Gilded Serpent presents...
An Interview with
by Lynette

We conducted this interview on February 28, 2006 over the phone just after the Little Egypt workshop weekend when Leila along with Aida Noor and Magdy el-Leisy were in Los Angeles.

I read Gilded Serpent because it is online; I cannot receive other magazines in Egypt! I just flew from Los Angeles to Seattle and am now flying to London tomorrow. Then I will be back in Cairo on March 7th.

I grew up east of Seattle—on the Indian reservation in Wapato. My mom is part Cherokee, but because our family married into the Yakima tribe, our home is on the Yakima reservation. My father is Black Irish with some English. I went to the reservation schools, which were awful; they were the worst rated in the area, but they had an ethnic dance program that allowed me to learn folk dancing at school. They also had a great music program so dance and music were the strongest parts of my early education.

I did not study Middle Eastern dance with anyone in America, but I learned by studying the videos of Lucy, Soheir Zaki, Fifi Abdo and Dina.

In 1998, I was in a troupe called Nashim Olam with three other girls. (That was when I first started to dance.) My first solo gig was in Seattle with the live music of an Egyptian band, The MB Orchestra, and they are still around. I just did another engagement with them before coming down to Los Angeles! The band members are: Baha, Maurice, George, and Shahem. We did two workshops and shows. I danced with them for four years in many different venues. They were the house band in different clubs and brought me with them. I also worked with a Persian musician whose name was David. I learned to dance through trial and error with live music and in front of an audience.

One big club, Aladdin, had just opened up in Seattle. Many of the patrons told me, “You should go to Egypt.” Usually the clubs had a clientele from the Gulf and Lebanon. I took a workshop with an American dancer, Hala, who lived in Egypt, and she put me in touch with an orchestra leader who was looking for a dancer in Cairo. So, I went to Cairo with the right set-up for a job—not a guaranteed job. This was before the Egyptian ban of foreign dancers, and you could still go there looking for a job! I auditioned at the Sheraton Hotel and obtained a job within a week of arriving in Egypt, but it took four months to get my paper work done.

I was working for the first two months while they were doing the paperwork and then another dancer called the police and told them that I was working illegally. I had to stay for the next two months without work waiting for my papers.

I was dancing with the house band at the Sheraton and not the band with which I came to work, but I was also dancing at weddings with my own band when I was outside the Sheraton. I worked on the Nile cruise boat with my band while I was working at the Sheraton. There were about seven months during which I did two shows a night, seven nights a week!

I found an furnished apartment in the Harem district on the way to the Pyramids. I took lessons in technique and choreography with Raqia. Initially, she was a good person from whom to learn.

Now I have been dancing in Cairo for almost four years. I love it. It is my art. Yes, I am making enough money now to save.

The first 3 years of performing you must reinvest in supplies such as costumes, choreographies, etc. I was lucky because I was also working as a model and actress which gave me a second income.

When Dina had all her troubles, I received a call to do a wedding to fill in for her. It was a huge society wedding in a large banquet room, and my name was not big enough to command a price high enough to break even, considering the large orchestra I had to bring. It was as if I had paid to do that wedding. You have to make sacrifices in the beginning to get your your name out there.

Now, at weddings and nightclubs, I normally have twenty-five members in my orchestra: including 3 singers, 4 folkloric dancers, a dresser, two assistants and a technician who go to the gig. The sound is usually managed by someone else.

When I go back, I will be working approximately five nights a week, one or two shows a night. In high season, I could be working 7 nights a week three or four shows each night. In a nightclub I do four costume changes, while in a wedding, I do three. On the boat it is two. My show is fifty minutes long, and I dance only, (without singing or comedy). There is a bit of a break with a costume changes. I get home in winter around 1 a.m., but in the summer, at 5 or 6 a.m.!

This can be a crazy schedule. If I have to do a commercial or shoot, I might not sleep at all because I may have to be on the set at 6 a.m.! After that, I might have to go straight to another show to dance when I am finished shooting. I spent the first two years in Egypt completely exhausted. Although, when I do a commercial now, I am taking more time off and am able to relax. I can turn down projects if they will conflict with dancing or turn down dance shows or they will conflict with important shoots. I have to think about the future, and I am an independent contractor; so, of course, there are no benefits (such as a health plan).

Regarding Paperwork for Dancers:

After the ban, a venue in Egypt must contract dancers while they are not in Egypt at the same time. Therefore, dancers have to come and go in order to qualify. There are all these new rules to make it more difficult for foreigners to dance.

Dancers who were already in Cairo before the ban, were partially grand fathered into the ruling. However, we still have to renew paperwork monthly. New dancers will have to put up with a lot more red tape. They have to have contracts signed and carry them around to the different agencies to get them turned in. They may also have to stay without work for 4 to 6 months while papers are initially filed. These days it's very risky to work without the proper documents.

I usually come home for Ramadan and in the spring or late winter when the work is slow. It is a good reason to come home and visit. This visit, I taught three workshops in Seattle last week, and I will teach in London for Kay Taylor of Fareeda tours.

My plans for the future are: to continue dancing and acting in Egypt for movies and TV. I have a couple projects coming up; one of them is a film with Mazzika TV music videos. It is an MTV sort of project. I do not know if you will be able to see it on satellite TV.

"Turning tricks," or sleeping with nightclub or hotel owners, is not required to make it as a dancer in Egypt, but it is a complicated and questionable industry and there are many pressures.

You can choose to be who you want to be—but it may take longer to be successful when you do not choose that avenue. For me, no dance gig is worth that! It can be frustrating when so many dancers use that route to get work. I have lost jobs before to dancers who became the manager's "girlfriend." It is the nature of the industry.

I work with many different agents. Many dancers will work with only one agent but if I learn an agent is legitimate, I will work with him. I get a lot of work without agents because I work in television. I receive many direct calls just from media personnel.

Life is going well, and I am starting to be able to relax and enjoy my work and life. I am married to my orchestra leader; so, we get to spend a lot of time together. I just bought a car, but I am not going to drive in Egypt now—maybe later. Somehow, most of my good friends in my social circle work in cinema. They are both foreigners and Egyptians. We have a common interest in media, cinema, or fashion. I also have a few friends who are costumers and choreographers in dance. My work takes me to Sharm el-Shek sometimes. I may stay awhile, before or after I dance, to see the sights for fun. The film I did was in Port Said, and I got to know the city well. I am in Alexandria all the time for weddings and it is a nice vacation from Cairo.

I dance in Aida Noor, Freiz, and M. Al Boushbeka's Nile Group Festival. It has been a great opportunity for foreigners to get to know me. They try and create a positive atmosphere and keep the cost down. I've also met so many other teachers and dancers from Egypt as well as foreign dancers.

I would like to tell Americans to take classes from Egyptians when they come to Cairo and not to just to come buy costumes. Take classes! Take some classes with Egyptian dancers or foreigners dancing in Egypt who have picked up the style. My favorite dancer now is Lucy; she is a dancer’s dancer. I like Dina, too. I have heard she is a good teacher, but I have not taken classes with her. I studied Egyptian folkloric dance with Shalaby; it was a Saidi class, and he was great! I have taken choreographies from Aida Noor. She choreographed my new opening number for my show. Half of my dance is choreographed and half is improvisation. When I take a choreography I will record a song with my band, which is just the way I want it, and the choreographer will use that music. Choreographies are more expensive because they are a finished piece, but you can pay for technique by the hour. The choreographer teaches the finished work. I usually do not need to video it or write it down; I can dance my choreography that night on stage and it evolves in front of the audience.

Dancing in Cairo is a long-term investment. Three years is a realistic expectation, if you want to make a name for yourself. You could do a smaller venue and not make such a time or money investment. Sharm el-Shek has gigs where you can dance to a CD or a small band and make a little bit of money and then go home having danced in Egypt and not having to deal with the nightmare of getting a licence and work visa.

People should have a dream, and dancing as a foreigner in Egypt is possible. It is a huge commitment, and it is not easy. If I had known how hard it was, I am not sure I would have done it—but now I am glad that I did. The first years were very hard for me—even having walked into the opportunities as I did. With modeling and acting, I had another income and was able to funnel that income into my costumes, etc. It helped support my dance career while I was getting started. I feel very lucky to do what I do. It was my dream and now I'm living it.

Leila's website

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