by Luna

by Luna

Luna

Luna

Blog Intro

Hello, I'm Luna, and I'd like to welcome you to "Kisses from Kairo,"* my blog about living and working as an American belly dancer in Cairo.

Life in Cairo isn't easy for dancers, foreigners, women, or even Egyptians. It is, however, always exciting. That’s why after living here for seven years, I've decided to share my experiences with the world. From being contracted at the Semiramis Hotel to almost being deported, not a day has gone by without something odd or magical happening. I will therefore fill these pages with bits of my history in Cairo—my experiences, successes, mistakes, and observations. Admittedly, my time here has been rather unique, so I want to stress that while everything I write is true, my experiences do not necessarily reflect the lives of other dancers.

In addition to my life as a belly dancer, I will write about developments in costuming, performances, festivals, and, of course, the dance itself. I will also make frequent references to Egyptian culture. I should note that I have a love/hate relationship with Egypt. If I make any criticisms about the country, please keep in mind that I do so with the utmost love, respect, and most of all, honesty. Egypt has become my home, so I want to avoid romanticizing and apologizing for social maladies, as most foreigners tend to do. Nothing could be more misguided, patronizing, or insulting.

I hope you find this blog informative, insightful and entertaining, and that we can make this as interactive as possible. That means I'd love to hear from you. Send me your comments, questions, complaints, suggestions, pics, doctoral dissertations, money, etc., and I will get back to you. Promise. :)~



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Monday, June 13, 2011

Finding Work in Cairo -- The Naked Truth


For many belly dancers around the world, dancing in Cairo is the dream of a lifetime.  Whether it’s the opportunity to perform every night to a live orchestra or the chance to earn recognition in the international belly dance community, belly dancing in Cairo brings hundreds of foreign women to Egypt each year. 

Although we all fantasize about it, the truth is that belly dancing in Cairo is not for everyone.  It takes a certain type of woman—physically, emotionally and intellectually—to succeed here as a dancer.  And it’s not always the woman who wants it.  As Layla Taj, a New York based dancer with some experience dancing in Egypt, says on her Web site, “Cairo picks you.  You don’t pick Cairo.” http://www.laylatajdance.com.  From what I’ve seen thus far, this seems to be true.   Each year, hundreds of dancers flock to Cairo determined to make their dream of dancing here come true.  Some even sell their homes, life possessions, and leave loved ones behind.  Most go home disappointed and disillusioned.  Others remain in Cairo for years, hoping their dream will one day come true. With that in mind, I put together a SUPER REALISTIC guide about finding work in Cairo, in which we'll examine the characteristics of the foreign dancer who is likely to succeed.  Please keep in mind that the following comments are based on my personal experiences and observations over the past two and a half years.





1.  Talent.  To land a job in Cairo, the foreign belly dancer must be talented.  She must have good technique, feeling, and performance skills.  Whatever we think of her personal style of dancing, she must be a consummate entertainer.  Why?  Because if employers are going out of their way hire a foreign dancer instead of an Egyptian, she must have something to offer that the Egyptians don’t have.  For not only are these employers taking work away from fellow Egyptians, they are paying hefty fines every month for employing foreigners.  So they’re going to want something in return for their inconveniences.  



2.  The “Right Look.”  To land a belly dance job in Cairo, a foreign dancer must have the right look.  In the West, we don’t really have a “right look” when it comes to belly dance.  Belly dance in the West is more about sisterhood, and we believe that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, colors and ages.  In Egypt, however, there is generally a very limited notion of what constitutes ideal feminine beauty.  Usually, if one Egyptian thinks Jane Doe is beautiful, 99% of Egyptians will think the same thing.  The reverse is also true.  This is unfortunate because it eliminates many talented dancers who fall short of Egyptian standards, whatever those are.  In many ways, this is unfair.  But belly dancing is, after all, show business, and in show business, looks count as much as talent, if not more.  So, providing that there’s a lot of girls competing for the few dance jobs, having the “right look” is thus a determining factor in who will work as a dancer in Cairo.



3.  Patience.  Finding a contract to work as a belly dancer in Cairo requires patience.  Though a couple of dancers found contracts within their first month of coming to Cairo (on account of (very) personal connections), the majority takes at least 1 year to be contracted.  This is because there aren’t many venues licensed to hire foreigners in the first place, and because there isn’t a very high turnover in the Cairo belly dance world.  Employers tend to keep on renewing the contracts of dancers who have been with them for 3 years, rather than hiring new ones.  Aspiring dancers must therefore be patient.  They must be prepared to sit home most days of the week knowing that the contracted dancers are dancing every day.  They must also not be discouraged by all the false, empty promises people in the business make.  For example, a singer or talent agent will become enamored of a young, aspiring dancer, and will promise her the world.  He swears to find her a contract at this or that hotel, but in reality, he is in no position to do so.  Usually, he just wants to have some “fun.”  So he plays on her desire to dance in Egypt.  When the dancer discovers that this is just a game, she gets disappointed and most probably feels like giving up, especially after this happens time and again.  That’s why after my first year in Cairo, I nicknamed Egypt “the land of empty promises.”  The successful dancer is the one who sees through these ploys, doesn’t get too frustrated, and patiently waits for real opportunities to come her way.  



4.  Thick Skin.  No matter how beautiful and talented a dancer is, if she doesn’t have a thick skin, she will never succeed in Cairo. Having a thick skin means not letting people’s jealousy, criticisms, and insults drag you down.  As in other entertainment fields, competition is fierce and jealousy is a fact of life.  There won’t be too many other dancers or teachers who will be happy for your successes.  On the contrary, many will try to tear you up every step of the way.  They will start horrible rumors about you, and accuse you of things (and people) you’ve never done.  They’ll try to ruin your reputation and deplete your self-esteem.  So, if you’re the kind of person who is overly-concerned with what others think and say about you, you’ll never survive in the Cairo belly dance world.  For if you have any amount of talent, good looks, and a decent chance at dancing here, it’s almost impossible NOT to encounter this type of behavior.  (I would love nothing more than to illustrate what I’ve written with examples from my experience and the experiences of other Cairo dancers, but I will refrain from turning this blog into a gossip column.)



5.  Knowledge of Arabic.   Yes, speaking the local language and speaking it well is very important to a foreign dancer’s success in Cairo.  The dancer needs to be able to communicate effectively and firmly with musicians, talent agents, and venue managers, the majority of whom don’t speak English and will try to take advantage of the seemingly clueless foreign female.  Speaking Arabic somewhat fluently (not just izayyak? and mashy), is necessary to being understood, and most importantly, respected.  Egyptians in the business need to know that the dancer is intelligent and can deal with them in their own language and on their own level. 



6.  Luck.  Last but not least, it comes down to luck.  I previously quoted belly dancer Layla Taj as writing “Cairo picks you, you don’t pick Cairo.”  Sometimes a woman will have everything it takes to succeed as a belly dancer in Cairo, but for some inexplicable reason, she just won’t find a contract.  Maybe she didn’t meet the right people, or maybe she wasn’t around when an opportunity opened up.  The reasons could be many, and she’ll never really know.  Alternatively, a dancer who’s been having a difficult time finding a contract may unexpectedly find herself in the right place at the right time. 



Now that I’ve explained what it takes to work as a belly dancer in Cairo, I will quickly go over the things that don't help.



1.  Connections.  While it always helps to know someone in the business who can hook you up, knowing the president of Egypt won’t help you if venue managers don’t think you’ll suit their business.  I’ve seen many cases of aspiring foreign dancers getting ultra friendly with the organizers of the festivals, certain singers, and even some Egyptian dancers, believing that these people will find them contracts.  This has never happened.  At the end of the day, even seemingly powerful festival organizers can’t convince the owner of a Nile cruise to hire a dancer if he doesn’t want to.  Especially if there isn’t a need for new dancers.  



2.  Years of Experience.  When looking for a contract to dance in Cairo, no prospective employer will ask a dancer what her professional background is.  He will not ask her if she’s famous in her country, how many years she’s been dancing, or if she’s a teacher.  In Cairo, nobody cares about this.  Hotel and boat managers only want to know that the dancer can put on a good show and looks pretty.  This counts much more than experience.  



3.  Getting to “know” the manager—a little TOO intimately.  I think you know what I mean here.  We’ve all heard of dancers who come here and “befriend” the venue owners and managers.  This USED to be the shortcut to getting a contract, but it doesn’t really work these days.  There is so much competition today that “being friendly” with the manager doesn’t guarantee you a contract at his hotel or boat.  Especially if there are stronger candidates for the position out there.  Nowadays, managers take advantage of foreign dancers’ desire to work by using them, promising them the world, and then not delivering on their promises. In the end, it’s the dancer that loses. Her reputation is ruined, and respectable people in the business will avoid her.  In fact, the best way to find a contract and keep your self-respect is not to fall prey to the vultures in the business. 



I’ve written these observations not to discourage, but to be realistic about what it takes to dance in Cairo.  Everyone deserves the chance to chase their dreams.  But I think it’s important for dancers to know what they’re getting themselves into.  They should also know what their chances of success are, because they make huge sacrifices pursuing this dream. For many, it’s a pursuit that can deplete vitality, happiness, love of the dance, and even enthusiasm for life. Indeed, quite a few aspiring dancers in Cairo have admitted that if someone had told them beforehand what it was all about, they would have thought twice about giving up their lives to dance in Cairo. For others, it's a journey that builds character and fortitude. And for the fortunate few who make it, well, their challenges are many, not least among them staying true to themselves. 

7 comments:

  1. Loving your blog, keep writing & good luck with your dance future & life in cairo

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  2. love love love your blog!!!
    Already looking forward to your next post :-)

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  3. I read your post about finding a belly dance job in cairo, you are absolute ture, I have been also almost 2 years in Egypt, but now i am away. In my case, I didnt came to egypt to complete my dream, I came to Egypt to dance and pull up the quality of bellydance, as it use to be on the 70's, and try to help to develop other ways of seeing the image of belly dance and the places to perform bellydance in Egypt.

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  4. wondering what the look is in your opinion? i know it won't be politically correct so i'm prepared not to be offended by any of it; fair skin; darker hair?? just wondering
    could you elaborate?

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  5. Dear Anonymous,
    I deliberately didn't write what the "right look" is so as not to offend anyone. If you'd like, you could send a private message to lunaofcairo@gmail.com and we could discuss this further. Thanks :)

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  6. sending you an e-mail...sorry i didn't want to put you in a bad situation

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  7. Hello Luna! Im an aspiring belly dancer here in the states and i love your blog! I too am interested in knowing more about the "right look" and would love to discuss it with you when you have the time. It has been a something i have always wondered about for a long time. Thanks and keep up the good work!

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