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

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