Gilded Serpent presents...

My Dream:Dancing in Cairo!

Denise's photo of Jillina on stage in Cairo

by Jillina
posted November 26, 2009
Photos by Denise Marino and author

Like many dancers, it has been a life-long dream of mine to dance in Cairo. The amazing musicians, the exotic atmosphere, connecting with the birthplace of Bellydance as we know it–who hasn’t dreamed of such an experience?

I have always considered myself very fortunate to have traveled to Cairo many times over the years. Studying with Raqia Hassan, getting to watch idols such as Dina, Fifi Abdouand Lucy perform made this dream even more real and fantastic. I am even luckier to have stayed with my dear friend, Katia, one of the well known dancers in Cairo, giving me a behind-the-scenes look at some of the struggles and sacrifices that both native Egyptian and foreign Bellydancers face as they live a Bellydancer’s life in Cairo. I knew  from witnessing their experiences, and finding my way to perform in the 5 star hotels, that this dream of moving to Cairo was not something that I was mentally prepared to do. I could never make those kinds of sacrifices!

The Phone Call

When I received a phone call from Raqia about performing in the "Closing Gala" of the Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival, my heart seemed to stop!

To be asked to teach at Ahlan Wa Sahlan is an amazing honor, but to be performing, in the biggest show of the year? It was unbelievable! This was the most significant phone call I have ever received in my entire career.

It was the same feeling I experienced when I did my first Bellydance performance: excited, scared, nervous, and ready to give it all I have.

Once it sunk in that I was going to do this, I started emailing Raqia asking about musicians. I knew it would be important to ensure an amazing orchestra; they could make or break my show. In addition to emailing Raqia, I began emailing Katia and another great friend, Soraya.  Most of their responses were “Malesh, Insha’ Allah! Don’t worry, we will find you something special!" …which of course terrified me! I even emailed Randa Kamel and asked her if I could use her orchestra.

I attempted to be calm and do the Egyptian thing. “Insha’ Allah!”

Connecting with the Band

On my first day in Cairo, I immeditately began to politely bug Raqia to help get my musicians together; she put me in touch with Samir, who was, fortunately, Randa Kamal’s band leader.  It was opening night, and I felt privileged to watch the band perform with Randa. I was so impressed! What a relief!  The band was, of course, amazing! Now I knew that I was in Cairo!

The funny thing about that night in the Opening Gala was: while watching Soraya (a Brazilian who has lived in Egypt for about 10 years) and Randa, (a superstar Egyptian) perform, I thought that I couldn’t see myself doing that, or see myself dancing there for 45 minutes doing the “Egyptian thing”. For the last seven years I’ve been dancing in theaters, and working with big troupes, doing the “American thing” with the occasional Om Kalsoum sprinkled in. I just could not envision myself in this way, and I doubted myself–for a moment.

Days passed and frantically, I attempted to schedule a rehearsal with the musicians. I finally pinned-down Samir to rehearsing Thursday night at 2 a.m. before the Friday night show. Success! I scheduled my rehearsal!  The next morning, I awakened to a phone call from Raqia’s assistant, asking me to bring my music down stairs. Samir would not be performing with me after all, and I would be using the "house band" for the Closing Gala. They were friendly musicians who made beautiful music but, for me,it was not going to cut it for the Closing Gala.

In a mad panic, I began calling Soraya and Katia, asking if I might use their orchestras. However, they had booked shows already and their musicians were unavailable. My panic level rose!

I reluctantly gave them my music, went back to my room, and within 30 minutes Samir called me, accusing me of canceling his show! I respond that I did not cancel his show. I told him that I was just following directions from Raqias’s assistant. In his rage, he insisted that I come downstairs to meet him. I dreaded meeting with an angry Egyptian band leader!

He was upset; he said that he had booked rehearsal space and musicians. Also, he said he would refuse to play at the festival again (ever) if he did not receive compensation for his commitment. So I told him, “Samir, I prefer to dance with the best musicians, and yours are the better musicians; so let’s try to negotiate with Raqia and fix this situation.” We agree to meet with Raqia in 1 hour after I met with Samir, Raqia simply told me to ignore Samir–that she would "handle it". I scurried off to my classes and pretended to ignore the stress that all this back-and-forth had caused.

I come out of my class and witnessed Raqia and Samir, yelling at each other (both using the few Arabic 4 letter-words I understood). Literally, I ran in the opposite direction! Hallelujah! Peace had been made. Samir had secured the gig, and we were back on with our scheduled 2 a.m. rehearsal.

During the festival I taught a class of over 100 students. Quite a feat to connect with 100 dance student, but luckily I had a couple of great dancers assisting me (Alba Hayal, Nabila & Nahzarit), which allowed me to move around the room and work a bit inpidually with dancers.

Mohamed Shahin and his girlfriend
photo by Denise Marino of Mohamed Shahin and his girlfirend, Diana Esposito
Magazine Cover
Jillina with Amir Thaleb
Author’s photo with Amir

One of the best parts of teaching at the festival was being a student. I participated in some amazing workshops presented by the other teachers. My favorites included: Mohamed Shahin, Raqia Hassan, and Mona el Said. Mohammed is a resourceful teacher and artist. Raqia Hassan, of course is still an unbelievable dancer, choreographer, and teacher. Her choreography was so organic and beautiful that it didn’t look like “5678”. It was purely Egyptian dance, while Mona Sa’iid’s workshop was inspirational.

Mona taught about being "cool", laid-back, and confident when you dance, and she coined the phrase “Obama-style Bellydance”!

Since I’ve been featured on DVDs from IAMED (International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance), HMC (Hollywood Music Center) and of course, my video and international tours with BDSS (Bellydance Superstars), my work over the last decade has brought my image, dancing and teaching style to many different parts of the world. My fan base has crossed many borders. When people see me for the first time in person, it’s often a funny reaction. Ahlan wa Sahlan is so unique, because there are numerous people from various countries. It always takes me by surprise, and still feels a bit strange, when I am approached by fans lining up for pictures, wanting autographs. It’s a bit overwhelming, and since there is no hiding from the public at Ahlan Wa Sahlan, I must always be camera-ready. Being on the cover of Belly Divas Magazine, a German publication that was given to all the festival attendants, made me feel like one of the FBI’s "Most Wanted" list at the U.S. post office.

I had a blast throughout the week, reuniting with friends, students, and peers, networking with dancers from all over the world, shopping at the amazing bazaar, and ordering new costumes for my troupe. Shopping! Shopping! Shopping!


Before I knew it, the week was coming to a close, and it was time for my rehearsal. I had never been to an Egyptian rehearsal and had no idea what to expect. I called an old friend, Halah Moustafato join me along with her with her Arabic speaking female assistant (a lovely, sweet woman). Thank goodness, she was there because she  translated all the conversations during the rehearsal, and kept us in the loop so that I wasn’t the redheaded doe-eyed foreigner who was completely oblivious to the musician’s conversations.

The rehearsal was held in a room that was about 10 feet by 12 feet with just the core musicians, about 15 men, who were all chain-smoking. Even though my eyes and throat were on fire from all the smoke, my body tired with fatigue and jet lag, I couldn’t help smiling with joy. I was finally being initiated as “Ra’ assa” (Egyptian slang for Bellydancer) I was finally paying my dues. The music was incredible, so incredible you could taste it! (…or maybe that was the cigarette smoke.) The accordion player was heaven to listen to, the violins were as rich and sweet as chocolate, the percussion was just sensational. I had goose bumps the entire time. 

At 4 a.m., as we headed out of rehearsal, I handed Samir a cash tip, making sure all the musicians saw and thanked them for a lovely night of music, choking as I said it. I can’t complain, two hours of breathing smoke seems a small price to pay for such heavenly music….

Lesson with Raqia

On the third day of the festival, I heard a rumor that Raqia was teaching private lessons. Never being able to pass up on some one-on-one with Raqia, I jumped at the chance. When I went to meet her, of course she was over-booked and asked me to come back in 2 hours–“Egyptian Time.” I arrived finally at my appointment and she showed up with another Egyptian folkloric teacher. They sat down in front of me, and Raqia said, “Okay, what are you going to do?”

I start with my Oriental entrance, terrified of course! I finished, and her only comment was, “You need more Raqs Sharki and less Oriental in the Maqsoum section.”

I smiled politely and thanked her as I wondered what this comment meant. To me, Oriental and Raqs Sharki meant pretty much the same thing. Without trying to look stupid, I asked “Can you demonstrate that for me?” She replied that I just needed more hip work in that section. Ah, Ha! …Less twirly, more hippy… She asked me to do it again, and I danced with a little bit more confidence.

“Yes! Much better,” she said, and asked me, “Do you need anything else?”

I imagined that she was talking about my Oriental piece only.  “No, that feels good!” I commented. 

“Okay.” She smiled, slinging her purse over her shoulder, and she walked out the door… I had been hoping to get some help with my Om Kalsoum piece, but I had no luck that day!

Performance Day

As I headed back stage with my suitcase and yoga mat, ready to do my big theater style warm-up, I found out that I was not going to be allowed to enter the dressing room until Dalila was finished changing. That would give me only 10 minutes in the dressing room to set my costumes and do my warm-up. Ha! What warm-up? I was not at the Folies Bergère anymore!

I took a deep breath backstage as my entrance music began. On cue, I entered the stage to greet my audience. The music sounded  heavenly, with over 20 musicians. Their sound vibrated through my heart and soul, commanding me to dance with an intensity I have never felt before. I felt that I could barely breathe; I was overwhelmed with a combination of fear and joy. I survived my entrance and grabbed the microphone.

I wished Raqia a happy 10-year anniversary and expressed my sincere joy for being able to perform at the event. I handed-off the microphone and sprinted away to my quick-change, returning to perform a super sha’abi “El Hantour”. The crowd ate it up! I was starting to relax finally, breathing some oxygen and was away for my 3rd costume change. It was time to perform the most important part of the show: my Om Kalsoum piece!

This piece is both my favorite and the most stressful part of Bellydance for me. Its my favorite, because I love Om Kalsoum’s music. Listening and performing to her songs is such an emotional and intimate experience. You can really see the soul of a Bellydancer during this section of her show, which is also the reason why it can also be the most stressful. I knew that everyone in my audience would know the music of Om Kalsoum at least as well or better than I. They all have their own emotional connections to the music, and I could only hope that they would enjoy my interpretation of the song as well.

On that night, I had chosen “Alf Leyla, wa Leyla”. The female singer was amazing. It was pure "tarab".

During the show, I was able to see Raqia, Aza Sharif, and Nelly Fouad in the front row, watching me the entire time. It felt strangely surreal; I have spent years adoring each of them via video. Never had I imagined them watching me! Off for my final costume change and time for my drum solo! The drum solo is what I like to consider my specialty in the vast world of Bellydance. For this performance, I make no excuses, and pull out all the stops. I danced on my drum, accomplished the Turkish Drop, and ended with a super-turbo head-twirling zaar!

At the end of my performance, I collapsed back stage, crying tears of joy. I finally pulled myself together, packed my costumes and went to see my friends in the audience. My friends, and fans congratulated me. I’ll never forget Amir Thaleb picking me up, twirling me in a circle and telling me that I made him cry! Of course, I started to cry again, like a big crybaby!

Within minutes, Sa’ad, one of my favorite Egyptian singers, came bursting on the stage for his phenomenal performance. Wow! That man can really shake his bootie! We all danced, laughed, and partied until the sun came up, and I headed to the airport.

This was, by far, my best visit in Cairo; it was a trip of a life time. Between all the madness and stress of uncertainty, there is so much beauty and passion. Cairo will always be, as my friend, Antoinina Canal, likes to characterize it, “an enchanting chaos”.

Jillina with Stars after Performance

Jillina after show with Raqia on left and on my right  the famous dancers form the 80s  Azza Sharif & Nelly Fouad .
They were in the front row during my performance . Yikes!

Click photo for enlargement

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Ready for more?

  • 11-2-09 Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival, Page 1: Opening Gala Photos by Denise Marino, text by Leyla Lanty and Denise
    It’s June 27, 2009, in Cairo, Egypt, which can mean only one thing – the Opening Gala of Raqia Hassan’s Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival! 
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    On Teachers’ Night, held on the night after the Opening Gala, teachers have the opportunity to show festival attendees what their special talents are. The next day after this, many go to the registration desk and register for additional classes with teachers they saw in this show.
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    Produced and Directed by Jonathan Brandeis Executive Producer: Miles Copeland."… However, as there is no audience, most of the dancers have a difficult time conveying the emotions of the dance to the video viewer. Only Jillina and Dondi seem to overcome this obstacle. "
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  1. Leyla Lanty

    Nov 28, 2009 - 05:11:42

    Jillina’s closing night performance at AWS was stellar!  She knocked my socks off!  Love her article and how well it describes the excitement, worry, and satisfaction.  There is indeed nothing like being on the stage at Ahlan Wa Sahlan with an Egyptian band and a mixture in the audience of Egyptian stars and dancers from all over the world!  See me and other teachers on stage at AWS at

  2. Zorba

    Dec 11, 2009 - 05:12:47

    What a wonderful, wonderful, heartfelt “telling the tale”! {BOW HERE}

  3. hallah moustafa

    Dec 21, 2009 - 05:12:23

    thank you for requesting my comments about jillinas’ show at ahlan festival 2009. i am well acqainted with jillina, she studied with me in L.A. in the 90’s. it was a big trip for me to watch her dancing on top of the world; the cairo stage; remembering all of the good ole’ times. the costumes i did for her. all of the classes, choreographys; ect. i have to say that she made me so proud to be a part of her developement into a Raasah Fananna, world class star. we were able to asist jillina with her prova ect and my assistant Olla dressed her at the show. i have designed many great costumes for her during her night club days in L.A. i left L.A. 10 yrs ago to make costumes and teach in cairo. i think jillina blew cairo away !!! GO GIRL!!!

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