It just dawned on me that Iíve been living here in Cairo for more than 3 years. Thatís a long time for someone who never intended to live or work here. With all the uncertainty in the air about Egyptís future, one wonders how much longer I and others like me will be able to thrive. But rather than speculate about the future (again), Iíve decided to reflect on my past and share a few of the adjustments I had to make as a dancer. And they were many, because belly dance outside of Egypt is a totally different animal than belly dance in Egypt. There were adjustments in technicality, musicality, and even physicality. There were adjustments in music selection and music understanding, costuming and audience. And there were changes in attitude, ethics and comportment.This article was originally published in blog:
Perhaps one of my biggest initial challenges as a foreign student of Egyptian dance was learning proper technique. Egyptian technique is much more subtle, nuanced, and intricate than what most of us learn back home. Movements are smaller and more precise, more controlled and more meaningful (INHO). Upon studying dance here, the first thing I had to do was unlearn everything I thought I knew and start from scratch. For example, back home, I learned to do everything in pliť. Shimmy in pliť. Hip drops in pliť. Figure 8ís in pliť. I never noticed how bent my knees were until I came here and Egyptians pointed it out. Not only do bent knees look bad, but they prevent us from getting the maximum oomph out of our hip movements. Iíve since straightened up and become somewhat of a knee-nazi, as anyone whoís ever taken class with me can attest. :)
No sooner had I replaced my sloppy technique with Egyptian vocabulary than I met my next challenge: slowing down. Non-Egyptian dancers have a tendency to do too much too fast too soon. If we donít cram all the moves we know into one piece of music, if we donít hit every single tik and tok, doom and tek, we feel as though we didnít do the music justice. Which isnít necessarily the case. As the good old clichť goes, less is more. Slowing down is probably THE most invaluable piece of advice Iíve heard in all my years here, and it came from none other than Sara Farouk, one of Cairoís best kept secrets. :) Sara is the organizer of the Randa Kamel of Course intensive thatís held twice a year here in Cairo. But more than that, she is one of the best belly dance instructors in the world, and a good friend. Sheís great at spotting all your belly dance flaws and correcting them. So now, every time I get on stage, I think of Sara and make a point of slowing down and feeling, no matter what Iím doing.
Those were some of the technical adjustments I had to make as a student relearning how to belly dance in Egypt. When I finally found a stage, however, I had a million other things to think about as a performer. For starters, the shows here are a bit longer. A typical belly dance performance at any hotel, boat or wedding runs between 45 minutes to an hour. They are not the 15 to 20 minute gigs we do back home in one costume. And each show is divided into 2 to 5 sections, depending on the performance format of the venue. The dancer changes her costume for each section, and performs to a different sub-genre of Egyptian music. For example, in the first set, the dancer will usually dance to an instrumental mejance, which is what Egyptians call the intro piece, and 1 or 2 classical songs. This takes anywhere between 10 to 20 minutes. She then changes her costume and dances her second set for another 10 to 20 minutes. Typically, the second set involves some type of folklore and shaabi music. Whether itís Saidi, Iskanderani, Nubian or Khaligi, the dancer costumes appropriately. For the third set, dancers usually wear another belly dance costume and continue with things like sharqi, balady, and a drum solo. Some performances do indeed deviate from this, but generally, this is the standard belly dance show format in Egypt.
Because the shows are longer and more comprehensive, I had to really brush up on all types of folkloreóI couldnít rely on all the (con)fusion I learned back home to fill the hour, because things like wings, fan veils, swords, and trays of candles just donít cut it here. Egyptian audiences want to watch you dance, not put on a circus act. Which was actually quite relieving for me, as I never really enjoyed superfluous prop work anyway.
Music selection was another biggie for me. Because the Middle Eastern community in New York is quite diverse, I would get away with dancing to Egyptian, Lebanese, Syrian and Turkish music all in one set. In Egypt, however, peopleís taste in music is well, Egyptian. :) Unless itís George Wassouf or Melhem Barakat, I learned not to deviate too far from the standard Egyptian classics that all Egyptians know and love. I also learned that I really need to understand the lyrics of the songs to which Iím dancing. Not so that I can play cherades while Iím on stage, but so that I can be emotionally in tune with whatever Iím dancing to.
Physically, Iíve also undergone some changesÖ for the better, I like to think. :) For the first two years that I lived here, I was sickly skinny. You could see my ribs, and I had no rear. Which was odd because Iíve always been slightly on the round side. Itís not that I was on a diet or even exercising that much. I was, however, under a whole lot of mental stress. Between adjusting to the culture and constantly dealing with selfish, narcissistic types, I entered into a depressive slump that affected not only my weight, but my entire outlook on life. Luckily, I was able to put my foot down and make the changes I needed to regain my health (physical and mental), happiness, sanity, and love handles. :) Not to mention my big old buttÖ.
Öwhich is having a difficult time squeezing into costumes these days (thank God I live within a 3 mile radius of Eman Zaki and can have things custom made!). I think any other girl would be freaking out if she gained the 25 pounds Iíve gained since moving here. But not me. Iím proud of them. And they serve me well on stage. I kind of like how every sharp movement I do now has an unintentional shimmy echo. :P Not to mention, Egyptians like a little more junk in the trunk. So it all works out. :)
Which brings me to my next point. Dancers here are encouraged to select the costumes that most flatter/show off their curves. That means tight-fitting lycra skirts that trace every dimple and cellulite deposit on your thighs and butt. Sexy. :) The more traditional chiffon bra and belt numbers have gone the way of the dinosaur. Nobody wears them here. Ever. Nobody does fringe that much either. This all came as a shock to me when I first arrived here, because most of us wear traditional bedlahs back home. Except for the no fringe part, Iíve taken quite a liking to the more modern costumes, even if they do define my thigh dimples every now and then. Because with lycra, the possibilities are endless. From newspaper print lycra to heavily sequined spandex, stretch fabric has stretched our imaginations to the extremes. Which is why fabric shopping has become a regular part of my weekly routine. Which is why I now own more than 30 pieces of fabric, all waiting to be transformed into gorgeous costumes.
Alongside all the changes I made in technique, music selection, and costuming, the biggest adjustment Iíve made (still making!) is one of consciousness. I no longer belly dance. I am a belly dancer. Meaning, belly dance isnít just a hobby I do on the weekends to make a few extra bucks. Itís my full time job now, and it pays the bills.
Iím also no longer a one-woman production the way I used to be in New York. Back home, I would show up for my gigs, CD in hand, ready to shake my booty for 15 minutes and run off to do it all over again at the next joint. Me, myself, and I. Here, Iím part of a larger team of musicians, managers, agents, and male dancersÖ you know, those 2 to 4 young guys who do the cheesy YMCA-type movements at the beginning of any belly dance show? :P They also share the stage with me when I perform any type of folklore. Because we interact with each other while dancing Saidi or Alexandrian, I actually have to conduct rehearsals with them from time to time. Which is always fun(ny). :D
Though I am technically part of a team (i.e. band), the concept of teamwork doesnít really apply the way it would outside of Egypt. For example, Egyptian dancers see (and often treat) their musicians as inferiors, not equals. Tools. Foreign dancers are taught to do the same. Unnecessary interaction with the band is strongly discouraged, which means thereís little to no camaraderie amongst coworkers-- even though we see each other every day. Iím sure each dancerís situation varies somewhat, and there are examples of dancers breaking ďthe rules,Ē but generally this is the dynamic between the belly dancer and the band. I personally try to keep things a little less formal and more humane, but it doesn't always work out. .... you can continue reading this on my blog here:
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