Originally from the Los
Angeles, California area, Sahra Saeeda lived, danced, and
researched in Egypt from 1989 to 1995.
You Want to Dance in Cairo?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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…
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.”
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!
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
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.
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
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
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.
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for
other possible viewpoints!
Peek at Making Music Videos: Hakim, Khalid Selim, Walid Toufic,
Ali el Hagar, Elam, & Samira Said by Leila
was either crying or yelling at Hakim for most of the shoot and
went home each day with a headache from it.
with Safaa Farid by Leila
days there are times I feel I've seen everything an Egyptian
dancer can do in the first five minutes of her show. She doesn't
change. But foreigners study the dance very hard and they put
much time into their show so that is it interesting for a whole
Middle Eastern Audiences Expect from a Belly Dancer by
Audiences in the Middle East, especially Egyptians,
see bellydancing as something to be participated in, critiqued,
and loved (or hated) with gusto.
of Desire: A Foreign Dancer in Cairo, 2006, Review by
I believe that any dancer who has the desire to go to
Cairo to work will benefit from the experiences of Yasmina and
the other working dancers whom she asked to contribute. One will
come away having a better understanding of the Arabic culture and
how the dance is viewed within that culture.
interview with Leila by Lynette
"Turning tricks," or sleeping with nightclub
or hotel owners, is not required to make it as a dancer
in Egypt, but it is a complicated and questionable industry and
there are many pressures.
Fashion, American Style: The 2nd Annual Decotach Fashion
Show Report by Tanna Valentine photos by Brian
this year’s fashion event, Ms. Lambru chose to display her
costumes in the context of a Berber wedding.
Faruk Tekbilek demonstrates the Ney video by Lynette
Also incuded are short performance clips of Omar with the instruments and band
members as well as his wife, Susie, performing a few Turkish style dance gestures
of the Muse: Finding and Using “Dance Energy” by
concept of “Dance Energy”carries with it a power
that appears to compel the dancer to move without conscious thought
or excessive effort.
Skinny on Abdominal Strengthening by Venus (Marilee
Nugent), BSc, Kinesiology, BA Art & Culture
probably heard the terms neutral spine and core balance being
bandied about, and seen numerous class offerings for Pilates,
body ball, and core workouts. You may be wondering, is this the
sort of thing you should be checking out?
ATS Charm in Taipei: Devi Mamak by Lisa Chen
both of us are not based in San Francisco, we share many common
factors in terms of learning ATS and developing our own visions
for it back in our own home venues.
Dancer, A Journey of Self- Acceptance by Melodi
it wasn’t long before I started to realize that the other
girls were different than me. More importantly, I realized that
I was different from them.