"On one of my trips to Egypt in 1986, I went to see the performance of a dancer whom I totally respected. When she came out for the second act strutting in high heels, a short dress, face veil and a black wrap, I was confused. Then she behaved in what I perceived as a very unlady-like manner. Now I was upset, This was not the Bellydance I subscribed to and I was starting to question my admiration for this dancer. My Egyptian companion at the show explained the Alexandrian character of this style but I was still not digging it. I remember thinking very clearly and adamantly that I would never be caught performing this style of dance in a million years. Alas, only 10 years later, Milaya became my favourite folklore to perform. It seemed that as I aged and layers of prudishness fell away, I discovered Milaya to be great fun and a wonderful expression of the relentless feminine spirit bursting through oppression and the restraints of a heavy dark veil. I call Milaya "The Dance of Hypocrisy" because it is the perfect example of whenever one tries to hide, oppress or cover something up, that something will eventually find a way to escape and often gets exaggerated in the process of fighting for freedom. So today, Milaya is my expression of freedom. Who would have guessed?" Yasmina Ramzy – Toronto
Quote/caption coming for here
Part Three: Melaya
by Gamila El Masri
posted April 17, 2009
Reprinted with permission, from Bennu, Issue Vol.6 #3, with further editing, additional information in sidebars, videos, and photos added.
Gilded Serpent is proud to announce that we will be reprinting a multi-section article, "Dances Along the Nile," from the publication Bennu, courtesy of New York’s Gamila El Masri. Formerly a print publication, Bennu was a labor of love that is now available in pdf format on CD. This publication is a valuable resource for Oriental dancers and we are pleased to be able to offer our readers this sample and to add this content to our archives. Our thanks to Gamila Al Masri for the republishing rights. For more imformation about ordering Bennu on CD, please contact Gamila through the linked byline above.
The melaya is the black modesty garment worn by all Egyptian women, but most associated with dances from Alexandria. Authentic melayas are wide enough to reach from the top of the head to the floor and long enough to wrap centered on the head, the left side is pulled under the left arm across the chest and tucked under right armpit. The left hand holds the edge of the melaya framing the face while the right works the free edge of the right side. This portion of the melaya is also furled and unfurled around the arm in the process of the dance. There are various wraps and unwraps accomplished while still wearing the melaya; also removing the melaya from around the body and slipping it through the arms like a shawl, then furling and unfurling the melaya around the arms; holding it by the very edge while it glides behind you; and many other specific manipulations.
Authentic melayas are usually just a bit too short for use in choreography. There are costume melayas available from Egypt that are edged with crochet or paillette trim with a strip of the same running through the middle. I have yet to find one the right size to work for me, but you may have better luck. If not, you can make your own. However, there are two very important things to keep in mind: the melaya is traditionally a heavy garment, and it must be wide enough to reach from the shoulder to almost the floor at least. So you need a 54”to 60”wide piece of fabric that has enough weight to it to handle like an authentic melaya. The most common fabric width is 45”(that is how wide a veil usually is), 54” will give you shoulder-to-floor and 60”will give you head-to-floor. I find an average length of 3 1/2 yards works well. Hopefully you know that the 3-yard veil is a myth-or should be. A veil should measure 3 1/4 yards (3 yards 9 inches) to give you a little drape at the fingertips when you hold it out at arms length, 4“ more each hand than a 3 yard veil. The melaya at 3 1/2 yards gives a drape of 9”on either side after hemming. I personally prefer this length for veils also.
It is not the length that is cumbersome, but the manipulation of the width and weight. Above all, the melaya is in no way handled like you would a veil, even if held in a similar position.
Authentic melayas are made of a heavy cotton crepe and costume melayas are made from a non-breathable jersey that I find very hot. I like satin charmeuse. It has enough weight for authentic movement yet is light enough to manipulate easily, and the satin charmeuse is also very fluid. Costume melayas should be edged with bead and paillette trim around all four sides; you can also glue or sew paillettes scattered throughout the body of the melaya.
The “melaya”dress is a fun, flirty, form fitting short number with a flounced hem worn hitched up to one hip exposing the leg during movement.
The dresses worn in Alexandria, that we are now calling “melaya dresses, are tank topped or have peasant ruffles. Some have circle sleeves, some little puff cap sleeves. The costume version is usually deep v-necked with narrow shoulders, skin tight with sequined motifs all over. The theatrical folkloric version is made from satin with a full circle skirt (no hitching) that is also gathered at the dropped waist. Some are made in gathered tiers so that the bottom is really wide when you turn and spin.
Mine looked like my eighth grade graduation dress (this was designed and made for me through the Egyptian American Folkloric Group) — I never saw it until they gave it to me): peach satin upper with copper and peach metallic alternating tiered skirt, complete with circle sleeves and biscuit size fabric rosettes all along the bateau neckline … just made you want to curtsy.
The best part was that the fabric gathers were all flattened into pleats so there was no puffiness to the skirt, and the skirt was very wide at the bottom. The way it was constructed it would flare out halfway up my thighs while turning which looked fabulous … very Cyd Charisse. The bad part was while turning with the melaya down, it caught my skirt on the way back up … waaaay up. It’s a good thing I was wearing full brief dancewear. But they were beige, and to this day some folks insist they saw my naked derriere. And, of course, it was forever immortalized on video. However, it did lead me to research just what a lil ole melaya gal would be wearing under her flounces.Guess what … I now have the prettiest pair of pink silk bloomers complete with garter high ruffled edges. Quite fetching actually. The producers were hoping my skirt would go up all the time then because the audience loved the bloomers. This dress was worn for an Erk Sous number with a 60” wide melaya. For the beginning of the number I was as wrapped as you can possibly get without being classified a mummy. It was a theater tableau and the head to floor melaya fit the character of a modest young woman.
Erk Sous is a licorice-flavored infusion that is sold on the streets by strolling vendors. The erk sous seller carries the drink in a large vessel strapped to his shoulder, while a carrier attached at his hip contains his cups, which he knocks together to attract attention.
Dance Scenario: The erk sous seller spies a pretty young thing in a melaya (and pink bloomers). He coaxes her to have a cup; they flirt. He chases her, she runs away. He chases her some more; she runs the other way. All during the “chasing” there are portions where they are facing and one or the other is actually traveling backward, a little bit of an Egyptian ‘quick step’; the melaya is being manipulated throughout. He catches her and they dance together around the erk sous vessel. There’s usually a nice little taqsim solo for the pretty young thing with the sous seller on his knee extolling her virtue and beauty. They dance together some more. Depending on how your story goes, they either run off together, or she rebuffs him and leaves him alone holding his erk sous.
Another scenario is her father or husband comes to get her and whacks the guy with his umbrella (comedy) or the husband is unsuspectingly given a cup of poison and the girl runs off with the sous seller (drama).
One of the songs I would sometimes have in my cabaret shows was “Edalla Alla Kefik;” a rollicking tune about a little lady who’s just a bit brazen. While looking for music for a melaya number I asked a musician friend if “Edalla…”would be appropriate and he thought it was a fabulous idea. No one had used it for a melaya before.
I found a version by Hossam Ramzy, which I choreographed to. The original choreography was for a female duet and then a group number. Later I had the music redone especially for me when I began performing it as a solo. The attitude for this dance is totally different than the erk sous. Bold and Saucy with the never fulfilled promise of Naughty… but Nice. Multi-colored plastic bangle bracelets and ear bobs – slightly trashy and popping gum. Love her! (I got the gum-popping bit from Nadia Hamdi). The melaya for this dress is actually made from 45”fabric and speckled
with multi colored sequins all over. There is a great deal of manipulation in this number and less wrapping, so I cheated. Shhhhh… don’t tell.
Last but not least is my favorite melaya dress; waltz length red sequined chiffon with the softest red netting gathered circle sleeves, which reach the elbow. The dress is not hitched up on one side but is cut to achieve the same effect. The flounce is made of the same soft netting as the sleeves and red sequins are dotted all over the sleeves and flounce, the neckline a sedate sweetheart. I’ve used this dress so often I’ve had to replace sequins where it was worn bare. It became my official Melaya Leff costume.
The Melaya Leff is the most fun of the melaya dances simply because you get to do a drum solo at the end. “Leff” refers to the tying of the melaya around the hips and bursting into hip work.
I simply added my absolute favorite drum solo to “Edalla Ala Kefik.” The beginning is an entrance with the melaya traditionally wrapped for modesty while strolling about. The melaya need not cover the head for this dance, but still the left side is pulled under the left arm across the chest and tucked under right armpit, while the right arm and hand are used to manipulate the melaya. There is a particular ‘walk’ with the left hand on the hip while the right waves the melaya back and forth left to right in front of the body. After a promenade, the melaya might be taken out from under the arm and held open with both arms wide to frame a bit of hip work in place, then the melaya is rewrapped.
It is very much the cover-and-uncover similar to veil work, but the tenor is completely different. There is always the sense this is an outer garment being played with rather than the sensuality and seductiveness of the veil.
There is another variation of the wrap where it is held taut against the body under the bust across the rib cage and diagonally down to the hip grasped by the right hand, the melaya covers the right arm like a shawl and is pulled tight around the upper arm. The left arm is free and is commonly held swaying overhead, sometimes bringing the hand to the temple, or doing some hand and arm work in front of the body. Unwrapping the melaya from around the body again and holding it behind, it can be draped over the arms (in the crook of the elbow) and nonchalantly carried like the wrap to a cocktail dress. Catching the edges between your fingers (be sure it is the same edge in both hands by gently tugging … if you feel it tighten you have the same edge) the melaya makes lovely little mini-wings. With a purposeful flip the melaya unfurls and glides behind you (if you don’t have the same edge the melaya will twist into a ‘bow tie’ effect). It can then be furled and unfurled around the arms alternating with holding the melaya aloft behind you or letting it drag along the floor. The dance is ended with the final rewrapping back to the traditional modesty wrap. For melaya leff you simply gather the melaya and tie it around your hips and proceed with a drum solo. To end the number add a music tag, rewrap, do a very short finale and exit the stage.
Traditional costuming accoutrement to the melaya includes the burka (face veil), an open work crocheted version with paillettes. Wearing a burka can bring an entire new dimension to the dance. The eyes, and direct eye contact with the audience, not only become a more active part of the performance, but an extremely vital tool imparting the message the covered face cannot. Brightly colored pom pom headscarves are de rigueur, surpassed only by headscarves with artificial flowers (the pom poms represent flowers). The tails are tied behind the head under the hair and then brought back up to the top of the head and tied again. The bigger the pom poms the better, especially sprinkled with sequins/glitter. And one must wear an ankle bracelet (the ones with beads and coins rather than the all coin ones) on the leg where the dress is hitched up. I know of no rule about not wearing two ankle bracelets, but wearing only one seems the popular choice. Traditional shoes for the melaya look like Candies™ (stiletto mules with a thick wooden sole) with a smaller heel. Not caring to fall off my mules, I wear open toe ballroom shoes with an ankle strap
There are dances for every aspect of Egyptian life: in every story a little dance, in every dance a little story.
I once choreographed a number for the Kismet Dance Ensemble (NY), for performance with the Egyptian American Folkloric Group, to a song about an orange telling his cousin the tangerine not to worry about being different because they both smell good. The choreography did include the sniffing of oranges as well as a magnificently executed tossing of oranges from dancer to dancer across the stage.
Every song with lyrics (and even those without) speaks about something close to the Egyptian heart. Honor that; we owe that much for what the privilege of adopting this dance affords us. Appreciate the culture from which it comes and be grateful to a people whose hearts are great and joyful. Egyptian dance: truly the gift that keeps on giving.
Nadia Hamdi does the Meleya Leff
Ready for more?
- 4-3-08 Dances along the Nile, Part 1: Raks Al Asaya
There is strength in the cane twirl but not aggression, extreme rapid twirling should be held as an additional sensational feat, less is more. Have your body of twirling be moderate so that you can vary from slow to climatic; always reflecting the music, it’s mood and tempo. Get down without getting crazy.
- 5-5-08 Dances along the Nile, Part 2: Raks Al Balas
Ah, the poor balas (water jug). This is one of the most underestimated and ignored of the dances along the Nile.
- 4-15-09 Magnouna in Cairo, aka My Cairo Adventures in April 2008
Photos of Basimah doing Meleya!
- 5-8-08 The Dance Zones of Egypt: Sahra Kent’s Journey Through Egypt Basic 1 Workshop
Although not strictly speaking a “dance” workshop, for each zone we got up to learn some characteristic steps and posture, and gestures associated with each dance zone/style, a good way to blend the theoretical with the experiential.
- 1-16-08 Backstage with the Reda Troupe
Seeing the company in performance six times was truly a wonderful experience, because each time I saw some new detail or subtlety in the movements, the costuming, the structure of the dances, and in individual performer’s presences on stage.
- 9-26-07 Lifting the Veil
I excused myself first and then asked her “why on earth would someone obviously not of Middle Eastern heritage actually choose to wear the veil?” She smiled knowingly and gave me an answer that still keeps me thinking today.
- 8-1-07 The Summer School of Khaleegy Dance, Dance Style from the Saudi Arabian Penninsula,
The “moral police” and hotel security watched every move I made. All my phone calls were monitored. I was not allowed to talk to or get into an elevator with an Arab man.
- 9-17-07 Changes:Egyptian Dance – Has it crossed the line?
Both festivals, held in Giza were isolated and insulated from the people and the Cairo that I know and love.
- 2-13-07 Sunday Morning Panel Discussion at Carnival of Stars, November 11, 2007
Panel members discussed Fusion in Belly Dance. Members included: Jihan Jamal, Shareen El Safy, Dahlena, Debbie Lammam, Amina Goodyear, and Edwina Nearing