Gilded Serpent presents...
An American Dancer in Cairo
May 30, 2004
I had an opportunity to sit down for a nice long talk with Leila,
who happens to be an American living and dancing in Cairo. I hadn't
even heard of Leila before I found out that the guest dancer,
being flown in from Cairo to perform in the Saturday night show
at the Raqia Hassan
workshop (Houston, April 2004), was an American. We were all
pleasantly surprised with Leila. Beautiful, tall and slender,
from the first moment she hit the stage at the Sheraton, we were
all enthusiastic about her performance. All her current show
music, which we all coveted, has been produced on a CD. And we
really enjoyed all her costume changes during her hour long show.
Of course, I'm like everyone else, I have lots of questions:
"Who is she?" being the biggest one, since she is so totally unknown
to us here in the United States.
Closely followed by: "What is her background?", "What made her
decide to go to Cairo to dance?", "How is she coping with the
latest twist in the Egyptian laws affecting foreign dancers?",
"Who does she study with?" , "How long do you think you'll stay
in Cairo?", and, after having seen her perform: "Where did she
get those costumes?".
and lots more, I posed directly to her when she stopped off
in Dallas, after visiting friends and family plus teaching a workshop,
at the end of April. She was invited back to Dallas to perform
at the opening of a new Middle Eastern restaurant, Ciro's
Continental Cuisine, before returning to Cairo. There
I got to wield my new digital camera in my first attempts at taking
photos of a dancer in action (specifically I was trying to get
some shots of Leila's interesting costumes. I spent a couple of hours the next day interviewing her while
visiting at the Little Egypt shop (Dee Dee
and Ahmad Asad). Hopefully, she didn't think it was too painful
to put up with my probing, but mostly curious, questions.
grew up in central Washington State. Her Mom is part Indian
(Native American) and the whole family lived on an Indian reservation. She
said that she went to a really terrible public school which
had a great dance program.
It was in
that program that she first started learning and performing folkdances:
Native American, Mexican and Filipino. Everyone in her family
is a musician so there was always live music around while she
was growing up and at all special occasions. As a child, she
had no classical dance training but did take some modern and jazz
dance as an adult.
moved to New York at an early age to pursue modeling and had some
contracts while going to university, then she ended up moving
to Seattle. Seattle is where Leila actually started to belly
dance, but she first got interested when she went to Alexandria
for the wedding of some friends.
enough, Leila didn't study with anyone in Seattle. She says
that she watched lots of videos: Fifi
Abdo, Soheir Zeki,
with Lucy being one of her favorites.
time an Egyptian dancer/instructor came to Seattle for a workshop,
Leila would take the workshop. Over time, she was able to study
with Raqia Hassan and Mo Geddawi,
to name a couple. While performing in Seattle, Leila had the
opportunity to dance to a lot of live music in restaurants, where
most of the musicians were Egyptian and the audiences mainly Middle
Eastern. Not only did she dance at four different nightclubs,
of which two had live music, and at parties and weddings, she
was also dancing with a troupe. This troupe would perform folkdances
from the whole region - Lebanese, Egyptian. Whatever they danced
they tried to perform the pure style of the dance for that area.
She learned a lot from the musicians she worked with and the Middle
Eastern people for whom she danced. She said that a lot of the
Egyptians that she was meeting encouraged her to go to Cairo to
dance. By the time the opportunity came up for Leila to go to
Cairo to dance, she had been dancing four years.
So when and
how did Leila make the decision to go? A dancer that she knew
contacted her and said that an orchestra leader needed a dancer. After
an initial meeting with all the involved parties to setup things,
Leila decided to take the plunge and go. When she first arrived,
she thought that she would give it 3 months. She didn't have a
contract when she went, so she had to be "shopped around" for
a contract. Of course, she also had to get her papers/license
which would allow her to work, so a long wait ensued.
had almost given up, realizing how unrealistic her expectations
were concerning the time it takes to arrange things, but suddenly,
everything fell into place.
she had a contract with the Sheraton. The way I understand what
she told me is that the new laws allowed her to dance/hold contracts
with other hotels as long as her initial contract was in effect.
Once that contract was over, then all the contracts were over. Leila
danced 1 and ½ years once her papers came through but now she
only does private parties and weddings in Cairo and Alexandria.
Meanwhile, she does modeling work around Cairo with appearances
on big strategically placed billboards around Cairo (Dohki,
for Vodaphone (to name just one) .
She said that it is rather disconcerting to be walking around
Cairo and see herself on one of these billboards. Younger attendees
at weddings and parties where she has danced, recognize her from
these billboards and some of her television work (a video with
newly famous in Egypt
according to Leila). All want to meet and have their pictures
taken with her. And her latest endeavor is a music video, which
will probably raise her visibility a bit more!
first started studying with Raqia Hassan
after her arrival in Cairo, she realized that she had to change
a lot about how she danced.She had to re-learn a lot of movements
and slow herself down.
says that she had a whole concept shift for how to dance now
that she had come to the center of the dance that she loved..
As Raqia told her, she had to break
her style and create her again.
built up her movement repertoire a great deal while working with
Raqia, so that she feels much more comfortable
improvising in the Egyptian genre. From Raqia,
she learned a lot about classical style dancing, along with Beledi,
Sha'abi, etc. Raqia Hassan is one that she has
continued to study with while in Cairo and has recently added
a new choreography by Raqia (a song
by Nancy Agram) to
her repertoire along with a song by Abdel
Halim Hafez. For a
glimpse of Leila dancing, check out Raqia
Hassan's Volume VI (she's on the cover
says that if she decides to continue dancing in the folkloric
area (which doesn't fall under the same laws/guidelines but
still requires papers), then she will be studying with Aida
Nour (one of my favorites along with
I asked Leila
to give me an example of a challenge that she had encountered
while dancing in Cairo. She mentioned that after she had been
there 6 months, she had an audition at the Semiramis. She
thought at the time that her agent had presented her just to have
someone to present. That, possibly, he didn't really think she
would get it. She did get the job. She said she was so excited
as she walked out on the stage for the first time. This was
the stage where she saw Dina perform just a couple
of weeks earlier! She was terrified and exuberant at the same
time. She realized as she turned around and saw the 25-piece
orchestra (the largest she'd worked with up to that point): "That's
my orchestra!". As an example, where normally she had one folklore,
she now had six. What a rush! "My orchestra, my show!"
up the point that everything she has been doing with dance has
been a learning experience. She studied dance with Raqia,
but she learned how to be a performer by going out on the stage
and working with unknown musicians to music and songs that were
unfamiliar which she had to learn.
said that it took almost 6 months before she didn't feel like
crying after the night's shows.
At the beginning
it was very hard, but now, she laughs about it and says that what
once terrified her has become normal - you dance three shows in
one night and a wedding at 2:00am - "A job like any other, but
one that I love".
the entrance piece that is usally a classical composition
with dramatic changes which lasts about ten minutes
that when Dina stopped dancing at weddings that she got some weddings
that Dina would normally have danced at partly because of her
contacts through her modeling and TV work. She would walk into
these huge ballrooms filled with thousands of people with a huge
stage in the middle of the room while television cameras on cranes
are taking note of everything.
Another big challenge
is staying healthy while being on the go so much of the time with
these three shows a night plus whatever parties are scheduled.
She has a whole entourage that accompanies her including an assistant
that handles problems and logistics along with a dresser who gets
her costumes ready and gets her into them. From the very beginning Leila
has had a basic core of musicians for an orchestra, which is usually
an organist, ney, accordion, qanoun, 2 tablas, duf and sagat. Each venue that
she goes to for a performance might be different than the last based
on the number of musicians, singers and folkloric that are at the
venue. It sounds like Leila has to be very flexible about what
she might be performing for any given show. But, basically, all
she has to do is "show up and dance".
for her music, some of it is composed for her by her organist,
particularly her merjenci.
She says that he understands her style now and that she likes
a big, bang merjenci for opening with
a lot of changes.
had a CD produced of her last season's show music, which a lot
of us purchased from her after the show in Houston because we
liked it so much. It had enough different music to satisfy any
style that someone might want to dance at a show. And,
of course, we are all curious about her costumes. Leila said
that she designs most of her costumes herself now. She gets
a lot ideas from watching . . . music videos! The singer, Beyonce,
apparently is a favorite. And we know that Beyonce
is always coming up with some fairly spectacular costumes, and
I think her mother does some of her costumes. Leila mentioned
that it is important to keep coming up with new costuming ideas
as these are part of the whole spectacle of a performance. I
know that here in the U.S.,
most of the time we don't get to see anyone dance long enough
for them to justify a costume change. But when a dancer has
a one hour show which has to have changes in pace to keep up the
interest, then all those costume changes follow. I know that
all Leila's costumes were much discussed and I was happy to have
the opportunity to take some pictures while at Ciro's
(even if they are a bit dark).
for future plans, Leila says she wants to stay in Cairo as long
as she can.
loves the country, the people, the way of life, along with dancing
and has many friends there. Definitely, she is going to find
it hard to leave when (or if) it comes time to do that and return
to the United States.
But if she does come home, she probably won't be dancing in restaurants
here because it won't be the same as in Cairo. Meanwhile she continues
with her modeling and TV/Video endeavors. She says that she's
also been able to do some travelling around Europe and the Middle
East for performance and workshop opportunities as those have
with Leila was interesting and fun for me to do. I taped everything
and have been listening to it a lot while trying to write this.
I couldn't include everything in this article, but I hope I've
been able to convey a little about what it is like for an American
dancer to go to Cairo and realize some of her dream to live and
dance there. Some of us will envy her that she has been able
to take advantage of this opportunity. But, obviously, it wasn't
all easy and did require lots of hard work along with a great
deal of "intestinal fortitude" to get through some of the big
challenges she faced. I salute Leila for what she has accomplished
and hope to have many more opportunities to see her dance in the
future . . . in Cairo and in Dallas (just a big hint to Leila
to come back)!
to the interview: Recently I heard from Leila after her return
to Cairo. She says that she has just signed the contract that
will enable her to make the folkloric papers she needs for working.
She's hoping to have those in about 10 days, but she has already
started rehearsals with her new folklore. Plus, she's already
been booked for a couple of weddings since people are starting
to hear that she can work again. It sounds to me like Leila won't
be leaving Cairo anytime soon! So I guess I will have to go
to Cairo to see her dance the next time.
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
by CE Barros-
Nour & Magdy El-Leisy in
Dallas, Texas, January
9-11, 2004, sponsored
by Little Egypt
on Workshops and Both Shows by
Catherine Barros photos by Ram
Dancing in North
Beach by Sausan
the occasions when the door was still locked, I was often invited
to drink coffee next door, where young girls made their money
Belly Dance Superstars at DNA Lounge
Photos by Susie Poulelis
April 17, 2004 San Francisco, CA. Yes, that is Petite Jamilla
playing a bagpipe,
Cabaret: Is it a dirty word? by
Piper Reid Hunt, PhD
Cabaret, the original fusion belly dance, is accessible and fun
for everyone, regardless of one’s dance education.