Monday, April 6, 2009

MADAME RAQIA'S WORLD



This June 2009 marks the tenth anniversary of what is perhaps the world's largest belly dance festival: Ahlan Wa Sahlan in Cairo, Egypt. I am stoked not just to be attending this year, but also to be teaching at the Festival. it's something I never would have ever dared to dream when I first began belly dancing...in fact, I am still pinching myself to make sure it's real!

I first met the Festival's mastermind, Raqia Hassan, in the early 1990's, on her first trip to America. I attended an LA workshop, and was just a baby dancer- imagine me in a room with a plethora of pro dancers, not to mention Raqia herself! Over the years, Raqia has been a wonderful teacher as well as an inspiration to me. When I am in cairo, she is like my belly dance Auntie. We took this picture together in her atelier, in between my costume fittings.

For those of you who may not know her, Raqia Hassan is a living legend whose astonishing career has spanned nearly four decades. Many have credited her for single-handedly keeping the art of Egyptian dance alive. From her debut as a folkloric dancer in the hey-day of Egypt’s world-renowned Reda Troupe, she later morphed into the Grande Dame of Raqs Sharqi- and is widely considered to be the top oriental dance choreographer in the world. Over the years, she has trained generations of performers. Many of Madame Raqia’s current devotees and/or former students are literally “household names” in the global belly dance community, including Egyptian stars Dina, Randa Kamel, Aza Sherif, Dandash and Mona El Said, as well as non-Egyptian dancers such as Russian-born Katia, and Americans Jillina and Zahra Zuhair. Her work with these top-notch performers is comparable to that of George Balanchine or Mikhail Baryshnikov in the world of ballet.

Madam Raqia also is the brains and life force behind the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival. One of the largest events of it’s kind, the festival has been held every June for the past eight years in Cairo. The weeklong event draws both avid belly dance enthusiasts and highly trained professionals from fifty-five countries; in 2007 the registration brimmed with over twelve hundred dancers. The teachers at the festival are mostly stars and legends in their own right, such as Mona El Said, Nagwa Fouad, Morocco, Dina, Lucy, Dr. Mo Geddawi, Josephine Wise, Randa Kamel, Diana Tarkhan and Amir Thaleb…. to name just a few. The sheer orchestration of mounting a festival on this level is staggering.

Though many would be content to sit on the laurels of such an impressive career, Madame Raqia shows absolutely no sign of slowing down. She oversees Ahlan Wa Sahlan in way that could only be termed extremely hands-on, and in spite of being a doting grandmother, also finds the time to travel extensively. In the past year alone she has visited Japan, Korea, China, Spain and Sweden, and have course, the United States. Even a broken leg (sustained in early 2008) has not managed to stop her! I spoke to her on the phone this morning, and she had just retruned from a month in Spain and was on her way to Kazhakistan! One of her latest endeavors is opening up her own costume atelier- but more on that later.

Though it’s one thing to read about her accomplishments, experiencing Raqia Hassan live and in action is an entirely different animal-just ask anyone who has ever taken one of her workshops, private lessons or had the good fortune to spend some quality time with her. She is every inch the diva, but smashes the superstar stereotype of being aloof and remote. A vibrant bundle of non-stop energy, she is a force to be reckoned with. Swathed in her signature leopard print, her brown doe-eyes sparkle with enthusiasm at a volume that is not quite upstaged by her flashy earrings and dangly charm bracelets. Her facial expressions are numerous and animated; her laughter is loud, uproarious and constant. This genuine joie de vivre extends into her connection with the dance, which is clearly why her work is so often labeled with adjectives like “passionate” and “magical”. Every time dances to a piece of music, it seems as significant and fresh as though it was brand-new to her, and not the whatever-hundredth time she might be teaching or performing it. Not only that, her unique feeling is contagious, so anyone around her is immediately affected-or infected- with her love for the art form.

Her spacious flat is undeniably the nerve center for belly dance in Egypt. On a recent visit to Cairo, Jim Boz and I spent a lot of time there. Boz being a ‘Cairo virgin’, he was practically speechless at the non-stop activity that transpired in Madame Raqia’s world on what would be termed “an average day”. Her abode is cluttered with baroque furniture and low tables covered with crocheted doilies; in June there is still a gay Mylar banner reading “HAPPY NEW YEAR!” spread across a doorway, cartoons blare from a television in another room, and her beloved lap-dogs are constantly underfoot. Madame Raqia can usually be found ensconced in a throne-like arm chair, cuddling a grand-daughter or her Chihuahua, Chocolata, chatting animatedly and endlessly on two cell phones at once, in both Arabic and English. The mobiles and the landline phones never stop ringing- EVER- and neither does the doorbell.

French/Algerian dancer Chirin is staying here while she waits for her dance license to come through. She’s on the couch along with recently married (and newly retired from performing) Egyptian star Amany- they are busily engaged in painting Raqia’s five-year-old granddaughter’s toenails. Next to them is Russian belly dance star Katia, glamorous with her cascading dark hair and a rhinestone Chanel T-shirt. Katia is sipping coffee and also on a cell-phone, talking in Russian (as well as Arabic and English) trying to sort out the details for her next-day trip to the Ukraine to judge a belly dance contest and teach workshops. The doorbell rings and acclaimed folkloric artist Mr. Shalaby jumps up to answer it. Fresh from a Pilate’s session, legend-in-the-making Sorraya sails in wearing gym clothes, clutching a Betty Boop handbag. She is here to work on Andalusian choreography with the Reda Troupe’s Doa, who hasn’t arrived yet. Sorraya gets out her mobile phone and begins a conversation in Portuguese. Housekeeper Aza constantly scuttles in and out of the room with trays of mint tea, Turkish coffee and bowls of the traditional Egyptian macaroni dish koshary.

“Eat, eat!” Raqia yells to no one in particular, holding a cell-phone up to each ear, “But you must eat!”

The doorbell rings again and Mr. Shalaby opens the door to Italian belly dancer Dalila, who has been working in Cairo for the past year. Tonight she is doing a wedding at the Five Star Hotel Concorde in Heliopolis, and has come here to make arrangements about borrowing Randa Kamel’s orchestra. She greets the other dancers with double kisses, talks on her mobile phone in Italian and Spanish, simultaneously conversing with Madame Raqia in English and Arabic. The doorbell punctuates the cacophony again and Doa sweeps in wearing a long gypsy skirt, her “ tweenage “ daughter in tow. Doa turns on Andalusian music loudly in the adjacent studio, and then swirls around the living room with Sorraya, demonstrating kicks and turns.

Slightly shell-shocked, Boz is half-way through his bowl of koshary when Madame Raqia declares we must leave now for our final fittings at the atelier- the elevator, which in true Cairene style has been broken for days, is finally working again.

“Yella, let’s go!” declares Raqia, amidst the chaos.

After a hair-raising kamikaze ride with Madame Raqia and Katia through Cairo’s crowded streets blasting Mahmoud El Leity’s new cd, we arrive at the atelier, where the scene is much the same as it was at the flat. The staff is in a flurry of activity preparing for Ahlan WA Sahlan, and costumes in every stage of completion are draped over all available surfaces. Bolts of shiny spandex fabric printed with everything from stars to flowers to silver sunglasses stand against each wall, and are flanked by racks of dazzling balady dresses as well as the standard two piece costumes. A boy sits at a table with huge veterinary-sized hypodermic needles full of glue attaching crystals to bedlahs, while his co-worker is draping a rose colored, feather- accented dress over a mannequin. The new style is clean and spare-it’s all about draping and fit- not a lot of fringe.

Veiled women sit on the couch with bowls of beads on their laps working busily. The whir of sewing machines competes with a tinny radio loudly playing Abdel Halim Hafez; the girls doing the hand beading are humming along to the song. Madame Raqia, in a brief break from both her mobile phones, explains that everyone in the atelier has their own specialty, and that whatever they do – from fitting bra’s to embellishing- is the only thing they do.

Raqia’s brother is on his mobile phone and of course the landline is ringing. Madame Raqia’s sister, with a measuring tape around her neck and pins in her mouth, grabs Boz and me by each hand and hustles us into a back room. Someone fetches us coffee and water while somebody else clears costume pieces, bags of rhinestones, butt-filled ashtrays, belly dance magazines, pin cushions and beaded appliqu├ęs off a table, swiftly covers it in newspaper and prepares a spread of lentil soup, aish balad (fresh pita) and cheese for us, while the veiled girls swarm in and begin undressing me and pinning costumes onto my body in place of my clothes. I’m commanded to stand on demi-point while Raqia’s sister cuts the hem of my skirt. At the same time, my fitter Heba hoists a halter around my neck. Someone else is shoving gauntlets onto each of my arms. A smiling woman proudly brings in Boz’s “Tarzan” costume (an affair of turquoise velvet and shiny leopard-print studded with beadwork) while Raqia crows her approval. I’m now in a gold lame’ Pharonic number, embroidered with chunky aurora borealis crystals and metallic beads, swags of royal blue tulle snaking from hip to hip attached with rhinestone buckles. Fingering a half-finished made-to-order acid-green costume, Katia looks up at me, exhales a thin stream of cigarette smoke, declares it “perfect” and then goes back to her cell phone, while Raqia playfully slaps me on the butt, giggling,

“ This one… marvelous!”

Later, back at our hotel, Boz is exhausted from jet lag, not to mention the frenetic day we’ve spent with Madame Raqia.

“That was… intense”, he sighs weakly.

As we relax watching Egyptian music videos on the telly, I privately stress about the amount of costumes I’ve ordered… it’s not like I need them! I succumbed to the above-mentioned Pharonic one as well as a leopard and teal costume, a midnight blue animal print- and- lame’ with a Spanish skirt, an Art Deco-style leopard number dripping crystals with naughty cut-outs, and one made of glittery, see-through camouflage print material- yes, really.

That night, Boz and I accompanied Dalila and Randa’s band to their Concorde wedding performance, and she wore two of Raqia’s creations. The next night, we catch Sorraya’s show at the Cairo Marriott Zamalek and she’s wearing three different Madame Raqia showstoppers. All of the costumes feature stunningly fitted bras, beautiful beadwork and impeccably gored full skirts that swing delightfully. They are so gorgeous I realize I’ve made the right decision in ordering many of them for myself.

Yes indeed, I came home with a lot of costumes, and many hot new Oriental combinations to boot. But the main thing I brought back to the States with me was another candid glimpse into Madame Raqia’s world…just enough to inspire me and tide me over until the next time I experience the gift of her presence.

For more info on this amazing woman or Ahlan Wa Sahlan, please visit www.raqiahassan.net

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