Thursday, July 30, 2009
Like the rest of the world, the belly dance community is changing rapidly. Modern technology, globalization, forward thinking, trends and the inclination towards Westernization in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa are all contributing to these swift changes. And, of course, the fact that Oriental Dance-in all it’s myriad forms- has been booming into a worldwide fad doesn’t hurt, either!
It’s probably not an exaggeration to state that belly dancing itself, it’s practice, application, and traditions have changed more in the past decade than it had in the hundred years that preceded the New Millennium, if not many centuries previous to that.
While the evolution of new styles and fusions within Oriental Dance are exciting, revitalizing, and amazing to watch and be a part of, we are still running the risk of seeing many elements of our beloved dance fade into obscurity, and perhaps become lost forever.
Personally, I am a huge advocate of individuals bringing creativity and innovation into the dance; I love to experiment and mix and match dance genres myself, and have become well known as both a traditionally based dancer as well as a fusion performer. When I first started dancing, nearly twenty years ago, I learned as much as I could about all facets of Oriental dance, from cultural context to genre-specific signature movements, from differences in costuming to the traditions that surrounded certain rituals. I did this because it was fascinating to me, and I was obsessively hungry for knowledge about where our dance came from. I spent hours doing research in libraries, because there was no Internet; I took classes and workshops like a maniac and became familiar with- and in many cases, well versed- in the nuances of many styles of folkloric, classical and cabaret dances from Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Persia, and many other countries- like flamenco, Romany dances, and the like. I was interested primarily in Egyptian raqs sharki, but also learned to balance scimitars and perform raqs shamadan. I played with many props aside from those as well, incuding trays, canes, Isis Wings, fans of all sizes, etc.
After a while, I wanted to add a personal stamp to what I was doing, and began imbedding my own ideas, concepts and flights of fancy into my performances, at the same time many other dancers from all over the world were doing the exact thin, or something similar to it..
Recently, I had an experience that was kind of like one of those Oprah Winfrey “A-ha! Moments”. I was dancing at a party, and there was a woman- obviously a belly dancer- sitting in the audience who was happily wriggling in her seat. Excited to see a “sister”, I called her up to dance with me. The music playing was classical Egyptian, “Ganal Hawa” to be exact. She got up and began dancing-quite beautifully, I might add- but as we moved together, I began to feel like we were trying to converse in two completely different languages without a common ground for understanding. Though she was dancing on the beat, and looked lovely, we were not in sync at all. I mirrored her movements, but she couldn’t mirror mine. She had dance training- it was apparent- but her movement vocabulary didn’t include the typical fluidity or layers I was used to seeing.
After my show, I spoke with her, and she was indeed a belly dancer, with four years of training. Though she liked my music, she didn’t know what it was; she also told me she was a teacher, but preferred “the modern style”, she was a Tribal Fusion dancer. The thing about her though, was that for all her wonderful movement, her hips were pretty much NOT involved, what she was doing was basically a string of arm and hand movements and gestures, with some foot work and upper-body isolations. I didn’t get a chance to ask where she had studied, or with whom, or if she was self-trained.
This experience stayed with me for days, causing me to think and reflect.
I adore Tribal Fusion…. or any kind of Fusion. I also love “traditional” ATS –or ITS, as it’s now sometimes called, as well as Flamenco Arabic Fusion, Samba-belly, Raks Gothique, Asian-Influenced, …. You get the idea. But it wasn’t just that the dancer was performing something “modern”… it just didn’t look at all like oriental dance to me.
I stared wondering: what happened to just plain old belly dance?
Two decades ago, if two dancers from opposite backgrounds- say Egyptian and Turkish- got together to dance, even just for fun, there would be a shared movement vocabulary. There would be stylistic differences of course, but essentially, they would be dancing in the same “language”. One decade ago, if a tribal dancer and a cabaret dancer got together, there would still be similarities in the movement vocabulary… hip articulations, foot work, hand and arm gestures, and of course, finger cymbals would be included! Nowadays, it’s different.
Thinking about the incident with the dancer, I wondered if I was mildly upset and uneasy about this for personal (as opposed to professional) reasons. I wondered if the disconnection I felt was because I was being stubborn, an “old lady”, a belly dance Luddite or just a big ole stick in the mud…then I realized that while no one can call me a staunch traditionalist, I believe in keeping tradition alive!
I became conscious of the fact that though I sometimes choose to take creative liberties within my own dancing, I know enough about the culture, history and tradition of oriental dancing to make these artistic choices from a well-informed, educated view-point. Since we are practicing an art form whose very origins are rather mysterious, and whose historical documentation has been spotty at best, it is our responsibility as dancers to respect and preserve our past, even as we lean towards the future!
There are many ways each individual dancer can do this, no matter what sort of style of dance you prefer to perform or teach, whether you perform cabaret or fusion, whether you are a baby dancer, a pro, a student or an old hand! Here are some ideas I have used in my own studies that may help you to connect- or reconnect- to the rich customs and rituals that make our dance so unique.
Study The Dance In It’s Cultural Context
Do some homework- learn what you can about the many cultures that influenced belly dancing, and how the dance grew and changed in it’s countries of origin. This can be as simple as opening a book or surfing the Internet, or as time-consuming and costly as “making a pilgrimage” to North Africa or the Middle East. If you are a serious student or working dancer and you can afford to plan for a dance-study trip, and haven’t been to any of the belly dance “motherlands” before, it would definitely behoove you to travel with a group, lead by a knowledgeable teacher. Many are available every year, many offer payments on time. Numerous “big names”, or dance legends such as Morocco, Hadia, Eva Cernik, Angelika Nemeth, Fahtiem, Delilah, Cassandra and many others offer educational tours on a regular basis. If, in these horrid economic times, taking a trip is not an option, then try to study the same thing closer to home. Sahra Saeeda, one of the most well-educated figures in dance ethnology, not only offers educational dance tours, but has a workshop series, tailored to locals around the world, called “Journey Through Egypt”, which is an intensive and ultra-comprehensive study of Egyptian dance traditions and culture, region by region.
Familiarize Yourself With Traditional Music, Movements, And Costuming
As a dancer, you owe it to yourself, and as a teacher, you owe it to your students- no matter what style you perform or prefer- to be able to identify at least the most commonly used Arabic rhythms, as well as the movements that compliment them. You should also be familiar with Arabic musical structure, and know the titles of well-loved songs, and have a working knowledge of famous composers and singers. Do some research on line and have a look at costuming: traditional or folkloric as opposed to modern; Turkish vs. Egyptian, etc.
Study this on your own or seek out instructors who specialize in these fields, take a few classes or privates- or study via DVD’s, both instructional programs and dance documentaries. There are also many CD’s on the market offering tracks featuring Arabic drum rhythms to help you identify them.
Learn To Play Finger Cymbals
Unfortunately, what used to be a requisite for belly dancers of all stripes is quickly becoming a lost art. Keep this art alive by challenging yourself, and learning to play them if you don’t already! No matter what you call them: zills, sagat- finger cymbals, especially to “the general public” they are representational of belly dancing. No, they’re not always easy to learn, but you will be so glad you did!
Early on in my dance journey, like many students, playing cymbals daunted me. I declared to my primary teacher, Zahra Zuhair that I was only going to dance Egyptian style- and not play zills- just like she did!
She arched a well-groomed brow at me and said, sweetly but firmly,
“That’s fine- it’s your decision…. but the difference between us is that I can play them if I want to!”
Well…that kinda drove the point home to me, and even though I practically bit through every layer of my lip in the frustrating process of mastering them, I learned them well, play them often, and require my students to learn to play them, too. Again, if you don’t have time in a busy schedule for classes, there are many DVD’s on the market, which will allow you to drill your cymbal technique at home.
Get Lost In The Past For A Little While
Thanks to www.youtube.com, we all have access to a wealth of videos featuring legendary dancers- take advantage of this! Spend some time looking at cool movie clips from Egypt’s “Golden Age”, and watch Samia Gamal, Naima Akef, and Tahia Carioca in action. Have a look at Sixties and Seventies dancers like Suad Hosny, Soheir Zaki, Nagwa Fouad, or the Turkish star Nesrine Topkapi. While you’re at it, look up some North African or Lebanese folkloric stuff, traditional Rom dances, traditional dances of Yemen, Syria, Israel, Persian Classical pieces, Bollywood, Bhangara, Uzbek dance, Egypian balady… the possibilities are endless, and it’s all there for you to see and become inspired by.
Remember… it’s up to every one of us to help keep our dance alive, and by honoring and preserving our belly dance past, you can assure it’s future!
Photo: One of the many gorgeous antique oriental oil paintings at the Mena House Oberoi in Giza
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
"La Poubelle" for those not well-versed en Francaise means trash can. Los Angeles dancer Jennelah took this kooky snap of me and my Poubelle Royale at Cairo Caravan 2009 aboard The Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. Every time I saw a royal trash can, I giggled un-controllably!
And then I snapped this backstage picture of Jennelah- looking far more glamorous- in a custom-made costume by Eshta Amar after her awesome performance at the same event!
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Hey dear readers- remember a couple of posts back, I mentioned that ten years ago, during the first Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival, I had gotten into a big heap o' crazy trouble? About seven years ago, I wrote a short-story chronicling the events that transpired in Cairo on that trip. It wound up getting in the anthology "Pills, Thrills, Chills And Heartaches: Adventures In The First Person", published by Alyson Books. So, here it is, in all it's kookie glory.
LADY DON’T BE PANIC!
The fat businessman flashing his brassiere in the middle of the street should’ve been a red flag, but being a Hollywood native, stuff like that happens to me on an everyday basis, so it took a moment to register that I wasn’t at home, but in Cairo. I'm a freak-magnet. Weird circumstances and insane people actively seek me out. Once in a while, the way five-year-old girls dream about being Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan, I have fantasies about living like “everybody else”- but no matter how hard I try to behave, to act normal, it never seems to work.
I was traveling with my friend Tracy, whose stage name is Layla. We both belly dance professionally, had been to Egypt before, but this time we were in Cairo for the huge Ahlan Wa Sahlan dance festival featuring classes and workshops by legendary choreographers of le danse orientale, many of whom had been famous for decades. Performers from all over the world were attending. We'd been giddily planning this trip for months, leaving messages blasting Arabic music on each other's answering machines, saving every penny for dance classes and costumes. We were not only excited about going to Cairo, but more than happy to leave our everyday lives behind. Tracy was going through a nasty divorce; I’d been dealing with veterinary and automotive problems on a constant, nightmare level. Counting the minutes 'til our departure, we breezily waved away everyone’s concerns over terrorism. Anything would be better than what we'd both recently been through! Tracy’s mom, a nice Jewish housewife from the San Fernando Valley, was almost as excited as we were. She stuffed Tracy's suitcase with munchies, trial-sized shampoos and travel accoutrements, even scored us a bottle of Valium for the plane. But the piece de resistance was the tiny, state-of-the-art video camera she gave her daughter, so the entire trip could be documented.
"This is gonna be so great!” Tracy gloated, standing in the middle of LAX, stroking the camera in a gesture not unlike a lover's caress, "We're gonna be able to record every little thing that happens to us!"
The second we stepped off the plane, conservatively dressed, trying desperately to look and act like average tourists, the Fellini shit started. It began with the hotel, which was a dump, even by Third World standards. We'd both agreed to staying in a budget place, being tough chicks who'd back-packed through Europe, camped out on beaches and stranger's floors. We didn’t need cushy surroundings, we both reasoned, we'd hardly ever be there! The lobby of Hotel Amon Toushka said it all. There were a couple of dead palm trees sitting in decomposing clay pots filled with cigar butts and crumpled up tissues. Old men loitered smoking sheesha pipes, their ratty turbans and food- stained galibiyyas barely visible through the haze of stale smoke. The desk clerk was a nastier-looking, vampirical version of Sirhan Sirhan. We considered offering him a pen (for some reason, Western style pens are in huge demand in Egypt, and are considered a status symbol that can also be given as tips or tokens of esteem) but it didn't seem as though it would change his sneering attitude. He demanded our passports immediately, as though he’d sell them on the black market the second we stepped into the elevator. Fortunately, it took almost fifteen minutes to come.
The creaking ride up to our seventh floor room was terrifying; we expected to plunge to the lobby with every lurching second. We wended our way down a narrow corridor, barely lit by naked light bulbs. The dirty salmon-colored walls were punched in every few feet; threadbare oriental carpets littered with piles of chipped plaster and discarded food wrappers were spread haphazardly over bare concrete.
Our room, of course, wasn’t made up. Damp, ragged towels covered the floor, and sagging beds revealed dirty sheets with black pubic hairs interwoven. The sun-bleached curtains had once been a gay Flower Power Seventies print, but were now torn and rotten, falling off their hooks. The indoor/outdoor carpeting was stained with grease, and a dead radio hung by its own wires from a trashed cabinet within the bedside table. Amazed to see a television set, Tracy touched it and the front control panel fell off.
There are only two phrases one needs to know to survive in Cairo. One is "In Sh'Allah,” which means " If God is willing,” the other is "No problem". They are used ubiquitously as well as inter-changeably, covering everything from the answer to a simple question, to the rationalization and/or solution for a major emergency. If something is going to happen, it will…In Sh'Allah, so you wait—no problem—as long as as you need to, until God wills the outcome.
Delirious from lack of sleep and urgently needing to flee the flea-bag, after hearing forty five minutes of "In Sh'Allah" and "No problem" (without tangible results) from the front desk, regarding everything from getting clean linens to making an overseas call, Tracy and I locked our valuables in our suitcases and made for the street, waiting the requisite half-hour for the elevator. While I was looking for the stairs, I opened an emergency exit door and made the rather unsettling discovery that the hotel simply did not exist between our floor and the lobby. There were four steps and then six stories of twisted metal and raw cement (courtesy of the last earthquake) with no stairs or even floors between the ground floor and us. Comforting!
Walking on one of Cairo’s main thoroughfares, Giza Street, between the Ministry Of Culture and the upscale Cairo Sheraton, we were approached by a tubby, balding man in Western clothes. Seemingly reaching for his cell-phone, the guy lighting-quick unbuttoned his shirt, revealing a gray JC Penney's-style, no-nonsense grandma-type bra. It was so threadbare and dirty it couldn't even begin to qualify as lingerie- even a bag lady on crack would’ve been ashamed of it! Looking directly into our eyes as he passed, he tongued his lips lasciviously and squeezed his left nipple. Stunned and speechless, I asked Tracy:
"Did that really happen?"
"I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT JUST HAPPENED!" she replied in amazement.
Our first impulse was to reach for our cameras, but by the time we had them in hand, he was gone. The soldiers guarding the Ministry Of Culture hadn't even noticed him. But we sure noticed them. And it wasn’t just their snowy white Tourist Police uniforms, a beret tilted jauntily to one side. How hard is it to miss lithe, café au lait-skinned nineteen-year-olds with Pharonic features and puppy-dog eyes—especially when they're smoking casually, wearing gun-belts and packing gigantic automatic weapons? Since our cameras were already out, we tried for a photo-op. Instead, we succeeded in attracting the attention of their first in command, a pot-bellied, toothless guy who screamed in broken English that we were violating an Egyptian law we didn't know existed: it is illegal to take pictures of anything having to do with the military. As we left, Tracy whispered, "No problem!" launching us both into fits of punchy giggles.
That night, we were determined to paint the town, even though I'd developed a nasty bladder infection. We’d been guest-listed to see the Dina, the most famous belly dancer in the Arabic world. Dina is a household word, like Cher or Barbra Streisand. We couldn't believe our good fortune. At 9:30 we began our toilette. By 10:00, we discovered the shower wouldn't turn off. By 10:15, we 'd begun a frantic series of calls to the front desk. When 10:30 arrived, the bathtub had begun to fill up, and the whole room was inundated with steam.
" No problem," said Sirhan Sirhan, in a lackadaisical, offhand tone.
Soon the bathroom floor was completely flooded, so I called again at 10:45, and tried to describe in detail, slowly and clearly, what was happening.
"LADY, DON'T BE PANIC!" he hollered in disgust, banging the phone onto the receiver.
I calculated that we'd need at least twenty minutes for the elevator to come, so if we weren't going to miss Dina, we'd have to leave now.
"Fuck it!" I said to Tracy, "We’re outta here!"
We piled our suitcases on top of the dressers, left the windows open for the water vapors to escape, and bailed, drenched as though we'd come out of a steam room.
Dina was awesome, with a huge orchestra and multiple costume changes. For the climax of the show, she danced to a song by Om Kulthoum, and the entire crowd lost it. Om Kulthoum, for those who don’t know, is to the Arabic world what Elvis is to Westerners…and then some. Like The King, after she died, she became even more famous, as though canonized. Every cabby in Cairo has a picture of her in his wallet. The first time I heard Om Kulthoum, I was an immediate convert. Then I saw her picture…and, well, let's just say that she makes Fat Elvis look dignified. The passion in her voice is stunning, but towards the end of her career, she was old and bloated, and didn’t really manage to cover it up in voluminous caftans. Nearly blind, she wore oversized Jackie O sunglasses; she had a number of double chins, which were only accented by her massive beehive bouffant, hair-do. She always sang with a white handkerchief in one hand—some said because her songs were so full of sadness and longing; others insisted it was because she was an addict who concealed cocaine in her hankie, sniffing it onstage during her lengthy concerts. Whatever… the handkerchief, like the glasses and scary hair, were her trademarks. I must say that Om Kulthoum, more than any living human being, resembles those scary old beehive haired ladies in the comic strip "The Far Side." But even mention her name and Egyptians get misty-eyed…. and seeing Dina dance to a thirty piece orchestra playing Om Kulthoum made me and Tracy so crazy we had to go out and party with George, a jovial Lebanese guy we'd just met. We went to the Pyramids Mena House Hotel, where he managed the casino, and got shitfaced on his tab, listening to stories about the multitudinous times he'd been arrested in various countries; then he took us to an after-hours disco. Somewhere along the line, we changed his name to “G-Dog.” Just before the sun came up, we went with G-Dog to his place, right around the corner from our hotel, to have a nightcap of arak (an Arab version of Pernod or Ouzo) with juice and smoke a sheesha pipe before turning in.
We arrived back at our room after the day had officially started. Unbelievably, the shower wasn’t running. Utterly stinko and jubilant that our entire room wasn’t soaked, we documented our hotel room's splendor with Tracy's video camera. We showed off every carpet stain, duct-taped piece of furniture and mildewed towel, reaching new heights of delirium, laughing so hard we ached, and then we discovered that the shower hadn't been fixed—they'd merely covered up the problem by turning our water off! A series of phone calls to the front desk ensued; all met with the standard "No problem" answer. By the time the plumber, accompanied by a shifty-looking, unsettlingly quiet security guard arrived, it was so bright in the room, and we were wearing our shades.
“Look, it's the water doctor!” Tracy cried, sticking the camcorder in the men’s faces the moment they came in through the door.
She giggled drunkenly and filmed everything, from the Arabic curses streaming out of the plumber’s mouth as he wallowed on the bathroom floor getting soaked, to my slaphappy, slurred commentary and Roto-Rooter jokes. Finally, the water pressure was restored and the guys left. Brushing my teeth with my sunglasses on, my hair wadded up into a sloppy bun on top of my head, I was struck with my uncanny resemblance to Om Kulthoum. Grabbing a bed-sheet and draping it around my body to fashion a caftan, waving a piece of Kleenex in my hand, I stepped onto the balcony and started prancing around, bellowing phonetic lyrics to a famous Om Kulthoum song, "Ya M’ Sharni" at the top of my lungs. Tracy filmed my psychotic histrionics with the Nile as a background, until I stepped inside, laughing so hard the sheet fell off.
“Keep singing!” Tracy cried, maneuvering camera angles like a guerilla filmmaker, "Do X-rated nude Om Kulthoum!"
Of course, I obliged her.
* * * * *
We spent most of the next day jet-lagged and hung over, in a cab circling endlessly around Cairo looking for a post office. The one we finally found had a mud yard, with chickens pecking around inside the lobby. Exhausted by the nearly one hundred and twenty degree heat, we sat down at a café. We needed caffeine so badly we were practically sobbing. After waiting ages to have our orders taken and longer for the coffee to get made, the waiter dropped the tray with our drinks just as he approached our table. Maintaining our composure, we actually smiled at him as he slowly shuffled his way back to the kitchen. Finally, my spoiled American need for instant gratification surfaced, mixed with my pounding hangover, and I let loose with a full dose of cranky, culture-shocked sarcasm.
“Trace- you know the Seven Day War?”
“…Yeah,” she grunted, gamely trying to gear up for a political conversation.
“If it takes this long to get a coffee,” I sighed, “I just can’t see how it’s within the realm of possibility that an entire war could’ve gotten started and finished within a week!”
She grinned at me haphazardly, her bloodshot eyes wandering off in two different directions.
* * * * * *
It wasn’t until late that night, still functioning on no sleep, yet about to go clubbing again, that Tracy noticed her camcorder was missing.
"Are you sure?" I asked, thinking it was just buried in her suitcase jumble of blow dryers, workout wear, pantyhose and lunch-box sized snack foods.
"It's gone," she said mournfully, " I looked everywhere."
Our luck was such that Sirhan Sirhan was on duty again, so I went to the lobby to call Raqia Hassan, the woman running the dance festival, who spoke fluent English. Meanwhile, Tracy came down to the lobby and started shrieking, causing a major scene. Sirhan Sirhan, the hotel's manager, and all the old men sitting around smoking sheesha stormed up to the room, throwing everything around, arguing with each other in Arabic and trying to find the camera, which they figured we crazy, rich Americans had only misplaced. All they succeeded in doing was (as we call it in the States) "tampering with a crime scene". In other words, they destroyed any evidence that may have been left behind and left their fingerprints all over our belongings. Raqia sent over one of the festival’s representative/liaisons Mohammed, who arrived looking like a slick, Eighties-style Vegas gigolo, or maybe a near-Eastern version of Don Johnson in “Miami Vice,” dressed head-to-toe in silver sharkskin.
Pissed off and keyed up as she was, Tracy took one look at Mohammed, and began covertly pointing at him, frantically mouthing to me, "HE'S CUTE!"
Trying to be serious, even in the face of Tracy's cartoon-like libidinal display (in spite of his garish taste in clothing, Mohamed was pretty damn easy on the eyes) I kept a straight face and attempted to answer questions posed in Pidgin English. Tracy alternately ranted, giggled, eyed Mohammed lasciviously, and wept.
"There, there, Trashy," Mohammed said, mispronouncing her name as he patted her back while she gave me a sly sidelong glance,” Trashy, please, don't be hysteric! Is OK… no problem!"
Mohammed had me write up a statement for "Trashy" to sign, flashing his silver Bic pen for us to use. At this point, we'd been in Egypt long enough to be duly impressed—a man is only as good as his pen, after all! So all this posturing was Mohammed's way of saying he was on top of the situation. He assured us that Egyptian police were “very clever.” Out of sheer nerves, Tracy and I were compulsively munching our way through her stash of junk food as Mohammed stared in disbelief.
Just then, with a dramatic gasp, her hands flying up to her mouth, Tracy remembered that the missing camera contained footage of my nude Om Kulthoum act, something I’d thought of grimly the very moment she discovered the camera was missing. In fact, I was reasonably sure that my nude concert was all over the Internet by now. With renewed fervor, Tracy told Mohamed it was an absolute necessity she gets her camera back, and, pulling him aside, urgently stage- whispered that there was footage of me naked. At this, Mohamed's eyes nearly popped out of his head in shock over the sinful and almost incomprehensible antics of Loose Westerners.
"We must get the camera and tape back," he said, gravely.
Then, giddy with testosterone and brightening at his good fortune to be in a room with two women who would commit such a licentious act, he leered at me pointedly and said,
"So I can see this!"
After more Arabic arguments with the non- English-speaking contingent from the lobby, which were chain-smoking cigars at a rate equal to our junk food consumption, Mohamed made it clear that it was necessary to go to the police station to give a report. As Tracy and I grabbed our sweaters, Mohamed looked us over dubiously.
"Ah…I mean no offense," he said as politely as he could muster, "But you cannot go to station looking like…" He threw his hands up heavenwards, " Like… one hundred percent… nightclub womens!"
Obediently washing off our glitter make-up, we changed into baggy, covered -up "decent” clothes as I noticed my jeans had also been stolen.
Even though it was fucked up that we’d been robbed, and that we weren't going to go out to see Lucy or Fifi Abdou dance, we both were a little excited and adrenaline -charged with the prospect of going to Police Headquarters in Cairo. It would, after all, be An Adventure.
The moment we entered the station, our illusions were shattered and we started to get scared. It was as though we'd stepped out of a James Bond movie and into Midnight Express. As our eyes adjusted to the dim, flickering fluorescent lights, we took in the cracked, filthy linoleum floors; the rat-traps in the corners; the battered file cabinets, their drawers open and bulging with folders; not to mention the surly-looking, middle-aged cops lounging on dilapidated naugahyde chairs, nonchalantly cleaning their Kalashnikov machine guns. Tracy gripped my hand so hard her bubble gum-pink acrylic nails dug into my palm. Mohamed and the head cop started yelling at each other immediately.
"Not Without My Camcorder!" I whispered, trying to put Tracy at ease with a joke.
Mohammed motioned us frantically to be quiet as the head guy, who had a huge scar down one cheek, stood up abruptly, adjusted his gun-belt in a macho pose, and said to Tracy in deadly calm, perfect English,
"Whom do you wish to accuse?"
"Accuse?" Tracy asked, her voice barely audible and quivering with terror.
"Yes, you must accuse someone!" the cop said, his gaze steely, as he took out a long knife and began tapping it impatiently on the desk.
Tracy stood silently, suddenly looking very small and young, her eyes darting around nervously before finally meeting mine. I felt skittish; my breath was quick and shallow, as I took in the whole situation, sizing things up. Self-preservation tactics and plans began running through my mind. It seemed as though… maybe we should just…forget the whole matter, go back to the hotel, get some rest, take it easy…perhaps do some light sight-seeing the next day…. Chalk up the camcorder as a loss… and say anything to get out of this situation. What's a camcorder, anyway? Just a material possession that can be easily replaced. And really, what would happen if they did get it back, and- oh my god! - Saw Naked Om Kulthoum, then what?
Quickly, reality hit me, as well as waves of dread. I felt panicky about what I'd done on film, what I’d done thoughtlessly in a foreign country. Was I out of my mind?
To me, at the time, it was just tipsy shenanigans. If I had done this at home, in Hollywood, it would've been a joke, even with the cops, but what about here? Surely, there were laws about nudity not to mention lewd conduct—was I completely insane? What the hell was I thinking? Egypt may not be as hardcore about morality and religion as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Iran, where women are mandated to veil and not even allowed to drive, but still, it's an unbelievably conservative, 98% Muslim country.
I had the distinct feeling that what I did would never fall under the umbrella of Allah having willed it, and there'd be no way I could never explain away my flagrant display by saying “No problem.” Totally horrified, suddenly I felt the need to pee. Badly.
"Mohammed," I whined, like a kindergartner about to have an accident, "I have to go to the bathroom!"
Tracy was biting her cuticles, saying nothing as Mohammed regarded me and said emphatically,
"But you cannot go to the bathroom here. You must wait."
I resigned myself, rationalizing that it was just nerves and not my bladder infection, trying to breathe deeply and think calming thoughts, when the hotel's plumber was brought in, hands cuffed behind his back, looking absolutely terrified.
The cops roughly threw him onto a bench facing us and began harshly interrogating him. I openly stared at his cheap rubber sandals, worn-out pants and his haggard face, and felt horrible. He looked like a nice guy, a decent sort. It didn’t seem as though he would steal anything. He probably had a wife and kids at home in a hovel somewhere. Soon, my remorse changed to desperation: after another forty-five minutes of everyone in the room screaming at each other, my teeth were floating.
"I have to go to the bathroom," I said urgently, pummeling Mohammed.
"YOU CANNOT GO TO THE BATHROOM!" he hollered,
"THIS IS BATHROOM ONLY FOR CRIMINAL!"
"I HAVE A BLADDER INFECTION!" I yelled right back, as all the policemen's heads snapped around like Linda Blair's in The Exorcist.
"But listen to me," Mohammed said carefully, as though he was talking to an obstinate child or someone with a severe mental disability, " You must wait. This bathroom is…. INHUMAN!"
"I'm going to wet my pants," I said truthfully, through gritted teeth.
Another agonizing ten minutes went by as Mohammed attempted to explain my situation to the cops, who regarded me dubiously. Finally granted reluctant permission, Mohammed took my hand tightly, and with an escort of two cops, I limped down a corridor to the toilet.
There were a bunch of men loitering around in pimpy-looking 80’s sweat suits with pagers and cheap cell-phones prominently displayed. I noticed that they were linked together chain-gang-style with Medieval-looking iron leg-shackles. Standing near them was the most over-the top, freakish hooker I'd ever seen. If she’d been a character in a Tarantino or John Waters film, she’d have been hard to believe. She momentarily made me forget my bloated bladder. Tall and corpulent, she wore a luridly patterned mis-matched skirt and low-cut blouse, which looked even more psychedelic than it already was under the strobing fluorescent lights; the cheap, sparkly fabric nearly bursting over huge, melon-like, stretch-mark-scarred breasts. Shiny taupe Spandex tights encased her sausage-shaped legs, leading to white pumps almost completely black with scuffmarks. Her massive, badly permed ‘do was bleached a sickly shade of orange, filled with plastic flowers. Her clown-like make-up resembled Joel Grey's "Emcee" character in Cabaret—two symmetrical circular splotches of red on her pock-marked cheeks complimented the harsh, silvery blue shadow which almost—but not quite—hid a huge shiner. She was handcuffed, and on one of her scratched and hirsute arms, wore bangle bracelets up to the elbow. From the noise they made—a tinkle, rather than a clank—it was obvious they were real gold- a fortune’s worth.
The guards went into the bathroom first, roughly dragging a man in traditional Saidi dress out, as he protested violently. Actually, the toilet was no worse than any other Egyptian bathroom I'd been in, except for the fresh feces smeared on the walls. There were two metal foot-forms on the floor flanking an open hole in which to relieve yourself. No toilet paper, no light. As I urinated and endless stream, sighing in relief, Mohammed guarded me, providing a human barricade so no one could open the door, which didn't have a lock. I could see his Italian loafer-encased feet planted firmly, inches from my own, outside the stall door.
Back in the main room, Tracy was still sitting morosely, looking small and scared, squirrelly at being left alone in this hellhole. More arguing ensued. Perhaps "Trashy” had brought the camera to Cairo only to lose it intentionally, so as to collect insurance? How did we know in fact that the perpetrator wasn’t one of the hotel maids?
We valiantly tried to explain that Tracy had never even insured the thing, and if she had, wouldn’t it have been much easier to just "lose” the camera in Los Angeles…why go through all the red tape of doing it in a foreign country-one with a different alphabet- for Christ’s sake?
We both were positive that the culprit was the suspicious-looking hotel security guard who’d accompanied the plumber. First of all, the door hadn't been forced, so it was obviously an inside job. Second—and more importantly—the security guard was the only person besides the plumber who'd even seen the camera. And the plumber was here, shitting bricks, probably thinking he was about to get his hand cut off or something. Plus, both Tracy and I thought it odd that if indeed the thief had been one of the naïve- looking teenage chambermaids, why hadn’t they stolen any of the multitudinous beauty products, costume jewelry or feminine clothing we’d left out? The only item stolen other than the camera was a Levi 501’ s- coveted American men’s jean that would’ve fit the security guard perfectly. With the severe language barrier, all this was almost impossible to translate to the police.
Finally, Tracy was made to sign a statement that she couldn't even read—it had been typed up in Arabic, of course. We were finally allowed to leave, just as dawn was breaking.
"I feel as though you are my sisters," Mohammed said, darting expertly through Cairo’s kamikaze traffic, apparently forgetting about being all hot at the possibility of seeing my nude Om Kulthoum karaoke act. As he dropped us off in front of the Amon Toushka, he handed us his business card , saying he would get the matter sorted out, which we severely doubted. Relieved to be done with the whole incident, we'd both written off the possibility of ever seeing the camcorder again.
We immediately started packing our belongings, planning a hasty exit. There was no way we were going to spend even another minute in the hotel. Tracy called G-Dog, who was just arriving home from his casino job.
"GUESS WHERE I'VE BEEN?" she shouted hysterically shrill and almost gleefully into the phone, "I'VE BEEN IN JAIL!!!"
After hearing an abbreviated version of our ordeal, he commanded us to get a cab to his house immediately. We could stay with him, he said chivalrously; or he would help check us into a Five Star hotel. As Tracy struggled with her overstuffed bags, waiting impatiently for the elevator, she suggested taking the stairs, too delirious to realize that all her luggage would've been totally unmanageable.
"Let's just wait," I sighed, too exhausted to explain to her that there was literally nothing between our floor and the lobby.
As we tried to beat a hasty exit, attempting to forego the proper check- out procedure with Sirhan Sirhan (whom we never, ever wanted to see again) the scene at the front desk could've been any random newsreel footage of people trying to escape a Third World country as a coup took place. Everyone sitting around the lobby, all the old men, even a bunch of newly arrived, jet-lagged, hippie-looking Norwegian tourists, got involved. Sirhan Sirhan was going apoplectic, pounding on his ledger, shrieking and gesturing wildly. On the street, the cabbie we’d just flagged down and bribed with a ten-pound note, was simultaneously stuffing our luggage into the trunk of his car while bellowing loudly, violently engaged in a duffel bag tug-of-war with the Tourist Police, who’d been summoned by Siran Sirhan.
We finally escaped, and safely at the entrance to G-Dog's building, I started laughing hysterically while Tracy broke down in the tears that had been threatening all night. At this point, we hadn't slept more than four or five hours in like…six days.
Later that day, we checked into the Ramses Hilton, where the Oriental Dance Festival was being held. The employees at reception were charming and fawned all over us, sending our bags up to our room with a crisply -uniformed bellhop and offering us a gratis cocktail we gulped gratefully while we waiting for the paperwork to go through.
We were amazed at the cleanliness and luxe modern amenities of our room. Feeling like we'd won the lottery, we noted the sparkling clean bathroom, with a tub, shower and bidet, plus fluffy, pristine bath-towels, tiny soaps and lotions neatly sealed in Hilton wrappers. There was a big-screen color- TV (that actually worked) with a remote control, double beds, and a phone whose receiver wouldn’t give you hepatitis, trench mouth or some leprous skin condition. Putting on our bikinis, we went down to the pool, crashed onto chaise lounges and ordered more liquor immediately, charging the cocktails to our room.
After the dance festival started, Mohammed came by, wearing a Mafioso-like combo of a black polyester shirt and skin-tight, white-brushed denim jeans, which unfortunately showcased his beefy thighs. Shiny-faced and sweaty, he had bags under his eyes, was in need of a shave, and reeked of cheap cologne.
"Still no news on your camera, Trashy," he said, trying to look all in charge and official with his clipboard.
We knew through the grapevine that he'd been bungling matters all week, including taking care of some other festival attendees staying at the Amon Toushka, who’d had property stolen out of their rooms. As he fumbled, flipping through some paper work looking for a police document Tracy needed to show at customs upon departure, Tracy and I both eyed him critically. There were wet rings of perspiration under his arms, his hands were shaking.
Leaning in close to me, Tracy whispered cattily,
"You know, Mohammed's not really that cute… he's kind of a dork… and he's sort of fat."
I nodded in agreement.
"All he really has going for himself," Tracy yawned, "Is a good pen!"
He was a harried, stressed-out mess, a polyester disaster, a buffoon- a mere shell of the take-charge guy he had been the week before. Chunky and inept, he was almost endearing in a pathetic sort of way. He’d put up with a lot- from us, especially. Feeling a wave of pity, for a few seconds, I wished he could see my Om Kalthoum impersonation after all. It’d do him some good, cheer him up, possibly restore his former macho jauntiness.
Tracy and I did our best to appear grateful. We tried not to roll our eyes as Mohammed continued earnestly, "…But the police, I am sure they are working on your case…"
"Yeah, sure Mohamed,” Tracy said, all Valley Girl and sarcastic, cutting him off mid-sentence while catching my eye.
“ I know -one hundred percent…The police, they are very clever!”
Her sarcasm sailed with an almost audible swoosh right over Mohammed’s head as she drawled,
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
When I found out that Turkish male belly dance star Ozgen was coming to Los Angeles for a few days of vacation, I laid down the law: he simply had to do a workshop and a show.
Born in Istanbul and living in London, Ozgen is an international star who has been dancing since childhood. Trained in ballet, jazz, modern and ballroom styles, he’s been specializing in Turkish Romany ( Roman Havasi) and Oryantal dance for almost fifteen years. For years he was an instructor and choreographer at the Tolghan School in Turkey; he currently performs and teaches sold-out workshops all over Europe and the Far East.
I often joke that Ozgen was one of the best birthday presents I ever got: we met two years ago on my birthday in London, backstage at The Shimmy Shake Show at the venue Madame Jo-Jo’s in Soho, and have taught and performed together at Festival Fantasia, also in London. The night we met, we immediately got along like gangbusters, but after I saw him perform, like everyone else in the audience, I fell in love! He is ridiculously talented, technically amazing, and has incredible spinal and upper-body flexibility, allowing his movements to be both precisely sharp and almost bonelessly liquid at the same time. The pure love and passion he brings to his dancing is evident, and infectious to anyone who has the pleasure of watching him.
When I found out this gem was coming to LA, I knew I wanted to do an event with him- the only hitch was that I was leaving for Egypt to teach and perform at Ahlan Wa Sahlan the very next week, and he was coming mere days after I would return. Thankfully, Nasila and Melia from LA Raqs stepped in, and together we co-ordinated and promoted an Ozgen extravaganza, at Studio Iqaat. All I can say is, The Internet made it all possible- we emailed about everything, setting performers, deciding on curriculum and getting details together-and advertised- while I was at Ahlan Wa Sahlan in Cairo. In fact, both Aubre and Fahtiem, guest-stars at the show, were in Egypt at the same time I was, and so I roped them into performing while they were riddled with jet-lag!
Both the workshop and the show sold out. The workshop , where Ozgen contrasted the similar-yet-unique movements of both Turkish Oryantal and Romany dances, drew in avid students as well as local professionals like Rania, Lee Ali, Marguerite Kusuhara, and Celeste of IAMED. Ozgen’s teaching style is facile with clear breakdowns, and he made sure everybody learned about and understood the sociological and cultural inferences in the various gestures he demonstrated. His English skills are fantastic , and though the class moved a long at a good clip, his spot-on teaching is infused with humor and wit. He charmed everybody with his cute non-traditional names for footwork patterns and with his verbal expressions as well- at one point he referred to the flirtatious shoulder movements of Turkish Oryantal as “cuddly”!
Los Angeles has long been a hot-spot of Oriental dance, with many world-class performers living in the city, so the show had an all-star line-up. Audience members were literally astounded at the name performers participating. In addition to Ozgen, Aubre, Fahtiem, Nasila and myself, the evening also included Tamra-Henna, up-and-coming LA-based male dancer Richy Nedjat, and last-minute guest, Rania, who signed on as a surprise wild card at 11:30 pm the night before the event!
Noted Arabic percussionist and Studio Iqaat owner Donavon Lerman pulled together a small Arabic ensemble to kick the show off with live music; and a Turkish band featuring Vedat on saz and vocals, Jessica on clarinet, and Donavon himself on tabla. Rania kicked the evening off performing to “Mavi, Mahvi” on CD, followed by Nasila performing to “Leylet Hob” live, Richy interpreting “Eshta Ya Amar” , Tamra Henna doing “We Deret Al Ayam” in a stunning red Sahar Okasha, and Aubre doing a hot Saidi Assaya. Fahtiem and I both opted to perform to the live Turkish band, and it was amazing to watch Fahtiem performing Turkish, since she so rarely does. For my part, I loved dancing to Turkish music, and I got chills with Jessica’s gorgeous clarinet taxim during my show.
Ozgen performed twice: his first piece, a Romany dance ( a version of which I heartily encourage readers to view on YouTube!) had the entire audience screaming, it was so full of attitude and unbridled machismo. His second show was pure Oryantal, quick-paced, dynamic and thrilling. He even did snakey floor work-complete with backbends- while Jessica played him an extended taxim. He ended his piece with a mind-banding, spine-snapping Turkish drop…then got up quickly to lure the audience out for open-floor dancing, which continued on for quite a long time.
The very next morning, he left for the airport, and back home to London.
All I can say is…if you have the chance to see or study with this incredible dancer- don’t even think about it- JUST DO IT!
For more info on Ozgen, please visit www.ozgen.co.uk
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
ATTENTION ALL INMATES:
The trailer is now up for "Stuck!" , award-winning director Steve Balderson's fabulous new women-in-prison movie!
"Stuck!" stars Karen Black, Mink Stole, Stacy Cunningham, Susan Traylor, Jane Wiedlin, Pleasant Gehman ( that would be me!) and Starina Johnson as "Daisy".
I play Dutch, a cop-killing hooker who becomes Daisy's Deathrow Sweetheart.
"Stuck!", filmed in black and white on location in Macon Georgia in May 2009, is a tribute to vintage cinema noir films,complete with a wrongly-accused heroine, hard-boiled broads-behind-bars, sadistic prison guards, hipster lingo, gratuitous shower scenes, cat-fightin' cuties, and more!
See the trailer here: www.stucknoir.com
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Every year Raqia Hassan’s Ahlan WA Sahlan Festival takes over the world of belly dance in the last week of June, drawing Oriental dancers from all over the planet to Cairo, Egypt. The weeklong extravaganza is always a dizzying array of Egyptian music and dance performances, workshops taught by living legends, and blindingly blinged-out couture costumes. 2009 marked the Tenth Anniversary of the festival, and the ante was upped accordingly to celebrate the landmark occasion. This year, even though overall attendance seemed to be down a bit due to the global economic crisis, the gala opening and closing shows, competitions, classes and general ambiance were super-charged and amazing.
A decade ago, in 1999, I went to the first Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival with my friend Layla. We were both starry-eyed Los Angeles-based dancers eager to take as many classes and see as many dancers as possible. We also got into a boat-load of crazy belly dance shenanigans, but trust me- that story is so involved-and so scandalous- I'll save it for a later date!
Ten years later, Layla and I are both professional dancers who work all over the world. In 2008 when I was visiting Cairo, Raqia Hassan asked me to teach at the Festival, and of course I took her up on it! Happily, Layla had a baby boy last year, but sadly, that blessed event prevented her from attending this year...so I was prepared to have an adventure on my own, until i realized there would be many of my dance-pals from LA as well as around the world in attendance.
I got to spend some quality time with my friend Aleya, who recently moved to Cairo to pursue her career as a dancer; I also hung out A LOT with Angelika Nemeth, Fahtiem, and Morocco- all amazing women whom I've known for years, and am constantly inspired by. It was also a pleasure to see my old Cairo friends Katia and Hallah Moustafa, and spend time with new ones, like Astryd Farah, Caroline of Cairo, Diana, Zula, Mohamed Shahin and Sara Farouk.
Arriving in Egypt this year was full-on crackers, just crazy- and not just cause of the jet-lag!
Before passengers even cleared the arrival gates, legions of policemen and Army officers in surgical masks and latex gloves met all the new travellers, scanning them with heat-sensing devices, ostensibly to prevent the spread of H1N1 Swine Flu. I was so tired, I couldn't understand why they were taking everyone's picture...DUH!
I shared a weary ride to the Mena House with Rashida, a wonderful dancer who lives in Morocco, Paris and Sharm El Sheikh. We checked in, had tea and went to sleep early.
Like many other dancers, I arrived a few days early to shake my jet lag before the Festival began, but the Cairo dance scene was already a humming hotbed of activity. The Nile Group Festival had just ended, and between those lingering post-Nile Group, and early arrivals for Ahlan WA Sahlan, nobody- from musicians to Cairo-based dancers to costumers- was taking even a moment to breathe!
Madame Raqia’s apartment was a madhouse, with students from far-flung locales taking privates (every day, for practically a week solid) from 8:30am-10:00pm; many others were there just to hang out. Among them: Nelly Fouad, folkloric dancer Shalaby, Russian dancer Katia, Hungary’s Beata Thoth, Doaa Salam of The Reda Troupe, French –Algerian dancer Cherine, and male dancer Abdou from Paris. Brazilian dancer Soraya stopped by to pick up costume pieces, while others sorted out musicians for different performances…even Dr. Mo Geddawi stopped in, fresh from the airport, raving about the wonders of Facebook! Azza Sheriff was on the phone with Madame Raqia discussing her just-added Master Class and the schedule was literally being updated every five minutes. Arabic music was blaring from boom-boxes in the studio and the living room, Jillina’s temporary Egyptian Cabaret License was being sorted out; Turkish coffee and koshary were all being consumed at an alarming rate, visa emergencies with dancers from China and Russia were being negotiated.
Next door, at Eman Zaki’s costume atelier, things were no different. Bedlahs and dresses in various states of completion were flung onto every available surface while finished costumes were being stuffed into boxes for transport to the Mena House; at least five dancers were being fitted simultaneously for costumes, kids ran through the atelier shrieking as groups of worker sat at tables, on couches and the floor furiously beading; Ali Zaki (Eman’s brother and business manager) sisters Hoda and Nadia, and Eman’s assistant Sara Farouk fielded numerous cell-phone calls with mouths full of pins , furiously working on Randa Kamel’s Assuit costume for Ahlan Wa Sahlan’s Opening Gala. Yasmina of Cairo was there, chatting Cairo resident American dancer Aleya; Wholesale orders for Dahlal and The Belly Dance Store were being packed for shipping: a runner was being dispatched to the Cairo Airport to deliver a just-finished costume to a departing Korean dancer.
The next day, all this mayhem moved to The Mena House.
As Morocco’s, Fahtiem’s and Angelika Nemeth’s tour groups arrived from the US, other jet-lagged dancers fresh from Taiwan, Ukraine, Brazil and Argentina and many other countries wearily dragged suitcases though the lobby, while the hallways were being transformed into a souk, goodies from Crazy Move, Hanan, Yasser, Mamdou, Sahar Okasha and many others. Egyptian tunes blared simultaneously from cell phones, laptops and boom boxes. Registration opened and it was a madhouse with a crazy scramble for workshop spaces and performance slots.
The Opening Night Gala kicked things off with a performance by a children’s Tannoura (whirling dervish) group that was nothing short of incredible. Little kids, utterly tranced out and spinning for like, twenty minutes at a time. During their performance, as I watched them, I thought to myself that they looked like a Sufi version of The Jackson Five... so imagine my shock soon after when I found out that Michael jackson had died! Yes, the sad news spread to Cairo via CNN immediately and when I texted Aleya about it, she was so dumbfounded she thought I was making it up!
But back to the show... Amir Thaleb ( who has a new long 'do looks downright foxy in a Pocahontas-meets-Fabio way) and his group performed a fantastic mini-suite featuring Oriental, Debke, Folkloric and Fusion. Then came full shows by Randa Kamel and Brazilian dancer Soraya, a rising star and the featured dancer at The Cairo Sheraton. Both employed twenty-plus piece bands and incredible singers. Soraya’s show included an Oriental opening, a Malaya Leff where she wore a Catholic school-girl plaid skirt and knee socks (yes, really!) and ended with a Brazillian Samba, complete with towering headdress, culminating in a drum solo. Randa’s show had the audience breathless with her sheer power and clean, strong technique. Both Randa and Soraya (and later, Dina) wore costumes embellished with HUGE paillettes… the latest trend in Cairo costumes. To me, it looked like Randa had a mullet, but Aleya insisted it was just new hair-extensions!
The evening concluded with Shaabi singer Essam Karika, who went on after 2:00 am. i was about to go to sleep and Aleya forced me to stay... I was SO glad I did! He had an entire circus in tow, all dressed in insane black and white costumes, including a clown riding a unicycle onstage, Samba dancers, belly dancing clowns on stilts, jugglers, midgets, dervishes who stood on top of tables spinning, and a guy in a gorilla suit chasing audience members through the ballroom!
The next morning, classes began at 10:00am- hell for everybody who stayed til the end of Karika’s set, which concluded around 3:30am.
My taxim and abdominal technique class was scheduled for this day, and in spite of the late night and early class-time, it was packed full with students from Taiwan, Korea, Mainland China, Spain, Italy, Morocco, Netherlands, France, and I’m not even sure where else. Only four students spoke fluent English, so breaking down the technique became akin to a game of belly dance charades! Since I couldn't accurately verbalize my muscular movements in a way non-English speakers could understand, i had to literally take the student's hands and place them on my belly!
Though festival attendees were disappointed that Dina was a no-show for the Opening Gala - due to a scheduling snafu she was traveling back to Cairo that night- she made up for it by performing a full set that evening. Dina’s entire show was brand new, except for her signature opening and of course, “Tahtil Shebak”. Luscious as usual, she talked to and teased the audience, and wore a parade of her trademark scandalous costumes including a zebra print dress that looked spray-painted on and a crazy burlesque-influenced black and red number, complete with a garter on one thigh and a red rhinestone heart pierced with an arrow on her left breast.
The next days were filled with workshops and master classes by the likes of Raqia Hassan, Momo Kadous, Nabil Mabrouk, Jillina, Katia, Morocco, Dina, Fahtiem, Angelika, Atef and Magda Farag, and Mohamad Shahin. My personal favorite workshops were with living legend Azza Sheriff, Mona El Said (who taught in cut-off jean shorts and an Ed Hardy belt!) and Eman Zaki. Most know Eman as a costumer, but from the 1970’s-1980’s, she and sister Hoda were dancers, as was their mother in the 1940’s. Eman taught Golden Age technique and was breathtaking.
The festival’s teachers, as well as competitions filled the evenings with performances. It was a delight seeing Leyla Jouvana and Roland, Spain’s Munique Neith, and Meera’s Bollywood was a welcome break from “Oriental Overload”! Many of the teacher’s performances, including mine, were to Khemis Henkesh and his band, and when they played the opening strains of “We Daret El Ayam” and I stepped onto the stage, I got goose bumps! After I came offstage, the musicians were also taking a break. Three or four of them pressed me into a corner while one screamed into my face, his eyes practically rolling back in his head,
"BLACK AND WHITE!!!! BLACK AND WHITE!!"
I had no idea what he was talking about, and started to get a little...well, concerned.
Finally, one of the other musicians translated:
"He think you look very helwa, like one hundred percent Black And White Movie, very very old 1960's, forty-year-ago movie!"
In hindsight, it was one of the best compliments I'ver ever recieved!
Astryd Farah, Diana Tarkhan, and a dancer from Miami whose real name was Princess were doing stage-managing. They all valiantly tried to keep order, but there was none to be had....it was a mess back there! Astryd especially remained cool-headed, but mostly backstage was a madhouse, due to the many performers and the myriad languages spoken. One night, there was even a belly dance catfight backstage, with actual punches- as well as a chair- being thrown!
Sometimes the sheer amount of belly dancers and live Arabic music played at top volume made it a necessity for me to retire to my room for ten minutes of "Quiet Time". Really, it was great, but with jet-lag the constant dancing and music sometimes relentless and put me into sensory overdrive.... something I tried to acheive for years with all manner of controlled substances was happening with belly dance- it was kinda nuts!
In the competitions, the dancers from Ukraine and Russia swept the top three spots- they were dynamite. Everyone at the Teacher’s Table- inckuding Mohamed Shahin, Meera, Aleya, Diana, and me vowed jokingly to retire during the winner of the Children’s category set- she was a seven year old Russian dancer who was mind-blowing!
The Closing Night Gala was fantastic. Said El Artist and a group of drummers started the night off with a bang; Katia performed opening with her signature piece “Amar El Laily”, did a stunning assaya, and three costume changes, ending with a lavender and rhinestone outfit that was blinding and beautiful. Jillina’s set began with a heartfelt “thank you” speech, progressed into a flawless “Alf Leyla WA Leyla”, and concluded with “El Hantour” and of course she did her tablo solo perched on the drum itself. She did a great job considering she’d had only an afternoon of rehearsals with the musicians…. and was leaving to the airport directly after her show! Shaabi singer Sa’ad Sagheir ended the evening with a show to rival Karika’s on the first night. He came into the ballroom accompanied by at least fifty male dancers, in hot pink shirts and vintage gangster-like fedora hats. As Sa’ad sang from atop somebody’s table, the dancers alternately performed in sync on stage and ran through the audience like maniacs, inciting the crow to dance. One grabbed a costume-mannequin and began ardently making love to it, directly on our table for an entire song!
After the show, I hung out in Jillina's room as she prepared to leave for the airport. Our mutual old friend, costumer Hallah Moustafa was there with a veiled assistant and some of her latest creations, and Angelika Nemeth and I were gleefully trying them on. Jillina was in the shower when the front desk called, saying that her ride to the airport was arriving in fifteen minutes. Just then, Room Service rung the doorbell, with soup Jillina had ordered. Jumping out of the shower and over a room full of open suitcases, she quickly tied on a towel sarong-style , as Angelika and I, both half-naked, ran to hide in the window drapery. Hallah's assistant answered the door, trying to act normal, while the waiter's mouth fell open in disbelief as Jillina paid him in her terry-cloth ensemble!
In between all this, I somehow found the time for “extra-curricular” activities. I did photos with legendary dance photographer Andre Elbing and the Pyramids as a backdrop and I went with Morocco to the Khan Al Khalili Folklore show. It was Cairo-based dancer ( and Harvard grad!) Diana’s birthday and costumer Yasser threw her a party on the Nile Pasha, where tables full of Saudis boogied down to the live band. Yasser happily smoked sheesha while Mohamed Shahin, Diana and Aleya treated us to live music and impromptu performance.
I also went to the Nile Pharoah with Fahtiem and Angelika’s group to see Lorna (great show, impeccable bodylines) and a Tannoura dancer who looked just like Robert Mitchum!
Another night, we went to the Nile Maxim to watch Asmahan. What an incredible performer! Asmahan was carried onstage by her male dancers concealed in a heart-shaped red box, and popped out of it in rainbow Isis Wings and an insane costume encrusted with 3-D hot pink roses. She then did a Bedouin fortuneteller routine in Assuit. Her stage presence and slinky technique were impressive, as was her black costume (reminiscent of Cher in the 1970’s) with floor-length fringe and “ASMAHAN” in rhinestones across her hip-belt!
The night I left, I also hit my favorite seedy joint The Lido, on Sharia Haram, with my friend Ahmed and the lovely Aussie dancer Caroline, who lives in Cairo.
That night we saw eight dancers who ranged from technically sound to downright wild. One dancer was getting fed mezza by patrons- while she danced! Dancer Marika paraded around yelling a customers, lifting her skirts literally over her head, and jiggled crazily while one of the house singers- a little person – shorter than her hip-level, sang. We stayed til dawn, and tried to go to The Sphinx for sunrise, but it wasn't open yet.
I think I slept less than four hours every night I was in Cairo, and some nights, i didn't sleep at all. The whole two weeks was a major whirlwind, and it took me a pretty long time to recover! I’m definitely doing it again next year…. Care to join me?
Photo by Aleya
Thursday, July 9, 2009
I have just returned from Cairo..after a 20 + hour trip and another 12-18 hours passed out sleeping, I am almost-but not quite- human.
As soon as I get it together, I will post a full report on the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival ( which was mind-boggling) and all the incredible perfomances, including full sets by Dina, Randa Kamel, Katia, Jillina, Dalila, Dahlia and Soraya...plus all the workshops, including master classes by Mona El Said, Azza Sheriff, Raqia Hassan, Mo Geddawi, Katia, Doaa Salam and many more.
Will also be posting articles about Cairo and Egypt in general, including more reports from sleazy balady nightclubs, Asmahan's show on the Nile Maxim, up and coming dancers Lorna and Cherine, Tannoura/dervish shows and more. I hung out a lot with Morocco, Katia, Sarah Farouk, Fahtiem, Angelika Nemeth, Caroline Of Cairo, and many more- and oh the fun we had. Spent a lot of time with my pal Aleya ( who has been living in Cairo the past seven months, her roomate Diana, a Harvard Grad who is studying and dancing in Cairo, and Mohamed Shaheen who was not only tons of fun but helped me out a lot, by getting me an Egyptian cell-phone, doing translations and making sure I ate!
I also did an extensive interview with Eman Zaki, who has just started teaching again- her class was amazing- yes, Eman, the famous costumer, who used to be a dancer- is back in the dance arena, she taught Golden Age style at the Festival and we yakked up a storm!
I met and worked with legendary dance photographer Andre Elbing- he took live pix of my performances and we did a "studio" session at the Mena House with all the gorgeous antiques and pyramids as our back-drop!
My class at Ahlan Wa Sahlan was very well-attended- I taught women from Korea, China,France, Italy, Morocco, Japan, Taiwan, Spain and Portugal...and only four of them spoke English! Teaching was like a game of Oriental Dance charades!
I performed twice at the festival with Khemis Henkesh and his full band, including a great singer- it was goose-bump inducing to dance to Om Kalthoum in Egypt- the band sounded so amazing!
Full report soon!
Live photos from Ahlan Wa Sahlan by Andre Elbing