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Revisiting “A Belly Dancer’s Dream Come True”

The First Ground-breaking Belly Dance Tour to Cairo of September 1977

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Pamela Sloane(aka Hirt)
posted March 28, 2012
Adapted from the original in Habibi Magazine
with many additional photos-we need help with names!

Veteran belly dancer Dalilah from Las Vegas sponsored a tour to Cairo for American belly dancers so they could learn from the cultural source of the dance.  She would leverage her connection with Egyptian film and dance legend Tahia Carioca to arrange special dance-related activities, including meeting Samia Gamal.

Dalilah also touted that the tour would feature dancing lessons with Cairo’s most prominent contemporary dancers including Fifi Abdou, Hala Sofi, Sohair Zaki, or even Nagwa Fuad.  It would be a dream come true if either they or Tahia and Samia would share with us their stylish moves.  In addition, around these lessons would be sightseeing tours for which Dalilah hired an Egyptian tour agency. 

The following is the original revised and edited account of that historical first belly dance tour of Egypt.  I did meet with Tahia and Samia on September 22, 1977 – my birthday – and this version features highlights of that exchange.

Part I. The Egyptian Odyssey Begins  

Thirty-three eager dancers participated in the very first ever belly dance tour of Egypt during the week of September 16, 1977, named “A Belly Dancer’s Dream Come True.”  We landed in Cairo after dark on Friday, September 17. The luminary Tahia Carioca herself, accompanied by members of the Egyptian press, had assembled at the airport to greet us and hold a publicity reception.

Instead, six hours later than our intended arrival time, Misr Tours greeted us with profuse apologies along with sincere regrets from Miss Carioca.  She and her retinue could no longer wait.  The tour rep then presented Dalilah with a bouquet of flowers Tahia had intended to give us. 

Further delays resulted when we discovered that several of the tour members didn’t have proper visas.  Once this was remedied, we learned that the luggage of those joining the tour from Los Angeles had failed to arrive, so half of the tour members were stuck wearing their stale travel clothing for the next two days.

We finally arrived at the Cleopatra Hotel by midnight. While most slept, Dalilah took a taxi to Tahia’s downtown Cairo theater to meet the Egyptian media star.  She reported that Tahia had spent three hours waiting for us at the airport, and that she regretted missing us.

Missing Tahia’s warm welcome got the tour off to a disappointing start.  Her huge red smile would have reassured us that the promise of this tour was on track.  It was but the first of many hiccups and unfulfilled promises that was to characterize this tour and reveal essential truths about Egyptian culture and society.

Misr Tours kicked in with an exciting itinerary for our first full day.  Accompanied by hired guide Dr. Yussef, our bus full of wide awake dancers laced its way through rural Nile-side villages to visit Memphis and Sakkara, two necropolises (cities of the dead).  We entered two major tombs, saw the archetypal step pyramid and various others all predating the Great Pyramid of Cheops.  We also visited the Great Pyramid of Giza.

billboard
A billboard in town

Part II:  Egypt at Night

Dancer in 1977

Dancer at Sahara City nightclub

Sahara City

There was barely enough time to return to the hotel and freshen up for that evening’s “Sound and Light Show” in front of the Pyramids and Sphinx, followed by a late dinner and viewing of the diverse entertainment at the Sahara City.  Located a few miles past Giza in the desert, Sahara City is a popular tourist spot offering dinner followed by a full range of nightclub acts, including – to our excited anticipation – an array of belly dancers.

 The club was housed in a lively tent-like affair elegantly draped in deep red fabric looping from the ceiling. 

While we ate dinner, a three-piece ensemble consisting of an organ, electric guitar and trap drum played popular tunes.  When it was time for the entertainment to begin, the small music trio was quietly replaced with a traditional Arab musical ensemble consisting of violin, kanoon, drums and oud.  The newly arranged musicians began a traditional Arab piece.  After several lilting measures, the much-awaited belly dancer sauntered gracefully onto the stage. 

She smiled at the audience, then promenaded in small swishy steps with only a few hand gestures.  In her early 20s, the stunning, somewhat tentative dancer wore a costume of a bright red top and skirt with a bit of fringe on the hip belt. Her style was characterized by a lot of promenading punctuated with poses with interesting hip and torso twisting combinations.

As the band played on after her dance, she spent a good deal of time going through the entire house posing behind two customers at a time while a photographer flashed their photos.  Of course afterwards, the customers were offered the folder of their photos for 50 piasters.

Saudi's party 1977

Saudis party at Sahara City nightclub

Word reached the manager of Sahara City that 30 belly dancers from the United States were in the audience, which caused him to promptly greet and invite us all to take the stage.  Perhaps prompted by the manager, one of the professional dancers took up the cause, urging Dalilah to come up. 

The Egyptians were not the only ones trilling and clapping as Dalilah finally accepted the invitation, rising from her seat and beaming broadly at her American protégés.   We clapped along with the rest of the audience to the resounding live music, encouraging Dalilah in her zealous brief solo that left the whole house begging for more.

A photo and concise description of this event appeared a day or so later in an Egyptian newspaper. 

The finale of the stage show featured a woman who picked up a table with her teeth and danced around while playing zills.  I recognized this stunt from Greek taverna shows, and all agreed that it was memorable note on which to end the evening of unforgettable dance and music.

The manager sought through our Misr Tours guide to engage the group for a formal performance that coming Thursday.  Most of the tour members relished this invitation as the chance of a lifetime to perform belly dance in the shadow of the Pyramids, especially since we’d already had a taste of the Egyptian stage that night.  But Thursday was a long way off and, as we had already begun to observe, even the best of plans were subject to unforeseen twists and turns in this land by the Nile.

Part III   Touring Egypt

Cairo MuseumEgyptian Museum

Dr. Yussef of Misr Tours was again on hand to narrate history as we trudged through the museum, gawking and peering at the artifacts in this unkempt Egyptian warehouse.  I had already seen the contents of King Tut’s display in a special exhibit in San Francisco, but seeing the duplicates here still stirred excitement. 

The mummies of such historic notables as Ramses, Seti, and Tuthmos and others, laid out in glass cases, did not disappoint, either.  Arranged in neat rows and revealed from the neck up, the facial features were so discernible that you could reconstruct what each mummy probably looked like as a living person.

The trip to the museum was followed by a buying frenzy at a bazaar to which Dr. Yussef escorted us and assisted in haggling for goods. While haggling is expected in Egypt, by the time the tour wound down most of us were tired of this effort, finding it to be troublesome and time-consuming.

The bazaar featured metal trays, cups and tea pots, all kinds of jewelry, clothing ranging from beautifully embroidered tunics to even some tempting Bedouin blankets. 

Monday and Tuesday mornings were to have been the essence of our tour, described in the literature as “…Belly Dance lesson at the hotel (or in front of the Pyramid.) by one of the most famous Belly Dancers at the present time.” 

Neither of these lessons materialized.  Apparently Nagwa Fuad, the reigning Nile Hilton belly dancer, did not honor her commitment confirmed through the Egyptian Embassy before we left the States. So, while behind-the-scenes finagling went on in attempts to remedy this blow to our belly dance dream, the Thursday optional tour to Luxor was moved up to Monday instead.

Hotel Problems

At this point dissatisfaction with the Cleopatra Hotel reached a peak. The travel agency had represented it as a first class hotel and had charged accordingly, but many felt very strongly that it was completely below standard.  Complaints included getting pins, flies and hair in food, which was barely edible most of the time anyway. 

Some said service had been poor, with “pestering” of the patrons by certain hotel employees.  One tour member even had a dress stolen from her room; others were missing money.  Though the Ministry of Tourism was called and sent a person to help rectify whatever he could, the fact remained that the hotel was first class by Egyptian standards, and there had been no misrepresentation.

Originally tour members were to have stayed in another first class hotel, the Jolie Ville near the Pyramids, but in August we had received a letter from Dalilah stating that for convenience sake, we had changed to the Cleopatra.  Now, in the emotional discussions following the open complaints, the suggestion was floated that we pay a few pounds extra and move to the Hotel Jolie Ville to “get our money’s worth.”

In the end, certain reparations were made, hot heads cooled, and we begrudgingly stayed at the Cleopatra.

lunch
Lunch at a café on the tour (yes, that’s Bert!)

The Valley of the Kings

Despite the dissatisfaction with our various disappointments, we went along with the schedule change moving Luxor up, hoping that going to Upper Egypt earlier would help buy time to arrange the promised belly dance lessons with “one of the most famous Belly Dancers at the present time.” 

Arriving at Luxor via a short plane ride, Msr Tours ferried us across the Nile to Queen Hatshepsut’s funeral temple, then the Valley of the Kings where we entered King Tut’s original tomb.

Dalilah greets Sohair
Dalilah greets Sohair

Back on the other side of the Nile, we went to the great Temple of Karnack.  Though much dilapidated with only a ghost of its original visage, I was awed by the enormity of its numerous columns and sheer enormity.

Tuesday’s cancelled dance lesson provided a windfall to get caught up on errands and rest, though enthusiasm had been dimmed overall.  Luckily, while we were enjoying our free time, Dalilah managed to enlist her old friend Tahia’s help, and the great danseuse agreed to host us at her downtown Cairo theater that afternoon. 

Tahia sent word reiterating emphatically that she refused to teach, but we were thrilled at the opportunity to meet and speak with her. After all, we had missed her welcome at the airport upon arrival.  A sudden bout of a recurrent illness delayed her arrival, keeping the group waiting for her at the theater for over two hours.

Publicity Photos by the Pryamids

Wednesday was the highlight of the tour.  Wearing our belly dance costumes, we assembled before the Pyramids and the Sphinx and with camels as props, indulged in an enjoyable photo-taking spree.  In time, the contemporary dancer Sohair Zaki actually showed up accompanied by her personal retinue and a gaggle of Egyptian press members.  We went to a nearby tent where she sat with Dalilah and watched some of our tour members dancing to taped music.  Of course, we had hoped for some dancing tips or even a brief demo of her softly fluid style, but her conservative flowered shirtdress communicated her intentions clearly.

An interpreter assisted, but even he could not persuade her to participate any further than sitting politely with Dalilah and smiling at our efforts.  After about an hour, she gingerly excused herself and left in a flurry with her entourage. I understand there was a blurb in the Cairo press about this event the next day.  Perhaps that’s why Ms. Zaki chose to join us in the first place.

Misr Tours came through on Thursday with the city tour, felucca ride down the Nile, and the trip to the famous Kan Kalili Bazaar.  That evening we had been scheduled to appear at Sahara City as a series of American belly dance acts. On hearing of this engagement, Tahia strongly advised against it, averring that dancing in such a place was “beneath us.”  

So, yet another highlight of our tour fell out from under us and certainly to the dismay of Sahara City’s enterprising and persistent manager.  But the change turned out to be a windfall in our favor, because Tahia offered in its stead to have us come to her theater for an exclusive engagement.  There we would dance on her stage, in the presence of her audience, in the protective aegis of her theater.  So next, we were due at Tahia’s theater in Cairo. 

Finally, a promise of the tour was to take place!

dancers pose
See Bert in there?
dancers pose
Names: 1, 2, 3 (behind), 4, 5, 6
posing
Author in red

 

Samia, Tahia, Dalilah 1977
Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca and Dalilah, Sept. 1977*

Face-to-Face with Legends Tahia and Samia

Upon arriving at Tahia’s theater after a short walk from our hotel in the 120-degree afternoon heat, steady preparations got under way for the tour member dance performances.  A modestly equipped facility with capacity for several hundred, the darkened theater offered a humble but appropriate venue for tour dancers’ performances for Tahia and Samia. 

Everyone held strong hopes that these two living treasures of danse oriental might grace the theater with magical dancing pointers, or even a performance, no matter how impromptu or brief.  After all, we had come to Cairo seeking to enrich our knowledge of Egyptian dance.

Tahia’s husband and other friends greeted us and showed us around the theater as we posed for each other’s cameras and practiced dancing on the small wooden stage with a wooden painted arabesque backdrop.  An audience of about forty non-dancing tour participants and Tahia’s entourage looked on.

Finally the air stirred and there she was – Tahia’s effusive presence filled the theater. 

She had entered customarily over two hours late beaming and aglow at Dalilah’s side.  Now an older, less hale Tahia than seen in the movies greeted us, her once rosy visage paled by sweat and recurring unnamed illness.  A black caftan covered her corpulent body, and her dyed black hair was clipped in a smart, short hairdo quite unlike the flowing dark manes of her movie danseuses.  As her kohl-rimmed black eyes took in each of us, I felt privileged to experience her bold warmth and natural charisma in person.

At last this central expectation of the “Dream Come True First Belly Dance Tour to Egypt” had finally come about.

My notebook quotes a cultural informant at Tahia’s theater as saying: “Tahia is Egypt and Egypt is Tahia.” 

We hoped that Tahia might take to the stage this night and demonstrate what this meant. But the outspoken Tahia made it quite clear her performance days were over.  “I want see the American girls dance!” she declared in her Arabic-accented English. Later she stepped aside with me for an interview in which I recorded her feelings about American belly dancing and the current state of the dance. [Article “Interview with Tahia Carioca” coming soon!]

Recorded popular Arab dance music piped in allowed some dancers to perform onstage informally.  Tahia never stopped chatting and busying herself amongst us, always staying close to Daliliah.  We cajoled and begged her to show us a bit of her repertoire, but she firmly declined, choosing instead to encourage us to continue entertaining her with our Americanized form of the dance.  

After a few hours, the festive atmosphere was broken by a sudden flurry in the darkened back of the theater.  Samia Gamal’s presence caused a major displacement of energy throughout the theater.  Tahia stepped back, embraced her protégé warmly, and then introduced her to Dalilah.

[Article “Interview with Samia Gamal” coming soon!]

Reda Troupe 1977Reda Troupe at the Balloon Theater

That night we attended the Balloon Theater in downtown Cairo for a performance of The Reda Troupe for a refreshing program of Egptian folkloric dance.

Several of us who had managed to meet Mahmoud Reda, director and choreographer of the troupe, were invited to his downtown studio Friday evening for dance lessons. Mahmoud and one of his leading dancers, Raika, lead us through beladi and other routines Reda had researched throughout the Egyptian countryside.  One of his star dancers, Farida Fahmy, greeted and chatted with us as well.

His surprise dance lessons helped offset some of the disappointment of not receiving dance instruction from any of the reigning stars as we had hoped.  Instead, he respectfully took us back to the Nile countryside where the entire dance lexicon originated, thereby doing us an even greater honor.

Last Day

The final, free day in Cairo was spent variously by the now wearied and somewhat disillusioned touring belly dancers.  Some shopped, went to Alexandria, and revisited the Pyramids and museum, while others caught up on their rest before our departure early the next day.  The evening was spent in much the same way – returning to see a favorite performance or dine at a favorite restaurant.

Conclusion

For most, the 4:30AM wake-up call from the hotel desk was acknowledged shortly after returning from the evening’s outing.  Eyes stinging from lack of sleep surveyed the dawn sights of a fascinating city teeming with her awakening people setting out to do their daily work as the tour bus headed to the airport.

As of departure, no one could quite yet manage to put together the disparate pieces of a frantic week of delights and disappointments.  The sight-seeing had broadened our understanding of Egyptian history and culture; the nightclub performers and traditional dance of the Reda Troupe had been inspirational.  But the failure of the dance lessons from contemporary performers as promised, along with the dead weight of empty time waiting for alternative arrangements in their stead, left a bitter taste – even outright anger – for many.

In the final analysis, the very notion of what “A Belly Dancer’s Dream Come True” would be was based on American notions and expectations.  Could such a dream, conceived in an American mindset, ever have come true?   Learning about another culture in order to better inform the dance you’re performing is a noble enough undertaking, as long as cultural disparity is understood from the outset.   No two cultures are alike, and that is the point we learned through this experience. 

 

More Photos

Soheir ZakiSoheir

Sohair Zaki!

 
dancers pose
Names 1, 2, 3, 4, 5- Pam, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12- Delilah
 
dancers pose

 

Pam Camel

Pam tent
Pam Sloane in front of emir’s desert tent near Pyramid, Sept. 1977

DalilahDalilah
Dalilah

Desert Tent behind the pyramids

Desert tent behind Pyramids

 

Cairenes Cairenes

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   |       |    3 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Breakofdawn

    Apr 21, 2012 - 01:04:39

    thanx very much , the review was very enjoyable,,,, every word took me to the times and palaces of the tour … i can’t wait to read the interview with the diva Samai Gamal becuase she is my idol ….many thanks.

  2. No Gravatar
    Breakofdawn

    Apr 21, 2012 - 01:04:04

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsfueLeqaG4

    a programm about samia gamal   

  3. No Gravatar
    Peter Bristow

    Apr 26, 2015 - 05:04:15

    Thank you for the fantastic article about my mother and the “Belly Dancers Dream Come True” tour.

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