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. :)~

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Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Festival Farce

I’ve decided to lay off the politics for a while and get back to writing about dance.  Though admittedly, there's not much of a difference…

I’ve been wanting to write about Egyptian dance festivals for a while, but have refrained for fear of pissing people off.  Now, I no longer care.  I've realized that no matter what you do, people will be pissed, so you might as well give them a reason.  Like telling the truth.  Which is exactly what I will do in this post.  I want to talk about what really goes on in the world of dance festivals.   Not that we don’t all already know.  But after 5 years of witnessing this stuff, I feel like sharing it.  Because what I’ve discovered is that the policies, practices, and philosophies that go into creating festivals have nothing to do with art, and everything to do with greed.  And it’s high time someone called it out. 

The original idea of creating A dance festival in Egypt was brilliant.  It was intended to be an annual event in which the best of Egypt’s folklore and belly dancers would teach foreign dance enthusiasts.  Licensed foreigners performing in Egypt would also be featured.  The mission was to promote Egyptian dance.  The rationale was that since belly dance originated in Egypt, who better to teach it than Egyptians and foreigners licensed to dance in Egypt?  

That was about 10 years ago.  Today, that mission has been turned on its head.  There are now five festivals putting on events two to four times a year (that’s not including the smaller lone-star festivals/camps/cruises/tours/whatever you want to call them that happen around the calendar).  Their mission is to make as much money as possible, and their rationale is, well, to make as much money as possible. ;) 

This is why today’s Egyptian dance festivals look more like circus acts than dance events.  You’ll find everything from Korean folk dance to Bollywood to bad belly dance at what are supposed to be the world’s most prestigious belly dance festivals—all because festival organizers make megabucks off of foreigners who bring students in exchange for a chance to teach.  Oftentimes, these foreign teachers are far from the best.  Occasionally, they have big names, but more often than not, their names outweigh their talent. 

If you think I’m being mean, have a moment of honesty with yourself.  I'll bet that at least once in your life, you've attended a dance festival in Egypt and asked yourself, “wait, how is that person teaching here?!?” 

Come on.  Don't deny it.  We've all had that WTF moment at festivals. 

The “you bring me a group of students and I’ll let you teach even though you should really be taking beginner classes” policy is nothing new.  Nor is the "I'll invite you to teach at my festival if you invite me to teach at yours" policy.  And it's no secret.  It’s been going on for the last few years, and all festival organizers are guilty of it.  What’s really mind boggling, though, is that it’s no longer shameful.  Festival organizers are no longer embarrassed to admit that they choose their teachers based on how many students they’ll bring them, NOT on how good they are.  So much for meritocracy. :/  This is one of the things that has dragged the festivals down, and what’s made them a laughing stock.

I'm not suggesting that all of the non-Egyptian teachers bring students to Egypt, or that there aren't some who are genuinely talented and deserve to be teaching.  Yet from what I've seen, they are only a handful.  The majority of foreign teachers either bring groups, or get “lucky.”  Basically, the festival organizer decides that the market in a certain country is good, and that they want to teach there.  So they invite the organizer of the best festival in that country to teach in Egypt.  The expectation is for the favor to be returned.  This is what I like to call the “I scratch your back you scratch mine” policy.  I invite you to teach in my festival, you invite me to teach at yours.  It’s the same thing that happens in Europe, actually. 

By now my readers probably know that I have a “talent” for dragging politics into everything.  This post will be no exception. You see, these festivals remind me of empires.  I’ll explain why. 

As with all empires, the emperor(ess) wants to conquer the world, nation by nation.  But since force is not an option in the dance world, (s)he invites foreign “heads of state” to her country, gives them the royal treatment (i.e. teaching and performing in Egypt), and then requests the same in return.  It is diplomacy at its finest, and a textbook example of mutual interest.  Art does not factor into the equation. 

There’s much more to empires than diplomacy and interest, however.  Empires have enemies, spies, corruption…. and oh yeah, a media to do all it’s brobaganda.  And, they make war.

So too the dance festivals.  Their enemies are other festivals, and they are in a constant state of war with each other.  They can’t stand the thought of competitors cutting into their profits, and do everything in their power to bring each other down.  This includes reporting each others’ “crimes” to the belly dance police, trying to steal each others’ most valuable players, scheduling their festivals at the same time as their enemies’, and using their media (Facebook & village loudmouths) to spread disinformation about each other (such as: the organizer of festival X is a con artist, or festival Y is a hoax and won’t happen, or Belly Dance Super Star Jane Doe won’t be teaching at festival Z, the organizer is falsely advertising her name to attract students). 

These festival empires have internal enemies as well.  “Spies,” if you will (I know, it's pathetic).  These are people who (are believed to) transmit sensitive information to the enemy side.  Things that classify as sensitive information include: who’s not getting along with who within a given festival, locations of opening and closing galas (because enemies can then send the belly dance police to these locations to ruin the fun), payroll, marketing strategies, and lineup,).  That’s why you’ll see festivals advertise many “surprises.”  "Surprises" is code for “secrets.”  What’s even more is that festival organizers’ fear of “spies” is so great that they often won’t share vital information with the people on their own team!  Talk about paranoia.  It is understandable though, considering these shenanigans really do happen. :/ 

You’re probably wondering why all this nastiness.  Why all this hate and negativity when art is supposed to be about joy…about love?   

To start, art has nothing to do with the business of festival making.  And believe me, it is a business.  A really BIG business.  For some, it's a matter of life or death, quite literally (I'm not going to mention who once said to my face that they could quote unquote "kill" for their festival).  In most cases, the festival is the organizer’s only source of income.  In all cases, it’s their claim to fame.  They’ve thus grown accustomed to making a large amount of money from them, and accustomed to a certain type of ass-kissing from all those who want to (continue to) be a part of that festival.   

I guess I should specify what I mean by ass-kissing.  Ass-kissing includes but is not limited to: working for free, doing free advertising, being the organizer’s personal slave—I mean “assistant”—putting up with shit you wouldn’t tolerate from your own mother, buying the organizer expensive gifts, showering them with false and hypocritical compliments all day long.  You get the point. 

How do I know?  Because I've been there and done that…

So what makes us do this?  What makes us so willing to degrade ourselves just to be a part of these festivals?  Why do we act as though teaching at one of these things is like buying a ticket to Heaven? 

Let me be obnoxious and answer my own questions.  For many, being “invited” to teach at a festival in Egypt gives them license to boast about how great they are.  It allows them to fool the rest of the world into thinking they’re some genius of Egyptian dance, when in reality, the organizer invited them because they're bringing students or because they do good Facebook.  After all, if someone is teaching alongside Dina, Camelia, Randa, or Mona El-Said, she must be amazing…

Another reason we’d sell our mothers to teach at a festival is because festivals are a great place to see and be seen.  They’re great for networking.  Before the Great Mess of 2011, hundreds of students would attend these events.  One festival had more than 1,000 students in 2006, the year I first attended a festival.  Imagine the networking possibilities. 

OK great. I got ass-kissing out of the way.

Now where were we?  Ah yes, big business.  I think it’s safe to assume we all know Big Business’s shady cousin, Corruption.  Just like empires and nation states, these festivals are no strangers to corruption. Charging ridiculously expensive “registration fees” is corrupt.  Selling classes in which you learn N-O-T-H-I-N-G for close to $100 is corrupt.  Fixing competitions is corrupt.  Selling 1st place for $2,000 is corrupt.  Need I say more?  

You would think that corruption is the sole domain of national politics, where the stakes are seemingly much bigger and more consequential.  Yet to assume that would be to underestimate how much money these organizers rake in after a festival.  Now I don’t pretend to know what the official figures are, but my guess is that it can be in the millions (I’m talking Egyptian pounds, of course).  That money comes from festival classes, registration fees, competition fees, dance-to-the-band fees, costume sales, rent from costume designers who vend at the festival, bribes to win the competition, hotel room sales, optional tour sales, payment from those who want to perform in opening or closing galas, gifts from ass-kissing teachers, videos of the galas, gala ticket fees… I’m sure there are other sources of revenue that I’m unaware of.  With that type of income (and with the expenses that such events incur), it’s no wonder things get corrupt.  Though it’s no excuse.

It’s also no wonder that some individuals in the festival world made the same observations that I’ve made, and caught the greed bug.  They realized what a cash-cow this dance has become, and decided to go off and make their own events. That’s why every year someone “gets fed up” with the festival organizer, and opa, a new festival is born.  Granted, it is VERY easy to get fed up with these organizers, as they have a tendency to treat people like sh!t.  But the main reason Egyptians teachers stray off is because they think they can strike it rich by creating their own festival.  That’s why we now have 5 festivals.  And we’ll probably have two or three more in the next year or two...

If no one’s said it before, let me be the first to say that five dance festivals in Egypt is too much for the belly dance world.  Maaaybe I could semi-justify it if there were all radically different from each other—if they were held at different times throughout the year, rather than all at the same time.  But they’re all just carbon copies of each other.  Not only is no one being original, but they all do the same things for which they criticized the original festival producers.  Like bringing in foreigner teachers who don’t deserve to be there.

What people don’t realize is that the pool of foreign students who attend festivals isn’t getting any bigger.  There are only so many students who ever attended these events, and now they have to choose between five festivals.  Chances are, if they attended one event, they won’t attend another.  For some, it’s an issue of loyalty.  For others, habit.  For most, it’s about money.  Most students simply can’t afford to attend more than one event a year in Egypt.  Especially since they’re all so expensive! 

The other thing that festival organizers fail to consider is the world economic crisis.  People just don’t have the same pocket power they used to.  Fewer people are able to purchase roundtrip airfare from their country to Egypt, and then attend one of these expensive festivals.  This, coupled with the fact that people are afraid to travel to Egypt, means that the times are not conducive to festival making.    

I know I'm picking on the Egyptian festival scene here, but that's because it's what I'm most familiar with.  That's not to say that European and American festivals are any better.  From the little I know of them, they seem to be just as much about business as they are in Egypt.  If not more.  All I see on Facebook are flyers for this or that festival (all of which seem to have the same name or a variation of it... comeon people where's your creativity!?!), with the same clique of teachers in every festival.  There's rarely anyone new, and rarely anyone with real credentials to be teaching Egyptian dance.  Now, I would think, and I could be wrong here, that one would have to know a little something about real Egyptian dance, or maybe even know something about being Egyptian?  Maybe they should either be Egyptian or have lived in Egypt long enough to have danced there regularly and professionally, to have worked with musicians, and learned the language and culture?  Like I said, I could be wrong about this.  Cuz you know, it's HIGHLY  likely that someone who's only ever danced to CD in their country and only ever performed in front of other belly dancers knows astronomical amounts about Egyptian dance and culture.  In fact that's why I stayed in the US these past 5 years instead of moving to Egypt--so I could learn Egyptian dance from the experts in America! (please note sarcasm.)

Seriously though, these dance festivals need a makeover.  They need an attitude and mission adjustment.  Not all of them of course.  There are some really high quality, respectable festivals out there with qualified teachers who bring knowledge and expertise, not students.  But they are few.  The rest of us in the festival business need to be thinking about the art, not about how much money we can make.  We need to be inviting those teachers with knowledge and experience in the field, not those who will invite us to teach in their festivals.  And when we invite the right people, we won't have to worry about filling the class room or our pockets, because the right people will attract students.  And plenty of them. 

I don't know, doing things the correct way seems to make much more sense, both financially and artistically.  Or am I the only one who feels this way?

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