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Gilded Serpent presents...
An American Dancer in Cairo
by Catherine Barros,
May 30, 2004

Recently, I had an opportunity to sit down for a nice long talk with Leila, who happens to be an American living and dancing in Cairo. I hadn't even heard of Leila before I found out that the guest dancer,  being flown in from Cairo to perform in the Saturday night show at the Raqia Hassan workshop (Houston, April 2004), was an American.  We were all pleasantly surprised with Leila.    Beautiful, tall and slender, from the first moment she hit the stage at the Sheraton, we were all enthusiastic about her performance.   All her current show music, which we all coveted, has been produced on a CD. And we really enjoyed all her costume changes during her hour long show.   Of course, I'm like everyone else, I have lots of questions:  "Who is she?" being the biggest one, since she is so totally unknown to us here in the United States.  Closely followed by:  "What is her background?", "What made her decide to go to Cairo to dance?", "How is she coping with the latest twist in the Egyptian laws affecting foreign dancers?",  "Who does she study with?" ,  "How long  do you think you'll stay in Cairo?", and, after having seen her perform:  "Where did she get those costumes?".

These questions,  and lots more, I  posed directly to her when she stopped off in Dallas, after visiting friends and family plus teaching a workshop, at the end of April.  She was invited back to Dallas to perform at the opening of a new Middle Eastern restaurant, Ciro's Continental Cuisine, before returning to Cairo.  There I got to wield my new digital camera in my first attempts at taking photos of a dancer in action (specifically I was trying to get some shots of Leila's interesting costumes. I spent a couple of hours the next day interviewing her while visiting at the Little Egypt shop (Dee Dee and Ahmad Asad).  Hopefully, she didn't think it was too painful to put up with my probing, but mostly curious,  questions.

Leila grew up in central Washington State. Her Mom is part Indian (Native American) and the whole family lived on an Indian reservation. She said that she went to a really terrible public school which had a great dance program.

It was in that program that she first started learning and performing folkdances: Native American, Mexican and Filipino.  Everyone in her family is a musician so there was always live music around while she was growing up and at all special occasions.   As a child, she had no classical dance training but did take some modern and jazz dance as an adult.

She moved to New York at an early age to pursue modeling and had some contracts while going to university, then she ended up moving to Seattle.  Seattle is where Leila actually started to belly dance, but she first got interested when she went to Alexandria for the wedding of some friends.  

Interestingly enough, Leila didn't study with anyone in Seattle.   She says that she watched lots of videos: Fifi Abdo, Soheir Zeki, with Lucy being one of her favorites.

And every time an Egyptian dancer/instructor came to Seattle for a workshop, Leila would take the workshop.  Over time, she was able to study with Raqia Hassan and Mo Geddawi, to name a couple.  While performing in Seattle,  Leila had the opportunity to dance to a lot of live music in restaurants, where most of the musicians were Egyptian and the audiences mainly Middle Eastern.  Not only did she dance at four different nightclubs, of which two had live music, and at parties and weddings,  she was also dancing with a troupe.   This troupe would perform folkdances from the whole region - Lebanese, Egyptian.  Whatever they danced they tried to perform the pure style of the dance for that area.  She learned a lot from the musicians she worked with and the Middle Eastern people for whom she danced.   She said that a lot of the Egyptians that she was meeting encouraged her to go to Cairo to dance.  By the time the opportunity came up for Leila to go to Cairo to dance, she had been dancing four years.    

So when and how did Leila make the decision to go?  A dancer that she knew contacted her and said that an orchestra leader  needed a dancer. After an initial meeting with all the involved parties to setup things, Leila decided to take the plunge and go.  When she first arrived, she thought that she would give it 3 months. She didn't have a contract when she went, so she had to be "shopped around" for a contract.   Of course, she also had to get her papers/license which would allow her to work, so a long wait ensued.  

She had almost given up, realizing how unrealistic her expectations were concerning the time it takes to arrange things, but suddenly, everything fell into place.

Initially, she had  a contract with the Sheraton. The way I understand what she told me is that the new laws allowed her to dance/hold contracts with other hotels as long as her initial contract was in effect.  Once that contract was over, then all the contracts were over. Leila danced 1 and ½ years once her papers came through but now she only does private parties and weddings in Cairo and Alexandria.   Meanwhile, she does modeling work around Cairo with appearances on big strategically placed billboards around Cairo (Dohki, Heliopolis, Mohandiseen)  for Vodaphone (to name just one) . She said that it is rather disconcerting to be walking around Cairo and see herself on one of these billboards.  Younger attendees at weddings and parties where she has danced, recognize her from these billboards and some of her television work (a video with Khalid Selim, newly famous in Egypt according to Leila).  All want to meet and have their pictures taken with her. And her latest endeavor is a music video, which will probably raise her visibility a bit more!

When Leila first started studying with Raqia Hassan after her arrival in Cairo, she realized that she had to change a lot about how she danced.She had to re-learn a lot of movements and slow herself down. 

She says that she had a whole concept shift for how to dance now that she had come to the center of the dance that she loved..  As Raqia told her,  she had to break her style and create her again.

She built up her movement repertoire a great deal while working with Raqia, so that she feels much more comfortable improvising in the Egyptian genre. From Raqia, she learned a lot about classical style dancing, along with Beledi, Sha'abi, etc.  Raqia Hassan is one that she has continued to study with while in Cairo and has recently added a new choreography by Raqia (a song by Nancy Agram) to her repertoire along with a song by Abdel Halim Hafez. For a glimpse of Leila dancing, check out Raqia Hassan's Volume VI (she's on the cover too). 

Leila says that if she decides to continue dancing in the folkloric area (which doesn't fall under the same laws/guidelines but still requires papers), then she will be studying with Aida Nour (one of my favorites along with Raqia Hassan).

I asked Leila to give me an example of a challenge that she had encountered while dancing in Cairo.  She mentioned that after she had been there 6 months, she had an audition at the Semiramis. She thought at the time that her agent had presented her just to have someone to present.  That, possibly, he didn't really think she would get it.   She did get the job.  She said she was so excited as she walked out on the stage for the first time.   This was the stage where she saw Dina perform just a couple of weeks earlier!   She was terrified and exuberant at the same time.   She realized as she turned around and saw the 25-piece orchestra (the largest she'd worked with up to that point):  "That's my orchestra!".  As an example, where normally she had one folklore, she now had six.  What a rush!  "My orchestra, my show!"

She brings up the point that everything she has been doing with dance has been a learning experience.   She studied dance with Raqia, but she learned how to be a performer by going out on the stage and working with unknown musicians to music and songs that were unfamiliar which she had to learn.  

She said that it took almost 6 months before she didn't feel like crying after the night's shows.

At the beginning it was very hard, but now, she laughs about it and says that what once terrified her has become normal - you dance three shows in one night and a wedding at 2:00am - "A job like any other, but one that I love". 

majenci or magenci
the entrance piece that is usally a classical composition with dramatic changes which lasts about ten minutes

She mentioned that when Dina stopped dancing at weddings that she got some weddings that Dina would normally have danced at partly because of her contacts through her modeling and TV work.   She would walk into these huge ballrooms filled with thousands of people with a huge stage in the middle of the room while television cameras on cranes are taking note of everything.    

Another big challenge is staying healthy while being on the go so much of the time with these three shows a night plus whatever parties are scheduled.  She has a whole entourage that accompanies her including an assistant that handles problems and logistics along with a dresser who gets her costumes ready and gets her into them.   From the very beginning Leila has had a basic core of musicians for an orchestra, which is usually an organist, ney, accordion, qanoun, 2 tablas, duf and sagat.   Each venue that she goes to for a performance might be different than the last based on the number of musicians, singers and folkloric that are at the venue.  It sounds like Leila has to be very flexible about what she might be performing for any given show.  But, basically,  all she has to do is "show up and dance".

As for her music,  some of it is composed for her by her organist, particularly her merjenci.  She says that he understands her style now and that she likes a big, bang merjenci for opening with a lot of changes.

She recently had a CD produced of her last season's show music, which a lot of us purchased from her after the show in Houston because we liked it so much.  It had enough different music to satisfy any style that someone might want to dance at a show.   And, of course, we are all curious about her costumes.  Leila said that she designs most of her costumes herself now.   She gets a lot ideas from watching . . . music videos!  The singer,  Beyonce, apparently is a favorite.  And we know that Beyonce is always coming up with some fairly spectacular costumes, and I think her mother does some of her costumes.   Leila mentioned that it is important to keep coming up with new costuming ideas as these are part of the whole spectacle of a performance.   I know that here in the U.S., most of the time we don't get to see anyone dance long enough for them to justify a costume change.   But when a dancer has a one hour show which has to have changes in pace to keep up the interest, then all those costume changes follow.   I know that all Leila's costumes were much discussed and I was happy to have the opportunity to take some pictures while at Ciro's (even if they are a bit dark).

As for future plans, Leila says she wants to stay in Cairo as long as she can.

She really loves the country, the people, the way of life, along with dancing and has many friends there.   Definitely, she is going to find it hard to leave when (or if) it comes time to do that and return to the United States.  But if she does come home, she probably won't be dancing in restaurants here because it won't be the same as in Cairo. Meanwhile she continues with her modeling and TV/Video endeavors.   She says that she's also been able to do some travelling around Europe and the Middle East for performance and workshop opportunities as those have become available.

This interview with Leila was interesting and fun for me to do.   I taped everything and have been listening to it a lot while trying to write this.   I couldn't include everything in this article, but I hope I've been able to convey a little about what it is like for an American dancer to go to Cairo and realize some of her dream to live and dance there.   Some of us will envy her that she has been able to take advantage of this opportunity.   But, obviously,  it wasn't all easy and did require lots of hard work along with a great deal of  "intestinal fortitude" to get through some of the big challenges she faced.   I salute Leila for what she has accomplished and hope to have many more opportunities to see her dance in the future . . . in Cairo and in Dallas (just a big hint to Leila to come back)!

Followup to the interview: Recently I heard from Leila after her return to Cairo.  She says that she has just signed the contract that will enable her to make the folkloric papers she needs for working.  She's hoping to have those in about 10 days, but she has already started rehearsals with her new folklore.  Plus,  she's already been booked for a couple of weddings since people are starting to hear that she can work again.  It sounds to me like Leila won't be leaving Cairo anytime soon!   So I guess I will have to go to Cairo to see her dance the next time.

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Ready for more?
More by CE Barros-
Aida Nour & Magdy El-Leisy in Dallas, Texas, January 9-11, 2004, sponsored by Little Egypt
Report on Workshops and Both Shows by Catherine Barros photos by Ram

7-17-04 Dancing in North Beach by Sausan
On the occasions when the door was still locked, I was often invited to drink coffee next door, where young girls made their money stripping.

7-15-04 Belly Dance Superstars at DNA Lounge Photos by Susie Poulelis
Saturday, April 17, 2004 San Francisco, CA. Yes, that is Petite Jamilla playing a bagpipe,

7-5-04 Cabaret: Is it a dirty word? by Piper Reid Hunt, PhD
American Cabaret, the original fusion belly dance, is accessible and fun for everyone, regardless of one’s dance education.




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