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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Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Audiences of Cairo

One of the perks of being a contracted dancer in Cairo is that you get to perform quite regularly.  Some of us work multiple times a week.  Others work multiple times a day, depending on the venue, the popularity of the dancer, and these days, whether there’s enough business. And what could be better than that?  Doing what you love every single day.  It seems like the ideal work situation.  And it is. Except I wasn’t too sure of that when I first got contracted.  Here’s why.
Anytime art becomes your job, you run the risk of losing your passion.  That’s because a “job” entails obligation, routinization, and money, and there’s something about art that’s antithetical to all of that.  Art is a gift from God (or the universe or whatever you call it).  It’s not something we can force out of ourselves whenever we want.  That’s why we often hear the word “inspiration” associated with art.  The artist seeks out and waits for inspiration.  And when it comes, the artist becomes impassioned and produces her best work.  Since inspiration can neither be forced nor rushed, it seems ridiculous to make art our job, the way we would law, or medicine, or dry cleaning.  And yet, somehow, after a year of performing every single night, I have not lost an ounce of passion for the dance.  Rather, what I’ve noticed is that my passion for the dance has increased, and is highly dependent on the enthusiasm of the audience.   


Audiences are really important in Oriental dance.  That’s because the performer-audience dynamic is much more intimate than it is in other dances.  It’s also more interactive. Unlike in ballet and other stage dances, we actually see our audiences and make eye contact with them.  We can tell who’s happy, who’s interested, who’s moved, who’s bored, who’s feeling insecure, who’s embarrassed, who’s imagining inappropriate things, who’s judging us, etc.  We can pull them up from their seats and dance, take pictures, and even joke with them.  All of that affects our mood, and has an impact on the performances we deliver.  Dancing for an audience that’s already cheering before you even enter the room makes for a better performance than entering a room full of sleeping tourists or sour-faced religious people. 
I’ve probably performed for every type of audience imaginable by now.  Egyptians, Arabs, tourists, fellow belly dancers, friends, enemies, rich, poor, religious, non-religious, politicians, celebrities, Muslim Brotherhood, women only (and once, men-only), polite, appreciative, rude, aggressive, fun, crazy, sleeping, stuffy and pretentious, obnoxious. I’ve had religious (non)audiences walk out before and during my show, and jet-lagged, worn out tourists literally sleep through my entire performance.  I’ve also had audiences cheer, zaghareet, and scream with joy.  And audiences hurl flowers at me, kiss me, and shower me with compliments, all while dancing.  Heck, I’ve even had feathers plucked out of my costume while on stage! :)  Though I (obviously) favor some audience types over others, each one has taught me something about myself, human nature, and most of all, the dance.
Indeed, the most important thing I’ve learned is that belly dance is a social dance (and I am a “social” person, as much as I think I’m not).  It’s a dance that happens in festive social gatherings such as weddings, hinnas (bachelorette parties), birthday parties, subuas (a rough equivalent to Christenings), etc.  I already “knew” this from my beginner belly dance classes back in New York.  But I knew it in an intellectual, abstract kind of way.  Now, I feel this knowledge every day.  And I feel it in a different way too.  Since the audience and the dancer are each other’s immediate “society” for the duration of the show, they feed off each other’s energy.  That being said, I thought it would be interesting to map out the different audiences I’ve encountered, their requirements, and explain how they each affect my mood and dance differently. 
I’ll start with the Egyptian audience.  The Egyptian audience is hands down the best audience for belly dance.  Nobody enjoys or understands Egyptian music and dance more than Egyptians. Most of the time, Egyptians look forward to watching the belly dancer and dancing with her.  They cheer before, during and after the show.  Men and women invite themselves to dance with her.  Some don’t think twice about it.  Others, mainly veiled women, know that they “shouldn’t,” but just can’t resist.  I love watching them explode on the dance floor. And I love watching the reactions of other audience members, especially tourists who think veiled women don’t dance. ;)
I give my best performances when I dance for Egyptians.  At least I think I do.  I know they understand what I’m doing, so I feel free to just dance.   I’m free to emote, and to be myself. I don’t have to worry about whether I’m doing too little, the way I do when I dance for some foreign audiences.  If anything, I worry about whether I’m doing too much.  Egyptian belly dance is more subtle and relaxed than the more acrobatic versions of belly dance we see in the West.  It’s about feeling and emotion.  Egyptians don’t need to see you twist yourself into a knot, stand on your head, or do every single move you’ve ever learned as fast as you can, just because you can.  They just need to know that you understand the music, that you know what you’re doing, and most importantly, that you’re enjoying yourself.  They also want to see a pretty girl in front of them, but that’s an entirely different story.
My absolute favorite thing about Egyptian audiences, however, is the fact that they are interested.  They will usually give you some form of feedback, and if need be, constructive criticism.  They tell you whether or not they liked your performance, your costumes, your hair.  They tell you when you need to slow down, calm down, or take it up a notch.  They tell you you need to gain or lose a little weight, and that you shouldn’t wear that color.  And if they really like you, they compare you to legendary Egyptian dancers and hire you to dance at their kids’ weddings. :)  In short, Egyptians want to see you be the best dancer you could be.  And that is something I really appreciate, as constructive criticism is something that’s lacking in our dance community.  Dancers praise their friends and bash their enemies without giving any real thought to the quality of their work, so it’s refreshing to listen to objective feedback from disinterested observers who don’t have an axe to grind.
As much as I love dancing for Egyptians, I’d be lying if I said they’re all as enthusiastic as the ones I just described.  There are some who simply don’t like music and dance.  And there are some who do, but aren’t comfortable demonstrating that in public.  I see quite a bit of this with what I like to call “nouveau riche” Egyptians—the newly moneyed strata of Egyptian society with actual professions, nice cars, western clothing, and pretentious demeanors.  These are self-important people embarrassed by all things Egyptian, especially belly dancing (as if we in the West don’t have half-naked girls dancing for money).  These are the Egyptians who pretend they’re not watching you dance, and who pretend they themselves don’t want to get up and dance with you. 
Then there are the religious crowds.  With the exception of a group of Muslim Brothers a few months ago, nearly all religious audiences I’ve encountered leave the room when I dance, or else remain seated and frown throughout my entire show.  This is actually the worst type of audience to perform for.  As if publicly dancing in a skimpy costume doesn’t take enough guts, these people make me feel like a sinful, lowlife bimbo.  Whenever I dance for a crowd like that, I find myself getting all psychoanalytical (How can’t I?  They invade my mental space). I imagine all the things they’re thinking about me.  Like how I’m probably going to Hell because I’m a dancer.  I start thinking about religion and politics—not the topics you want to think about on stage.  And then I start holding back.  My movements become smaller and less energetic.  My smile fades. I avoid making eye contact with anyone, even the women. In short, I recoil.  I just don’t feel comfortable being judged in that kind of way while I’m trying to put on a show.  Needless to say, these types of people make terrible audiences.  But, luckily for me, most of the Egyptians I dance for are not like this.  They’re happy to watch me dance, and even come to take pictures before I disappear into the changing room. 
Though I “tailor” my performances to suit the audience, my one constant is never making eye contact with the Egyptian men in the audience.  Never.  Unless they are unaccompanied by women.  Women tend to be a bit unnerved by a belly dancer who can look their men straight in the eye, especially on their wedding day.  So I don’t do it.  Out of respect for them.  It makes them feel more comfortable, and reassures them that I’m not some psycho-slut out to get their man. 
Foreign audiences are a little different.  For some, watching a belly dancer is the highlight of their trip to Egypt.  It’s easy to tell who they are, simply by the way their eyes twinkle when you step on stage.  They start smiling and clapping and can’t take their eyes off you.  These kinds of tourists make me love my job.  They want to watch me, and I want to give them a good show.  It works out nicely.
There are others, however, who make my job a little more difficult.  Occasionally, I wind up dancing for a group of jet lagged, worn out tourists who are literally asleep in their seats before I even enter the room.  Nothing in the world can wake them up.  Not my band, and not me.  I could stand on my head and do 11 pirouettes in a row and they still wouldn’t wake up.  Dancing for this type of audience is beyond frustrating, but then again, I can’t really blame them.  I know what it’s like to cram all of Egypt into a 1 week tour.  Between the jet lag, exhaustion, and food poisoning, you feel like you want to kill yourself.  Nevertheless, when I’m on stage in front of sleeping tourists, I find myself getting pissed, not commiserating with them.  I lose interest in what I’m doing, and can’t wait to get off stage and do something more constructive.
Second to Egyptians, the audience I enjoy the most is an audience of fellow belly dancers.  Since I started performing at the Nile Memphis a year ago, I’ve performed for dancers from all over the world.  As dancers, they understand what I’m doing and know how to be a good audience.  They are also the most critical.  But the energy is always high and always positive.   And they always join me on the dance floor, which is loads of fun. :) 
The sheer diversity of audiences here in Cairo is amazing.  And though I don’t enjoy dancing for everyone equally, I learn something from each performance—such as, what works for foreigners, what works for Egyptians, etc.  The best thing about it, though, is that you never know who your audiences are before getting on stage.  There’s always a bit of a surprise element to it.  It kind of reminds me of Forest Gump’s famous “box of chocolates.”  You never know what you’re gonna get. :) 

9 comments:

  1. as always i enjoy reading your blog <3 thanks

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  2. When I read your blog, I always learn something from your shared experiences and observations, and I always enjoy doing so. Please keep up the excellent work Luna. Respectfully, R.

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  3. Thanks Runa! I was actually reading your blog the other day, and I'm inspired by how committed you are to writing and to the dance. I noticed you wrote something about an injury... about not being able to NOT dance. I know the feeling, but seriously, take some time off to heal, otherwise the condition will get worse, and you'll wind up taking more time off. Trust me. I've been there. Thanks for writing and I look forward to reading more of your blog. :)

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  4. I LOOOOVE your writing!

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  5. Beautiful blog! Check in every day for new posts and have yet to be disappointed. Hope you enjoy your time here in Egypt with us =).

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    1. Thank you so much Ibraheem, and glad you like my blog! :)

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  6. you putted a smile on my face! Thanks!

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