Thursday, October 13, 2011


This is Part Four of my series Dancers Backstage Rituals...and this post focuses on Aleya, an American belly dancer who has been living and working in Cairo, Egypt for three years.

Aleya and I came up together in the Los Angeles dance scene. We saw each other constantly, at gigs working together, and socially too. In 2008, we sort of accidentally bumped into each other in Cairo. I say "accidentally" because neither of us knew that the other one was going to be there!

Aleya had been in the beach resort of Hurghada, relaxing, and I had taken a un-planned, totally last minute ten-day trip to my favorite city on earth...between gig obligations. Due to the wonders of email and texting, Aleya found out I was in Egypt, and of course we got together...spending some quality time which basically amounted to four days with no sleep and constant laughing. We ran amok in Cairo's cabarets until the wee hours, shoveled a quick breakfast in our mouths, and then spent all day hanging around Eman Zaki's atelier or cruising around the city before doing our hair and makeup in my hotel room...and then repeating it all again! It was during this trip that Aleya confided to me she was planning on moving to Egypt to pursue her dreams of dancing in Cairo.

"So...when are you doing that?" I asked, thinking she'd say something like "next year".

"I'm just going to go home and get my cats," she replied.

Knowing that Aleya was as insane about her cats as I am about mine, I immediately realized that this wasn't a was an absolutely serious, real move, not a temporary "feeling it out" kind of deal. Taking her cats along to Cairo meant Aleya was going for broke!

But as long as I have known her, she has been always driven and continually strives for excellence. In Los Angeles, she worked at clubs, restaurants and private parties, taught classes, and directed and choreographed for her own Negma Dance Company. Before she left, she also released a CD of fantastic belly dance music called "Bellylicious Raks". ( There is a link at the end of this post where you can purchase it on CD Baby).

After moving to Cairo, she soaked up as much dance, music and culture as she could. By the time I came back the next summer, her dancing, which was always great, had been noticeably changed by her time in Egypt. She was, however, finding the dance scene harder to crack than she'd originally expected, and though she was trying everything she could think of to get work, work wasn't coming her way.

As she told me this, she joked,

"I always believed in affirmations, so I used to say: I want my life to be just like a vacation....and now it is like a vacation, but I don't want it to be, I want to work!"

Her dedication paid off though, because she has been working... at private parties at top-notch hotels, and at Cairo landmarks like the elegant floating supper club, The Nile Maxim. She also teaches many group and private classes, and just appeared in Qatar, dancing for the Royal Family.

Somehow in between all of this, she also managed to document the Egyptian Revolution! While other people were cowering in their apartments, Aleya and partner Ramy Salem were smack dab in the middle of the protests, braving tear gas and riotous crowds to take photos of history-in-the-making. You can see them in her book, "18 Days"- scroll down to the end of this post for a link to preview and purchase the book, which is stunning.

From the very beginning, Aleya was always such a super-hot performer, no one would ever have guessed that in the first part of her career, she suffered from really bad stage fright- but she did. Happily, she doesn't any more, but see what she has to say about that- and gigging in Cairo, here, in her own words:

"My first five years of performing I had horrible stage fright! I used to practice for at least one and a half hours before a performance. I think the stage fright stemmed from me not feeling good enough, so I felt like I had to remember all my moves and practice a lot before I danced.

I would put on videos of dancers I admired and imitate their movements. I would try to get two moves from them that were not in my normal repertoire and do them during my show. In retrospect I think this has helped me to have a bigger vocabulary for the dance. It also calmed me down so I could release all of the nervous energy I had. It was great! I would do two workouts in one night, and sometimes more if I were doing a couple of shows.

Now, as I prepare to dance, several years later, I just try to stretch and relax after I change into my costume.

Of course before I dance, I must have my wig on even though I have long hair. My vision of belly dancers always has been to have big hair and lots of stage make-up. I don’t believe in the “natural look” for a performer! If I don’t have big hair and great make up, the stage won’t feel quite right and I will not perform my best.

I also must always go to the toilet before I dance, even if I went 5 minutes before! I think that stems from the habits, which I acquired long ago, when I had stage fright. I have never been able to release this habit, which can be quite annoying… especially because in Cairo, you never know where your show will be or what the conditions are where you will be changing into your costume! For example let’s say you have a show at the Pyramids, then your “dressing room” is in the middle of the desert…things can get quite complicated!

Now, I am quite comfortable with any kind of venue or show where I can interact with an audience; they always put me at ease. I don’t get nervous and I don’t need much of a ritual.

On the other hand, if I am dancing on a big stage with a band and away from the audience I still get unbelievably nervous. If and when I do, I just close my eyes and say to myself,

“It’s just a big party!”

Saying this takes the edge off for me and I also say a little prayer to God and the Universe for letting me be my absolute best, and being thankful for the gift of dance. Then it’s show time! And I just try to be in the moment and enjoy it. "

- Aleya

Watch Aleya dancing on The Nile Maxim in Cairo here:

Buy Aleya's CD "Bellylicious Raks" here:

Preview & purchase Ramy Salem and Aleya's book "18 days" here:

Read Aleya's blog about belly dancing and living in Cairo here:

PHOTOS: Aleya by Ramy Salem; Aleya dancing on The Nile Maxim

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