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Hallah Moustafa

Hallah and Nicole

My Costume and Dance Mentor in Cairo

by Nicole
posted June 21, 2010

I’ve been in Egypt over 10 months now and the person who whom I feel closest in the dance community here, which still remains fairly closed (to me anyway) is definitely Hallah Moustafa.  I noticed Milena‘s article on Gilded Serpent and I hope this one can be a complementary addition to her similar experiences with Hallah.

I met Hallah when I was visiting my parents in Seattle a couple years back when she was visiting from Cairo and teaching a workshop. I remember the workshop being difficult, loaded down with technique that some of the attending dancers scoffed about later because they couldn’t immediately learn her technique in the allotted 2 to 3-hour period.

They didn’t look deep enough to see that something unique was happening. This made these "professionals" frustrated and dismissive. I remember being frustrated too, but I liked the moves, and after the workshop, I remember pondering a Soheir Zaki style traveling step and some arabesques that Hallah had shown us. They were fun to fool around with for a few weeks, trying to duplicate them properly, but eventually, I moved on to other things.

At the time though, I found her interesting and funny, and thought the costumes she had brought to show, although gorgeous, were prohibitively expensive for a 17-year-old dancer and college student. I shyly struck up a conversation with her and her protege who had been demonstrating, Sabah and told them that hopefully, I would be in Cairo in a couple years. Hallah warmly invited me to get in touch with her when I came to Cairo and gave me her business card. I kept the card tucked safely in my wallet for the intervening years between then and last year when finally, I pulled it out for lack of anyone else to call while marinating in the summer heat in Cairo.

I wish I had called her sooner,  because what came out of my finally overcoming my shyness was a unique friendship, and a type of mentoring I had been wanting for quite some time.

We all want someone to take us under their wing as dancers, help us get jobs, instruct us on how to retain professional decorum, and inevitably to hold our hand when the community sinks it’s teeth into us or when we misstep.  In the past I have had excellent coaches and teachers, but Hallah seems to "get" me quite well. She is particularly generously, unselfishly committed to my success as a dancer.

Our initial meeting at her workshop in Giza was pretty casual. I got a tempting first peek at the actual mechanics of the costuming industry into which I’d made half-hearted forays back in the US. Already I had visited other costumers in Cairo, but they keep the actual workshop mechanics in back rooms or away from the public areas. Hallah’s workshop is situated in a bare-bones kind of apartment-block, down a back street in one of the poorer areas of Giza. It doesn’t look like the kind of place where thousand-dollar gems in Lycra and Swarovsky are born. Once I was inside though, I couldn’t stop looking at everything; especially the creations taking shape on mannequins around the main room.

Hallah and I chatted while she worked and she sized me up in the slightly skeptical way of a woman who has seen too many divas and too many stifling egos. She was perfectly pleasant. But Hallah is not a sugary-sweet person, much like myself, so I knew I didn’t need to exert the effort of putting up a front. I told her why I was in Cairo; what I was up to and what I tentatively hoped to accomplish in the next year. In response to her question of where she fit into my plans, I responded that I had no idea where she would fit into that picture. I did, however, tell her that I felt that I could learn something from her or at least get a suggestion of who else to contact.  Ultimately we both loosened up as the meeting progressed and I promised to come back soon to visit and see what we could do in terms of working together.

I think our friendship has been very smooth since then, but my internal dance evolution while I’ve been in Egypt has not.

Hallah and I spent more of last summer just talking (and ruminating about the dance community and the complexities of being a dancer) than doing a lot of dancing as this was part of a phase of my questioning concerning my career. Prior to meeting Hallah, I had been in a position where I could try to make a career out of dancing.

When I arrived in Egypt though, I completely choked at the attitude towards dancers here, while also getting lost in the Egyptian culture. I manged to drag myself to only a handful of classes and one festival in the first 3 months. It wasn’t how I imaged I would feel upon arrival at all, but when you live in Cairo, instead of being a visitor, everything changes.

When I initially called Hallah I was in a very uncertain place, but she shared her wealth of experience with me. This was helpful in bringing me out of my own head and voicing some of my hopes and fears. Something I needed at that point was to hear a realistic opinion backed up by experience and get some honest dialogue going. It is something I find beneficial still!

I still haven’t sorted all my feelings out about the possibilities ahead of me, but having Hallah to talk to about my dance life is invaluable, especially because of her desire to be real rather than to conceal things or gloss over them.

The specific dance technique I’m learning from her, as suggested by my description of people’s scoffing reactions to the Seattle workshop, is the most difficult muscle control I’ve ever attempted. It is at times even tear-inducingly frustrating, but worth the effort.

Once I started to understand the extent of what was going on beneath the surface, I began to realize why, back in Seattle, I couldn’t make my moves look exactly as they were meant to look or why I could never get really, really Egyptian-style things like Dina‘s adorably drunken stumble-down pat in spite of endless practice. It’s been eye-opening and horribly difficult (and also humbling) when I realize I am relearning everything that I thought I knew as a dancer who had been working professionally.

In the last year, I have had to stop and rebuild everything from the ground up with the new technique Hallah is showing me – from my posture to the way I style my feet. The whole process has been a lot of work and makes me feel like a beginner all over again.

So why do it? Because what she is teaching me makes sense; I can feel the difference in my body and that it’s better for my body in the long term. I can see the difference in what she is doing compared to everyone else, and I know that her style is authentic because you can look at Egyptian Belly dancers with the lens of her technique and begin to unlock exactly what they are doing and know why most people are not replicating their moves accurately.

The dancing I see around me here in Egypt suddenly has been making more and more sense thanks to studying with Hallah. I feel like it’s more attainable than before.  Plus, I always like a challenge to change things up and keep life interesting!

Nicole in Hallah's blue constumeHallah’s technique is such that even if I’m tired by the end of practice, no part of my body ever hurts or screams at me in the morning that I’m doing something damaging. This is an indication of the fact that this technique is better for the body in the long run. In my mind, the thing to compare it with is Alexander Technique, which I’ve studied a bit. Alexander Technique is all about bringing the body into motion through lengthening and energy direction; and returning the body to a neutral state without the various kinks, twists, and stresses we put on it by habit or by the way we carry ourselves.

I can see some of this in Hallah’s technique. The body is carried in a natural and more uncompressed manner. At the same time it is lengthened and is performance-appropriate.  It did feel strange at first, but I could see the logic in her explanations and demonstrations.  I’ve continued to work with the posture and technique she’s been showing me diligently.  I think my lower back in particular is actually thanking me.

Besides just teaching and mentoring me as a dancer, Hallah has been kind enough to have me visit her often at the costuming studio as well. 

As I mentioned before, I’ve made half-hearted, learning-mistakes-ridden forays into costuming in the US and have made my own costumes for years, so this was an excellent opportunity to learn and get tips from her. 

The costumes she makes are amazing, and as a costumer myself I can vouch that, though they are expensive, they are the best value for your money that you can get in Cairo.  The fact of the matter is that Hallah doesn’t care to cut corners and would be perfectly happy giving everyone the most blinged-out, top-quality product she could for a good price. However, many other belly dance costumers make this impossible by using cheaper and cheaper materials, shoddier beading, and lots of plastic. (There is a similar problem of undercutting among costumers as there is in the dance industry, but that’s a topic for another time.)

In any case, I’ve learned a lot from Hallah about making costumes last a long time and look gorgeous on the client.  It’s been very interesting to see my past costuming mistakes in light of her experience and fashion training. She is the only designer in Cairo who has studied fashion. I now realize, "Oh, that’s what I was doing wrong!" and now see how close I might have come to this earlier on my own.

On the (sort of) downside, I’ve become completely spoiled when it comes to costumes.  I am definitely a costume snob now. I realized this while pawing through piles of the same half-rate confections of cheap beading and even cheaper Lycra at a dance festival recently. 

It’s partly a function of living here and seeing what the dancers working here wear, (They are in a league of their own and definitely want to show it.) but it is also a result of working closely with Hallah and having special, one-of-a-kind costumes from her. I just don’t want anyone else’s costumes that much anymore. Even if I see something cute or fresh that I like while out and about at dance festivals, I just figure I’ll ask her to do something similar for me.

People say that the price of her costumes is a deterrent for them, but I feel like once you’ve experienced a quality product, you simply won’t buy three costumes that won’t last, be as unique, or look good as opposed to one that is a show-stopper with an amazing fit which you can wear time and time again.  She caters to stars and fashionistas in the dance world — those people who want to stand out the most above the crowd and look that extra notch of fabulous.  For me there’s no contest anymore–clearly I’ve been completely ruined, in what I think is a good way.

I’ve been Hallah’s student for quite a few months now, and we work together at a slow but still progressing pace.  Hallah runs at Egyptian speed, as does anyone who lives here for more than a month. You have to be patient for your beautiful costume or dance lessons to unfold. The end result is worth some waiting, but I often find myself becoming impatient–until I’m squealing and petting a new costume! 

At this point we’ve reached a good balance of dance lessons 3 times a week at her home when we both have enough energy and our schedules work out.  It’s been tough for me to work things in since school means I’m commuting out into the developing desert for lectures every day, completely across town from where she is doing her thing. I make it work. When I’m not dead tired, it makes the time I carve out to spend in Giza with her much more valuable to me. 

I wish desperately that I had more time to work with her regularly, because when we get into a groove it’s easy for us to develop a rhythm of teaching that keeps her energy level up; but when my schedule is so hit-and-miss we both have a hard time getting up the motivation for doing dance work when we just want to hang out and relax on her balcony overlooking the pyramids after long work and school days.  The best times are when we’re on a roll going over new things and I have plenty of new ideas to chew on when I go home at night, which is usually the case now. 

There’s nothing like going to sleep pondering over dance concepts from an excellent teacher to make you feel involved in something fresh and engaging!

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  1. Melody Gabrielle

    Jun 23, 2010 - 01:06:46

    Its true I think that many of us are looking for dance mentors.  They seem to be quite hard to find.  Its very difficult to navigate the world of professional dance.  Secretly we all wonder if we are good enough to be ‘professional’ or if we are just playing at it.  I think thats why its so hard to feel like a beginner again.  It isn’t simple pride it fear that we were never good enough to begin with.  At least I think thats what is for me.  I hope if I ever have the option of letting someone tear down my technique and rebuild it again from square one that I will rise to the challenge.

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