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 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,


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 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

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I'm speechless, except to say this tribal girl has a huge dance crush on Mona, I would love to take a workshop with her.