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Ahlan wa Sahlan 2003 in Cairo

As I write this, the Ahlan wa Sahlan dance festival in Cairo is in its final day. Participants have been delighted with performances and instruction by leading dancers and choreographers in the field.

I didn’t come here with the intent of “covering” the event journalistically and therefore I haven’t taken the detailed notes needed to provide a full view of the event, but since the Gilded Serpent has asked for news, here are some of the high points I have experienced so far.

Opening Gala Show

The first night’s gala show opened outdoors in front of the hotel with tannoura (Egyptian-style whirling dervishes) doing an exhibition on the staircase leading up into the hotel, and a Ghawazee performance by Khairiyya Maazin (the last still-performing member of the Banat Maazin) dancing to music played by some of the Musicians of the Nile band members. After we moved the party indoors, the tannoura group and Khairiyya each reprised their performances on the indoor stage to begin the show in earnest.

Next came a boring 45-minute fashion show featuring costumes by Amira. I honestly couldn’t tell you whether the costumes themselves were appealing or not, because I was so put off by the lame presentation that I quit paying attention after the first 10 or so.  Instead, I turned to enjoying a delightful conversation with Tahseen Alkoudsi, the gentleman who has contributed the vast majority of Arabic song translations to my web site.

Following a break, the band set up for the first Oriental dance performance, which featured Saroya, one of Raqia Hassan’s students. She had a very playful stage personality, and was very enjoyable to watch. 

At the end of her performance, Saroya’s band left the stage and the next one set up to prepare for Dandash.  I was delighted by Dandash’s performance, complete with lovely isolations and multi-layered shimmies – she was every bit as enchanting as I remembered from my 1999 trip to Cairo.

 The third and final Oriental performer to take the stage with her band was Rhanda. Her dance style was sassy.

All three of these artists were wonderful to watch. Since this show was a private event, certain rules did not apply. The dancers were allowed to do floor work, and Dandash did a wonderful drum solo on her knees. None of the dancers wore navel coverings – instead, all wore belly chains.

As Rhanda’s performance wound down after midnight, Hala invited me to accompany her, Dondi, and Vera to a nightclub called the Parisiana to see Lucy’s show. I eagerly accepted, so we pulled a disappearing act and headed off to our next adventure.

The Side Trip to Parisiana

Lucy is a multi-talented entertainer of the kind who can truly capture and hold an audience’s attention.  If you’re not familiar with her, she’s the dancer who was featured some years ago in the National Geographic program, Cairo Unveiled.

When we arrived at her club around 1:30 a.m., a singer was holding the floor with his band. With his encouragement, we occasionally left our seats to go up on stage and do a bit of social dancing with each other. It turns out that 1:30 a.m. was an excellent time to arrive, because the club was nearly empty and we were given excellent seats right in front of the stage.

Naturally, the highlight of our visit to the club consisted of Lucy taking the stage around 3:30 a.m., with her own band.  By this time, the seats had filled in and there was a sizeable audience. For two hours straight (!) Lucy was “on”. First she would do a dance, then (still in costume) she would take the microphone and sing a song. Then she would exit the stage and return in a different costume to do it all again. Near the end of her show, as the band played Enta Omri, she invited us to join her on stage and dance with her.

On this particular evening, there was a heckler in the crowd who appeared to have dipped himself too much in the sauce. Continuously throughout Lucy’s show, he kept trying to stand up and make his way to the stage.  Eventually, one of the club’s bouncers positioned himself behind the man and pushed him back into his seat every time he stood up. Several times, the man escaped the bouncer and climbed up on stage. Lucy, with her expertise in this business, handled the potentially explosive situation with aplomb. Every time he found his way on stage, she kept him at arm’s length and returned him to his seat.

The Classes

Each Oriental-style class was priced at $60, and each folkloric-style class was priced at $30.  With three classes available per day, it didn’t take long for my bill to mount to nearly $1,000!  But I had come all the way to Egypt to learn what I could firsthand from Egyptian dancers and choreographers, so I bit my lip and paid the money.

Here are highlights from the classes…

Most Thrilling Folkloric Opportunity
Khairiyya Maazin taught two Ghawazee classes, and even though the festival staff warned me she would probably do the same thing in both classes, I wanted to immerse myself in this wonderful opportunity so I signed up for both. I’ve taken Ghawazee workshops in the past from Alexandria and Aisha Ali, and it was exciting to work directly with one of the Banat Maazin.

Like most Egyptian dance instructors, Khairiyya’s style of teaching is “follow the bouncing butt”. After arranging us in a circle, she started up her music and began to dance as we imitated her.

Edwina Nearing came as Khairiyya’s assistant.  Khairiyya now has significant back pain due to a medical problem, so when she took her needed breaks Edwina offered historical and cultural explanations about the Ghawazee, as well as breaking down some moves.

Unfortunately, the band was in the classroom, and they did not enhance the experience. When Edwina was attempting to offer her explanations during Khairiyya’s breaks, the drummers and rebaba players started fooling around with their instruments making background noise that somewhat drowned her out. Band members also yakked with each other created constant background murmur.

The band’s worst offense came in the second class, when Khairiyya began her demonstrations, and one of the idiots from the band decided to get up and dance himself. I swear, he was nowhere near as graceful as the dancing bear in Disney’s 1960’s adaptation of The Jungle Book, and I was completely bewildered that about half the women in the class started copying him instead of following Khairiyya.  His moves didn’t resemble any Saidi men’s dances I’ve ever seen on any documentary video, and I started to suspect he may have been making stuff up just for the glee of seeing all these naïve women copy him. It scares me to think some of these people will go home and teach his garbage to their students under the claim that it is Ghawazee dance. I truly don’t understand why someone who has been granted the opportunity to learn Ghawazee from one of the Banat Maazin would choose to divert her focus to an attention-seeking awkward no-name man.  All I can think is that my classmates were not well informed about Ghawazee dance and the significance of Khairiyya as an instructor.

Loveliest Act of Generosity
The band that accompanied Khairiyya brought with them some assorted costume items to sell.  These included the baladi dresses that have now replaced the fringed skirts as the costume of choice for Ghawazee dancers, priced at $100 each.  As Edwina explained that Khairiyya no longer had her costume because she had to sell it last winter to a student to make ends meet, Habiba from Philadelphia came forward with $100 and bought one for Khairiyya.

Most Emotionally Moving Class
For about the first hour of Dina’s class, she taught assorted step combinations.  Then, after a brief break, she moved on to teaching a choreography that was very much in her distinctive style. After leading us in a few repetitions of the opening moves, she then kept going to demonstrate the full dance. All the class attendees quit dancing, to watch in rapt attention. The drummer who was there to accompany her instruction began to clap his hands in time to the music, and soon everyone was clapping. Emotions played across Dina’s face and she missed a beat, but she kept dancing.

Aida Nour came into the back of the room accompanied by several additional people I didn’t know, and joined in the clapping. One of Aida’s companions began to chant, “Deen-UH!  Deen-UH!” Soon everyone in the room was chanting it, and tears came to Dina’s eyes. She faltered, and almost quit dancing, but kept going to the end of the song.

As the song ended, Dina left the stage and began to get dressed to leave, but someone reminded her that she had taught only 1 ½ hours of a 3-hour class. She returned to the stage in the classroom and taught another 30 minutes of step combinations. At this point, she marched off the stage decisively, and it was clear this time that she wouldn’t come back. She wended her way through a crowd of autograph- and photo-opportunity seekers, and disappeared.

I have to admit, I was a bit unhappy that Dina walked out after only 2 hours of a class that was supposed to run for 3 hours. All in all, I found the experience to be interesting from a people-watching perspective, but a bit thin on instructional content.

Best Oriental-Style Instructors
Unfortunately, due to illness I was not able to attend Dandash’s class, but my friends who did highly praised her ability to demonstrate specific shimmy techniques in slow motion and articulate how the effects are achieved.  Most Egyptian instructors simply assume you know how to do the particular shimmy, and they focus on assembling specific moves into a choreography.  Dandash, however, explains what she is doing.

Raqia Hassan opened her class with some technique work and step combinations, then taught an Oriental choreography. She did a good job of breaking moves down into their component parts and explaining how to do them. As a bonus, she also offered insights into what the song was about and how the gestures related to the lyrics.

One of my friends attended Lobna’s Oriental class and praised it highly.  I took Lobna’s Saidi raqs al assaya (cane) class and enjoyed that very much.  Having experienced her cane choreography and teaching style, I would gladly try her Oriental class myself in the future.

The Folk Troupe Characters
I took several classes from people who had a history as part of Egyptian folk troupes, including Mahmoud Reda, Magdy el Lithy, and Hassan Afifi. Although I have previously seen videos of these Russian-influenced interpretations, this was my first time taking a class in the genre.

I’ve decided this style of dance is not my cup of tea.  I’m not the kind of dancer who thrives on “step, step, Arabesque, step turn, step turn”.  I found the rapid directional changes to be confusing, and the sweeping arm movements to be too Russian for my taste.  For those who don’t know, the Egyptian folk troupes hired Russian instructors and choreographers to help them adapt folkloric dances to stage. The resulting “fakelore” consists basically of Russian ballet arm and leg stylizations with shimmies and hip lifts thrown in.

I respect what these leaders in the Egyptian performing arts have done to create a new distinctive art form which has indeed made its own place on the Egyptian cultural scene. But now I know that this is not something I would want to study further.  I much prefer to emulate Dandash or Lucy.

Still, these classes were well-attended and people were earnestly working hard to master the intricate footwork and confusing direction changes. Clearly, many people appreciate this fusion of Russian technique with Egyptian folk motifs. So even though it’s not for me, I respect the fact that other people feel differently.

The Summer Parties

Each night, after classes, there was a “summer party” which began somewhere between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. For the most part, these were stage shows featuring dance performances by festival participants to live music.  Occasionally, one of the class instructors would take a turn on stage.

The quality of the dance performances in these parties was irregular. Some performers were quite talented, while others were not. At times, the band blindsided the performers at the last minute by informing them that they didn’t know the songs which had been requested, and substituted something the dancers had never heard of before. Egyptian music, with its complexity and frequent rhythm changes, is not the sort of thing you want to dance to cold. Each night, there tended to be one or two dancers that stood out as special. Everything else was a blur of sequins.

Costuming Observations

The opening night gala show and Lucy’s performance featured some interesting costume themes. Although you can’t assume a trend from only a couple of samples, a few ideas emerged.

Both Lucy and Rhanda used costumes featuring skin-tight spandex bell bottoms with sequin designs. I didn’t find this particularly flattering, because sometimes our legs assume awkward-looking positions in order to achieve certain moves. But by Egyptian standards, the use of skin-tight pants in a costume is a bold step.

Both Lucy and Dandash wore bicycle shorts under sheer chiffon skirts. Mercifully, the shorts were color-coordinated to look like the ensemble was intended to be worn together, but I’m afraid this look has not grown on me and I won’t be copying it any time soon.

Rhanda entered for her set wearing a beige-colored catsuit with sequin designs running up the legs and across the bodice. Over it, she wore a dark-colored circle skirt with the slits arranged to show the continuous leg line all the way up. Except for the skirt color, it’s very similar to one of the costumes Jillina wears on the Hollywood Babylon video. Although I respect the creativity of this look and daring of the dancers who embrace it, I don’t find it particularly attractive.

At the summer parties, the vast majority of costumes were either various themes on the sequined bra/belt/skirt set or the elaborate sequined dresses.

Non-Dance Lessons Learned

  • Even if your hair dryer claims to be dual voltage, don’t believe it. Bring a converter. I put mine on the 240V setting before I left the U.S., and it burned out the first day I tried to use it in Cairo.
  • Tossing some bottled water in the luggage before leaving home is a wonderful thing to do. I was SO grateful to have it available when I arrived in Cairo.
  • Arriving in Cairo the day BEFORE registration (or earlier) is something I’ll do again next time. It allows time to rest up and recover from the trip before the event kicks in.
  • Bring plenty of U.S. money in 1’s (the hotel staff will ask if you can give them a $1 bill in exchange for 4 quarters because they can’t change our coins into Egyptian cash), 10’s (some festival instructors ask for U.S. money instead of Egyptian money when they sell CD’s of their music), and 20’s.
  • Don’t book your schedule solid with 3 classes a day, every day.  It exhausted me! Next year (and I DO want to return next year!) I’ll pace myself better and allow more time to rest.
  • A business class airline ticket is worth every penny.
  • Don’t eat the blue cheese at the breakfast buffet.  I think that’s where I got my food poisoning.
  • Bring Ben-Gay.  I didn’t.  I should have.

In Conclusion

This was my first time attending the Ahlan wa Sahlan Festival, and I’m delighted I came despite my family’s attempts to talk me out of it. Overall, the event is well run, and it’s a wonderful experience both to watch and to learn. The flavor of the instruction and dancing are very different from that offered by the U.S. festivals, and it offers an exciting opportunity for immersion in the Egyptian dance arts.

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