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FROM OUR REPORTER ON THE SCENE-SHIRA!
Breaking News from the
Ahlan wa Sahlan 2003 in Cairo
As I write this, the Ahlan wa Sahlan dance festival
in Cairo is in its final day. Participants have been delighted
with performances and instruction by leading dancers and choreographers
in the field.
come here with the intent of “covering” the event journalistically
and therefore I haven’t taken the detailed notes needed to provide
a full view of the event, but since the Gilded Serpent
has asked for news, here are some of the high points I have
experienced so far.
first night’s gala show opened outdoors in front of the hotel
with tannoura (Egyptian-style whirling dervishes) doing
an exhibition on the staircase leading up into the hotel, and
a Ghawazee performance by Khairiyya Maazin
(the last still-performing member of the Banat Maazin)
dancing to music played by some of the Musicians of
the Nile band members. After we moved the party indoors,
the tannoura group and Khairiyya each reprised their performances
on the indoor stage to begin the show in earnest.
a boring 45-minute fashion show featuring costumes by Amira.
I honestly couldn’t tell you whether the costumes themselves
were appealing or not, because I was so put off by the lame
presentation that I quit paying attention after the first 10
or so. Instead, I turned to enjoying a delightful conversation
with Tahseen Alkoudsi, the gentleman who has
contributed the vast majority of Arabic song translations to
my web site.
a break, the band set up for the first Oriental dance performance,
which featured Saroya, one of Raqia
Hassan’s students. She had a very playful stage personality,
and was very enjoyable to watch.
the end of her performance, Saroya’s band left the stage and
the next one set up to prepare for Dandash.
I was delighted by Dandash’s performance, complete with lovely
isolations and multi-layered shimmies – she was every bit as
enchanting as I remembered from my 1999 trip to Cairo.
third and final Oriental performer to take the stage with her
band was Rhanda. Her dance style was sassy.
of these artists were wonderful to watch. Since this show was
a private event, certain rules did not apply. The dancers were
allowed to do floor work, and Dandash did a wonderful drum solo
on her knees. None of the dancers wore navel coverings – instead,
all wore belly chains.
performance wound down after midnight, Hala
invited me to accompany her, Dondi, and Vera
to a nightclub called the Parisiana to see
Lucy’s show. I eagerly accepted, so we pulled
a disappearing act and headed off to our next adventure.
Side Trip to Parisiana
a multi-talented entertainer of the kind who can truly capture
and hold an audience’s attention. If you’re not familiar with
her, she’s the dancer who was featured some years ago in the
National Geographic program, Cairo Unveiled.
arrived at her club around 1:30 a.m., a singer was holding the
floor with his band. With his encouragement, we occasionally
left our seats to go up on stage and do a bit of social dancing
with each other. It turns out that 1:30 a.m. was an excellent
time to arrive, because the club was nearly empty and we were
given excellent seats right in front of the stage.
the highlight of our visit to the club consisted of Lucy taking
the stage around 3:30 a.m., with her own band. By this time,
the seats had filled in and there was a sizeable audience. For
two hours straight (!) Lucy was “on”. First she would do a dance,
then (still in costume) she would take the microphone and sing
a song. Then she would exit the stage and return in a different
costume to do it all again. Near the end of her show, as the
band played Enta Omri, she invited us to join her on
stage and dance with her.
particular evening, there was a heckler in the crowd who appeared
to have dipped himself too much in the sauce. Continuously throughout
Lucy’s show, he kept trying to stand up and make his way to
the stage. Eventually, one of the club’s bouncers positioned
himself behind the man and pushed him back into his seat every
time he stood up. Several times, the man escaped the bouncer
and climbed up on stage. Lucy, with her expertise in this business,
handled the potentially explosive situation with aplomb. Every
time he found his way on stage, she kept him at arm’s length
and returned him to his seat.
class was priced at $60, and each folkloric-style class was
priced at $30. With three classes available per day, it didn’t
take long for my bill to mount to nearly $1,000! But I had
come all the way to Egypt to learn what I could firsthand from
Egyptian dancers and choreographers, so I bit my lip and paid
highlights from the classes…
Thrilling Folkloric Opportunity
Maazin taught two Ghawazee classes, and even though
the festival staff warned me she would probably do the same
thing in both classes, I wanted to immerse myself in this wonderful
opportunity so I signed up for both. I’ve taken Ghawazee workshops
in the past from Alexandria and Aisha
Ali, and it was exciting to work directly with
one of the Banat Maazin.
Egyptian dance instructors, Khairiyya’s style of teaching is
“follow the bouncing butt”. After arranging us in a circle,
she started up her music and began to dance as we imitated her.
Nearing came as Khairiyya’s assistant. Khairiyya
now has significant back pain due to a medical problem, so when
she took her needed breaks Edwina offered historical and cultural
explanations about the Ghawazee, as well as breaking down some
the band was in the classroom, and they did not enhance the
experience. When Edwina was attempting to offer her explanations
during Khairiyya’s breaks, the drummers and rebaba players started
fooling around with their instruments making background noise
that somewhat drowned her out. Band members also yakked with
each other created constant background murmur.
worst offense came in the second class, when Khairiyya began
her demonstrations, and one of the idiots from the band decided
to get up and dance himself. I swear, he was nowhere near as
graceful as the dancing bear in Disney’s 1960’s adaptation of
The Jungle Book, and I was completely bewildered that about
half the women in the class started copying him instead of following
Khairiyya. His moves didn’t resemble any Saidi men’s dances
I’ve ever seen on any documentary video, and I started to suspect
he may have been making stuff up just for the glee of seeing
all these naïve women copy him. It scares me to think some of
these people will go home and teach his garbage to their students
under the claim that it is Ghawazee dance. I truly don’t understand
why someone who has been granted the opportunity to learn Ghawazee
from one of the Banat Maazin would choose to divert her focus
to an attention-seeking awkward no-name man. All I can think
is that my classmates were not well informed about Ghawazee
dance and the significance of Khairiyya as an instructor.
Act of Generosity
band that accompanied Khairiyya brought with them some assorted
costume items to sell. These included the baladi dresses that
have now replaced the fringed skirts as the costume of choice
for Ghawazee dancers, priced at $100 each. As Edwina explained
that Khairiyya no longer had her costume because she had to
sell it last winter to a student to make ends meet, Habiba
from Philadelphia came forward with $100 and bought one for
Emotionally Moving Class
about the first hour of Dina’s class, she taught
assorted step combinations. Then, after a brief break, she
moved on to teaching a choreography that was very much in her
distinctive style. After leading us in a few repetitions of
the opening moves, she then kept going to demonstrate the full
dance. All the class attendees quit dancing, to watch in rapt
attention. The drummer who was there to accompany her instruction
began to clap his hands in time to the music, and soon everyone
was clapping. Emotions played across Dina’s face and she missed
a beat, but she kept dancing.
Nour came into the back of the room accompanied by
several additional people I didn’t know, and joined in the clapping.
One of Aida’s companions began to chant, “Deen-UH! Deen-UH!”
Soon everyone in the room was chanting it, and tears came to
Dina’s eyes. She faltered, and almost quit dancing, but kept
going to the end of the song.
As the song
ended, Dina left the stage and began to get dressed to leave,
but someone reminded her that she had taught only 1 ½ hours
of a 3-hour class. She returned to the stage in the classroom
and taught another 30 minutes of step combinations. At this
point, she marched off the stage decisively, and it was clear
this time that she wouldn’t come back. She wended her way through
a crowd of autograph- and photo-opportunity seekers, and disappeared.
I have to
admit, I was a bit unhappy that Dina walked out after only 2
hours of a class that was supposed to run for 3 hours. All in
all, I found the experience to be interesting from a people-watching
perspective, but a bit thin on instructional content.
due to illness I was not able to attend Dandash’s
class, but my friends who did highly praised her ability to
demonstrate specific shimmy techniques in slow motion and articulate
how the effects are achieved. Most Egyptian instructors simply
assume you know how to do the particular shimmy, and they focus
on assembling specific moves into a choreography. Dandash,
however, explains what she is doing.
Hassan opened her class with some technique work and
step combinations, then taught an Oriental choreography. She
did a good job of breaking moves down into their component parts
and explaining how to do them. As a bonus, she also offered
insights into what the song was about and how the gestures related
to the lyrics.
One of my
friends attended Lobna’s Oriental class and
praised it highly. I took Lobna’s Saidi raqs al assaya
(cane) class and enjoyed that very much. Having experienced
her cane choreography and teaching style, I would gladly try
her Oriental class myself in the future.
Folk Troupe Characters
I took several classes from people who had
a history as part of Egyptian folk troupes, including Mahmoud
Reda, Magdy el Lithy, and Hassan
Afifi. Although I have previously seen videos of these
Russian-influenced interpretations, this was my first time taking
a class in the genre.
this style of dance is not my cup of tea. I’m not the kind
of dancer who thrives on “step, step, Arabesque, step turn,
step turn”. I found the rapid directional changes to be confusing,
and the sweeping arm movements to be too Russian for my taste.
For those who don’t know, the Egyptian folk troupes hired Russian
instructors and choreographers to help them adapt folkloric
dances to stage. The resulting “fakelore” consists basically
of Russian ballet arm and leg stylizations with shimmies and
hip lifts thrown in.
what these leaders in the Egyptian performing arts have done
to create a new distinctive art form which has indeed made its
own place on the Egyptian cultural scene. But now I know that
this is not something I would want to study further. I much
prefer to emulate Dandash or Lucy.
classes were well-attended and people were earnestly working
hard to master the intricate footwork and confusing direction
changes. Clearly, many people appreciate this fusion of Russian
technique with Egyptian folk motifs. So even though it’s not
for me, I respect the fact that other people feel differently.
after classes, there was a “summer party” which began somewhere
between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. For the most part, these were stage
shows featuring dance performances by festival participants
to live music. Occasionally, one of the class instructors would
take a turn on stage.
of the dance performances in these parties was irregular. Some
performers were quite talented, while others were not. At times,
the band blindsided the performers at the last minute by informing
them that they didn’t know the songs which had been requested,
and substituted something the dancers had never heard of before.
Egyptian music, with its complexity and frequent rhythm changes,
is not the sort of thing you want to dance to cold. Each night,
there tended to be one or two dancers that stood out as special.
Everything else was a blur of sequins.
night gala show and Lucy’s performance featured some interesting
costume themes. Although you can’t assume a trend from only
a couple of samples, a few ideas emerged.
and Rhanda used costumes featuring skin-tight
spandex bell bottoms with sequin designs. I didn’t find this
particularly flattering, because sometimes our legs assume awkward-looking
positions in order to achieve certain moves. But by Egyptian
standards, the use of skin-tight pants in a costume is a bold
and Dandash wore bicycle shorts under sheer
chiffon skirts. Mercifully, the shorts were color-coordinated
to look like the ensemble was intended to be worn together,
but I’m afraid this look has not grown on me and I won’t be
copying it any time soon.
entered for her set wearing a beige-colored catsuit with sequin
designs running up the legs and across the bodice. Over it,
she wore a dark-colored circle skirt with the slits arranged
to show the continuous leg line all the way up. Except for the
skirt color, it’s very similar to one of the costumes Jillina
wears on the Hollywood Babylon video. Although I respect the
creativity of this look and daring of the dancers who embrace
it, I don’t find it particularly attractive.
At the summer
parties, the vast majority of costumes were either various themes
on the sequined bra/belt/skirt set or the elaborate sequined
if your hair dryer claims to be dual voltage, don’t believe
it. Bring a converter. I put mine on the 240V setting before
I left the U.S., and it burned out the first day I tried to
use it in Cairo.
some bottled water in the luggage before leaving home is a
wonderful thing to do. I was SO grateful to have it available
when I arrived in Cairo.
in Cairo the day BEFORE registration (or earlier) is something
I’ll do again next time. It allows time to rest up and recover
from the trip before the event kicks in.
plenty of U.S. money in 1’s (the hotel staff will ask if you
can give them a $1 bill in exchange for 4 quarters because
they can’t change our coins into Egyptian cash), 10’s (some
festival instructors ask for U.S. money instead of Egyptian
money when they sell CD’s of their music), and 20’s.
book your schedule solid with 3 classes a day, every day.
It exhausted me! Next year (and I DO want to return next year!)
I’ll pace myself better and allow more time to rest.
- A business
class airline ticket is worth every penny.
eat the blue cheese at the breakfast buffet. I think that’s
where I got my food poisoning.
Ben-Gay. I didn’t. I should have.
my first time attending the Ahlan wa Sahlan Festival,
and I’m delighted I came despite my family’s attempts to talk
me out of it. Overall, the event is well run, and it’s a wonderful
experience both to watch and to learn. The flavor of the instruction
and dancing are very different from that offered by the U.S.
festivals, and it offers an exciting opportunity for immersion
in the Egyptian dance arts.
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