Saturday, December 29, 2012


In 1999, during the days leading up to The New Millennium, like many people, I began reflecting on life: historical events I had witnessed, personal goals that I had achieved and all the things I had accomplished.

But what seemed to really dominate my thoughts were the many significant relationships I had with family and friends. I was blessed with so much love, nurture and support. I thought of the many special people who were there for me not matter what… friends and relatives who shared their lives with me, gave me affection, support and influenced my creative and artistic endeavors.

One of these individuals was my friend and belly dance mentor, the late Zein Abdul Al Malik.

Zein was a male dancer of prodigious talent. Well over six feet tall and lanky, he had piercing green eyes and performed draped in luxurious folkloric garb, wrapped in antique Egyptian Assuit, a traditional mesh fabric that has small strips of silver hammered into it to form designs.   Zein looked imposing and exotic balancing a huge brass tray with a full tea set and candles upon his regal head.

Zein began his career in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid 1970’s, dancing with one of the mothers of contemporary belly dance, Jamilla Salimpour.  He went on to live in Morocco and Saudi Arabia, where he resided in one of the royal palaces, thanks to his Saudi prince lover.  Zein lived and breathed Oriental Dance, performing, teaching and doing research.

After we met in 1990, he took me under his wing- me, a beginning baby belly dancer with barely any skills- but somehow he saw my potential and nurtured me. Zein would have me over to his apartment- a wonderful, mysterious enclave of inlaid North African furniture, luxurious plants and relics from the Middle East.

He’d make me fresh mint tea in a silver Moroccan teapot and we’d spend hours together while he showed me steps and technique, discussed belly dance traditions, and watched vintage clips that he’d taped from the television in Saudi Arabia, featuring 1940’s and ‘50’s Golden Age Egyptian movies which starred famous dancers like Naima Akef, Samia Gamal, and Tahiya Carioca.

 Zein also helped me select costumes, heartily encouraged my dancing, and got me my very first dance job at Hollywood’s Moun Of Tunis Restaurant, where he worked.  More than two decades later, whenever I am in Los Angeles, I still perform there.

Appropriate music for Middle Eastern dance was hard to find in America back in those days, and Zein made me many Arabic mix tapes- remember, there were no CD’s back then- with the cassettes featuring everything from classic live Om Kalthoum performances to the latest in Egyptian pop and Algerian Rai music.

 Every cassette Zein made me also had a special cover that he thoughtfully put together by hand. Some featured Middle Eastern clip art others  photocopies of vintage Turkish cigarette boxes and pictures of famous belly dancers like Nagwa Fouad and Soheir Zaki.

Tragically, Zein died about five years after I met him. By that time, we were close friends and because of his encouragement, we were also gigging together regularly. I was absolutely devastated. I remember speaking-or rather blubbering through a speech- at his memorial, my face wet with flowing tears, but I don’t remember a thing I said.

I thought of him often, so many things reminded me of him. At gigs when I felt pre-show jitters, I would think of the way he used to calm my nerves through  his twisted humor right before we  both went on. Wrapped in a turban and wearing a brocade galibiya, shimmying to warm up, with an ever-present Marlboro in his mouth, Zein would sense my anxiety, catch my eye, make an exaggerated coquettish gesture then and whisper in a feminine falsetto,

How’s my hair?”

Somehow, our private joke never got old, and always made me laugh. Whenever he did that, I had a great show, entering the stage with a huge grin on my face. Even though Zein has been departed for years, I always think of him just before I go on.

So…fast forward to New Year’s Eve 1999, at five minutes of midnight. Of course I was at a belly dance gig, in a dressing room, wearing a brand new costume- my first costume for the New Millennium.

The dancer I was working with that evening asked what music I was planning to dance to for my first dance set of the century.

“I don’t know, “ I said, pawing through my CD binder, “I’m so sick of all my music!”

My gig bag was full of the usual belly dance accoutrements: stray finger cymbals, perfume, hair accessories, mis-matched sequin armbands, loose aspirin tablets, safety pins.

Suddenly, something fell into my hands, a small plastic case. Though my suitcase was always chaotic, there was a method to my madness, and it was always re-packed before every show. The little plastic box was decidely an unfamiliar object that I didn’t remember packing. Recognizing what it was in the dim dressing room lighting by the feel of it alone, I wondered how it got there.

“Hey, no way, there’s a cassette in my dance bag!” I cried, kind of amazed.

You still use cassettes?” the other dancer asked incredulously.

“Well, no, not for years”, I answered, dumbfounded,

“I have no idea what it’s doing in here!”

“Well, maybe we can dance to it,” she said, “What is it?”

I glanced at the clock- it was now one minute before midnight. Thinking we’d better figure our music out, I turned the mystery cassette case over in my hands. 

The cover featured a black and white drawing of a 1920’s flapper lounging in a champagne glass.

In hand-lettered Art Deco font, it read:


As the clock struck midnight and the new century began, I got chills.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Even though Christmas is over, the  Holiday Season is still in full swing, and with New Year's Eve  coming up, I thought   now would be a good time to  talk tipping.
 Belly dance and tipping have been  thought  of together almost as much as peanut butter and jelly, and there are many traditions connected with tipping.
It is believed that the reason for coins on belly dance costumes stems from days of yore, when women would dance in public and receive coins from spectators which were later sewn onto their clothing, possibly as part of a marriage dowry.  Descriptions of this practice are documented in writing from travelers who visited the Middle East during the 17th, 19th and 19th centuries.  Early 20th century photographs of the North African  Ouled Nail tribe document the women wearing elaborate coin headdresses above gowns   bedecked in coin decorations.  Known for their dancing (as well as prostitution) the images of the Ouled Nail still fascinate viewers, and their dress has also influenced modern belly dance costuming.
Tipping dancers at weddings is traditional in many cultures, and though the tips are showered upon the dancer, they often signify good luck and prosperity for the happy couple.
Contrary to popular belief, the practice of in-costume tipping seems to have originated in American nightclubs, during the latter half of the 20th century.  In the Middle East, tipping a well-known dancer during a show at a better hotel is usually not done, and as far as I have seen, in Egypt, there is no custom of in-costume or body tipping there either. However, showering a dancer with money seems to be fairly commonplace at street weddings.
 When a dancer is working with musicians and singers and tips are littering the stage, the tips are usually divided in a three-way split: the dancer gets a third, the band gets a third and the last portion goes to the house. I’ve worked at some places where    the tips placed into a dancers’ costume were hers to keep, and the rest were divided between all the performers and the house.
Tipping is still a popular practice at belly dance shows, not just for monetary reasons but because the very act of tipping is a way for audiences to relate to the dancer, as well as show appreciation for her skills.
There are several ways to tip dancers, and they vary according to the venue, local laws, the ethnicity or culture of the patron, or the individual dancer’s preference.

 In-Costume Tipping
Though tips have always a large part of a working dancer’s income, some performers have a rather uneasy relationship with tipping. Sometimes this is because they associate  accepting tips with strippers or gentleman’s clubs, but more often than not it’s because they are uncomfortable accepting tips tucked into their costumes. 
 In-costume tipping is what most non- Arab audiences think of as the “standard” way to tip dancers, and it can definitely be done in a respectable fashion. Usually,  the most suitable location for a tip is  tucked into the side of the dancer’s belt, although many dancers accept tips in the straps of their   costumes. In general, tipping in intimate areas, such the front or rear center of the dancers belt, her cleavage or the cups of her bra is considered to be an invasion of personal space.  If someone is attempting to tip you in an area you are not comfortable with, just stay a little out of out of his or her reach, and when you come in to accept the tip, offer your hip instead. This little dodge usually works well-most  people don’t want to be disrespectful, they’re simply excited about the interaction.
 At the Armenian parties and clubs in Hollywood during the 1990’s, I got the impression that tipping the dancer was a way of the patrons to show their  status. One man would whip out a twenty-dollar bill,and flash it around to make sure everyone saw it before he put it in my belt.  His friend would do the same with a fifty-dollar bill, and  often the patron after that would take out a wad of seventy-five or a hundred ones and tuck them in all over my costume, before throwing the rest over my head- or slapping a bill directly onto my head, which leads us to:
 Body Tipping
 Some dancers refer to in-costume tipping as “body tipping”, but in my opinion, body tipping is a completely separate cultural practice.  This style of tipping is very popular among Greeks, Turks and Armenians and Israelis- but isn’t limited to people from those countries.
  Body tips  seem to occur most often  in mid-set, when the dancer is getting a little sweaty, because the tip is typically pressed or lightly tapped onto the center of the dancer’ forehead…though I’ve received similar body tips on my abdomen and arms.
Tipping dancers on the forehead is a custom, dating back to Ottoman Turkey.  The young female impersonators known as kochek dancers received their tips this way, only in those days, the tips were coins, not bills! In Turkish Romany   (gypsy) dances the dancer will often tap their forehead, and this gesture is understood to be a request for tip.

Money Showers
Money showers are an extravagant display as well as a way of tipping the dancer without actually touching her. Often, at Arabic restaurants and nightclubs, a waiter or a shill planted in the audience will start the money showers to get the crowd going.  Then, the patrons will continue, by taking a handful of money and “ raining” it down over the dancer’s head, flipping the bills down one by one, while she is performing.
Many Arabic nightclubs keep stacks of crisp dollar bills on hand for the purpose of money showers.  When a customer wants to tip the dancer, a singer or the band, they’ll hand the waiter the amount they wish to tip, or have it added onto their bill. The waiter steps up to the stage tip the performers,  throws a few bills into the air, then palms the rest of the bills  in a  fluttering "shower", raining  over the dancers head, then indicating where the money came from with a sweeping gesture.
In Los Angeles, at the Arab clubs where I worked   in the mid-90, there were so many Saudis giving money to the waiters to throw on the stage   that dancing actually became risky- it was like ice-skating on   money!
In the lower class cabarets of Cairo, I’ve noticed that there is almost always a stagehand whose sole job is to sweep up the tips from the stage and dance floor before depositing them into a locked box that is kept on the stage.
If you receive a money shower at a wedding or a private party, often a family member will pick up your tips and get them to you after your show.  Children seem to love this job, and will feel special collecting your tips from the floor and delivering them to you, so if there is nobody around to pick up after you, it is a good idea to pre-arrange   the duty with a couple of kids.

Passing The Hat…Or More Frequently, The Basket
This type of tipping is frequently seen at outdoor festivals, Renaissance Faires and street performances, but many dance troupes performing at indoor venues use this practice to good advantage.  When dancing in a group situation, it’s difficult to accept tips during choreographies, so   near the end of a set, many dancers leave their performance space to “pass the hat” among the crowd. Often, this is done to music and may include audience-participation dancing as well.
A showy and creative way   to do this without seeming like the dancers are begging is to have a couple of troupe members  or a soloist dance through the crowd with tipping baskets balanced on their headsor carrying tambourines into which the tips are placed. The audience seems to love the novelty and will happily part with cash…because it’s part of the show.
Tip Jars
Though this doesn’t happen too often, once in a while venues will have a large, visible tip jar set out for the dancers, either because the dancing is done on a raised stage, or in order to keep up a “family friendly” atmosphere and discourage body-tipping.

 Post-Show Gratuities
There are a few situations such as private parties or corporate events where tips are discouraged… but you may wind up getting tipped in the form of a post-show gratuity. Usually, this will be discussed with you in advance so you’ll know what to expect. In cases such as this, the dancer’s gratuity will be either be added onto her pay or handed to her separately in an envelope.
 Sometimes, whether tipping is condoned or not, audience members take it upon themselves to tip the dancer post-show, either by having a waiter deliver the tip, or by giving it to the dancer themselves.
 I used to work at a French Arabic club in Los Angeles where tipping the dancers was frowned upon.  A regular client came up to me after a show, complimented me on my performance and discreetly handed me a folded bill.  I thanked him and put it in my pocket. As I left the club, I transferred the tip to my wallet- and saw that it was a hundred dollar bill!

Creative Tipping
 At the many Lebanese and Armenian clubs that were around Los Angeles “back in the day”, people liked to get inventive with the way they tipped- it often became a   friendly  (and increasingly wild) competition to see which table could come up with the most ingenious way to tip…which of course, was terrific for us dancers.
  I’d get a lot of   bills folded up into shapes like Origami, ( dragons, bow-ties, flowers) but some patrons even brought their own staplers to the clubs!   I was constantly draped in stapled-together money necklaces, bracelets, cross-body bandoliers, headbands and belts of money that customers would literally staple around my hips. If ever I took my zills off and set them down during my set, there’d always be dollars slipped through all the elastics!  Those people were crazy and rowdy and fun, but always respectful.  

Non-Monetary Tips 
Tips don’t always come in the form of cash.  Some venues feel it’s “low class” for their customers to be handling cash, flinging money at the stage or tucking bills into a dancer’s costume.  I often worked at a Greek club in Hollywood where they had a flower lady who sold customers baskets of carnations to throw at the stage. The club would keep track of how many baskets were sold during each dancer’s show, and at the end of the night the band and the dancers would split the monetary equivalent of the flower baskets that had been sold.  It was always good money, but I hated feeling the carnations squishing under my bare feet!  
There are also audience members who just get carried away in the moment, and leave quite unusual tips. Once in Switzerland, a woman tipped me a gorgeous antique ring right off her finger.  I tried to give it back after the show and she wouldn’t let me.  I have received numerous bouquets of flowers sent to my dressing room or the venue where I was appearing.  I’ve also gotten tickets to events, retail gift cards, and currency from foreign lands. And of course, what working dancer hasn’t gotten a business card with “call me” furtively scrawled on it…can’t blame a guy for trying, right?
 The most extravagant tip I’ve ever received was from a regular at a Los Angeles club where I used  to perform. After my show, he handed me an expensive-looking leather jewelry box.  I politely refused it, explaining I had a boyfriend and wasn’t interested in a relationship, but he insisted over and over that I keep it, so I thanked him politely and left.   At home, I opened the box and inside was pair of   solid 22-karat gold earrings, with a lotus at the earlobe, and large dangling sphinx heads!

Over the years, I learned how to master the art of crowd control. Before I started dancing professionally, I avidly watched many seasoned dancers working. I studied the way they handled crowds, watched their interactions with their audiences, the way they accepted tips and the way they handled rowdy customers. I noticed that the dancers never picked up their tips from the floor, and learned that it was considered a big, tacky faux pas to do so!
Most clubs and restaurants have a system in place where an employee, such as the manager or a waiter, will pick up the dancer’s tips and bring them to her dressing room after the show. If tips fall from your costume and a customer notices, they’ll sometimes let you know.  In this case, I either assure them the waiter will get it for me or ask if they wouldn’t mind retrieving it.
Dancers always appreciate a lively, demonstrative crowd, and it’s our job to get the audience riled up and festive. Don’t be afraid  to make direct eye contact with your audience members- it’s the surest way to make them feel  connected to you- and to get them to tip you! 
 By using gestures alone, you can have the entire crowd clapping along to the music, or get them to be silent during a quiet part of your set.  If you want to break the ice with a tough crowd, the best way to do it is to call a child up to dance with you- they’ll almost always jump at the chance, it’s cute and people love a good photo op.  If there are no kids around, select a pretty, vivacious-looking woman, and pretty soon her friends will join in.   If someone you’ve gotten up to dance overstays their welcome, just  “present” them to the crowd, and get them all to applaud- everyone will understand the idea that their dancin’ machine friend is now taking a bow, and should return to their seat.
Once in a while, things can get a little out of hand, especially if the venue serves alcohol. If anyone does  anything during your show that’s pushing your personal boundaries, interfering with your comfort-zone, being disruptive or seems dangerously intoxicated, either enlist the service of the nearest waiter or remove yourself from the situation right away and report it to the management!
Inevitably, you’ll encounter some show off that’ll offer you a  tip… held in his teeth.   I’ve found that the best way to handle this is   with humor and pantomime.  I’ll either pat the guy on the head as though he was a dog  with a bone in his mouth, or gaze directly at another member of his party, point at the offender and pull a comical face that silently asks  “What’s he doing?”  Usually, someone will make him stop- or they’ll grab the money and tip you properly!
 Many audiences are unsure of tipping protocol,  and don't want to  offend  the dancer or  do something impolite. There are  a few discreet ways to let them know that tipping is OK. Often, dancers will seed their belts with hidden a bill or two (which can be prudently revealed mid-set) giving the audience the idea that tipping is acceptable. Another way to do this is to have the servers help you out before you go on by courteously asking patrons if anyone needs change to tip the dancer.
Whenever you get tipped, make sure to thank the person who tipped you, either verbally or  with a nod of thanks and a  smile.
Tipping is a way for the audience to tell you how much your performance meant to them.  It’s our job as dancers to transport the audience, and by receiving their tips graciously, you can also take satisfaction in knowing that you have done your job… and done it well.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


  Happy  Holidays, everyone!

The Holiday Season  can be stressful for some people, especially this year, with the  awful one-two punch of Superstorm Sandy and the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.

 But it's also one of the most magical times of the year,  full of love and  lights and glitter...

...and nobody- but NOBODY does holiday glitz  better than dancers!

 Just for fun and a touch of levity, here are some of my favorite  holiday- themed costumes- ENJOY!

Belly dancer Leyla Soleil  in a costume by Eshta Amar:

Burlesque  dancers The Poubelle Twins:

The Morgan Sisters,  Molly & Bonnie in their "Santa Baby"  contortion act:

Bella Luna  ATS  Troupe as Santa's Helpers

The Schlep Sisters, Minnie Tonka  and Darlinda Just Darlinda  lighting the Menorah

Belly dancer Najla  raqqin'  some Poinsettias

Burlesque dancer Kitten DeVille trimming her Christmas tree

Belly Dancer  Najah's  Santa's Reindeer  costume

  ...and of course my Princess Claus  costume!

Friday, December 14, 2012


 This is Part Four in a four-part series on belly dance travel and tourism. Even with the  social unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, many dancers are eager  to  travel to research, study and immerse themselves in  Oriental Dance.  If you're armed with  some knowledge about the places you'll be visiting  and  know what to expect  before and during your trip, you'll have a much better time.

 In this series, I'll cover everything from  keeping healthy and staying safe abroad to buying costumes; from cultural and social differences  to  breezing through security at  airports; from  communicating socially to haggling for a bargain.  

I learned all this stuff the hard way… but you won’t have to!

Cultural Differences And Culture Shock
While the countries you are visiting may be fascinating in terms of the museums, ancient sites, and the dancing you will see and learn, bear in mind that many of these places are underdeveloped compared to America and Europe. You may find yourself actually disoriented because it is so different from what your are used to…or what you expected it to be like.  Lack of sleep due to jet lag can also make you crabby or overly emotional, which can sometimes make these disparities magnified.  This is known as culture shock.

The best way to reduce your own culture shock is to inform yourself by finding out as much as you can about a country before visiting it, and to realize consciously that you must be patient, understanding, and open to a new way of least temporarily!

 I don’t mean to scare you or burst your bubble, but extreme poverty is rampant in many of the places you’ll be visiting. It’s definitely not all white sand, alabaster temples and pristine ruins.  Undoubtedly, you will see things that will disturb you such as ragged children playing in the dirt or horribly crippled beggars.  It is also not at all uncommon to see many sick stray animals or to witness animal abuse (such as horses, donkeys or camels being whipped) on the streets, either.

 I remember being very upset pretty frequently on my first couple of trips to Egypt; when I saw things like this, it made me feel awful and helpless.  But you have to try to process through this, and take an almost detached, anthropological view of things, or it will completely ruin your trip.

 I always give spare coins, pens, and cartoon stickers from the USA to kids, and food  (stolen from the buffets my hotel!) to the beggars. I also save buffet scraps for the dogs and cats on the street. That’s about all you can do when you are there. If you are still thinking about this when you get home, you can become involved in donating to a charity or foundation, or putting on a fund-raiser or something like that.  And once you are home, you will also realize how lucky you are and how good you have it!

Some other less troubling cultural differences you might notice are that in public  or on the street: the concept of personal space and physical boundaries are quite dissimilar to what you are used to.  It may be frustrating to you that the signs are not always printed in your own language, and there may not be a number of conveniences you take for granted at home.  Also, the general pace of things will be much slower than what we are used to in the West, and that may start to annoy you.

You will probably find that the service in restaurants and even government offices are incredibly methodical and sluggish, this is also a cultural difference. Many of the   merchants at the bazaars are brazen, unrelenting and often downright obnoxious; again this is typical in the Middle East and North Africa. Tourism is big business, there are endless shops selling the same trinkets, and even if you think you are poor, you’re very wealthy compared to most of the locals.

  The best thing to do if you are not interested in shopping is simply to not engage with the shop keepers -in any way. Even looking at merchandise the way you would at home can be a signal that you are ready to purchase an item, which will lead to the afore-mentioned lengthy (and expected) process of bargaining. While you are getting antsy, wishing you could just cut to the chase already, the merchant probably will not notice your impatience, since this type bargaining scenario is commonplace!

 A significant difference in the countries you are likely to visit are the customs involving social  interactions between the sexes.

 In Muslim countries, women have rigidly defined roles, and each country differs depending upon what degree Sharia law is practiced. For example, if you are traveling with a male companion, don’t be surprised if people you meet speak only to him and ignore you! It’s almost automatically assumed that any man you are with is your husband or a family member, not your platonic pal from back home.

  Make sure to keep your interactions with men- even hotel employees, customs agents, merchants or waiters- on the polite, conservative side.  What you see as friendly social behavior might be construed as embarrassing, inappropriately familiar or even a sexual
come-on, which leads us to:

 The B-Word

 The B-Word stands for Belly Dance.

In the West, most dancers who have never visited these places have no idea how belly dancers are perceived in Muslim counties. While we all struggle to keep the dance “decent” and  “cultural”, in many of the nations that brought us this beautiful art form, belly dancers- no matter how well-loved or how famous they are- are regarded as little more than prostitutes.

 I know this may seem impossible to digest, but it’s true. And while I am mentioning this, I might as well add this controversial statement: since religious conservatism has been so sharply on the rise in the Middle East and North Africa, whether you are a dancer or not, the very fact that you are not Muslim - and not covered up modestly -will also make you appear “suspect”. Sure, there are exceptions, but it’s better to err on the side of caution.

 Unless you are at a belly dance festival, when you are in public, for your own protection, dress conservatively and please don’t ever let people know you are a dancer!

 Personal Safety
While North African and the Middle East used to be among the safest destinations in the world, sadly this isn’t true anymore.
Many of the major cities have almost exactly the same type of crime problems as comparable places in the USA or Europe. Because of this, you may wish to register with your embassy prior to or upon your arrival. Also, in some countries, you may have to register your electronic devices at the airport, to ensure they are not intended as black market items!

While traveling, use the same common sense that you would use in any large city or urban area!

 Leave your expensive jewelry back at home, and keep any valuables you’ve taken with you, including your money and passport, in the hotel safe or on your person at all times.  Keep a separate record of your passport and credit card numbers in case you need to have them replaced; make sure you know the phone numbers for your embassy as well as the international numbers for lost or stolen credit cards. Don’t flash your cash or leave expensive cameras lying around unattended, even at hotels or cafes in tourist areas.

 Be aware of your surroundings. Keep your purse close; motorbike muggings have been on the rise. After dark, go out in pairs or groups, never alone- and this includes taking taxis that you hail on the street! Always use the “safer” cabs that are from large companies, do not get into any  independent taxi cabs.

 Have the front desk at your hotel write out the address in Arabic, so you can show it to cab drivers and they’ll know where to take you.  Negotiate a price for your cab trips before you get into the taxi- many don’t have meters! Keep the phone number of your residence, hostel or hotel with you at all time, in case you get lost.

Since the  Arab spring of 2011, things have been changing rapidly in North Africa and The Middle East.    Sexual harassment, especially on the street, has escalated alarmingly.  Not so very long ago,  the most female  tourists received was blatant staring, but  that is not the case any more. "Accidental" encounters  like brushing and groping  are happening more and more frequently.

The sad truth is that sexual harassment-especially on the street-  is a major problem  for   foreign or native women in Egypt.  It doesn’t matter whether you are full covered or not, it’s rampant. Dress modestly and keep a low profile. Blondes and redheads will definitely receive more attention on the streets, no matter what   sort of clothes they wear. Be prepared for this and take it with a grain of salt, don’t let any unwanted attention-or even good-natured flirtation- get to you.  Earlier I said it was not usually necessary to cover your hair, but you may want to consider it if you’re getting a lot of “interest” on the street!

  In case some sort of unwanted physical contact  happens to you, do not be afraid to  make a scene!   Make sure to  be as loud as you can,  there is no such thing  as  “over reacting”. Once you do and the situation has escalated,  anyone near you  will be highly likely to rush to your aid.

 Tourism has always been Egypt’s “main export”, and  that goes  double since  The  Revolution- tourism has dropped considerably, and everyone  working in the tourism industry  is aware  of  the economic impact  because of this. Call the  police  and make a report if necessary.

 I will say it again- NEVER go out alone after dark!

    That being said  one of the great things about travel is the people you meet. Make new friends with the locals or other tourists, but be wary of completely trusting anyone right off the bat.  Use your street smarts, character assessment  and  judgment.   Have fun, but  weigh the situation  mentally before accepting any offers of a place to visit or stay with your newfound acquaintances.

  Do not accept drugs from anyone. Don’t accept cocktails-or any drink, for that matter (which might be drugged) unless they come directly from the bar.

 If you feel unsafe at any time, remove yourself from that situation immediately!

 Make sure to ask permission before taking a photo or video of any locals or people you do not know.

  Never take photos of anything related to the military or national security; it’s usually against the law!

This includes some monuments, government buildings, police officers, soldiers, and any police or military vehicles, border crossings and the like. When in doubt, ask before you shoot.

 Make sure you communicate regularly with your family and friends at home, and let them know your whereabouts, especially if you are visiting multiple destinations.

 Be a savvy traveler and you’ll have a fantastic time…Bon Voyage!

Monday, December 10, 2012


 This is Part Three in a four-part series on belly dance travel and tourism. Even with the  social unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, many dancers are eager  to  travel to research, study and immerse themselves in  Oriental Dance.  If you're armed with  some knowledge about the places you'll be visiting  and  know what to expect  before and during your trip, you'll have a much better time.

 In this series, I'll cover everything from  keeping healthy and staying safe abroad to buying costumes; from cultural and social differences  to  breezing through security at  airports; from  communicating socially to haggling for a bargain.  

I learned all this stuff the hard way… but you won’t have to!

Dance Festivals, Tours And Classes
For most dancers, the idea of going on a belly dance tour or attending a dance festival in one of the countries where the dance originated is heaven on earth. Imagine getting to see performances from your favorite dancers-many of them living legends- and also being able to study with your idols… in between sightseeing and shopping excursions!  It’s not just a dream come true, it’s also likely that your trip will exceed your wildest fantasies! You’ll witness scenes that look like they just popped off the pages of a history book, you’ll hear incredible live music, absorb the culture, and be dazzled by the magic of it all.

 However enthusiastic you are, (and I’m relatively sure you’ll be bouncing off the walls just thinking about it) you need to acknowledge that pretty much everything you do will be a “peak experience”. Keep in mind the fact that you are mortal, and concentrate on reigning yourself in just a little, going for quality, not quantity.

 At dance festivals, you’ll want to take every class- and attend the gala shows, sign up to perform, shop for costumes, and talk to all your new friends from around the world. On tours, you’ll be waking up at 5:00am to visit ancient ruins, exploring the countryside and major cities, going to nightclubs, wandering through bazaars, museums and mosques and taking private classes.

There will be so much you want to do, there’s no way you’ll be able to do it all… so choose your activities wisely.

 Instead of booking non-stop dance classes, just pick workshops with your favorite instructors, (or someone who is highly recommended) and schedule in a little bit of downtime for yourself. Take advantage of your hotel’s pool or spa services.  Don’t feel the need to participate in every activity that is offered, whittle down your list of potential excursions to those you are really interested in. You might even want to spend a relaxing evening in your hotel room, enjoying room service and the amazing selection of Arabic music videos that are on television 24 hours a day. A couple of years ago, on a tour I was leading to Egypt, I once walked in on a roomful of girls tipsy on Duty Free wine, giggling hysterically as they watched “Oprah” dubbed in Arabic!

If you haven’t been to a foreign festival or on a tour before, this might seem impossible, but because of jet lag and your own excitement, it’s fairly typical to forget to eat or drink enough water. Add this to five or fewer hour of sleep a night, and you’re setting yourself up for disaster

Please remember that you need to stay well hydrated, well fed, and get enough sleep.  Injuries and illnesses typically occur when the body is exhausted- and trust me; you will be over-tired when you are traveling…especially at a dance festival!

The biggest piece of advice I can give you on attending belly dance festivals or going on dance tours in foreign countries is… pace yourself!

Buying Costumes
 Costume prices vary in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey. There are always cheap souvenir costumes available at the souks, but these “airport specials” are most likely not worth bothering with if you are a professional dancer.

  In Cairo, custom made stage wear and off-the-rack costumes altered to fit you from top designers like Eman Zaki, Sahar or Hanan will probably run  $500.00 and up, but you can often get a discount if you purchase more than one.  Though many costume vendors will go for some  bargaining, most of the major ateliers will not, unless you are a regular customer.

If you’re not a “label whore”, you can easily find very nicely made, gorgeous costumes from up –and-coming or  “generic” ateliers for $60.00 - $350.00.

Bella of Istanbul does lovely costumes, but expect to pay Western prices for her custom made numbers. Even so, they are definitely worth it!

 Take your time and shop carefully, make a list of exactly what you want before you leave home…because your eyes will be literally popping out of your head when you see all the gorgeous stuff on display!

Friday, December 7, 2012


 This is Part TWO in a four-part series on belly dance travel and tourism. Even with the  social unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, many dancers are eager  to  travel to research, study and immerse themselves in  Oriental Dance.  If you're armed with  some knowledge about the places you'll be visiting  and  know what to expect  before and during your trip, you'll have a much better time.

 In this series, I'll cover everything from  keeping healthy and staying safe abroad to buying costumes; from cultural and social differences  to  breezing through security at  airports; from  communicating socially to haggling for a bargain.  

I learned all this stuff the hard way… but you won’t have to!

Jet Lag
Jet lag is inevitable when you are traveling through multiple time zones, but it doesn’t need to stop you from enjoying your trip! Get adequate sleep every night for at least a week before you depart, and of course, try to sleep on the plane. This isn’t always easy, due to the confines of airline seats, plus your own anticipation at the beginning of your journey. Bringing a travel pillow, earplugs and a sleep mask may help you to rest…flights to the Middle East and North Africa are long and tedious, so try to get at least a little sleep! Stays well hydrated on the plane, drinking at least a full glass of water every couple of hours if not more. Walk around and stretch every so often, too.

 When you arrive at your destination, try to acclimate yourself to the local time. If you arrive mid-day, expose yourself to sunlight and try to get on a regular sleeping and meal schedule as soon as possible. It’s better not to take a nap, even if you are very tired. Stay awake until the evening, and then get a good night’s sleep.  Since you will undoubtedly be running around seeing the sights and attending dance classes, make an effort to get at least seven hours of sleep every night, which is not always easy with jet-lag…or the later hours kept in exciting places like Cairo or Istanbul! To help yourself fall asleep, try Melatonin, herbal tea, or an over-the-counter or prescription sleep aid.

 Cash And Plastic
Almost everywhere in the world you go, you’ll be able to use your ATM card or credit cards at banks and major hotels. This way, you won’t have to worry about carrying a lot of cash.  Check on the fees; some are exorbitant.

 Be careful of ATM machines in small villages, remote or rural areas.  Many of these machines run out of money on a frequent basis, or are privately owned and tack on hefty fees. Some may not have the keypad letters and numerals and/or directions printed in a language you can understand, and others will literally eat your cards. Even in far-flung areas, there will be hotels or money changing bureaus that have currency.

 Though most hotels and hostels take credit cards, many smaller shops and restaurants do not. The larger Five Star hotels generally take travelers checks, or will change them for cash, but you may have to go a bank or special office. The cashless commerce concept is now worldwide, and   increasingly, traveler’s checks are becoming out-dated.  Personally, I don’t even bother with them anymore.

 If you don’t have a safe in your hotel room, you may be able to use the safe at the front desk, though I really wouldn’t advise this in anything less that a Four Star hotel. Do not leave any money (or valuables in general) lying around your room. And no matter what you have in it, always lock your suitcase when you leave your hotel room.

Food And Drink
 One of the great joys of traveling is enjoying the local cuisine, but many travelers also have stomach or intestinal problems that stem from sampling unfamiliar meals. This can be due to a number of reasons, including consuming food that is undercooked or on the verge of spoiling from being improperly stored. No matter what, it’s seriously not fun. This is where your Imodium and probiotic supplements come in!

 Whether you’re staying at a private home or Five Star hotel, I would advise against drinking water straight from the tap. Not to sound like a colonialist, but the water in many countries is not the water you are used to at home. It can run be infested with bacteria and parasites or way over chlorinated- either of which could make you seriously ill, or just wind up upsetting your stomach.  You can’t be too careful.

  I recommend that you even brush your teeth with bottled water!

The “beware of water” rule also applies to the ice in a soda or cocktail. You may think you are safe drinking a Coke or a Gin and Tonic since it’s not tap water, but the ice may be! Better to go without ice unless you are absolutely sure the water from which the ice was made is clean and filtered.

 And as far as booze goes, if you are a drinker and are traveling to a Muslim country, take advantage of the Duty Free wine or spirits at the airport, because any sort of alcohol will be awfully tough to find! Though it is available at major hotels and some restaurants, drinks are pricey and there’s pretty much no such thing as liquor stores.

 Fresh fruits and vegetables are abundant, and Western-style salads have also become popular and are available in most places.  Be wary of eating un-cooked vegetables outside of major hotels or tourist spots. Again, there is risk of bacterial infection, parasites, or the produce may have the residue of strong pesticides, which also could make you seriously ill. If you have any doubts about your   fruits and veggies, good rule of thumb is to only eat   cooked vegetables, and to only eat fruit with a tough skin that needs to be removed like citrus fruits, bananas or melons.  If you are concerned about not getting enough greens or fiber, bring supplements with you.

In larger cities, many restaurants now cater to a Western tourist clientele and offer vegetarian dishes; if you are a vegetarian or vegan, you’ll also find many traditional foods to eat at your destination.

 Some typical foods that are veggie-friendly- though not always vegan-friendly are:

 Falafel:  Also called tamiyya in Egypt, these are deep-fried, seasoned garbanzo bean patties, served on their own as well as in pita bread.

 Tabbouleh:  A salad made of fresh parsley, wheat bulgur, tomatoes and onions, with a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice

 Baba Ghanouj /Muttabal:  Roasted mashed eggplant salad or dip

Hummus: A chickpea and sesame paste served as a salad or dip

 Dolma, Dolmades, Yapraak Dolmasi, Wara Enab: Rice-stuffed, cooked grape leaves  *Sometimes the leaves are stuffed with meat and rice, so if you are a strict veggie, check on this before digging in

  Lebni, Laban Zabadi: Thick, rich Arabic yoghurt- a fantastic source of probiotics

 Fool Muhmaddas:  An Egyptian favorite, this is a savory bean stew, often eaten for breakfast with various toppings, including fried eggs.

Koshary:  Practically the national dish of Egypt, Koshary is a hot dish made of pasta in a spicy tomato sauce with lentils and fried onions- it’s delicious!

 Bread comes in many varieties throughout North Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East, and is usually freshly baked and delicious.  Butter and cheese of all types are also common.

 If you have any serious food allergies, copy this phrase down:

 “I am allergic to ______ and will become very sick, and possibly die if I eat it. Does this food contain _____?”

 Include your food allergies and type the phrase into Google Translator which will translate it into Arabic, Turkish, Greek, or basically whatever language you need.

 Keep the paper with this phrase in your wallet and show it to waiters any time you have any doubts about what the food contains… If you are not sure what is in the food, it’s best to skip it entirely.

 In many foreign countries, a service charge or gratuity is already added to your bill when you dine at a restaurant or order from room service in a hotel. However, there are plenty of other times when you will need to tip.  Always tip luggage handlers at airports, bellhops, and cab drivers. If you are on a guided tour, you should tip your guide, and tip the driver as well.  Some dance tours include these gratuities in their pricing, but others do not.  When a doorman hails a cab or arranges for a car, is customary to tip him. I also leave money for the maid or room cleaner in hotels as well. Going on a camel ride, sailing in a felucca down the Nile or having a jaunt in a hantour carriage? You guessed it, leave a tip!

 Often, on the street, especially in a larger city, if you are lost someone will assist you and possibly even walk you to the address you are looking for. In this case, it’s polite to offer a tip- often it won’t be accepted, but you certainly won’t offend anybody by doing this.

 Pretty much, if you want any sort of special service, however trivial, you ought to provide a tip. Always carry change and small bills with you for baksheesh, or tips.

 Price haggling is normal in most Middle Eastern or North African countries, but it’s not proper to bargain everywhere. The shop owners in the bazaars and souks are fine to bargain with, as are street vendors selling souvenirs, it’s expected.  Don’t expect bargaining at department stores, grocery stores, large shops or the souvenir shops in the hotels.

 When haggling in the bazaars, go 50% - 70% lower than the price quoted to you, and work up from there. Most of the vendors have fixed prices in mind, but will always go in for some bargaining, it’s a tradition! If an item seems too pricey and the merchant won’t budge, simply thank him and walk away- usually, as if by magic, the price will come down!

When you are shopping, bear in mind that even inquiring about the price of an item may signal to the merchant that you are interested enough to buy it…there’s not really any such thing as “comparison shopping” at a souk! If you are about to purchase something, be prepared for a lengthy bargaining process. The way this usually goes is that the merchant will bring you into the store, sit you down and order out for complimentary tea, coffee, soda or water. You’ll be shown many versions of whatever you were bargaining for before you decide upon a mutually agreeable price. Sometimes this is a welcome break from the relentless heat of sightseeing, other times it seems like an awful lot of work just to buy something! Don’t be persuaded to purchase anything you do not want.
 If you are not seriously interested in an item, say so immediately so you don’t waste your time or the merchant’s.

Mobile Phones, Computers And Internet Access
 If you are bringing electronic items with you (battery chargers for cameras, your cell phone, iPad, etc.) you’ll need an electronic plug adapter or converter. Make sure you know what sort of outlets are used in the country or countries you will be visiting. Ask for assistance with this at any store where you can buy electronics or travel items.

 For email, instead of bringing your laptop or iPad, consider using the hotel’s business office or an Internet cafe and buying time on a card. Trust me, there will NOT be time for the endless social networking you may be used to back home…plus, in arid desert climates computers can be damaged by sand kernels or during travel…and they’re also easy to steal from hotel rooms!

If you own a smart phone, these usually work just fine all over the world, though again, rural and remote areas may have spotty coverage. Check your phone plan ahead of time to make sure that you can even make calls from overseas, and that you understand the charges involved. Overseas telephone calls from your room can be extremely expensive. If you think you’ll be making a lot of calls, you ought to be able to purchase   an inexpensive mobile phone at your destination for about USD $30.00-$50.00 and buy pay-as-you-go cards. This may be much less expensive than using your own USA cell phone or hand-held…. but be advised: on the phones, error messages as well as the keypad may be in Arabic!

As far as memory cards, film for non-digital cameras, batteries, and chargers- make sure you bring some extra along. These items are available universally, but, like any tourist destination, they will be expensive. Make sure to remember them; the ones available in the place you are visiting may not match your electronic equipment.

Put an automatic vacation message on your email or notify your friends and family about dates when you will be gone, let them know that you will check in, but may not be able to do so every day.

As far as modern conveniences in many foreign hotel rooms or in the cabins on Nile cruises go, don’t expect the type of amenities you are used to in the USA or Europe.  Many hotels now have in-room televisions, blow dryers or steam irons- but some do not.  If you think you absolutely can’t live without your blow dryer, then by all means bring it along.  However, if you are touring the Mediterranean on a large commercial cruise line, you will probably be sailing in the lap of luxury.

 Depending on the country you are in, magazines and books printed in English or European languages can be tough to find, even at upscale hotels. If you are a big reader, plan ahead by bringing a couple of magazines or paperbacks with you… but trust me…you probably will not have time for much reading when you are traveling- I can’t tell you how many books I have taken along and never even looked at!