Saturday, July 16, 2011


As The Ahlan WA Sahlan Festival began, there was the usual flurry of activity on the Mena House grounds and in the hallways, with dancers running back and forth to the many classes offered and shopping in the festival’s costume souk. But the Mena House itself, one of Cairo’s grandest five-star hotels and originally a palace built in 1869, would have been virtually empty if not for the festival.

The Egyptian Revolution was still in the forefront of everyone’s mind as Ahlan WA Sahlan got rolling. Many Egyptians I spoke with were hopeful; some were a bit skeptical or adapting a “wait and see” attitude about the up-coming September elections and the country’s future. Nonetheless, whether in serious or more light-hearted opinions, Egypt’s volatile protests and current political climate were a constant source of speculation and conversation. Many locals and visitors were sporting I (HEART) Egypt T-shirts, and when I complimented costume designer Eman Zaki about her new hairdo, a dark mahogany bob, she smiled, ruffled her tresses and proclaimed jokingly,
“It’s my Revolution hairstyle- new Egypt, new hair!”

But on a more serious note, due to the unrest, many businesses had been closed for a month or more, and because of the curfews that had been enforced until the end of June, Cairo’s famous nightlife had been significantly reduced, resulting in an alarming situation for the citizens and ex-pats who made their living that way: the dancers and their dressers, hair stylists and drivers; costume designers and their tailors and beaders, musicians, nightclub managers, waiters, bar staff, lavatory attendants, cooks, cab drivers, and so on.

Though all the classes at Ahlan Wa Sahlan were significantly smaller this year, the Master classes were the most crowded- and rightly so- with instructors like Azza Sherrif, Yasmina Of Cairo, Leila Haddad, Nelly Fouad, Dandash, Leila Farid and Raqia Hassan and many more teaching. The lesser amount of festival attendees meant more one-on-one time with the instructors, and most of the students were thrilled with this arrangement. It also meant that there was a lot more time for talking shop with Egyptian and foreign dancers. Every night there were many tables full of dancers- both teachers and students- socializing at The Mena House’s Khan Al Khalili coffee shop.

The Teacher’s Night Show began with a fantastic, rowdy Saidi band, headed by Amr Abu Ziab, who had the whole Mena House ballroom rocking. As the band’s musicians, singers, Tannoura and Saidi dancers roved through the crowd, beckoning people to get up to dance, the entire place turned into a raucous, deliriously sweaty dance party. Normally staid instructors like Zaza Hassan were handed canes and obliged with twirling assaya dancing; there were rings of people holding hands doing line dances around the ballroom, and many audience members boogying on top of tables and chairs.

Later in the evening, Safaa Farid took the stage, and many teachers opted to dance to his band’s live music. Safaa’s band sounds just like his many CDs, produced by his wife, Leila of Cairo, and they played almost every night of the festival- it was a joy to hear them playing favorites like “Wahashtini”, “Esmaouni” and various Om Kalthoum and more contemporary popular songs.

Every night during the festival (as with past years) there were open dancing slots which attendees could sign up for as well as the popular “Queen Of Raks Sharqi” competition, which featured the Master Class instructors as a judging panel. The performers for both types of shows ranged from seasoned professionals to brand new students, all of whom had cheering sections from their various countries of origin. Some of the standout performers on these shows were Esmeralda Conrad from France, Said El Amir from Germany and his lovely troupe, Leyla Lanty, Yasmina Of Cairo, Aziza Abdul Ridha from Italy, and Anastasia Biservova, who won the competition dancing Om Kalthoum’s “Ansak” pleasing the crowd with her great technique and beautiful spins.

During the course of the festival, many dancers opted to skip a day or two of classes to go on expeditions to Egypt’s monuments and antiquities, or to Downtown Cairo for trips to the Khan Al Khalili bazaar and the nearby Folkloric Tannoura show. Again, most of Cairo’s sightseeing spots were uncharacteristically quiet, due to lack of tourism, so this was a prime opportunity to enjoy Egypt without teeming crowds. On my trips outside the festival, I noticed there were roadblocks set up around Tahrir Square, and one morning on my way to Khan Al Khalili, there was a very large Muslim Brotherhood rally going on, with a number of bearded men preaching -literally as well as figuratively- from a raised stage, in front of large banners.

The Ahlan Wa Sahlan staff was hyper-sensitive about dancer safety and security, and if any dancers ventured off without a pre-arranged tour, the staff made sure to note where they were going, when they planned to return, and that they had Ahlan Wa Sahlan contact numbers- just in case.

The end of the festival came too soon, and the Closing Gala was superb. It was held at The Mena House’s Abu Nawas Night club, an intimate space with great sightlines.
The show featured a number of stars from foreign countries, including Magda from Argentina, elegant Yael Zarca from France, and gorgeous Nelly from Greece, currently working in Dubai. Amir Thaleb thrilled the audience with his dynamic, balletic style, and 2009 Queen Of Raks Sharqi champion Daria Mitskevich showed off her winning non-stop spins and supple backbends, in a ridiculously awesome floofy-ruffle –skirted teal costume that was like, 90% pure bling. Very unique, it looked as though it was probably made by a Russian ballroom dance designer.

Headliners Leila Of Cairo and Jillina each wowed the audience. Their signature styles are so different- Leila is laid back and very Cairene, Jillina’s polished and jazzy. Both did multiple costume changes. Leila’s first costume-, which I think was a Hallah Moustapha, was amazing- it had a vibrant graphic print, which looked like a Navajo blanket, in navy blue, red, and orange, and long, zigzag fringe to match on the belt. Her folkloric section started with two male tahtib dancers and Saidi musicians, who were uniformly mesmerizing. For her Saidi number, Leila wore a slinky turquoise “balady dress” which looked more like a Juicy Couture beach creation than an actual costume! Jillina entered in a crazy costume, which had a black corset covering the entire midriff, with wings attached. At the conclusion of her opening piece, she the corset and the wings in one piece, and went straight into oriental. She also did an introspective, emotional rendition of Om Kalthoum’s classic “Baed Anak”, in a cream; bronze and green costume, which had a net leg covering that, was embroidered with beaded vines. Her finale, she began in an insane Tahitian costume, complete with a feathered headdress, and feathered skirt… and later shed half her costume (again!) morphing into a more Oriental drum solo.

Young up-and-coming singer Ahmed Elkteb ended the night. I had seen him singing the year before with Safaa’s band and he was really great… but I had to catch a plane in less than four hours, so I had to leave the show right as he stepped onto the stage.

As left Egypt, and, cliché as it may sound, watched the sun rising over the Nile, I heard there was going to be a large demonstration on Friday, July 8th. As I write this, that demonstration did take place and there have been more since then, in Cairo, Suez and other Egyptian cities. No one is certain of what the future holds for Egypt… but I was really so glad to have gone this year!

If you would like to keep up with the belly dance scene in Cairo as well as political events in Egypt, I recommend that you visit my dear friend Aleya’s blog. She is an American belly dancer living in Cairo, and is always on top of the dance scene… and she has also just published (with partner Rami Salem) a fantastic book of photos from the Revolution, titled “ 18 Days”. Find her blog- and a link to purchase the book here:


Late Night dancer shop-talk at The Mena House, L to R: Leila Haddad, Zaza Hassan, Raksanna Princess, Fahtiem, Kim, and Angelika Nemeth

German Dancer Said Al Amir's Troupe onstage at the Mena House

Dancer's Night Out: Mohamed Shahin, Aleya, Princess And Jillina... as Ahlan Wa Sahlan audience members

I HEART EGYPT: Princess with Ahmad of Crazy Move Costumes

Daria Mitskevich onstage at The Mena House

Thursday, July 7, 2011


I have just returned from Cairo, and to say that I am absolutely riddled with jet lag is an understatement. In spite of the fact that I’ve woken up all bright and cheery at 3:30 am the past two mornings and been overcome with the desire to pass out cold by noon, I will try to give you my impressions of The Ahlan WA Sahlan Festival and Cairo in general in Post Revolution Egypt.

To begin with, I felt that it was extremely important to go to Egypt this year. Earlier, during the Revolution, Zahra Zuhair and I had no choice but to cancel our Eternal Egypt Tour; we didn’t want to be responsible for bringing a group of people into a potentially dangerous situation in a foreign country. However, as soon as things calmed down, I knew I needed to go. On a personal level, as you may remember from my last post, I felt great sadness at the possibility that I might not be able to freely come and go to my beloved second home.

On a more general level, I felt it was vital to support The Ahlan WA Sahlan Festival, and in turn to support the Cairo-based dancers, musicians and costume designers (and their employees), who were all seriously impacted economically by the social unrest and the ensuing curfews. In a broader sense, I also wanted to support the economy of a country whose chief “export” is tourism. Being from Hollywood, California, I very clearly remember the lack of tourism- and economic impact that was felt because of it- in my city for over a year and a half after the Los Angeles Riots took place. LA was a ghost town, and suddenly we all sorely wished that all those tourists who had seemed so annoying as they ambled down The Walk of Fame blocking the sidewalk while taking pictures would come back!

Cairo itself was much quieter than usual; even the traffic seemed less insane. The amount of people at the monuments and antiquities was sparser than I’d ever seen it. There were a few demonstrations in Tahrir Square while I was there- a couple I only heard about on the news because I was in Giza, far away from Downtown Cairo where Tahrir Square is located, but I witnessed one myself one morning on my way to Khan Al Khalili. It wasn’t violent; it looked like Muslim Fundamentalists giving speeches to a sizeable crowd.

The Ahlan WA Sahlan Festival was very small this year, but that was to be expected; many preferred to sit this year out and see what would unfold. In previous years the attendees have topped 1,500 people; this year it was a few hundred. Everyone’s classes were significantly smaller… but though it might not have been as gratifying for the teachers, that actually made it much BETTER for the students. The list of teachers, was as always, impressive, including Egyptian stars like Dina, Aziza, Zaza Hassan, Magda and Atef Farag, Aza Sherrif, Dr. Mo Geddawi, Mohamed Shahin and Madame Raqia herself, to name just a few. The foreign teachers were also amazing- among many others were Leila Haddad, Aziza Abdul Ridha from Italy, Amir Thaleb, Said El Amir, Sue Jee Choi from Korea, and from Spain Rosadela and Munique Neith. Along with me, those from the USA included Fahtiem, Jillina, Angelika Nemeth and Raksanna. I give kudos to Raqia Hassan for remaining undaunted and going ahead with her plans. She is a brave, strong woman and the festival wound up being even greater than it has been in previous years, and believe me, last year seemed very hard to top! This year, possibly because of the general celebratory and hopeful feeling in the air, or maybe just because there was a smaller amount of people attending, the festival had a freewheeling, anything-goes type feeling.

To begin with, the Opening Gala was held on the elegant floating supper-club The Nile Maxim- Ahlan WA Sahlan had rented out the entire boat! This has never happened before, it was an amazing surprise. The show started on the dock with Saidi musicians and Tannoura dancers and all attendees were directed to the top deck for cocktails under the stars as the boat set sail. After dinner was served, the show inside featured super-stars Dina, Katia, Egyptian Aziza and Sorayya Zayed. Unlike years past, and possibly due to the afore-mentioned free-wheeling ambiance, video and still cameras were permitted inside the Opening Gala and there was such a casual feel that many people were actually sitting on the floor, watching the show, practically two feet away from Dina, videotaping her performance! The whole show had a very intimate feeling, and every dancer took the mic at some point in her show and sincerely thanked the audience members for coming and supporting the Festival and Egypt. Dina’s speech was particularly touching; her voice was choked with emotion. These heartfelt sentiments were something I heard echoed by almost every dancer or musician at every show during my entire stay, as well as said to my face by hotel employees, costume vendors, tour guides, shop-owners and even just people on the street who had absolutely nothing to gain by showing a complete stranger gratitude simply for visiting their country.

But back to the show… it was, of course, off the hook! The dancers’ various bands sounded terrific, and the volume was cranked up high. Katia started the evening off entering to her signature magencey (entrance piece), “Amar El Laily”. Her pastel costumes always seem belie her sheer power- she is an extremely strong dancer with dynamic movement and ridiculously deep backbends, which she drops into suddenly and effortlessly. Her Alexandrian dance was naughty, funny and adorable, ending with her in the arms of one of her male dancers.

Sorayya Zaed (with a new blonde page-boy hairdo) was adorable in a minimalist black and neon polka-dotted costume. Lithe and light on her feet, her Oriental opening was precise and nuanced, and later in the show she did a traditional Saidi which was full of feeling; bouncy and energetic but really passionate. In the many times I’ve seen her, I’d never seen her do Saidi and it was a joy to watch.

Dina closed the show, and was, as usual, smashing. Her first costume was just outrageous and risqué - even for her. It was tomato red, with giant red beaded flowers on each bra-cup, and a mermaid skirt with black lace panties sewn on the hips - and a black garter belt complete with red and black lace garters hanging as fringe! The crowd practically lost it when she did “Tahtil Shebak”.

Although I adore Dina, and in twenty years have never, ever seen her put on anything less than an incredible, high-energy live show, I have to say that my new favorite dancer is Egyptian Aziza.

I saw her for the first time last year at Ahlan WA Sahlan and was completely blown away.
During that 2010 show, Zahra Zuhair, seated next to me, kept saying over and over, almost robotically,
Oh…. this is fabulous! Oh, how is anyone going to follow this?”

By the end of her set, we were both sitting dumbly with our mouths open.

But this year’s show was even better. Aziza has it all- the slow, gooey, laid back oriental sensuality and the languid almost lazy movements that almost seem to bend time. She also can pull up on command her piston-driven hips, turns on a dime, and has stage presence to burn. In short, she’s just fabulous. She opened with “Akdib Alek” in a turquoise and silver Mamdouh Salama costume, and moved through a set that was just breathtaking. Last year, Aziza appeared with a singer whose voice was so sublime that I got goosebumps and all my hair stood on end the moment she opened her mouth. The singer was blind and had to be led onto the stage...and I never found out who she was. This year, the singer appeared again, and was just as amazing. Cairo-based dancer Caroline Evanoff told me the singer's name was Nour....and that she is famous dancer Dandash's sister!

Aziza's show-stopper was her second to last number, which began with a male dancer dressed as a desert mystic, swinging an incense burner, wandering across the stage to a hypnotic mizmar. He was joined by four Sufi Dervishes, dressed traditionally in white skirts with satin over-vests, who whirled, as the music got increasingly more droning and trance-like. Aziza appeared in a simple white galabiyya with a bell-shaped hem, and danced among the Sufi dancers, who surrounded her as the music switched into a Zar beat, and a cleansing, healing ritual began. The tableaux became increasingly more intense, until Aziza started whipping her neck around, slowly at first and then....well, all I can say is that it looked like she didn't have a spine, her head was cranking around on her shoulders like those New Year's Eve noisemakers that whirl around in your hands...and it went on....and on...and ON. People in the audience were gasping and literally screaming, it was nuts!

Finally, Aziza collapsed on the floor in a mock faint…at which time her Dervishes lickety-split ripped off her white robe, revealing a fire engine red bedlah... as though the devil had won out this time! She jumped to her feet and immediately began a frenetic, high-energy drum solo, and just as quickly, her show was over.

The evening ended at almost 4:00 am, with many audience members clutching their high-heels in their hands as they staggered up the gangplank to the street- many of them passing out on the buses back to the Mena House.

After I got back to my hotel room, I turned on the television to come down from the high of the evening’s festivities, and while watching the news, learned there had been a large demonstration- with violence- in Tahrir Square. I emailed my family to let them know I was OK and sank into bed, excited for the festival’s first day of classes, including the one I was teaching. When I realized I was also performing the next night, the reality hit me that I would be getting-if I was lucky- four hours of sleep.



Photos, top two:
Aziza in her Zar tableaux, with Sufi dancers
Aziza's Oriental magency

Photos, bottom two:
Princess with Cairo-based dancers Caroline Evanoff and Astyd Farah on The Nile Maxim
Katia's Oriental magency