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Shining a Spotlight on Egyptian Dance

NYCairo Raks Festival in NYC Brings Together International Artists

Mohamed Shahin does Tanoura

by Lara
Photos by Fouad Salloum.
posted 1-29-15

For its first year, the NYCairo Raks Festival produced by Bellydance America and Mohamed Shahin created a notable event with star-studded performances, authoritative workshop instructors and opportunities to meet dancers from around the world. I was fortunate to have the chance to perform in the open stage, watch all the gala shows and partake in several of the workshops.

NYCairo brought in international dance artists Tito from Egypt, Mercedes Nieto from Hungary, Mohamed Shahin from Egypt/USA and balanced it with locals such as Jehan Kamal, one of the co-owners of Bellydance America. The workshops were varied although they all focused on some aspect of Egyptian dance. Topics included tarab, shaabi, fusing modern with Egyptian technique, Khaliji, Saidi with cane, and both classic and modern Egyptian.

Attendance was approximately 40-50 people per workshop on average, but the the instructors were on a raised stage and did a good job of rotating the lines so visibility was not an issue.

The skill levels of the workshops were also varied. Although most of them were quite high such as Mercedes’ or Tito’s workshops, some were more intermediate/beginner level such as Jehan’s Egyptian fusion fan veil class where fan veil was a new prop for many of the participants. I hope that next year the organizers specify the level on workshops for those dancers interested in cherry picking workshops at their level.dumbek

Many of the workshops also had a live drummer accompaniment.

 In addition to the extra energy having live music always brings, this meant that many of the workshops could move at a faster pace without having to take the time to replay the music over and over since the drummer just picked up where needed.

One aspect of the workshop set up which could be improved is leaving more time between workshops. With only 15 minutes between 2 or 2.5 hour lessons, there was little time to process the amazing information we were being fed, especially if the workshops went over as many did. Likewise for lunch — with only an hour before the next workshop, if the previous workshop went over it was hard to make it back on time for the afternoon set.

Tito teaching
Tito teaches a workshop with a live drummer accompaniment.

In addition to a comprehensive workshop lineup, NYCairo presented a splendid array of shows. On the Thursday evening, the organizers provided an open stage where workshop attendees could present pieces in any genre, not just Egyptian. Friday night was the competition. Finally, on Saturday night was the gala of the stars.

Thursday night was a showcase for workshop attendees who wished to perform. The organizers limited the number of participants, although dancers were allowed to perform any style and not limited to Egyptian styles as opposed to the competition. The dancers, such as myself, represented a wide variety of countries and states but also included several local New York dancers. As an out of towner, it was great to get a bit of local flavor and I found New York dancers to be beautiful but more subtle and controlled than what I’m typically exposed to on the west coast.

As a performer this was a wonderful experience. Unlike many events where performers at stuck backstage waiting for their turn, I actually got to watch most of the performances except the one right before me. Additionally, the organizers arranged for professionally produced, affordable video of performances.

Winners announced
The competition was so close that they had to bring some finalists back for a third round of dancing to
help the judges make a final decision on placement. Ladies on right: Sherine in red,
Margarita Kamjaka in leopard, Yowalka in yellow. Ladies behind: Natalie Nazario Ayala in baby blue,
Lidia Leiada in ruffles [?]. Dudes on left- Hanna and Mo Shahin. Who is the violinist?

The NYCairo Egyptian competition was on Friday night. The competition was limited to Oriental, Shaabi or Beladi and we saw examples of each. I can only imagine the difficulty the judges had. The skill level was consistently high among all competitors, particularly those in the professional category and comparing different styles surely made it that much harder.

Performers names and origins were announced both on Thursday and Friday and I appreciate that the organizers kept the show moving. However, there were so many amazing dancers that I wanted to go find online or in person afterwards and there was no way I could remember all their names.

I hope next year they print a program with bios in it so audience members can keep track and perhaps list the performers on the website in advance, helping to stir excitement before the event.

The Saturday night gala showcased the festival organizers and instructors as well as several local big names. The room was set up with tables and waiters moved around, taking drink and food orders. It was an interesting choice in setup since it limited the number of “good” seats. For the first half, the dancers performed to their own music. Audience members were treated to a traditional beledi by Ranya Renee. We saw Samara with a folkloric piece and Vanessa of Cairo sparkled. Mercedes performed one of the pieces she had taught in her workshop and seeing it performed fully was breathtaking. And, of course, Tito was fantastic.

Tito performing
Tito shines during his drum solo performance with the live band during the Saturday night gala show.

However, the evening truly picked up in the second half when they brought in a live band. All the performers shined when accompanied by live music. Jehan did a beautiful rendition of Betwannes Beek and Mohamed’s whirling LED Tanoura was mesmerizing.

The evening culminated in an impressive display of talent. During his performance, Tito wowed the audience with his usual blend of excitement: dancing on tables and drums and performing with that special flair.

However, he raised the bar when he brought Mohamed Shahin up to dance with him.

Mohamed, who was still in his post-dancing dress clothes, removed his jacket and joined Tito for an exhilarating duet. They moved from the stage to the tables, playing off one another from tables on opposite sides of the room only to come together on one table at the center and finally to return to the stage to a live drum solo dance-off. Difficult to say who won — both men were amazing and the audience went crazy!

Other small details such as the selection of vendors — Eman Zaki herself was vending couture costumes and had a fashion show during the weekend in addition to presenting on classic Golden Era style — were all held at a convenient location rounded out the event. The attendees were warm and everyone was quite friendly.

Overall, NYCairo was fantastic. With inspiring workshops during the day and passionate and exciting performances in the evening, there wasn’t a dull moment! Topics covered a wide range of Egyptian dance styles presented by top talent and I was happy that they kept the instruction level high.  NYCairo may be a young festival, but has the potential to become one of the biggest in the USA.

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