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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Sunday, February 15, 2015

Competition Craze

Belly dance competitions are a lot like sex. You'd rather your kids not have it, but you know it's inevitable. So you teach them the right way. The 'safe' way. Sorry for the analogy, but this is how I feel about competitions. Not exactly the best our art has to offer, but an undeniable part of its current landscape. As someone who has both judged and entered competitions (back when I had no idea how terrible I was), I think I'm pretty qualified to talk about this subject, as well as give a few pointers on how to do it the 'right' way. And I have a lot to say. As always. :)

First I should mention that I  have many friends who have both entered and won competitions. I'm very proud of them, as I do see this as an accomplishment on some level. When truly deserved, winning a competition can bring a dancer recognition, esteem, and even jump start her teaching career. Which is great. None of my subsequent criticisms of the competition world are meant to detract from their success in any way.

Before I begin, I should also point out some of the other positives aspects. Like, competitions can be a great way for dancers to motivate themselves. Some people say they need that extra pressure in order to produce their best material. I get that. Though, I am secretly skeptical of the dancers who claim that this is their *primary* reason for competing. Competitions are meant to be won, after all ;)

Competing can also be a good way of building character. At least in theory. It doesn't always work that way, but it has the potential to foster a sense of appreciation for fellow competitors' work, efforts, and feelings, as well as for judges' constructive criticisms. It can also be a lesson in keeping things in perspective, realizing that life isn't always fair, and not being a sore loser.

The most important benefit of competitions, however, is that they provide a much needed platform for rising talent to showcase their skills. In a field in which artists can now outnumber paid performance opportunities 5,000 to 2 in some countries, competitions are the alternative to gigs. Notice how this wasn't the case ten and twenty years ago, when the market wasn't as saturated. 'Back in the day,' there were fewer dancers and more gigs to go around for everyone. This was the competition-- securing the lion's share of the jobs and being the highest paid dancer, not competing for a trophy or a title. With the Arabic nightclub scene in the US all but dried up, however, today's dancers find themselves with very few options. Especially since there's been an explosion in the number of dance students who want to be stars. Or, let's rephrase that... who are looking for recognition. :) Competitions are great for this. Furthermore, they are especially beneficial to dancers of color, as they often find themselves on the margins of the paid performance world due to the discrimination they face from Middle Eastern venue owners.

That being said, we cannot deny that competitions are changing our dance. And not always for the better.  I don't want to single out a particular region as being the prime culprit for the competition craze, as obvious as that is, but I will say that it's resulting in the 'Olympicization' of our dance. Meaning, the movement vocabulary of raqs sharqi is becoming bigger, bolder, faster, exaggerated, more aggressive, athletic, balletic, and muscular, and less nuanced. Dancers are doing more tricks-- back breaking accents; crazy hair flipping; splits; kicks-- and cramming twenty different movements into a single phrase of movement.

I guess this is only natural. The idea is to impress the judges by outshining the competition. The problem is that we think we have to be LOUD to do that. And we do, but not in the same way as other art forms better suited to the competition format like ballroom, ballet, hip-hop, or even martial arts and bodybuilding. Unlike these art forms, raqs sharqi requires much less athleticism and technical precision. In fact too much of these things ruins the aesthetic of the dance. The way to be loud when belly dancing, then, is by being subtle. By keeping your movements small, internal, meaningful, soft, and in harmony with the successfully conveying the meaning of the lyrics with your body...and by making it personal.

Which brings me to my next point. It's a bit misleading to think you can accurately judge a belly dancer by comparing her to others, for two main reasons. First, as I already mentioned, this is a very personal dance. Assuming that all the competitors have a similar level of technique, presentation, and costuming, how do you determine whose expression is better? Is that even possible? This is entirely subjective, and depends entirely on the persons doing the judging. What do they like? Where do they come from? What is their understanding of this dance form's aesthetic? Have they ever competed? Are they even qualified to judge? Did they have their coffee this morning? Take their meds? So you see, it's difficult to be objective here, let alone fair. This is further complicated by the fact that everyone dances to different music. How can you compare someone dancing to Alf Layla with someone NOT dancing to Alf Layla? (I guess there's no real way around this, as most competitions refuse to have all the contestants dancing to the same song, which, actually, would be the fairest format. (Now that I think of it, doesn't the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition do this?)) How can you compare someone dancing to Wana Mali with someone doing shaabi? This is an issue can easily be solved with categories, but many competitions fail to do that.

The other issue in judging belly dance is that it takes a lot more than a three minute snippet of a highly rehearsed routine to evaluate a dancer's skill. Especially if they're performing someone else's choreography! (To me, this is cheating, even if they acknowledge it, but I'll deal with that later.) Within Egyptian dance alone, there are so many things to master. So you nailed three minutes of that entrance piece and won the crown. Great. Can you shift gears and dance to Um Kulthoum? Can you capture the silliness of a shaabi piece, or the raw emotion of a mawal? Can you do a mean Saidi? How about a drum solo? Baladi? Can you dance to live music? Can you improvise? Basically, what is your breadth of knowledge? What is your range of skill? For most professional performing dancers, this is something that takes an hour-long show to demonstrate, not three minutes. And sometimes even an hour isn't enough! This is why if you really want to get a feel for a dancer, you watch her perform several times over the course of a year or so, ideally in different venues and for different audiences. See what comes out of her. Watch her grow over the years. (Or regress, in some cases.) Don't judge her based on her performance in a competition. Leave that to the judges.

So what if you've won a competition? Congratulations, that's great. It's perfectly fine to be proud, but don't delude yourself into thinking you're the best dancer out there. There is no best. Winning a competition means you won that competition. Nothing more, nothing less. It means your three minute performance in the particular style you chose was deemed better than the three minute performances of the other contestants. (Or it means you've been faithfully participating in that competition for years and your 'turn' finally came, or that you have it in with the judges. ;) ) Whatever it is, it doesn't make you a star (especially when there were only ten or less competitors!), nor does it mean you're absolutely ready to start teaching workshops. Unless you really are.

You know, it's funny. We're always whining about those '6-week wonders' who start performing and teaching after taking just a few classes. Well, winning a competition only to then impose yourself on the workshop/festival market isn't that much different (unless there are years of hard work and/or actual talent under that, of course). It seems that more and more, competitions are becoming a shortcut for dancers who want to make names for themselves. Rather than focusing on hardcore training, building a genuine following based on talent, and being the best one can be, many dancers are merely aspiring to win competitions. This explains the increasing phenomenon of dancers who attend festivals (particularly the ones in Egypt) specifically to compete, not to learn. They sign up for the minimum amount of classes required to participate in the competition, and half the time don't even show up! That says a lot. (Now remind me why you would want to take workshops with a professional competitor who believes they no longer need to take classes?)

But what if you enter a competition and lose? Well, speaking from personal experience, it's not the end of the world. Trust me. And it doesn't necessarily mean anything. As I mentioned above, the selection process is highly subjective. Just because a particular judging panel didn't think you were the best is more a reflection of their subjective criteria than of your dancing. Of course, there's always the possibility that you really weren't the best. Can't automatically rule that out either. But let's not forget that a lot of times, these things are political. You could win or lose a competition for a whole set of reasons that have nothing to do with your performance. Like, money under the table; your relationship or lack of to the judges; your country of origin-- this is important in many of the larger international festivals. It's not unusual for the sponsors of these competitions to choose winners from countries in which they have an interest in doing business. Whatever the reason, don't let this 'failure' ruin your day. If anything, make it an opportunity to have an honest conversation with yourself. Do you feel you were judged correctly?  Did you do your best or did your nerves get the better of you? Do you feel the winner deserved to win? What could you have done better? Do NOT psychoanalyze every aspect of the winner's performance and try to copy it. This isn't going to make you win the next competition you enter, but it will make you a clone.

Another reason not to get upset with competition results is that there's a lot of cheating in these things. Contestants who secretly pay the judges off (yes, this has been known to happen) are cheating. Contestants who spend thousands of dollars in private lessons or in costumes from a judge are cheating. Contestants who perform someone else's choreography are cheating. And finally, those who lie about their age or about how many years they've been dancing in order to work the categories to their advantage are cheating. This last one is really lame. It's what happens when a contestant who has been dancing for 15 years lies and claims she's only been dancing for six so that she can compete in the 'Six years or less' category and win. Or when a contestant claims to be 16 years old instead of 30, for the same reason. Aside from the fact that these contestants are cheating, what they don't realize is that 'age' and 'years of experience' make for inaccurate categories anyway. We've all seen ten year olds who dance better than some 35-year olds, and women with only two years of dance training who dance better than some with fifteen years of training. That's just the way this dance goes. Now how funny would it be if a 30-year old pretending to be 16 loses the competition to a 14-year old who's only been dancing for two years? 

So, after all this you still want to compete. Just as I thought. :D I wasn't trying to dissuade anyone anyway. Let me then offer you some advice that will maximize your chances of winning (providing the competition isn't fixed, of course). Feel free to take it or leave it.

1. Song choice. It's best to stick to the classics, as they offer the most dynamic instrumentation, lyrics, and vocals. Do, however, avoid songs like Alf Leyla, Sawah, Ganah Al-Hawa, Akdib Alayk, Bitwanis Beek, Enta Omri, Bint Il-Sultan, Habibi ya Aini. These are cop out songs. Everybody and their mother has danced to these, and there's a good chance that some of your fellow competitors will be dancing to them too. Additionally, it's very easy to get on Youtube and copy what other dancers have done to these songs (which is...yep, you guessed it... a form of cheating). Do some homework and search through the music of Um Kulthoum, Abdel Halim, Warda, Abdel Wahab, Nagat, Sabah, Adawiyya, Mohamed Rushdie, George Wassouf, Melhem Barakat, etc., and find good songs that haven't been beaten to death. Doing this shows careful preparation, and is bound to distinguish you from the other contestants. And get your stuff translated!

If you insist on dancing to an entrance piece like 98 percent of other competitors, it's best to go with the classics again. Avoid newer compositions produced outside of Egypt on a synthesizer as much as you can. Not only is a lot of this music unknown in the Middle East (if that matters to you), but it's quite inferior to what's been produced by real musicians playing real instruments. After all, there's a reason the classics are called classics and withstand the test of time. ;) Choose a piece that has rhythm changes, tempo changes, melody changes, depth, and that brings out the best in you.

Most likely you'll have to chomp your music down to three or four minutes. It's always a good idea to run your editorial choices by someone who is intimately familiar with Arabic music. You don't want to be chopping out some of the best parts, or interrupting the general flow of the song. And make sure your editing is seamless!

2. Dancing. Be yourself. Don't try to be a clone of a famous dancer, or of a previous competition winner. If they won, it's probably (probably) because they were being themselves. If you want to win, you should be yourself too. And relax. Don't dance to impress. Bigger and faster isn't necessarily better. Dance to the music as it wants to be danced to, not like you're trying to beat the ish out of it. And do your own choreography! (Unless you're improvising.) Performing someone else's choreography is like plagiarism, especially when you don't acknowledge the choreographer. Even if you do give credit, however, know that it's your choreographer who's dancing in the competition, not you. What's the point then?

Whether you'll be performing your own choreography or improvising, make sure you're well rehearsed. Make sure your technique is as perfect as it can be, and that you know your music inside and out. This is especially important if you're doing choreography and you suddenly forget your routine. Knowing your music will allow you to improvise your way to the end rather than just standing on stage looking like a deer in headlights.   

3. Costume. VERY important. Dancing is not the only thing on which you will be judged. Appearance and presentation are also taken into account. The goal is to set yourself apart. Distinguish yourself.  Look as amazing as humanly possible so that when you're on stage, no one can take their eyes off you (even if your dancing sucks). Remember that even though the judges are (supposed to be) watching critically, they are still human. They will enjoy being entertained, and your costume will have an impact on their evaluation of your performance... even if only on a subconscious level. Make sure the style of your costume matches the style of music you're dancing to. Make sure it's completely unique and that it reflects your personality. In fact, it's a good idea to choose some fabric and have a professional costumier make you a custom design. You might spend a bit more for this, but it's well worth it. Generally speaking, stick to bright colors. Blacks, grays, and browns can wash you out. Plus, they don't leave as big of an impression on audiences. Remember, you want to be unforgettable. Some competitions can go on for hours (I judged a 9-hour competition in the Ukraine a couple of years ago!), and by a certain point, the judges will start zoning out. There's a good chance that by the time you go on, they will have already seen many dancers, so you need to snap them out of their boredom with a wowzer of a costume (and BAM energy).  

It's also important to make sure your costume fits well. You don't want to have bits hanging out, or be tripping over a skirt that's too long. Prepare your costume well in advance and rehearse with it several times before competiting. Most importantly, opt for a design that feels right for who you are. If you're not into those huge poofy numbers that a lot of the Russian dancers wear, then choose a more sleek design that shows off your legs and curves. If you're not into being sexy, consider a more conservative design. Your costume will affect your perception of self, your mood, and thus your dancing, so choose wisely.

Needless to say, your hair and makeup should be flawless. Your makeup should match the colors in your costume as much as possible. Or, if you don't like colored eye shadow, opt for the smoky look with blacks, grays and silvers. This is a great look that works with everything. Style your hair in the way that is most flattering, but that also keeps it off your face. Nothing is more distracting than a dancer constantly pulling her hair out of her face while she performs. Oh and smile! Emote! Don't let your nerves shut you down. I'm not saying not to feel nervous, but to figure out a way to cover that up. 

4. Attitude. I've already spoken about this, but I can't stress it enough. Give it your very best, but don't go into it with unreasonable expectations. Be prepared to lose. And be mature about it. If you win, it'll be a pleasant surprise. Be proud but stay humble. Congratulate your fellow competitors on their performances, and try to genuinely mean it. Competitions have a way of creating divisiveness in the community, so make sure you're not alienating anyone with your victory. Either way, ask the judges for some feedback. Reflect on their comments and try to use them to improve your skills. Listen to what other people in the audience had to say about your performance too. Sometimes their feedback is more honest than that of the judges. It'll certainly never be motivated by personal interests. Finally, don't forget that competitions are huge money making propositions. People who run them do so to make money. Not saying that's a bad thing. I'm just pointing this out, as the way they do this is by playing on and with your ego. Keep that in mind regardless of whether you win or lose. 

If anyone's interested, I'll be judging two competitions in the US this year. The first will be part of the Heart of America Raks event in Kansas City event sponsored by Theresa Dancemaze and Anca Geana on June 27-28, and the second will be at the Essence of Belly DanceFestival in Atlanta sponsored by Faaridah Raqs on Sept. 17-19. Come take a chance if you're into competing. I can guarantee you that my judging is fair, i.e. not influenced by personal or business considerations, and that you'll find my feedback helpful. :)

And on that note, I'm going to end this with a shameless plug for my new online Competition Coaching service. I am now offering Skype sessions (not lessons) for anyone who wants coaching on their choreography. I won't choreograph a dance for you, but I will evaluate your routine and give you suggestions for improvement. I've been asked to do this by several dancers in the recent past, and all of them have either placed or won the competitions they entered (I'd give you names but I haven't gotten permission to do that yet). You don't have to be into competitions to benefit from this service, however. If you're just looking for some constructive critique of your work, this might be a good place to start. Contact me at for more detailed info on my new service.


  1. I was getting ready to write a blog post on this same topic, & when someone on Facebook posted this, I realized there was no need. You covered all bases succinctly & thoroughly. I will refer students who are interested in competitions to this post for valuable insight. Well done!

    1. Thank you Kamala! I still think you should write your piece. I'd be interested in what you have to say. Plus it's good to have more than one person writing about this. :)

  2. Belly Dancer of the Universe competition format differs between categories. For the Egyptian category each contestant dances in the preliminary round to their own music. The guidelines for this music kind of set the dancers up for failure; it can be no longer than 3.5 minutes in total and MUST include both orchestral music or what have you AND a drum solo; that's a lot to do with two different styles of music in such a short chunk of time. Only when the dancer makes it to the finals (only 4 make it regardless of how many contestants there are) do they finally dance to the same piece of music.

    The contestants do dance to the same piece of music for Taqsim and Drum solo categories. However, this year the drum solo category result was dismal and should be discussed. Something was definitely amiss there and needs to be talked about. And that's how Belly Dancer of the Universe works.

    1. Thanks for filling me in. So what do you think went wrong with the drum solo results?

  3. Well I took your advice & wrote in my blog about competition. I thought about how I so desperately want to be entertained at one of these events. I first referred readers to your blog however for a much more in depth view on the subject!

  4. As a former Dressage competitor, I have always refused to enter belly dance competitions (although I did judge one once, which also reinforced my view).

    Dressage has predetermined tests that everyone must take in a particular order to ascend the Levels. It has one style, a set standard, and an established movement vocabulary. Yes, there's politics, but usually see that at the higher levels when more money is involved.

    Belly dance, like you said, is completely subjective. Just that fact alone makes it unfair, let alone all the other wonderful points you made!

  5. Hi, I thought this blog was really good. It's the same exact stuff I've been telling my students for over 20 years. I also have consistently said that if a dancer gets a paid gig, that the contest has already been won. You took the words right out of my mouth on that one. :-)

    I, personally, will never judge a competition again (I did a couple of times a long time ago) for the same reasons you stated. There is something called "Conflict of Interest" and "Standards of Conduct" that comes up every time a known teacher with competing students judges. If one of my students were competing, I would most likely give her more points if I were a judge. It's the natural course of things, and that's simply not fair. And, I've not agreed with teaching styles of judges whose students are competing in the same contest, and I found myself taking off points for that. That, too, is not fair.

    A couple of my students entered competitions, even when I told them that they would never win because of my own teaching style, which does not go along with the current teaching style of today's belly dance curriculum, and they have never won. My standard comment to anyone that wants to enter a belly dance competition is, "If Nagwa Fouad or any other renown Egyptian dancer; i.e., Samia Gamal, Taheyia Karioka, Suhair Zaki, Aza Shireef, Na'aima Akef, Na'amet Mokhtar or even the very different Badawiya Moustapha were to compete in today's Western belly dance competitions, they would NEVER win."

    Belly dance vocabulary has been written primarily by the West with the Salimpour School standardizing the majority of it -- 3/4 shimmy, snake arms, maia hips, Egyptian one, etc.; and with that vocabulary, the standard Salimpour movement technique. Egyptians, for the most part, to my amazement, have adopted much of this vocabulary. This dance, not taught by Egyptian standards and vocabulary, has essentially been gobbled up by the West where a lot has been added and standardized via the Western experience. To this paradox, I have formulated my own vocabulary — not to take away from the Salimpour School, but to approach the dance in an altogether different albeit Egyptian way.

    Thank you for your blog. It's one I have wanted to write for a very long time!

    1. Hi Sausan, thank you so much for writing. I agree with everything you said, especially that last paragraph. I too am amazed at how much the Egyptians are borrowed from us. In that sense it has become a truly multi-cultural dance. I'm wondering though if this might be a good thing, on some level? I'm thinking of Egyptian music-- specifically composers like Baligh Hamdi, Mohamed El-Moogy, Abdel Wahab, and how heavily they relied on Western instruments like the accordion and the guitar, the sax, and on western rhythms like rumba and samba, and even flamenco. To me this is what made their music so great. Now that the golden era has come an end, all of the music simply consists of a maqsoom rhythm and a singer. The greatness is no more, and a lot of the music that is being produced is trash. Was wondering how you feel about this?

    2. Hi, Luna: Thank you for your reply. This is a very thought-provoking subject and one about which I am very passionate. I’m hoping that we can just have a discussion without having it turn out to be a debate. :-)

      We got great music from Egyptian composers because these were talented Egyptians. Their music may have been influenced by what they heard from other countries but it was still written and composed by an Egyptian with an Egyptian cultural mindset and experience; so fundamentally, the music is Egyptian. The accordion, guitar, and sax along with the many rhythms were, indeed, incorporated but with an Egyptian sense; so, although it may have seemed weird to the masses at the time those elements were introduced, they all have passed the test of time because they all were introduced and made mainstream by the Egyptians.

      What we’ve done with this dance is taken it out of its cultural context and applied Western labels and interpretations to it. We did that long before the Egyptians, except, perhaps the Reda Troupe which applied ballet, a Western dance, terms to it but only to provide a cohesive foundation for the group. However, even with ballet influence and terminology, the troupe still “looked” like Egyptian dancers, regardless of those terms. The Egyptian experience is extremely unlike the Western experience, which is why we look so different dancing this dance. Have you ever seen old Egyptian movies where some of the actors are dancing to Western music? It just doesn’t “look” right.

      I think that with the advent of technology and our easy access to computer programs along with the Internet, which has given us a sense of instant gratification that comes from all of that, music now seems to be all the same. The organic element is gone. And, it seems to have taken on a Western feel to it. Was it Amr Diab who made it big using this approach? And now everyone wants to emulate that? Western scales with Middle Eastern drum beats….

      Thank you for asking my thoughts and allowing me to put them down. I do it sparingly these days.

  6. I'm doing catch-up on your blogs! I agree with this. At first I was against them but when I wanted to audition for the pro training class, most tof the hopefuls had entered competitions (along with many teachers, which was used as a marketing gimmick later on). I did enter one last minute at the encouragement of my friend and I ended up placing second. I was happy just to actually make it to the competition! It was a good experience but I'm not sure I would do it again. Maybe once I get back into choreographing, I'd like to hit you up on Skype

    1. Hi Jackie! Nice to see you here, and thanks for sharing your experience. Second place is not bad at all. And yes, definitely let me know if you'd like to start some coaching sessions. Hope to see you somewhere soon. :)