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, January 30, 2012

Metamorphosis

It just dawned on me that I’ve been living in Cairo for more than 3 years.  That’s a long time for someone who never intended to live or work here.  With all the uncertainty in the air about Egypt’s future, one wonders how much longer I and others like me will be able to thrive.  But rather than speculate about the future (again), I’ve decided to reflect on my past and share a few of the adjustments I had to make as a dancer.  There were many, because belly dance outside of Egypt is a totally different animal than belly dance in Egypt.  There were adjustments in technicality, musicality, and even physicality.  There were adjustments in music selection and music understanding, costuming and audience.  And there were changes in attitude, ethics and comportment.

Technique
Perhaps one of my biggest challenges as a foreign student of Egyptian dance was learning proper technique.  Egyptian technique is much more subtle, nuanced, and intricate than what most of us learn back home.  Movements are smaller and more precise, more controlled and more meaningful.   Upon studying dance here, the first thing I had to do was unlearn everything I thought I knew and start from scratch.  For example, back home, I learned to do everything in plié.  Shimmy in plié.  Hip drops in plié.  Figure 8’s in plié.  I never noticed how bent my knees were until I came here and Egyptians pointed it out.  Not only do bent knees look bad, but they prevent us from getting the maximum oomph out of our hip movements.  I’ve since straightened up and become somewhat of a knee-nazi, as anyone who’s ever taken class with me can attest.  :)


No sooner had I replaced my sloppy technique with Egyptian vocabulary than I met my next challenge: slowing down.  Non-Egyptian dancers have a tendency to do too much too fast too soon.  If we don’t cram all the moves we know into one piece of music, if we don’t hit every single tik and tok, doom and tek, we feel as though we didn’t do the music justice.  Which isn’t necessarily the case.  As the good old cliché goes, less is more.  Slowing down is probably THE most invaluable piece of advice I’ve heard in all my years here, and it came from none other than Sara Farouk, one of Cairo’s best kept secrets. :)  Sara is the organizer of the Randa Kamel of Course intensive that’s held twice a year in Cairo.  But more than that, she is one of the best belly dance instructors in the world, and a good friend.  She’s great at spotting all your belly dance flaws and correcting them.  So now, every time I get on stage, I think of Sara and make a point of slowing down and feeling, no matter what I’m doing. 

The Show
Those were some of the technical adjustments I had to make as a student relearning how to belly dance.  When I finally found a stage, however, I had a million other things to think about.  For starters, the shows here are a bit longer.  A typical belly dance performance at any hotel, boat or wedding runs between 45 minutes to an hour.  They are not the 15 to 20 minute gigs we do back home in one costume.  Each show is divided into 2 to 5 sections, depending on the performance format of the venue.  The dancer changes her costume for each section, and performs to a different sub-genre of Egyptian music.  For example, in the first set, the dancer will usually dance to an instrumental mejance, which is what Egyptians call the intro piece, and 1 or 2 classical songs.  This takes anywhere between 10 to 20 minutes.  She then changes her costume and dances her second set for another 10 to 20 minutes.  Typically, the second set involves some type of folklore and shaabi music.  Whether it’s Saidi, Iskanderani, Nubian or Khaligi, the dancer costumes appropriately. For the third set, dancers usually wear another belly dance costume and continue with things like sharqi, balady, and a drum solo.  Some performances do indeed deviate from this, but generally, this is the standard belly dance show format in Egypt. 

Because the shows are longer and more comprehensive, I had to really brush up on all types of folklore—I couldn’t rely on all the (con)fusion I learned back home to fill the hour, because things like wings, fan veils, swords, and trays of candles just don’t cut it here.  Egyptian audiences want to watch you dance, not put on a circus act.  Which was actually quite relieving for me, as I never really enjoyed superfluous prop work anyway. 

Music
Music selection was another biggie for me.  Because the Middle Eastern community in New York is quite diverse, I would get away with dancing to Egyptian, Lebanese, Syrian and Turkish music all in one set.  In Egypt, however, people’s taste in music is well, Egyptian. :)   Unless it’s George Wassouf or Melhem Barakat, I learned not to deviate too far from the standard Egyptian classics that all Egyptians know and love.  I also learned that I really need to understand the lyrics of the songs to which I’m dancing.  Not so that I can play cherades while I’m on stage, but so that I can be emotionally in tune with whatever I’m dancing to. 

Physical Appearance
Physically, I’ve also undergone some changes… for the better, I like to think. :)  For the first two years that I lived here, I was sickly skinny.  You could see my ribs, and I had no rear.  Which was odd because I’ve always been slightly on the round side. It’s not that I was on a diet or even exercising that much.  I was, however, extremely stressed.  Between adjusting to the culture and constantly dealing with selfish, narcissistic types, I entered into a depressive slump that affected not only my weight, but my entire outlook on life.  Luckily, I was able to put my foot down and make the changes I needed to regain my health, happiness, sanity, and love handles.  :)  Not to mention my big old butt….

…which is having a difficult time squeezing into costumes these days (thank God I live within a 3 mile radius of Eman Zaki and can have things custom made!).  I think any other girl would be freaking out if she gained the 25 pounds I’ve gained since moving here.  But not me.  I’m proud of them.  And they serve me well on stage.  I kind of like how every sharp movement I do now has an unintentional shimmy echo. :P  Not to mention, Egyptians like a little more junk in the trunk.  So it all works out. :)  

Which brings me to my next point.  Dancers here are encouraged to select the costumes that most flatter/show off their curves.  That means tight-fitting lycra skirts that trace every dimple and cellulite deposit on your thighs and butt.  Sexy.  :)  The more traditional chiffon bra and belt numbers have gone the way of the dinosaur.  Nobody wears them here.  Ever.  Nobody does fringe that much either.  This all came as a shock to me when I first arrived here, because most of us wear traditional bedlahs back home.  Except for the no fringe part, I’ve taken quite a liking to the more modern costumes, even if they do define my thigh dimples every now and then.  Because with lycra, the possibilities are endless.  From newspaper print lycra to heavily sequined spandex, stretch fabric has stretched our imaginations to the extremes.  Which is why fabric shopping has become a regular part of my weekly routine.  Which is why I now own more than 30 pieces of fabric, all waiting to be transformed into gorgeous costumes.

Attitude
Alongside all the changes I made in technique, music selection, and costuming, the biggest adjustment I’ve made (still making!) is one of consciousness.  I no longer belly dance.  I am a belly dancer.  Meaning, belly dance isn’t just a hobby I do on the weekends to make a few extra bucks.  It’s my full time job now, and it pays the bills. 


I’m also no longer a one-woman production the way I used to be in New York.  Back home, I would show up for my gigs, CD in hand, ready to shake my booty for 15 minutes and run off to do it all over again at the next joint.  Me, myself, and I.  Here, I’m part of a larger team of musicians, managers, agents, and male dancers (you know, those 2 to 4 young guys who do the cheesy YMCA-type movements at the beginning of any belly dance show? :P)  They also share the stage with me when I perform any type of folklore.  Because we interact with each other while dancing Saidi or Alexandrian, I actually have to conduct rehearsals with them from time to time.  Which is always fun(ny). :D 


Though I am technically part of a team (i.e. band), the concept of teamwork doesn’t really apply the way it would outside of Egypt.  For example, Egyptian dancers see (and often treat) their musicians as inferiors, not equals.  Tools.  Foreign dancers are taught to do the same.  Unnecessary interaction with the band is strongly discouraged, which means there’s little to no camaraderie amongst coworkers-- even though we see each other every day.  I’m sure each dancer’s situation varies somewhat, and there are examples of dancers breaking “the rules,” but generally this is the dynamic between the belly dancer and the band.  I personally try to keep things a little less formal and more humane, but it doesn't always work out.

The relationships amongst dancers here is similarly uncordial.  Again, there are exceptions to this, but for the most part, there’s no “sisterhood” between belly dancers the way there is back home.  That’s because there are fewer work opportunities than there are dancers, so dancers tend to view each other as competition, not friends.  Though dancers everywhere in the world are competing for a limited number of jobs, the situation doesn’t seem to be as cut throat as it is in Egypt.  In New York City, for example, pretty much all of us dancers were (and still are) friends.  We would hang out, work with each other, drink with each other, take class together, etc.  Here, dancers generally avoid one another.  If they interact, it’s usually in a negative, destructive way, such as reporting each other to the belly dance police, or stealing each other’s costumes, both of which I’ve had happen to me by the way.  It’s unfortunate, being that we have so much in common, but I was warned about this when I first came to Egypt.  Even though I had no intention of performing, my Egyptian teachers would always tell me to avoid making friends with dancers.  I do see the wisdom in this, however there are a couple dancers whom I respect and admire greatly, and thus stay on friendly terms with.  In the end, I can’t run my entire life by the book.  

The fact that I’m contracted means that my job imposes certain responsibilities on me.  Kind of like any other “normal” job would.  For example, no matter how sick I am, I can’t just not show up for work.  Or send a replacement and hope they like her.  And I have to constantly refresh my costume wardrobe.  In short, I have to be on top of my game.  Because in Egypt, the belly dancer is the reason for the evening.  Egyptians and tourists go to venues that feature belly dancing specifically to watch the dancer.  Not like in the States, where customers frequent restaurants to eat, and oh by the way there’s a belly dancer.  When you’re a by-the-way belly dancer, you can get away with not doing your best, because your audience is usually more interested in that chicken on the plate anyway.  Here, all eyes are on the belly dancer for the complete duration of her show.  So there’s much more pressure for her to be at her best (assuming she gives a sh!*).  In the end, however, it’s totally rewarding.  Both Egyptian and foreign audiences are super appreciative of a good show.  In fact, it's quite common for audience members to treat good dancers as celebrities, running after them before they disappear into the changing room, begging to be photographed with them, kiss them, or hire them for so-and-so’s wedding.   

I’ll never forget my very first show in Egypt 2 years ago.  It was at a remote Red Sea resort 2 hours away from Cairo.  Before I could even finish taking a bow, I had almost the entire audience up on stage with me—kids, moms, dads—kissing my sweaty face and pulling me alongside them to take pictures with me.  Never before had I seen an audience react to a belly dancer like that.  I was overwhelmed by all the love.  At first, I thought maybe it was just this particular audience that was particularly warm, but the more I performed, the more I encountered similar reactions.  And, I’ve heard other popular dancers in Cairo relate similar experiences.  Which means Egyptians really appreciate a good show. :)

When people ask me what’s keeping me in Cairo all this time, I answer: THAT.  Knowing that I’ve made people happy with my art.   Knowing that my art is truly appreciated by audiences.  Because other than great audiences, pretty much everything else that comes with being a belly dancer in Cairo is pure nastiness.  Indeed, one of the mysteries of the universe is how an artist who could make so many people happy could be considered the equivalent of a dirty prostitute who will go to hell if she doesn’t repent before dying.  It’s a real mindf&ck, let me tell you… feeling like a sinner and a celebrity all at the same time.

One thing’s for sure: I’m neither a sinner nor a celebrity.  But I have learned to accept that other people see me as such.  More importantly, I’m a different dancer than the one I used to be in New York.  And a different dancer than the one I’ll be in 2 more years.  Because each night on the stage is a learning experience, as much as it is a gift. 

27 comments:

  1. Hey there,

    I love all your posts but please please please change the background, its killing my eyes.

    Have fun dancing ;)

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    1. I'll take that into consideration. :)

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    2. Hey Anonymous,
      In the meantime, or if Luna decides to keep the awesome pink-zebra-rhinestone-flowers concept, you can always just go up to your browser toolbar, select "view", select "page style" and click "no style", to see all the great content with little-to-no eyeball death :)

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  2. Wonderful insight and great advice for all dancers!

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  3. Not that I meant to tell you what to do, but don't change a thing you're doing Luna. ;-)

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    1. Gotcha. :) Appreciate the encouragement.

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  4. Thanks, I love the honesty!

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  5. Hey Luna ..
    I Saw U Dancing last night...At Hotel.. I was at wedding last night... U r So Gorgeous [♥] Ahmed Mahrous..One of Ur New fans

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    1. Hi Ahmed, What a coincidence that you saw me dancing! Thanks for your compliment. Hope to see you again in the future. :)

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  6. Great post - I loved reading about the transition in your personal dance and outlook. Thanks for it!
    Raksanna

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    1. Thanks Raksanna, I think I published that too fast though... I had more to say ahhaha :) Oh well, next time. Looking forward to reading more of your blog.

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  7. Luna, I am so inspired by all the information you provide. I just love knowing that I don't need to be skinny like a supermodel or perform "circus acts" with props and I can rest assure that I am being authentic.

    Thank you!!

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  8. I was so sucked into your story. I hardly ever read long content all the way through but this really captured my attention. Very very interesting to learn how belly dancing in Cairo is, especially from an American's perspective and how you had to adapt. Thanks for sharing! Aesera

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    1. Thanks for reading Aesera. :) Glad you enjoyed it!

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  9. A very nice article.

    Very honest and informative. Being an Egyptian myself, I always wondered what makes Egyptian belly dancers look and dance differently than foreigners. Your article highlighted some of the points that I noticed, but couldn't point them as clear as you did through your deep observation and attention to details.

    Perhaps you should think of writing a book about your Egyptian adventures and writing not only about belly dancing, but also your observation of the people, the society and politics in Egypt. I think your background and political studies (I think you are Harvard university graduate yourself?) would be of great benefit.

    I'll make sure to see you performing next time with my wife and four kids!

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    1. Hi Tamer, thanks for writing. :) I'm glad I was able to clarify some things, but I'm sure there's a lot more I'm missing. So yes, I'm a Harvard grad, and I do intend to write a book one day--not just about the dance, but about my experience in Egypt, as you suggest. There's so much to share, but I'm too busy now to do it. That's why I keep the blog instead. :) But yes I'd love to have you and your family at my show. Do let me know whenever you want to come.

      Best,
      Luna

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  10. Really great information. I too have a difficult time staying interested in blogs... I saw this pop up on Bhuz and actually ran to your site to read the rest. Thanks for sharing.
    Khuzama

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    1. Hi Khuzama,
      Just saw this comment, so sorry for not responding earlier. Thanks for writing, and for reading my blog. Your comments and insights are always welcome. :)

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  11. Hey LUNA! it was great to meet you in Gainesville ( I was vending) I wish I took the workshop it looked SO AWESOME!
    I love this article! I hope to travel to Egypt soon and would love to be as appreciated one day when I perform =) Thanks for the blog!

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    1. Hi Anais,
      It was great meeting you in Gainesville too! Thanks for writing, and definitely let me know when you come to Cairo. :D

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  12. Great post! Thanks for sharing with such honesty and humor. You're a brave woman! :) Loved the con"fusion" comment, because it's true! I live in NY and teach at gyms, and I do have a blend of Turkish, Egyptian, and who knows what else in my technique :P And the shaking to each doom and tek! And yes, now a lot of dancers are great to each other here, but it was probably similar to Egypt's attitude way back when, because I saw it in the old-school teachers' attitude (don't dance with that person, don't take their classes, don't this or that). So interesting, maybe that's where they got it from. The curves part, I've heard that here too.. everything becomes a little easier ;) The knees comment was especially interesting. My two best instructors had the same discrepancy, one always cued very bent knees, and the other insisted: don't bend them! :P I try to do and teach what's most comfortable for the joints and gets more muscle work which tends to be knees bent. But who knows, maybe when you're in NY I can take a workshop and I'll realize I could be wrong! Funny, how as you get older you realize the framework (of not just dance)you've been working with may not have been true/correct, all this time ;)
    And thank you for the no circus performance acts! I always felt slightly inadequate that besides a veil, and an ocassional cane at best, nothing else came easy to me :P

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    1. Hi, I just saw this comment now. Thanks for reading and posting. It seems like we're on the same page when it comes to many things in dance. :) About "right" and "wrong," a good friend of mine advised me that when I teach, I shouldn't speak in terms of wrong and right, in terms of stylistic choices. So bent knees, for example, are not "wrong," they're just not Egyptian style. They're American cabaret style. I personally DO believe there is a right way to dance and a wrong way, however you don't want to get people angry with you for saying that. :)

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  13. The paradox you highlight about being seen as a sinner and celebrity is extremely fascinating. It seems as if this paradox is somewhat implicit to the Egyptian belly dance world...have you thought more deeply about why this is or maybe asked Egyptians themselves about it? Has this historically been the case? Is it getting worse, better, or stayed the same?

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    1. Hi, and thanks for your comment and questions. I think the sinner/celebrity paradox has existed for centuries, and is probably as old as the dance. The dance as a performance art, that is. Without asking Egyptians, I think it's because the human in us (i.e. the heart and soul) loves music and dance, while the brainwashed parts of us tell us it's sinful. I don't think it's getting worse or better. It's something that's always been and always will be.

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