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The author, Andrea
Gilded Serpent presents...
A Subjective View of
Raqia's Cash Cow

The AWS Festival 2004, Part 1
by Andrea

I arrived in Cairo on Friday June 24th at 11:55 p.m. and hit the ground running.  Not because the drivers will not stop for pedestrians but because I was anxious to start my 3 week dance vacation.  The plan was to check out the Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival and afterward take private lessons with Nagwa Sultan in Heliopolis and Khairiyya Maazin in Luxor and catch as many live shows as I could.   During my correspondences with orientalist and researcher Edwina Nearing prior to my trip, she referred to the Ahlan wa Sahlan Festival as 'Raqia's Cash Cow' and in my opinion that description was justified.  Opening and Closing Gala shows cost $60.00 each, and you pay a lot for the workshops although one cannot learn much because there are too many people in them or the dancers are not teachers.   In addition, I heard from two former teachers that they were ripped off.  In the words of one, "Raqia ees a teef [sic]."


My first night there, I went to the Parisiana and saw LUCY perform LIVE!  It was a real treat.  She still looks good and dances skillfully, but she does spend a lot of time hob knobbing with the audience.  I didn't mind too much because she hob knobbed with us and let us video tape her show!  Also, she spent about 2 1/2 hours on stage, with three costume changes, and I had my picture taken with her.  I was positively star-struck.   She started out in a lovely black beaded bedlah and did an extended Oriental number.  The most memorable part was her shimmying to Lissa Fakir.   After a quick costume change, she came out in tight lycra orange-flaired pants with a matching bra.   My jaw dropped when I saw the racy cut-outs on the sides and I said to myself "I must have...."  During this second portion, she sang a lot and, of course, hob knobbed with the audience, acting like she did not need the tips they were showering on her because, of course, she didn't. Now and again, she would effortlessly break into a shimmy or hip movement.  For her third number, she wore a beledi dress and this is when her beautiful and natural perma-smile really shone.  She did a wee bit of cane, a duet with an audience member, and danced for another hour.  Afterward, she came into the lobby to talk to my companions, Natasha and Aleya, and me and said she'd teach us privately but wanted nothing to do with the festival.  The details of that story remain between Raqia Hassan and Lucy!  

The second night in Cairo, I had yet to see a museum or a pyramid because Lucy's show went on until 6 a.m., and I slept in. What else could we do but catch another show?  We went to the Maxim Boat that is a dinner cruise in the Nile and also has dancing.   We saw a dervish spin and Asmahan doing more of her over-the-top entrances and athletic dancing. First, she came out as a snake, then entered wearing a melaya, next, as a caged lion.  Her performance was very entertaining.  Afterward, we went to the Palmyra, a small club conveniently located near the hotel, and saw what I like to call "non-dancing".  This is the type of place that, basically, has a bunch of young ladies just keeping the stage warm in their lycra and glitter until the real dancer comes on at 3 a.m.  Unfortunately, we left by 2 a.m. but my companions and I got to cut a rug to the live music.  It was tres fun!

Sunday was the night of the Opening Gala.   It opened very much as it did last year: with a dervish show outside of the hotel. Though I thought this show was not as good as the dervish at the Maxim.  I was surprised to see Khairiyya Maazin there, too, because according to Edwina Nearing, Raqia Hassan ripped her off last year!  I found out more about this when I visited Khairiyya in Luxor.  I accidentally met Khairiyya in the bathroom at the Mena House and spoke to her in my very broken Arabic, but I think she understood me.  I said, "You very good dancer.  I friend Edwina from California.  You my teacher in Luxor?  I go Luxor in 7 days."  She said, "Inshallah!" and gave me her phone number. 

Inside the hotel was a fiasco.  When it was time to eat, most people forgot all civilities and it was "Survival of the Bitchiest" at the buffet! The good news is that I had a chance to see Dina and Dalia there, but of course, I couldn't take any pictures or video as per strict A.W.S. regulations.  Dina did just what she usually does--about 5 costumes changes and short dance numbers, containing lots of tiny shimmies, sticking out the bum, and walking as if she were falling forward.  Dalia was more classical Oriental, and I really liked her.  She did a very pleasant Oriental routine, then a Saidi number, and a pleasant drum solo. 

By Monday, I had yet to register for my classes, choosing out of the 44 different teachers was challenging because most were from the folklore troupes (no surprise since that's where Raqia was trained) whereas I had wanted non Russian-influenced, authentic Sharqi.  I finally decided on Magdy El Leisy, Randa Kamal, Dina, and Dandash

  • Magdy's class was satisfying.  His choreographies are very well put together and heavily influenced by ballet and folklore, but they are also pleasing to learn and watch.   I enjoyed his class so much that I had decided to take a private lesson from him.  I quickly learned that you can get much more out of private lessons because there are over 50 people in many classes and while the instructors themselves may be good dancers, they can't teach!
  • Randa's class was one of the better ones.  Her English and teaching skills were better than others.  She broke down movements and let us repeat each one enough to learn it, although one did not get any personal attention and there wasn't enough space to really do some movements.
  • Dina's class was a waste of time.  I stayed for only one of her three hours.  There were about 200 people (really!) and even though she had a projection screen to help students see, she didn't break things down and her movements are too subtle to see, especially because she was wearing black pants and no hip scarf.  I didn't get anything out of it. 
  • Dandash is a good dancer in my opinion but a bad teacher.  She would just dance two entire songs, not bit by bit, over and over and over and over, the whole two songs for 3 hours!  I stayed for her entire class anyway because I liked watching her dance and I did pick up a few movements.  Unfortunately she was on vacation while I was in Egypt and not dancing in Cairo for another month.  So those were the four classes from the "cash cow" that I took.  Magdy, Randa, Dina, and Dandash.
It seems to me that the dancers in Egypt have discovered that you can make a lot of money teaching so they all offer privates at varying price ranges, even though they can't really teach.  I hear that Aida Nour charges $30 per hour,  Mona Said $100, and Nagwa Sultan $60.

Aleya, Nagwa Sultan, Andrea

I was late for the Closing Gala so I only caught the last act that was Camilia.  She's Egyptian, but her style reminded me of Asmahan, who is Argentinean, at the Maxim.  Athletic movements with giant hip accents, lots of head tosses, big arm movements, and very choreographed.  I think that is a major trend in Egyptian dance.  People are either doing Dina-ish movements--i.e. tiny shimmies and sticking your butt out and walking as if you're about to fall (Randa, Dina, Hanadi)--or big, almost American-looking, choreographies (Camilia, Asmahan, Dalia).  Another trend is the folklore style (Raqia, Yousry, Magdy, Dandash). 

What happened to Sharqi?  Lucy seems to be only active performer of that genre.
I also took private lessons from Nagwa Sultan, who according to Edwina's article "Cairo Soul" is one of the only people in Egypt who teaches real Egyptian Sharqi.  In that article, the price is listed as about $30 or EŁ200.  When I first contacted her, or rather her more English-proficient son, Ahmed, they wouldn't give me a price. I kept asking for a price, but Ahmed insisted that "money was no problem."  Did this mean the class would be free?   After the first class, Nagwa pulled a Bait-and-switch.  

I think that Nagwa, having already seen Edwina's article on the net, (having made hundreds of copies of it before I even arrived in Egypt) and having realized that she would be more in demand, was charging more money that before.


It wasn't until after the lesson that she pulled out the price list: 

  • $60 per hour, or
  • $35 for more than one student, or
  • $35 for a series of several one-on-ones.
  • Video taping is an additional $40. 

The discrepancy in price had caused much strife for other dancers who took lessons with her.  Her justification was the decline of the value of the U.S. dollar.  However, once we established the rates, she stuck to them.  In the end, I paid $35. per one-hour lesson for eight lessons, and $35 to video, and she included one free hour later.  The lessons were worth it for me.  I learned much from her.  She can still dance and can actually teach, unlike many of the A.W.S. instructors.   She also bought me some cute pink sandals, cooked me dinner three times, gave me finger cymbals, took me out twice to drink coffee and smoke sheesha.  I feel like we'd bonded over the seven days.  Whether or not she really is the only one who teaches real Sharqi, I do not know.

Speaking of "real Sharqi" and other dance styles, I had an epiphany regarding this:   When Nagwa and Edwina refer to "folklore" it doesn't mean Saidi or Ghawazee or actual folk dances.  It means the style invented or cultivated by the Reda troupe and other Russian ballet-inspired national troupes.  Real Sharqi, it seems, is disappearing. 

Andrea dances with Nagwa out at the Palmyra Club
Many dancers who have been trained in Egypt have been trained in the folklore style, not Raqs Sharqi.  So how can an American, like me, tell the difference between these styles if everyone in the U.S. who says she does authentic Egyptian dance is actually doing folklore?  I asked Nagwa this question, and she answered with a gesture (because she doesn't speak much English) making a tall, elegant persona.  So I guess Sharqi is more sophisticated or elegant, done almost entirely on the toes, less earthy and cutesy, but still fun.  I still remain a bit confused on this.  At my first lesson with Nagwa, I did a move that I thought was truly Egyptian and she said 'No, no, no! Folklore!"  Then, later in my lessons, she did the exact same movement --only she used different arms and danced on her toes.  I swear!  So what is the real difference?  Is it the movements or the arms or the feeling?  According to Nagwa, the only real Sharqi dancers were herself, Tahia Carioca, Samia Gamal, Nagwa Fu'aad, Suhair Zaki, Fifi Abdo, and LucyShushu, Mona, and Nelly were "kind of" Sharqi but also folklore, whereas Dina is, in her words, 'sex'! Note that the real Sharqi dancers she listed are old timers.  Could it be that Sharqi is evolving and old guard dancers like Nagwa can't accept the new version of it?  Please, Edwina, can you shed some light on this for us?

to be continued...

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