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Sahra Goes to Egypt

Sahra's class at Amina's in May 2008

Follow Your Dreams

by Amina Goodyear
posted December 28, 2010

Twenty years plus ago my friend Dalal (stage name) invited me and a couple of other friends to accompany her to Cairo to visit her family. How could we refuse such an invitation – three American dancers travelling to Egypt with an Egyptian dancer friend. Dalal’s only request was that we not tell her family that she performed in the U.S. – that we knew her socially – that our dancing was only a hobby – that this was something odd that Americans do to satisfy their curiosities of things Egyptian. Of course we would comply.

We arrived in Cairo about 10 pm on January 1. It was a great way to start the New Year. My friend Edwina Nearing had told us that there was an American dancer we should see who was performing at the Heliopolis Meridien. Well, since Dalal’s family was in Heliopolis, out came the phone book and after establishing that there was indeed a show that evening, we deposited our suitcases in the bedroom and off we went to see the dancer.

Her name was Sahra; she was from California, a Middle Eastern dancer and cultural and dance anthropologist and ethnographer from UCLA.

a branch of anthropology
dealing with the scientific
description of individual

We arrived at the Meridien just in time to catch the beginning of her show, but not in time to hear the introduction. The show was wonderful and the music was terrific but the dancer wasn’t as we were told she would be. I remember being particularly drawn to the tura (cymbal) player and the other musicians and had to keep reminding myself to watch the dancer. But, we were once again in Cairo and it was a great way to begin our vacation and the New Year.

After the show we waited in the hotel lobby hoping to meet Edwina’s friend Sahra. She never appeared, but one of the musicians saw us waiting and approached us. Since it was the night after New Year’s Eve, the club had not been that full and we three travel-worn bedraggled females (Dalal had stayed behind to be with her family) had been conspicuously American and out-of-place in the club. He introduced himself. He was Ashraf Zakaria, the band leader. He informed us that the dancer we had been waiting for, Sahra, was not, I repeat, not, the dancer we just saw. In fact, Sahra’s last night working at the Meridien was New Year’s Eve, the night before we arrived. What we saw was her replacement.

Sahra had just finished her five and a half year commitment performing in Cairo and we missed her by one day. What a disappointment.

Fast foward a year or two and a dancer named Sahra is teaching a workshop in San Francisco. I attend and learn a choreography to a familiar sounding piece of music. It was the music I heard in that club in Heliopolis performed by Ashraf and his band. We learn that this music was written especially for Sahra. Being on the shy side I don’t remember approaching her and telling her of our missed connection in Cairo, or even talking to her at all.

Mellayya Luff

Probably another year passed and I am at the Belly Dance of the Universe Competition in Long Beach. I am sitting at the judge’s table with well-known personalities from southern California – Egyptian costumer Amira el Khatan, cymbal and costume vendor Ali Hamidzadeh, dance teacher and ethnographer Aisha Ali and Sahra Kent aka Sahra Saeeda. I am seated in the end spot and next to me is Sahra. "Can’t be shy; need to at least acknowledge each other." Sahra, as it turned out, was a very soft-spoken, refined and totally committed to her art kind of person. Although she managed to get back up to San Francisco for another couple of dance workshops, I always looked forward to subsequent visits to BDUC to get a chance to further "visit" and catch up with her travels and projects.

Getting to know Sahra through the years I came to realize that all her richness and wealth was in her commitment to the dance and to the culture adjoining it. Like many artists, in many fields, she sacrificed for her art and she was always trying to find ways to share her art, her knowledge and her love of Egypt, dance and music.

A number of years ago Sahra called me with a plan to bring "the boys" to "the States". She wanted to share what she had in Egypt and give us here in the U.S. a taste of a typical Egyptian dance band and show in The Sahra Saeeda Show.

This would be a tremendous undertaking for one individual without the aid of sponsors or grants. But she was determined and she did it. Probably – no, actually, – at a huge cost on her end. Think multiple visas, multiple plane fares, multiple compensations, and of course food, lodging and travel expenses in the U.S. But nevertheless, she did it. I can proudly say that I was able to help in the San Francisco portion of the tour. They all drove up in a van from Riverside, California and I turned my studio into a band dorm and practice hall lined with futons on the floor. Sahra stayed upstairs in my office room. If I remember correctly, there were 6 of them (4 musicians, male dancer and singer) and we couldn’t see the floor for the futons. What an experience! A complete Cairo show including a folkloric section with a male dancer. We rented a hall and set it up like a club and it was a success. She pulled it off! The show was pretty much just as it is in her DVD The Sahra Saeeda DVD, The Sahra Show. She managed to tour this show to several states. To reiterate, this was a tremendous undertaking without the aid of sponsors or grants – only determination and the desire to share a bit of her experience in Egypt with us.

Baed Annak

Over the years Sahra has travelled (commuted) so much to Egypt to research dance, that at one point after 9/11 she was actually harrassed by our friendly government agents as being questionable. Questionable what?
Obsessed with dance and culture, of course! Through her obsessions and her sacrifices – she is, after all, her own patron of the arts – she eventually formulated a plan to share her knowledge with her fellow dancers. This plan took the name Journey through Egypt and the course she developed includes investigating the dance differences for “home-style,” local professional dance, regional government troupes, Cairo-based Reda and Kowmeyya national troupes, and folkloric representation in Night Club shows.

Her discussions and studies include all the geographical dance zones of Egypt starting as far south as Aswan, travelling down the Nile to Luxor and the Ghawazee, through Cairo, and reaching north to Alexandria, west to Siwa, and east to the port regions of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez.

Through her Journey through Egypt courses Sahra hopes to give the dancer in a long weekend what she has spent years researching. Some, but not all, of the dances covered are

  • the Nubian line dances from Aswan,
  • the Ghawazee and Saidi dances from the Luxor region,
  • Sinai Bedouin dances,
  • Fellahin dances of the Delta region,
  • Bambuteyya from the sea ports,
  • Melayya Luff from Alexandria,
  • Hagallah from the Western Desert,
  • and the urban dances of Cairo.
  • Sahra also devotes time to explaining and recreating the Zar ritual and a typical wedding zeffa.

Her goal is to have the dancer understand the roots of the dance and understand the people and the culture from which it comes so that the dance is performed properly with the respect to the culture from which it originated.

Below are some clips. I hope you enjoy.

(from Journey through Egypt 1)

Author Amina will be sponsoring Sahra to teach her courses at San Francsico Studio-
–Journey through Egypt (JtE) 1 on January 7-9, 2011
–JtE 2 happens on January 14-16, 2011(must have taken JtE1)

Sahra performs with students of JtE on Friday at PenaPachamama (Jan. 7 and Jan.14) 10:30 pm

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Ready for more?

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  1. Aszmara

    Jan 19, 2011 - 09:01:17

    Amina, thank you for your article on the absolutely fabulous Human Being, Sahra Saeeda.  She has touched and changed many lives that she has encountered – myself being one.  Her devotion to her craft, love of  the art and pure professionalism is beautiful to experience in her classes.  I loved taking her JtE course in Phillie and recommend this course as well as her Cairo Certificate Classes to everyone!

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