that is not easily understood by the foreigner. When you add the natural chaos of Cairo to the unstable world of entertainment, a foreign dancer can find herself swimming in muddy waters. Factor into this murky climate a government that is actively trying to dissuade foreign artists from working in Egypt, and you get a slippery slope where a dancer takes one step forward and finds herself sliding back two. Today the dream of dancing in Cairo is still obtainable, but many dancers may find themselves asking if it is worth it in the end.

“Hey Baby! Wanna be a star?”
The first step to dancing in Cairo is getting an audition. Anyone who has danced successfully in one of the festivals has most likely had offers from agents to find then work in Egypt. Some of these agents are legitimate and some are not, but all are in it for the money. A dancer may not even know she is paying him commission because he hides it inside of cost of rehearsals, takes it from a costumer or teacher to whom he has introduced the dancer. Dance trainers may also play the role of agent, and they profit from dance lessons that get the dancer ready for her debut. Whether a dancer knows she is paying the commission or not, it is next to impossible to negotiate the Cairo dance scene without someone who knows the industry.

Foreign dancers who negotiate their own auditions with hotel managers usually find themselves seated at his private table in the nightclub month after month while he promises that next week he will make her an orchestra and give her an audition.

After an actual audition has been secured, the next step is finding an orchestra. There are many orchestra leaders in Cairo of varying degrees of professionalism and cost. After an audition date is arranged, then the orchestra will start rehearsals with the dancer to create the show as she wishes. The venue dictates the size of the orchestra; so the bigger the venue, the bigger the orchestra, and the more it will cost for rehearsals. The amount she pays out for her audition preparation may also depend on what kind of audition it is. There are generally two kinds of auditions: live and for management only. In the live audition, the dancer dances before an audience, and depending on the agreement she has made with the house, this can be paid or unpaid. Some of the big and famous venues may schedule an unpaid audition on an off night to get a free dancer with no intention of giving her a contract. The second type, in front of the management, usually takes place in the afternoon and the dancer does a limited show or about 10 or 15 minutes. This is always unpaid. If the house likes what it sees, the dancer may be offered a contract. Being offered a contract is not the same as having a contract! Some dancers have found that by the time they traveled to their own countries, organized their lives and returned to Egypt, the promise of a contract has been revoked. Sometimes the management has changed, or they found someone they liked better in the mean time. Some of these dancers waited in Cairo for months (and even years) before a new venue appeared or until they gave up and went home. In any case, if the dancer does succeed and is made a contract, she will start the long and tedious process of “making her papers.”

The Paperwork Jungle!
I have heard Egypt described by Egyptians as a country of I. B. M.: Insha Allah (God willing). Bukra (Tomorrow). Malish (Oh well). This is the essence of governmental paperwork in Egypt, and it leaves you floating in a sea of red tape having only a vague idea of why you need the stamp for which you have been waiting. Having current paperwork in Egypt is essential. A dancer can risk a fine, being hauled down to the local police station, being black listed from working, or even deportation if she is caught repeatedly without proper papers. Most dancers hire representatives to make their papers; this keeps her from running to all the different offices herself, but there are a few who understand the process and manage their own. The process starts with a contract and the dancer returns to her original country to await the invitation. Once this goes through and she is back inside Egypt, she takes an HIV test (she must do this every time she leaves the country and returns), submits her passport to the Mogama (the country’s’ bureaucratic heart), and waits to be issued a foreign artist residence card, which includes a work visa and taxes card. This may sound easy enough, but it takes approximately three months for a new dancer, during which she is not supposed to work. Additionally, every month after has she received her card, she must submit it to the Mogama to be reprinted. When she wants to travel, she applies for her passport and submits her residence card. Along with this residence card, she will have to pass a background check by the Egyptian CIA and be interviewed by a representative of their office. She will need to obtain membership into the actor’s union. Also, she will need to apply for permission to perform, and also must register with the morality police in the part of the city where she lives. If all of this is successful, she will be given permission to dance.

“This place ain’t big enough for the both of us.”
The Egyptian government has been waging a slow and steady campaign to rid the arts of foreign artists. Most dancers can recall the ban on foreign dancers of 2004, which was revoked after one year of enforcement. Whatever the reason for the government’s decision to revoke the ban, it did not stop them from trying to dissuade foreigners from working! The government has made it as difficult as possible without actually forbidding foreign dancers outright. To start, the artist must secure a contract, file the papers, and then, leave Egypt and wait to be invited back when the papers are processed. This adds to the initial cost for the artist who has already paid for rehearsals, costumes and agents. This would be fine is she could make her money back through multiple venues once she is working, but a 2007 law states that a foreign artist may only work in the venue that has issued her contract. If the dancer has made her contract in a nightclub, it may be closed for the winter season. If she has made it on a boat, there are usually many dancers that perform there, and she may only dance one or two days a week. She is allowed to perform as she likes in weddings and parties outside of her contracted venue, but depending on the time she must be on stage, she may be restricted as to what weddings she can take.

On top of this, the government has just delivered another blow to foreign artists: a foreign dancer cannot work for more than three years in Egypt!

For the dancer who wants to say she has danced in Egypt, this may be enough, for the dancer who wants to make her name, this is prohibitive. It is generally said in the industry that it takes a foreign dancer five years to become a good dancer and another  five years to make her name. Essentially, this law secures Egyptian dancers spots in the high paying and most respected venues, because it takes any dancer, foreign or Egyptian, time to climb the ladder into them. This may be a nuisance for dancers wanting to find work in Egypt, but it is devastating to foreigners who have been working in Egypt for years because, as their yearly contracts expire in 2008, they will not be issued new ones. This means years of work are brought to an abrupt halt! Add to all of this the high fees for work visas, 20% income taxes, and bureaucratic nightmare of keeping ones’ papers current, and it could be said that the government has done a pretty good job of making the dream of dancing in Egypt a difficult one.

The Sleaze Factor and a Dancer’s Life.
In the public’s perception, Belly dancers in Egypt may be equated to Las Vegas showgirls in America; they are not quite strippers, but then again, not ballerinas. The Egyptian public tends to think of all performing artists as having loose morals and Belly dancers are on the bottom of the list. Of course, it seems to foreigners a strange contradiction that most Egyptians love Belly dance while holding the performer herself in low esteem! Since many foreign dancers dance on tourist boats or in nightclubs filled with Arabs, usually, Egyptians do not recognize them on the street. Many foreign dancers tend to lead double lives, telling their landlords and neighbors they are journalists or teachers as not to bring on added scrutiny. The industry of dance itself may well reinforce the public’s low opinion of the art. It is not uncommon for a dancer to attach herself to a nightclub manager, hotel owner or powerful businessman in order to get or keep a job. He may pay for her apartment, driver, costumes, and in some cases, her performance fee.

Although there are some venues in Cairo in which you must be “dating” the manager in order to work, it is not the case in all venues, and it is up to the dancer if she wants to go down that road or not.

Along with the public’s mistrust of dancers, dancing itself tends to isolate the dancer from normal society. Working well into the night and waking in the late afternoon doesn’t leave a lot of time for socializing. Because of this, foreign dancers may find it hard to have a stable network of friends. Most dancers find themselves with very few friends; most of whom are also in the dance industry (and competitors may not make the best bedfellows). The other options for friends are the steady stream of dancers who come to Cairo to take classes and see shows. Having this outlet may be good in that it brings one exposure in the dance community, but the drawback is that they eventually go home. It is not unheard of for a dancer to perform for years in Egypt and return to her own country having the only Egyptians she knows to be musicians and costumers.

So Why Do It?
What is it that makes us want to dance in Cairo? Why would we battle intestinal issues, negative stereotypes, sleazy managers, fatigue, bureaucratic red tape, a government hostile to foreign artists, loneliness and all the other ills and woes to dance in Cairo?

Just imagine the first strains of opening music that has been composed for you, played by musicians that are watching your every move, in a show that has been conceived and choreographed by you, in costumes that have been designed for you, on a stage where many famous Egyptian performers have stood, for an audience that is the most discerning and appreciative in the world, in the birthplace of the art form! Well, then, you know why…

Author’s personal notes:
I receive email all the time from foreign dancers, asking me if I think it is possible for them to dance in Egypt. They send photos and resumes and are wondering if they should quit their job and move to Egypt to give it a shot. They are most likely thinking, “If she did it, so can I.”

I came at a time when the Egyptians were just starting to tire of foreign dancers, having loved the novelty of them until the market became flooded with ex Russian showgirls who turned to Belly dance. Still, the week I arrived, I was competing for a contract with two dancers from Lebanon and one from Morocco. We all found work. Even at this time, rumors flew of a government crackdown. It came, one year after I arrived, in the form of an outright ban. I took small contracts in other countries for a year and focused on modeling and acting, (something that I had started on the side) the year I arrived. As predicted, the law was revoked but without the same freedoms. I first had to file my paperwork as a folkloric dancer, and after six months, it was possible to be a Belly dancer again. Even with the new paperwork issues, there was a lot of work. When I say a lot of work, I mean 2 to 5 orders every day! For the next few years, the Arabs, not wanting to face harassment in airports of America and Europe, came in record numbers. There was enough work for everyone. Between acting and dancing, I remember being constantly exhausted. My two careers started to overlap in televised stage shows and video clips, so my dancing reached a wider audience. I was incredibly lucky!

The next season the bombings started: first Taba, then Sharm el Sheik, and then, Dahab. The tourists didn’t come, nightclubs didn’t open, and the country was heading into a recession. Couples began hiring DJ’s at their weddings. Jobs dried up. The government turned their eyes to the foreign dancers again (just as I took a year off to have a baby). The government restricted foreigners to dancing only in the place making her papers. They have now limited foreigners to only three years of work in Egypt.

Of course, some of what is written in this article is from my own experiences here in Egypt, and other information is from foreign dancers to whom I’ve talked while they are working here or after they have left.

Being married to an Egyptian, I am now spared some of the paperwork drama. Having another career on top of dancing gives me a whole group of foreign and Egyptians friends who work in the media. It also gives me another income, and I’m not solely dependent on getting or keeping that nightclub job (freeing me from having to succumb to other pressures, although not from facing them).

I suppose I decided to write this article because there has recently been a frenzy of foreign dancers desperately looking for work in Cairo. I have heard of a dancer so hungry to find work in Egypt that she asks her agent to find her someone to marry in order to audition as an Egyptian rather than a foreigner. Unfortunately, the Egyptian government is now checking on the validity of marriages of artists, and her petition to work as an Egyptian may be denied. I have heard of dancers who perform for free (took no money and paid their orchestra out of their pocket) in order for a hotel to make their paperwork. This may be a good investment if they can claim on their website to be the next star of Egypt without anyone being the wiser. I know of at least three foreign dancers who recently paid for costumes, rehearsals, choreographies, and agents for an audition that was promised but never happened in the same (very respectable) hotel. It just so happens that the nightclub in this hotel is not very respectable.

I suppose the only thing I can answer to the women who email me about wanting to dance in Egypt is that performing and making it here, on top of your skill, looks, a good chunk of change in your packet, connections, and perseverance—is luck. Hopefully, the information in my article will let you gage just how lucky do you feel before you take the plunge.

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

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