The Gilded Serpent
The following is a review of my experiences in Egypt during the summer of 2003.
One-- First Impressions:
Egypt Air was quite an experience. Our flight left a half hour early and the flight attendants never checked our seat belts. Moreover, as the flight attendant was showing us how to use the oxygen mask, a party of Greeks behind me began cracking jokes. Within a couple of minutes everyone was laughing. Forty five minutes later, I heard an announcement that duty free merchandise was about to be sold. I never saw the duty free because immediately the cabin lights went off and we were landing.
When we landed we exchanged our money. We asked the friendly man behind the counter who his favorite belly dancer was. He smiled and said Dina. We asked him if he saw her dirty movies talked about in the press recently. He laughed and said yes.
Outside we bargained with the taxi driver for the fare to our hotel. We got into the taxi and I sat in the back seat wearing a long dress. Yet, my dress rode up a little and my knee showed. The taxi driver drove us the whole way with his head turned backward to look at my bare knee. I kept repeating, “LOOK AT THE ROAD!!”. I discovered quickly that taxi rides in Egypt were not like New York City. First, there are no rules of the road and, second, he was kind enough to buy us water and a phone card on the way.
We asked him who his favorite belly dancer is. He said, Shakira and Dina.
Our hotel was booked by a Greek travel agent and was the Cosmopolitan, a charming old building. The lobby looked grand with chandeliers and high ceilings but the air conditioning didn’t work, the TV didn’t work, and the bathroom had no hot water or pressure.
We couldn’t find a restaurant outside of the hotel. I was hungry on the second night and walked around at 1 AM. The streets were full of many friendly men willing to help me find a good place to eat. They all directed me to Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was glad that I packed half my suitcase with Greek crackers, cookies, nuts and Nescafe.
Alexandra and I knew no one in Egypt but wanted to take classes.
On our first day we decided to shop at Mahmoud Abd Ghaffar’s store in Khan El Khalili. We asked him if he could recommend a good teacher. He called his friend Nagwa Soultan and told us we could go there for a class in two hours. We were not prepared to dance at that moment since we were hot, tired, and hungry. Yet, we were not going to pass up the opportunity. Hence, we shopped a little and took a taxi to Nagwa’s house. Even though Mahmoud wrote out her address in Arabic, the taxi driver got lost. I handed him the phone card purchased by our first driver and asked him to call her. An hour later we arrived in front of her building.
Though we eventually studied with three teachers, Nagwa, Raquia Hassan and Aida Nour, Nagwa was the most colorful. Her neighborhood was run down and full of all the sounds of Cairo. Nagwa’s son, Ahmed, met us and took us upstairs. Nagwa was an older chubby woman with long hair and makeup. I thought she was beautiful. On the other hand, we were dressed messy, hadn’t eaten, and were tired from our first day in Cairo.
Mahmoud told us that the class was to be three hours. However, we quickly discovered that half of that time was to be spent drinking tea and relaxing. Her class was held in the living room while Ahmed sat and changed tapes. Nagwa spoke no English and Ahmed just a little. I discovered quickly that Nagwa was a beautiful dancer. She put on “Sheek Shack Shook” and began to move. The whole time she smoked a long cigarette. She didn’t speak English and would look at me and say “very good…very good”….then to Alexandra…”you--- no good”. With the next step she would switch and say to me “you no good” and to Alexandra “you very good”. This went on for the whole class and sometimes we were unsure of her corrections.
Ahmed put “Princess of Cairo” on. I said, “Oh, I like the music”. I really wanted to work with this score. She got the message and we began to dance to “Princess of Cairo”. She glided around with a veil and we copied. The whole time Ahmed filmed us with his camcorder.
We returned to Nagwa the next day and worked with the cane. Her choice of music was Omar Faruk Tekbilek’s “Shashkin”. Ahmed filmed and then they served us what we in Greece call “Pastisio” (Ziti noodles with meat).
I asked how Nagwa learned to dance. Ahmed told me that Nagwa never had a teacher. I asked if Nagwa’s mother was a dancer. Ahmed said no. Then Nagwa pointed to Ahmed and said in Arabic (with a little English…..somehow we understood) that he could dance. I insisted that he get up and dance for us. He reluctantly did and danced to Hakim. He blew me away. He was fantastic!
I discovered that Nagwa was a good dancer but had never been famous. I was told by another dancer that she worked at the time Fifi Abdo had performed. Fifi was a strong star who prevented others from also taking the spot light. Hence, Nagwa Soultan merely performed in lower settings.
Our days were filled with shopping, taking classes and going to see dancers at night. On our first trip to see a dancer, we followed Raquia Hassan’s advice, whom we also studied with, and saw one of her students. Soraya was a very successful Brazilian woman who performed at the Sheraton.
In Cairo, the classiest clubs are in the five star hotels. The restaurant Soraya danced at had a Moroccan theme. The atmosphere was expensive and the audience mostly Egyptians and Saudi tourists.
Soraya’s entered a cute petit woman in costumes by designer Eman Zaki. Her show was clean and extremely musical. I could tell immediately that her opening was choreographed and that the band played exactly the same way every night. This was a perfect first night out in Cairo. The food was good, the atmosphere was colorful, and the dancer was flawless.
After Soraya, five skinny Russian teenage girls dressed in almost nothing took the stage. They would walk front and back in what we Americans call a “Kashlimar” with limp hands blowing in the air. They never smiled. One would stand in the middle with four around her. Every now and then the four would switch places rotating in a circle. They were barely dressed and the band got a good look and their buttocks every night.
The best dancer we saw in Egypt was Lucy. She is older now, has big lips and breasts, is very sexy, is classy, and has the presence of a star. She owns her own club on Harem Street and performed every night from 3 to 5AM (one hour was dancing and one hour was singing). Her show was far warmer than the shows we saw at the five star hotels. At the “five stars” the dancer usually does not leave the stage and enter the audience, if she does it is for a very brief moment. Tips are not allowed to be thrown or put on her body. Yet when Lucy dances she enters the audience, dances from table to table, dances on tables, brings people up with her (including me and Alexandra), and is very warm.
She entered as a star who absolutely loved dancing. Alexandra asked the waiter if she is this wonderful every night. He answered, “Yes, every night”.
Egyptian belly dancers sing, dance for an hour, and make several costume changes. Today’s fashions include mini skirts, biker shorts, high heeled shoes, and little or no fringe. Only infrequently will a dancer wear a traditional costume. Moreover, there is very little veil work, no zills and the only common prop is the cane.
I only saw one dancer play zills. She was a Russian dancer named Katy who performed a Saidi dance surrounded by men whirling sticks. However, her zills were hard to hear and off rhythm. She constantly twitched her face and would repeat movements compulsively. Alexandra and I asked what was wrong with her. We were told that she was once a very good dancer but it is rumored that she is now on drugs.
One of the most memorable nights was when Raqia invited us to a dance competition. Raquia Hassan was one of the judges along with Aida Nour, Nagwa Fouad, Hamada Hossam Eldin and others.
Alexandra and I sat across the table from Nagwa Fouad in great excitement. The competition consisted of five dancers. Each danced for at least an hour and had their own twenty piece band accompanying them. The show went from 1 to 8 A.M. Each dancer had her own unique style. Some were energetic and joyful. Others were cool and clean. Some knew many steps while others repeated the same five steps a million times. Some did floor work. Most wore modern style costumes. Nadie, Camelia, Ronda, Montaha, and Katy performed.
Alexandra commented on the costumes nudging me and said, “Look at Nagwa. She used to enter the stage as a queen. She doesn’t like how these girls dress”.
Nadie was the first dancer to perform at the competition. She is from Tunisia and performs at the “five stars”. She is physically beautiful and, like most dancers from Egypt, musical. However, her vocabulary is minimal and she repetitively executes the same five steps in a cool manner. She lacks in vitality or personality and I felt as if she was bored with the dance.
Montaha is a Syrian dancer. Unlike Nadie, Montaha had overwhelming energy. When she first entered I thought I would like her. However, she constantly brought herself to Nagwa Fouad's attention by performing a hip circle in which she placed her buttocks practically in Nagwa’s face. Moreover, she executed the strangest movement on the floor. She sat in “Indian style” and jumped around (I am not kidding!!). With this said, she was not my favorite dancer of the evening.
Camelia danced last at around 6:30 AM. She is very young and beautiful and I felt as if she truly lost herself in the dance. She flew across the stage spinning and gliding. Her style was her own and I respect her for that.
The winner was also the worst dressed dancer. Her name is Ronda and she has the reputation of being too cheap to invest in a quality costume. She isn’t particularly beautiful and needs to lose a little weight. However, everyone loved her based on her dancing alone. Her technique is excellent, but in my opinion, her best quality is her joy and energy.
Next to Lucy, another truly wonderful Egyptian dancer is Hanadi. New on the Cairo dance scene, Hanadi dances at the Semiramis International. While few Egyptians know her name, I predict that she has everything it takes to be a star. If you plan a trip to Egypt make a point of seeing one of her shows.
Azmahan, from Argentina, is also a quality dancer performing in Cairo. Azmahan has sharpness, strength and is a true entertainer who keeps her audience interested every second.
In conclusion, Alexandra and I met many good, generous, and warm people. In particular I must thank Raqia Hassan for her lovely classes and inviting us to the dance competition and Hosny Azab for inviting us to see the Reda Company. Moreover, I will stress that a visit to Egypt is a must for all oriental dancers!
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