by Luna

by 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. :)~

My Videos

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Egyptian Weddings

As much as I love performing on the Nile Memphis, nothing beats the excitement of dancing at weddings.  Weddings are considered the “holy grail” of the belly dance industry, and with good reason.  Everything from the money to the exposure to the band and the dance floor is bigger.  (You know what they say about bigger. :D)  Though it’s often impossible to put on a show when hundreds of jubilant guests are crowding on top of you, I still enjoy dancing at weddings more than anywhere else. 
The main reason I prefer weddings is that my show is longer and my band is bigger.  Instead of my usual two costume changes and 6-piece band, I change my costumes four times, and expand my band to at least twenty members.  The music is rich, layered, detailed, and powerful.  Providing the sound system is decent, the music is so loud it takes over my body and does the dancing for me.  Suffice it to say that most of the time, I have no idea what I do/did on the dance floor—until I see a video (if there is one). 

The costume changes are great too.  I have an exquisite costume wardrobe (if I may say so myself :D), and I love showing it off.  Usually I do my entrance piece and two songs in a beautiful two-piece.  Then I do a Saidi and Shaabi cocktail in a galabiyya.  Next is an Alexandrian section in a short dress, and finally, I close my show with a balady and tabla solo in another two-piece.  Technically, I’m supposed to have a labeesa (dressing assistant) to help me get in and out of costumes, but I don’t.  Since I only have seconds to change my costumes while drenched in sweat, having another set of hands on my body agitates me.  More importantly, I don’t want to be wondering whether my belongings are being stolen while I’m on the dance floor. 

Though the money from weddings is slightly better than what I make for a show on the Memphis, it still amounts to very little after I finish paying my musicians, folklore dancers, technicians, sound people, and drivers.  Money is therefore the factor that least motivates me. 

Another reason I love performing at weddings is because I often have the privilege of being part of an amazing lineup.  In Egypt, where upper crust weddings are more like concerts, I almost always share the night with at least one megastar.  And, if my timing is right, I get to watch them perform.  So far, I’ve had the honor of dancing at the same functions as Dina, Saad Il-Soghayar, Emad Baroor, Mahmoud El-Leithy, Hakim, Amina, Bussy, Baha Sultan, Samir Sabry, and Higazi Mit’al.  My favorites are always the shaabi singers like Saad and Baroor because they bring a cohort of obnoxious young male dancers to energize the crowd. ;)  I’ve also been hired to dance by a few celebrities and political dignitaries, including actress Ghada Abd-Il-Razik and Field Marshall Tantawi (before he resigned).  That in itself makes dancing at weddings worth their while.

Zeffas are also an amazing thing to watch (but not perform in).  The zeffa is the traditional musical procession that starts the wedding celebration.  It consists of a group of percussionists with tablas strapped onto their tummies, and a few guys playing the mizmar (that special trumpet-like instrument commonly heard in Saidi music).  The musicians play standing up and are usually dressed in white suits (though I’ve seen orange too), and they play popular love songs for about half an hour in the reception area of the hotel.  They intersperce themselves between the bride, groom, and the guests, but never enter the party room.  Sometimes there’s one or two female folkloric dancers bopping around in galabiyyas.  They are almost always very young, unenthused, and poorly trained.  Which is why it’s considered a big mistake for a belly dancer with a name to dance in zeffas.  There’s no prestige in it because it’s all about the musicians and the guests, not about the dancer.  And because the zeffa dancer will be eclipsed (and forgotten) by the star belly dancer who will do an hour performance later in the night. 

It’s not just the glitz & glam that makes me love doing weddings, however.  There’s also an intellectual component to it all (as is usually the case with me).  More than anything else, dancing at weddings has given me unique access to the private worlds of thousands of Egyptians.  It is through weddings that I’ve seen the rich and that I’ve seen the poor.  That I’ve seen the addicts, the dealers, the religious, the pretentious, the party animals.  The Muslims, the Christians.  Indeed, how people party reveals a lot about them and their status in society, as well as a host of other things. 

Take rich weddings for example.  Families with money typically spend hundreds of thousands of pounds marrying off their kids.  That’s because in Egypt, the rich rarely miss an opportunity to flaunt their wealth.  It’s as if they’re proud of themselves for succeeding in a country which breeds poverty, and feel the need to rub that in everyone’s face.  Come wedding time, rich people rent out 7 star hotels or military-owned catering halls for the occasion, and hire at least one performer—either a singer or dancer, for the evening.  They go all out, as we would say, and sometimes, a bit overboard.  I once danced at a wedding in Alexandria in which I was one of TWELVE numbers!  I shared the stage that night with shaabi singers Saad, Mahmoud El-Leithy, Bussy, Ragab, and some others, including another belly dancer.  By the time it was my turn to perform, the groom was stoned out of his mind and the bride was in tears.  It was 5 in the morning and she was understandably sick of being a spectator at what turned into a circus. 

When what’s so supposed to be a celebration of the bride and groom’s new life together turns into a star fest, it’s obvious that their families are most interested in putting on a public display of wealth than in celebrating the newlyweds’ new life together.   

Rich weddings also tend to be a little more difficult in terms of getting people to dance.  Sometimes people with money take themselves a little too seriously.  Especially if they come from generations of wealth.  The last thing they want to be caught doing is something as “silly” and “frivolous” as dancing. :/  It’s not always like this, but it’s frequent enough for me to make this generalization.

That’s not to say that all rich people are party poopers.  Indeed, there are some party animals out there with money.  Usually, though not always, these people belong to a newer stratum of Egyptian society that has lots of money but lacks the education and class of the traditional upper class.  Admittedly, a lot of these people come into wealth through “untraditional means,” if you know what I mean.  The result is a class of society that is loaded but that behaviorally, has more in common with the lower classes. In other words, they party.  Hard. :)  These are the types of weddings I enjoy most.  They feature all the grandeur of rich weddings, yet have the energy and mannerisms of the lower classes.  When I dance at these weddings, I feel the appreciation from the minute I set foot on the dance floor to the second I take a bow.  And then some.  Often, I have crowds of people dancing at/with me.  They make it impossible for me to put on a proper show, but it’s so much fun it doesn’t really matter.  In the end, we all enjoy ourselves. 

Things get even more interesting when I’m asked to do weddings at multi-million dollar villas.  Villas in Egypt are the equivalent of mansions in the US.  With all their decadence and splendor, they make perfect venues for weddings.  They are almost always multi-leveled, have an elevator, acres of land, and a pool.  That’s not including the thousands of dollars in gold, china, and other valuables that adorn these places. 

Here’s where you can get a macroscopic view of Egypt’s social stratification up close and personal.  You see, these villas are so huge that they require a full time staff to maintain them.  The “staff,” which is really more like a slave corps, are always comprised of either really poor Egyptians, or else Sudanese or Filipino women.  They live in the villas and work as drivers, chefs, launderers, cleaners, baby sitters, etc.  There’s nothing they don’t or can’t do.   

I’m still not sure how I feel about this.  On the one hand, the “villalords” are providing these people with employment and accommodation.  That’s more than many have in Egypt, and probably more than they had in their home countries.  On the other, they are, as I said, slaves (or serfs, really).  Watching them get bossed around rubs me the wrong way.  One thing about these servants, though, is that they always tend to me with the utmost respect, and can rarely contain themselves when I start dancing.  Oftentimes, while everyone else is too pretentious to let loose and have a good time, the servants are zaghareeting and dancing up a storm.

Interesting Observations
Egypt’s rigid class structure isn’t the only thing one can discern at villa weddings.  I’ve also seen quite a bit of the county’s social ills up close.  Like drug use and prostitution.  People can’t get away with these things in hotels, but they’re free to enjoy them in the privacy of their homes.  This is more often the case with that newer strata of “untraditionally wealthy” people.  The drugs are usually pretty obvious.  The prostitution, however, is a little more inconspicuous.  But you can more or less tell by the presense of Gulfi women inappropriately-dressed and overly made up for a wedding anywhere, let alone in Egypt.  I’m not judging by the way, just marveling.  Prostitution exists everywhere.  You just don’t expect to find it at weddings. 

It’s not just the Gulfi women who dress proactively.  Believe it or not, many Egyptian parents dress their little girls that way too.  I kid you not.  Child Services would have a ball arresting all the parents who dress their 10-year old girls like hookers and make them up like clowns.  I’m talking super short and tight black cocktail dresses, heels, and loads of brightly colored makeup.  The kind of stuff no girl should dream about wearing until she’s 18.  This would bother me anywhere, but it especially bothers me here considering how religious people pretend to be.  Either they veil their girls at 6 years old, or else dress them up like sluts.  Both are exploitative, and both should be avoided.  Especially since the Egyptian government has legalized pedophilia.

What’s more interesting to me than the way women dress at weddings, however, is what men have to say about it.  Not just any men, but lower and middle class men who happen to be on the party premises but aren’t part of the party.  Like waiters, drivers, agents, and musicians.  You’d think any man would appreciate the site of a good-looking, half-naked woman, even more so in a society where women constantly hide their beauty from the public eye.  Yet the opposite is generally true.  Every time a hot, scantily-clad woman walks by a group of men, they utter things like, “that’s the reason our society is corrupt.”  Or “if that were my wife, I’d kill her.”  And then shake their heads in disapproval and tisk-tisk.

Street Weddings

There’s one other type of wedding—the type I’m not allowed to nor would I want to do.  Street weddings.  Street weddings are for people too poor to rent out a hotel or even a Nile cruise for the night.  Instead, they hire a DJ, an emcee/singer, and some tables and chairs.  They set everything up on the street they live in, invite the entire neighborhood, and make a lot of noise. J People dress casually, as if it were any other day, yet the bride still wears a wedding dress, and the groom wears a tuxedo.  And though there’s typically a lot of hashish passed around at these weddings, they tend to be loads of fun to attend.  In fact, this is where you can see some of the best shaabi dancing.  Real shaabi with knives and drugs.  I once attended one of these weddings and videotaped quite a bit of the dancing.  You can watch that video below.

There are a couple of reasons I don’t perform at these weddings.  The first is that I’d be taking my life in my hands.  Literally.  Especially these days.  The slums of Cairo can be very unsafe for average Egyptians, let alone half-naked foreign women jiggling for all to see.  The Egyptian dancers who do these types of weddings have to be escorted on and off stage by body guards.  And they’re tough enough to handle it.  Imagine a foreign dancer coming from a different planet!
The other reason I don’t perform at these is because my professional reputation would go right down the toilet.  Here, it’s all about prestige, about dancing in hoity-toity 5-star venues.  Once word gets around that you perform at street weddings, you’ll never be hired to dance at nice places again.  That’s just how it goes. 
That being said, I was once tricked into performing at one of these, though on a much larger scale.  An agent called and told me I was requested to dance at a wedding in Alexandria to CD.  The money was good, so I said yes.  I went with my manager and the agent, who drove us.  When we got there, we realized it was basically a huge street wedding enclosed by cloth to make it look like a tent.  A local band was playing, which was very good actually, and the crowd, consisting of mostly young guys, was wild.  My manager freaked out and didn’t want me to perform.  Since we didn’t have our own transportation though, we were at the mercy of the agent, who made it clear that if I didn’t go on, he would neither pay me nor take us back home.  So, I performed.  I had two steroid-pumped body guards escort me from the dressing area to the stage.  Actually, they stayed on the stage with me the whole time, making sure none of the young guys did anything stupid.  It was the most awkward, surreal experience I’d had as a dancer.  And then, as if I hadn’t been shaabied out enough, a bunch of men started firing their guns in the air!  This is common practice at street weddings, but dang, let’s just say that caught me off guard.  I froze and didn't know whether to duck or run or scream.  Meanwhile, the band was still playing.  That put me at ease, so I continued dancing.   

The Newlyweds

I just realized I’ve written a whole post about weddings without even mentioning the newlyweds.  As a dancer, I have a strict self-imposed policy on how I interact with them.  It basically consists of engaging the bride and ignoring the groom.  Totally.  I don’t even look at him.  I do that because from my experiences on and off stage, I’ve noticed that Egyptian women can be really possessive of their men and sometimes insanely jealous.  That doesn’t change on the wedding day.  In fact, it’s probably worse.  While hundreds of scantily-clad women are romping around the premises, she’s usually veiled and wearing a long-sleeved, white polyesther shirt under her sexy wedding gown.  Then there’s the belly dancer of course, who, if she’s popular on the wedding circuit, is probably something to look at. 
The last thing I want is for the bride to be hating on me on her wedding day, so I avoid contact—eye and physical—with the groom.  Sometimes it turns out to be unnecessary.  Some brides actually force their grooms to dance with me.  In that case, I take my cue from them.  Other times, not only is it necessary to ignore the groom, but it isn’t enough.  I could be dancing twenty miles away from him, and the bride will still be pissed at my presence.  When that happens, there’s nothing I can do except carry on with my show.  Sometimes the management warns me beforehand not to get the couple up to dance.  Sometimes they tell me to do the opposite.  Almost all of the time, the newlyweds want me to do the exact opposite of what the managers say. 

Even the most standoffish bride who frowns and growls doesn’t upset me, though.  Instead, she puts me in her head.  I know how stressful marriage and wedding parties can be for people anywhere in the world.  It’s probably ten times worse in Egypt.  You see, there’s big pressure on the wedding night here.  Not only is the bride expected to be a virgin, but she’s expected to have her very first sexual encounter ever that same night.  That’s why they call the wedding night leilat il-dukhla, which translates as “entrance night,” or just dukhla, “entrance,” for short.  Yeah, so much for subtlety. J  If she’s really a virgin, she’s scared.  If she’s not a virgin and no one knows, she’s probably even more scared.  There are exceptions however.  I’ve done a few weddings where the bride seemed cool and relaxed.  I’m not sure if that’s an indication that she’s, you know, experienced.  It may very well mean that she’s enjoying the moment.  Nevertheless, I wind up analyzing the couple based on how nervous they look at the wedding… all while dancing, laughing, and having fun.  How do you like THAT for multitasking? J


  1. As always Luna, spot on and fabulous! Back in the day, our Hawaiian Show was hired several times to perform at those cast of a thousand 5- star (at the time- 7 star hotel? oh my!) affairs. You forgot to mention those wacky peacock thrones and the funeral/ Kentucky Derby style flower arrangements! Unless those are now de rigeur ;) Shokrun for your insights!

    1. Thank you Willow! I actually haven't seen any peacock thrones lol, but funeral flower arrangements are pretty standard. :D

  2. Luna, thank you for sharing with us your eperiencias. I love your blog. Please always write.

  3. Luna,
    As always, educational, enciteful, and hilarious! I love reading about your adventures and getting to see what is really going on in Egypt- LIVE. Please keep blogging!