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Gilded Serpent presents...
"Raqia Hassan presents
Ahlan Wa Sahlan
Oriental Dance Festival

Opening,
Cairo 2003"
A video review by Mara al-Nil

If you've ever wondered what an opening gala of an Egyptian dance festival is like, this video is for you.  The mood is set with opening shots of the grounds of the Mena House Hotel in Cairo, Egypt.  The Pyramids form a natural backdrop.  Titling introduces "Sofy Dancer", which is actually a colorful group of male whirling dervishes who open the show outdoors on the hotel steps accompanied by musicians playing frame drum and mizmar.  Proceeding indoors, we see footage of photos of famous Egyptian dancers and interior scenes of the hotel, complete with pristine table settings awaiting the guests.

"Sofy Dancer" has a reprise inside. 

At times, poor sound quality and a transient buzzing hum on the tape, as well as frequent cuts to views of the audience, detracted from the spectacle of their non-stop spinning in heavy multi-colored skirts.

While my personal preference is to focus on the dancers, some people may enjoy celebrity spotting, or looking for friends and fellow dancers fortunate enough to have attended the gala.

Somewhat abruptly, the video cuts to the second performance, which features two "Gawazi" dancers.  Tape flicker, similar to tracking problems but not amenable to tracking corrections, mars their dancing. Fortunately, this problem only recurs a few times throughout the tape.  As I only had one copy of the tape to review, I couldn't say if this problem would be present on all copies.

From this section on, however, the lighting on the dance floor presented significant challenges for the cameramen.  For whatever reason, the promoters decided that the dancing should be "enhanced" by mood lighting such as strobe lights and disco balls.  These, plus spotlights reflecting off the haze of cigarette smoke (or possibly a fog machine), made the dancers almost impossible to see at times.  Fortunately, more than one camera was used, which allowed for multiple camera angles and variation in exposure. 

While some of the footage was properly exposed, many of the full floor shots suffer from overexposure, and some of the close-ups appear underexposed. 

At times in the tape's long shots, it is actually difficult to determine the color of the costumes, and it is often impossible to see costume details and the nuances of the dance. (For example: golden, flesh-tone and yellow appear a washed-out white.)

The mid- and close-up shots do allow for brief glimpses of costume details.  However, most of the close-ups show just the faces and upper torsos, and regrettably, the hip work is missed.  This is the case with the "Gawazi" dancers: they are very accomplished dancers, performing a very traditional dance, and I would have loved to have seen the details of their skirts and the hip work that made the skirts shimmy and shine!

The third section is titled "Fashion".  Eight dancers with flowing skirts and veils present a flurry of movement and color.  These costumes vaguely reminded me of the bedlah (bra and belt) with circle skirt worn by many American dancers in my local area.  The close-ups offer tantalizing glimpses of the costumes, but never linger long enough to savor every detail.

The solo dancers follow the fashion show.  All have several costume changes, so the viewer can see more variety in costuming than in the fashion segment. 

The look is lean and pared down.  Rather than long, heavy beaded fringe, a few asymmetrically placed strands similar to pop-beads accent several of the form-hugging outfits. 

A full Egyptian-style orchestra plays for Soraya.  Here, the video editor becomes bolder with the use of multiple camera angles and editing tricks; a split screen shows the dancer and her mirror image, with a singer in the center.  Suddenly the singer appears to be squeezed from both sides, until she disappears!  Despite this "Alice in Wonderland" distraction, I was able to appreciate Soraya's command of layered hip articulations.

The fifth performance is by Dandash, and  I found it hard to concentrate on her dancing.  In addition to some mike feedback and her lip-syncing, there are a few gratuitous extreme close-ups of, well, jiggling breasts.  While all the cuts and edits between cameras and angles are technically done quite well, the artistic reasoning behind them made me wonder, "What were they thinking?"  The videographer presented the dancer in several orientations, including 90-degrees sideways and upside down!  Despite this bizarre camera work, I liked her sheer golden Beledi dress over gold bra and bike shorts. 

When I watched Dandash's section again, I forced myself to ignore the distractions, and found myself admiring her non-stop shimmies. 

 Randa is the final dancer on the video.  She wore what may have been the most unusual costume in the show: a red bra with a red and white mini-skirt.  She was also the only dancer who who uses a prop other than a veil.  She performed a playful and sassy cane dance, though not in the mini-skirted costume!

Finishing the video is a singer, Hassan Elasmar. The audience gets up and dances while he sings, and we are left with the impression of partying the night away.   Though the high energy and obvious talent of the dancers is undercut by some unfortunate editing and other production problems, in the end, these probably detract from the video no more than would a waiter who has briefly and inadvertently blocked one's view at a restaurant show.

  The flaws in this video are mainly of note because of the uniformly high quality of the dancers.  I wanted to rivet my attention on each and every move they made, but had to settle for more of a "gestalt".  However, the gestalt truly captures the ambience and flavor of an opening gala in Cairo. 

We see audience members smoking, chatting, greeting each other with hugs, whispering and dancing, and can imagine being there ourselves. We see extremely competent musicians and dancers, who, besides being good at what they do, are having a lot of fun!

 I would recommend this video of Egyptian style dance to anyone who would like a glimpse of the annual Ahlan Wa Sahlan Oriental Dance Festival.

This video and its companion of the closing ceremonies at the same festival sell for $55 each. http://www.haladance.com. The review of the second video in this series, "Closing," will be coming soon!

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