Aziza of Cairo (again!)

Here’s a fab video of Aziza. If you’re one of those dancers who can’t bear Shik Shak Shok give it a go and see if she can rehabilitate it for you. Also noteworthy for having a drum solo at the end, typically understated Egyptian style but WOW that shimmy just blows you away!

New in town

So I guess everyone know by now that I’ve left the UK and am now living in America. I’ll be in Salt Lake City, Utah for the next three years and after that….we’ll see!

One of the things I’m really excited about is having the chance to learn from lots of new dancers. OK, so the first workshops I booked were Little Egypt’s weekend with Randa :) but I am learning from new people as well! Before I arrive in SLC I got in touch with local teacher Stephanie, who told me she was hosting Karim Nagi at the beginning of September, and she was also kind enough to invite me to be part of the Friday night show! I have to tell you how lovely it was to be welcomed like that. I’ve done the same for dancers who were new to Cambridge in the past, inviting them to perform at my haflas, and it felt so good to be on the receiving end this time! So I’d say to other new dancers, don’t be nervous and reach out and established teachers, your reply can mean more than you realise.

Having the show on the horizon was a great motivation to get back in practice, which I’d let slide during the last few weeks of packing. At the moment we only have a few piece of furniture (ours is still on a ship somewhere) but that’s not a bad thing! The empty basement is an excellent studio:

(Not the best photo, admittedly. You can just about see my cat by the computer)

I’ve also brought all my costumes, not wanting them to have to endure a sea journey. When I tried to pick up the costume suitcase it was so heavy that the handle broke off!

I was really interested to see the other dancers in the show, since my main exposure to American bellydance has been the Bellydance Superstars (and I don’t consider a lot of what they do to be bellydance anyway, but that is for another day…). First thing I have to say is what a high standard of dance there was! It looks like there is a strong Egyptian influence round here (apart from the Tribal of course) but with distinctly American touches. For instance, the use of floorwork (splits and a Turkish drop amongst other moves – wow!) and also the use of props. There were a lot of props, often more than one in a routine – I do love it when a dancer discard her veil and suddenly you see the sagat she’s been holding the whole time (and yes I do know sagat are an instrument and not a prop really). The sagat playing – wow again! Really exciting, worked beautifully with the music, so much better than most of what I’ve seen in the UK and I include myself in that.

(I should probably stop calling them sagat and start calling them zills, right? I’m having enough trouble remembering the right names for my groceries but I do want people to understand me :) )

The props were also really well integrated into the performances. Often a performance can turn into “Look at me here with my isis wings” and the actual dancing gets rather left behind, but I didn’t see any of that. So those are my first impressions of what bellydance is like here, I’m sure my thoughts will change as I see more dancing and travel further.

The show was on Friday, then on Saturday and Sunday there were workshops with Karim Nagi. I don’t know if he’s been to the UK (he’s certainly travelled widely) but I don’t recall seeing his name at a festival before so it was great to be able to learn from someone new. Our first workshop was on maqamat and taqasim (hope I’ve spelt those acceptably!). With each maqam we would listen to it, sing it and talk about the emotions it evoked. With Western music I’m used to the ides that major scale = happy and minor scale = sad, but in Arabic music things are much more complicated and just one maqam can bring out a whole range of feelings, even just from a straightforward up and down the set of notes. It was the kind of workshop you could only get from a musician, we explored the music in much greater depth than I’ve done before but we were left in no doubt that really we’d only scratched the surface. Our second workshop was tahtib, and Stephanie had thoughtfully brought spares for everyone – I didn’t think I could get away with bringing my stick on the plane so I was very grateful! We began by just getting a feel for the music, Karim talked about how a man would use the assaya in everyday life, and how that was brough into the dance. Oh yes, we were doing the man’s style! This is something I’ve wanted to learn for a while. Many years ago I had a teacher who said that women shouldn’t do the “masculine” moves, I ignored that and carried on with my twirling. I’ve noticed more and more actual tahtib moves being done by dancers in Cairo though and I think it looks great, but I’ve lacked the knowledge – and the practice space! – to add it to my own dance. So even though  I was pretty bad at catching my assaya, especially in my left hand (Karim made us do everything on both sides!) I am determined to be able to do it.

It was a great day of workshops, held in a lovely studio (it belongs to another local teacher, Thia) which is just for bellydance. I would definitely go to more workshops with Karim and would recommend him highly as a teacher. I know a lot of people who would have loved that music workshop! From chatting to the other dancers I met it sounds like there is a lot going on locally and within the rest of the state so hopefully I will be sharing more adventures with you all soon :)

Helsinki Bus Station Theory

I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and individual style recently. Everyone knows there are different styles of bellydance, mostly defined by geography and time. For example, the style I do is rooted firmly in present day Egypt. It’s different to the style you’d see in Egypt 50 years ago, or the style you might see in Turkey today. It’s easy for a dancer to be exposed to many different styles of dance through workshops and videos, and to choose the ones they want to pursue further. Finding your individual style within that dance is another thing altogether. After 15 years of studying I think I’m just getting a handle on what makes my dancing my own :) I have it in mind to write a series of posts so don’t be too disappointed that this one doesn’t cover absolutely everything there is about finding your own style!

Which brings me to Helsinki Bus Station Theory. What, you’ve never heard of it? Well, neither had I until it was mentioned in my Twitter feed, and I found the name intriguing enough to read further. The link will take you to a written excerpt from the original speech by photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen. Do read the whole thing if you have time. I’m going to use a shorter quote from a Guardian article:

There are two dozen platforms…from each of which several different bus lines depart. Thereafter, for a kilometre or more, all the lines leaving from any one platform take the same route out of the city, making identical stops. “Each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer,” Minkkinen says. You pick a career direction – maybe you focus on making platinum prints of nudes – and set off. Three stops later, you’ve got a nascent body of work. “You take those three years of work on the nude to [a gallery], and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn.” Penn’s bus, it turns out, was on the same route. Annoyed to have been following someone else’s path, “you hop off the bus, grab a cab… and head straight back to the bus station, looking for another platform”. Three years later, something similar happens. “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.” What’s the answer? “It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.”
A little way farther on, the way Minkkinen tells it, Helsinki’s bus routes diverge, plunging off on idiosyncratic journeys to very different destinations. That’s when the photographer finds a unique “vision”, or – if you’d rather skip the mystificatory art talk – the satisfying sense that he or she is doing their own thing.

This resonated so strongly, and not just because I enjoy extending metaphors as far as they will go. As I said above, it’s easy enough for dancers to try different styles – they are getting on one bus for a bit, rushing back to the station, hopping on another, riding it for a little while then back to the station to get on another. And this is all fine when you are starting out and having fun exploring this amazing shiny world of bellydance but if you want to be of a professional standard you are never going to develop any depth to your dancing by only riding each bus for a couple of stops. There are the bellydancers who describe what they do as a fusion of Egyptian, Turkish, Tribal, Indian, flamenco and whatever else they found down the back of the sofa and claim it constitutes their very own original style. I’ve rarely seen anything interesting or coherant come from that.

It’s another version of know the rules before you break them. Knowing when and how to break the rules is far more exciting than just claiming there were no rules in the first place. When you know the other bus routes you know when your route has diverged and you’re doing something truly original.

My route has been following an Egyptian line for a long time now, and I have worried that at times it’s been following other dancers’ buses too closely, but I stayed on it and it’s taken me somewhere new. You can make a career out of tailgating another bus but it can’t be as artistically satisfying as finding your own way.

Ahlan wa Sahlan 2013

Aleya of Cairo has put together a fantastic compilation from the Ahlan wa Sahlan opening gala featuring Katia, Aziza, Soraya and Dina:

You should definitely watch the whole thing (especially Aziza who is just AMAZING). If you’re interested in seeing how Egyptian-style dancers do drum solos there are a few good examples here: Katia at 1:05, Aziza at 7:20 and Soraya at 10:06. When I was writing a post on drum solos it was quite hard to find decent videos so I was pleased to see this.

For the Record: (Some Of) My Teachers

I like to give credit when I can. I feel bad that the biographies I give to people don’t acknowledge all the people who have helped me become the dancer I am today, but as you’ll see, there are just so many of them! So here, in aphabetical order, is a list of people who I have learned from on at least two occasions (I started with a list of everyone who I have ever had a class or workshop with but it was much too long!):

Aida Nour
Anasma
Asmahan
Aziza
Beatrice Curtis
Bedru
Camelia
Candi
Dina
Eman Zaki
Galit Mersand
Gwen Booth
Heather Burby
Jim Boz
Jo Wise
Kay Taylor
Khaled Mahmoud
Leyla of Cairo
Lisa Michaela
Lorna Gow
Margaret Krause
Maria D’Silva
Melanie Norman
Mohamed El Hosseny
Nawarra
Pauline Sayhi
Princess Farhana
Rachel Brice
Raed Abd El Ghany
Randa Kamel
Raphaelle
Raqia Hassan
Samasem
Sara Farouk
Shafeek
Tara Lee-Oakley
Tracey Gibbs
Trish Rapley-Giles
Yasmina
Yousry Sharif
Yvette Cowles

Limiting myself to people I have learned from twice has meant leaving off some big names, so if I’ve left you off please don’t be offended because you’re keeping good company :) (with Fifi Abdo for one!). Even if I did include all those people the list would still be incomplete because it wouldn’t include the influences I’ve picked up from dancing alongside people, from watching dancers perform in shows and on video and also from seeing how they interact with other students, other professionals and musicians (and learning from those musicians too!). No dancer springs fully formed into this world, or is the protege and one true heir of Samia Gamal, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise. So to ALL my teachers – THANK YOU!

Egypt part 5 – the end

I’m home now and ready to get back to teaching, but there’s just a little more to tell you…

For our last night we had a party at Yasmina’s beautiful apartment (did you know you can stay there for your own dance holiday?) with a band and some very special guests including Hassan and Dandesh. Yes, THE Dandesh! She was ostensibly there as a guest but of course she got up to dance for us and it was some of the loveliest dancing I’ve ever seen her do. Yasmina danced for us as well – what am impressive array of dancers we saw and how lucky to see two stars up close! There were saidi and Nubian boys to entertain us as well as the always delightful Heba (OMG her street shaabi was amazing!). We ate delicious home cooked food and a giant cake to celebrate three birthdays, serenaded by the band at the same time. The band included the first female musician I think I’ve ever seen in Egypt, which was nice. She played the qanun.

It was an early night by Cairo standards almost all of us had flights at unsociable times on Sunday morning. It’s always sad to leave but as photos have been popping up on Facebook I’ve been reminded of all the amazing things we did. It’s hard to believe it was only one week…

Kay and I are already thinking about the next trip in 2015!

Egypt part 4

Everyone managed to drag themselves out of bed in time to go to the Hassan Hassan show at Felfela village. I had to stop off for a fitting at Eman’s so I missed the excitement of the tuk tuk rides and the earlier acts on the bill (including a comedian who went down like a lead balloon at the English speaking table, unsurprisingly). I and the other two arrived just in time to see the show. It’s a selection of folklore dances with a very loose storyline and lots of knockabout humour which everyone can appreciate. The troupe consists of three men and three women, plus Hassan, who sings and dances his way through every single number – he has incredible energy! We saw haggala, tannoura (“Oh good, more tannoura. We haven’t seen enough of those this week.”), saidi (including a cameo from my husband!) and a sketch with soldiers (and their newest recruit, Moyra!). In fact only one of the styles we studied in our lesson in the end :) so I will just have to find some videos for my students to watch!

It’s the end of the week and with everything we’ve crammed in people are starting to get tired so it was a quiet evening after that, although a small group squeezed in a singing lesson with Emad. I hope we’ll be hearing the results at the party night :) Dinner was at Abu Sid, a gorgeous restaurant nearby with lovely food and a particularly special cocktail – asab (sugar cane juice) and tequila. This proved very popular with the group, so much so that we drank them out of asab! Three of us went on to Outside, a bar at the Nile Maxim, to hear Ellie of London sing at their Friday night party. This was something different again, a chance to see how young Egyptians and expats let their hair down and party. It was lots of fun, great atmosphere and a nice international mix of music which got everyone up and dancing, but we called it a night at 1:00am so as not to be too tired for our final day.

That day began with something new to me – camel riding! Yes, despite my many trips to Egypt I have never ridden a camel before and I’m sorry I put it off so long because it is great fun. I never knew what an extraordinary range of noises they make. Yasmina took us to the stable she uses, so we knew the animals there were well looked after, and we spent an hour riding around with a few stops for photos with the pyramids in the background. Camel riding will be compulsory for everyone on the next trip!

Most people have gone off to the Moroccan spa to have the camel dirt and smell scrubbed off them before going back to Yasmina’s for our final night party. I’m heading off for a little more shopping (can’t quite believe I haven’t bought any shoes yet!) but don’t worry, I’ll shower before the party…

Egypt part 3

Well, we had a brilliant time watching Aziza last night! She was at the Sunset, near the Nile Pharon. We arrived at 1:00am to an almost empty club and were shown to a booth at the back of the room. It gradually filled up over the next few  hours with men and their *cough* female companions *cough* , most of them bringing in bottles of whiskey and wodges of cash. As expected people didn’t really know what to make of us, Western tourists are a very unusual sight in these places, but the staff looked after us very well, bringing drinks and fruit (on the traditional foil swan platters!), escorting us to the loo, encouraging us to get up and dance – not that we needed much encouragement! Once it had been established that we really liked the shaabi we weren’t allowed to sit out any of those songs, but since most of the songs were khaleegy we didn’t have to do too much.

Most of the guests in the nightclubs are from the Gulf, and the singers and dancers tailor their shows accordingly. These people are the real big spenders. Our group doesn’t spend a lot of money in the clubs although I like to think that we provide some entertainment :) but the other guests have serious amounts of cash to throw. A man who arrived shortly before we left had around five piles of notes on his table, each the size of a brick. I had hoped to see him in action, but no such luck.

Aziza was the only dancer that night, I think she started at around 3:30am and we got a good long set. She had a lovely costume, a sparkly nude bodysuit with a white skirt and belt. A little like one Dina has worn…. :) She came out into the audience to dance for specific groups (ones throwing money!) and was kind enough to come and sit with us for photos. It was a bit difficult to see her at times because of people standing up in front of us, although Kay and the staff did their best to shoo them away to let us see. Aziza’s style has really developed a lot since I last saw her at Casino El Leil, she has a much stronger “voice” of her own and is more engaged with the audience. She finished with a lovely Enta Omri.

I think everyone enjoyed themselves although since I haven’t seen anyone else this morning I can’t say for sure! I’m really glad we all got to go to the club, not just because Aziza is one of my favourite dancers but also because it is the kind of experience you just won’t get anywhere else. I wouldn’t try and go to one of these places on my own, but going with Kay and Yasmina means there is always someone who knows what is going on and can make sure we have the best possible experience. It’s a side to the dance that we don’t see often but it’s an important (and fun!) side to see.

Egypt part 2

After a whole four hours sleep it was time for a dance class – no problem! My husband was excused the lesson and slept in until midday. Most of the rest of the group set out in the minibus to Sahar’s studio (no costumes on show sadly or perhaps fortunately since they would have proved a major distraction) where we met up with Hassan of the Hassan Hassan Folklore Show. For two hours he taught us different folklore styles: bedouin, bamboutiyya, Nubia and saidi. I could happily have spent the whole lesson on any one of those styles, particularly bamboutiyya as Hassan choreographed a tableau for us on the fly. If you get the chance to study with him go for it, he is a great choreographer and full of energy. He also gave us a lot of background information so we could understand and appreciate the different styles of dance. We’re going to see his show on Friday so hopefully it will all make sense to people for whom it was all new.

Once the lesson was over a few of us went off for a costume fitting with Eman while the rest explored the Khan el Khalili. Judging by the number of bags when I rejoined them they all did pretty well! Nibal noticed that we were all fading from hunger and took us to Fishawy where we refueled on felafel and aubergine sandwiches before going to the tannoura show. This show is on once a week and appears to be popular with Egyptians as well as tourists. It’s a great chance to hear traditional instruments like the rebab and mizmar and is of course very different to the bellydance shows we see the rest of the week. Of course if you’re not a tannoura fan it can be hard going, the first guy was spinning for around half an hour! He was followed by an impressive display from three more tannoura. I think everyone was amazed by what they saw. We also loved the sagat player who is a real character :)

The relatively early finish allowed me to have a lie in, but a lot of my students were up early to go to the Egyptian Museum with Nibal (and my husband was up even earlier to go to Alexandria for the day!). They reported that the museum was very busy, which is good news, the museum is right on Tahrir Square and we were worried it might be difficult to go there. Nibal excelled herself again, showing them lots of interesting artifacts and negotiating the way through the crowd. We all met up afterwards to go for a sail in a felucca, which is a wonderfully relaxing way to spend an hour on the river enjoying the sun and a gentle breeze.

Some people had to head off for fittings with Hanan afterwards, and the crazy traffic meant they only just got back in time for out Thursday night entertainment – the Nile Maxim with Randa! As ever the show started with a couple of singers, one of whom was the lovely Ellie of London. Then another tannoura, who is still using the same music as when I first when to the Maxim four years ago. Then – RANDA! As ever she was incredible, full of energy and with so much feeling. Lots of interesting new technique which I look forward to learning at Jewel of Yorkshire…. :) she got us all up to dance baladi with her at the end, and met us afterwards so we could have our photo taken.

It’s now 11:30pm but the night is not over – we’re going out to see Aziza!