As expected this trip has been a whirlwind of activity, with hardly any time to draw breath, let alone blog! I’m writing this at around 23:40. We’ve just been out to see Luna on the Andrea boat and are waiting to go out again to see a new Egyptian dancer Sophia. She’ll probably be on at around 3:00
Most of our group arrived late on Sunday night. We’re staying in Zamalek, which is quite green and quiet by Cairo standards – the incessant beeping of car horns is noticably fainter here – Kay showed us round on Monday but noone has explored further on their own than the local shops just yet! There is a rather fine shoe shop a bit further out so I’m sure we’ll start wandering a bit further eventually. We stopped at a cafe to try koshary for our lunch, and ate at another local restaurant (Bram) for dinner. This place had been particularly recommended for their live music in the evening, a takt of oud and riq with a singer. They were happy to take requests, although they may have regretted this after some of us joined in with Akdeb Aleik an dMawood at the tops of our voices! They finished with a lovely version of Enta Omri as we left. This wasn’t the sort of place to get up and dance, but to listen and appreciate.
We also had to squeeze in a first round of costume shopping on our first day, visiting the designers Hanan and Eman to place initial orders so that we’ll have completed costumes by the end of the week (inshallah!). Hanan had some beautiful new silk designs, she pulled costume after costume out of the unprepossessing black bin bags, each eliciting louder and louder “Ooooh!”s from the watching dancers. Look out for them at a hafla in Cambridge or Edinburgh…We visited Eman at her workshop which was very interesting because we got to see all the people who tailor and embroider the costumes. I have ordered a dress which I am very excited about first fitting should be tomorrow.
Today most of the group went to the pyramids, which are still not very busy so they were able to go inside the Great Pyramid easily. There was quite a lot of hassle but their guide Nibal was able to fend off the touts.
Post club update – fantastic! The first dancer was nothing special but Sophia was very nice, even if was 4:00am and I could barely keep my eyes open. Quite surprising given how loud the music was, I swear each new band cranked the volume up a notch! We also saw around three singers inbetween dancers, but the best thing about going to these clubs is people watching. The big spenders with their bottles of whisky and wodges of £50 notes ready to throw, their younger female companions getting up on stage to demonstrate various degrees of dance skills…it’s fascinating. The table of funny foreigners attracted at least as much curious attention in return, we were quite an oddity. And that’s before we got up to dance I really hope the rest of the girls can make it to the next nightclub to see Aziza, I want them to have this experience!
Imagine I stamp my foot. What style of dance am I doing? Is it tap, flamenco, debke, stepping, clogging, Odissi, Kathak, Moldavian folk, Bulgarian folk (thank you Vanya for all the videos!), Hungarian folk, Irish step dance….?
Let’s look for clues. What am I wearing on my foot? Maybe it’s a shoe with a small heel – could be flamenco, tap, Irish step dance or any of the European folk dances (and their many regional variations). Does the shoe have metal on it? Well, that narrows it down to flamenco or tap, but maybe I’m doing American clogging with slightly unorthodox footwear. Clogs are wooden, American clogging uses clogs with taps whereas regional British clogging uses clogs without taps, so if I’ve got a wooden shoe on then you’ll need to look very closely. Maybe I’m wearing boots, in which case I’m probably doing debke, but then again, it could be one of those folk dances or maybe I’ve branched out into American line dancing. Maybe I’m not wearing shoes, just bells round my ankle, in which case I could be doing Odissi or Kathak or one of the other classical forms of Indian dance.
The music which is playing can narrow down the possibilities. Tabla and a flute – could be Indian, could be Middle Eastern. If there’s a sitar as well, probably Indian, if there’s an accordion, probably Middle Eastern. But if there’s just a solo accordion, could be Middle Eastern or English morris dancing! The two styles of clogging will have different kinds of music to accompany them, British clogging will have traditional instruments such as the fiddle or bagpipes, American clogging will have bluegrass music. The shoes with metal taps – if there’s an acoustic guitar we can be confident it’s flamenco, if it’s a big band sound then it’s probably tap. And if there’s no music other than the sound of feet on the floor, hand claps and slaps against the body? Could be flamenco, could be stepping.
Context is crucial. There are a limited number of ways the human body can move, it is the context they are done in that gives us hundreds of different styles of dance. I know some people sigh and roll their eyes at talk about classifying dance styles but it is about more than putting a label on a thing. Dance can embody history, culture, politics, geography, pride in your heritage, the whole wealth of human experience. The way you dance is a way to distinguish yourself from the people in the neighbouring town or region or country. The labels people use tell us so much more than just the name of their dance.
You can see where I’m going with this. Bellydance is not just a movement vocabulary. It is the movements you use and the music you dance to and how you interpret it, and yes, what you wear. Would you experience Fifi’s dancing the same way if she was wearing a tutu? Once you start taking that cultural context away you have something different. Of course you can do typical bellydance movements to [genre] music, but then what you have is bellydance [genre] fusion. Be honest with yourself, your audience and your students. “World fusion dance” would be a much more honest description for a lot of what is called “bellydance” at the moment, although I would like to see the phrase “contortionistic jazz exotica” gain some popularity (yes, I’ve been watching Twin Peaks recently!). Fusion isn’t bad, or wrong! It’s something different. But once you remove everything Middle Eastern from your dance it isn’t bellydancing any more. We don’t question that flamenco is Spanish, or that Kathak is Indian. Why then do people insist that you can have bellydancing which isn’t Middle Eastern?
Yes, things change over time. Styles merge and offshoots break away, new schools are formed from the old. I’m not advocating preserving bellydance in aspic. However I would suggest that the people who innovate successfully are those who have really immersed themselves in the style and who therefore know how to push the boundaries without losing the essence of what the dance is. It’s more than just taking a movement from here and a costume item from there and shouting “But DANCE EVOLVES!” when someone questions your choices.
Last week the following video went round the online bellydance community.
It made me laugh, in a hollow, sad sort of way. I decided to write about it.
In this post I will consider the following question: what SHOULD a professional bellydancer be? I am addressing anyone who considers themselves to have reached a point in their dance career where they can represent bellydance in public outside of a hafla setting, whether through performance or teaching. Student dancers, relax, I’m not talking about you :). These are the standards I hold myself to. I am not claiming to be perfect and I have not always managed to fulfil all of these in the past, but when I fail to meet these standards I do my best to make sure I learn from that and do better next time.
So what makes a professional bellydancer?
Getting paid to dance
Well, yes, this is the most basic definition of a professional but actually it’s a bit more complicated than that. To quote my friend Kitty Kohl : “Somebody can behave professionally and still be a student, and they can be earning money as a teacher and a dancer and be totally not professional in any way.” Sometimes a professional will choose to waive their fee, for example, in support of a charity, but even without money changing hands they still give a professional standard performance. Discussions about money and professionalism are often derailed by arguments over what proportion of your income comes from dance, which is simply not relevant. In situations where you would reasonably expect an entertainer to be paid (birthday party, restaurant, wedding…) you should be paid, even if you only do one gig in a year.
There’s more to it than that. You should be getting paid a fair price, and if you’re not sure what that is you should ask. Hint: don’t ask a restaurant owner :). You shouldn’t be undercutting the other dancers in your area and if you don’t understand why then you are not ready to be a professional dancer. If you think the standard of your dancing means you should be paid less than the average (“50% less than any other dancer!”) you are certainly not ready to be a professional dancer.
I wish it went without saying, but you must be able to bellydance well. I could write a whole other essay on what it means to “bellydance well” but for now I will stick to “execute isolated movements clearly and gracefully with good posture and demonstrable knowledge of stagecraft”. I’ve been involved in bellydance for over 12 years and have seen the overall standard of dance in the UK rise but still I come across videos that make me shake my head in sadness when I see that the dancer claims to be a professional or worse, teaches other people. And don’t come to me and say “But I only teach beginners!” because you will unleash a rant which makes this polemic sound like The Little Book of Calm!
A professional dancer should also have the necessary background knowledge for whatever she is performing. Know the style of music, the style of dance that goes with it, what the words mean etc. You can’t assume that your audience is totally ignorant. Maybe I am there in the back row, judging you If you are a fusion dancer, know what you’re fusing. Do you really feel “boxed in by styles” or are you just not prepared to put in the effort of learning about them? Believe me, it will show in your performance.
There is no standing still in dance. As soon as you stop trying to push your dancing forward you start going backwards. The opportunities for professional development have simply exploded in the time I have been involved in the bellydance world. You don’t need to travel abroad to train with world-renowned dancers, but if you do want to there are plenty of people to help make that happen for you. Artists from Egypt, the US and Europe regularly visit the UK for festivals and intensive training weekends and of course we have some superb home grown teachers. There is a mind-boggling array of DVDs available on every subject related to bellydance, no matter how tangentially. And of course there is YouTube which is an amazing resource for different styles, dancers and settings if you can navigate your way through the dross. I will note here that “free classes on YouTube” are worth exactly what you pay for them. There is absolutely no excuse for stopping your dance education, and why would you want to? Learning is awesome!
If you are also a teacher then professional development also covers teacher training and health and safety. There are quite a few bellydance teacher training courses available although it looks like JWAAD is going to dominate the field for some time (disclaimer, I am JWAAD trained). There are also more general courses for teaching exercise to music such as that offered by the YMCA. You should seriously consider having a first aid qualification and some venues will require you to have one. Before you all email with me with the names of perfectly good teachers with no qualifications don’t bother. I KNOW THAT [EGYPTIAN TEACHER] HAS NO CERTIFICATE. I think that anyone starting out on their teaching careers NOW should undergo training.
Oh boy, this one is a mine field. I think bellydance is more inclusive then most other dance forms when it comes to appearance. A wider range of body shapes and ages are acceptable to most audiences. For example, I would never have made it as a ballet dancer and even if I had I would have retired by now! However, we still have to dance in a society with certain expectations of what a bellydancer should look like and whilst I think many of them are ridiculous that is not what I want to write about today. How much each individual performer chooses to fulfil these expectations is their own business.
I am more interested in the cosmetic aspect of appearance. You should be well groomed, by which I mean clean (!), with suitable hair and makeup and a good costume. Good costume – now there’s a potentially loaded term. A good costume is well made, fits you and flatters your shape. It doesn’t reveal anything you don’t want revealing (I think we can all agree that bellydance should be family friendly). It’s appropriate for the style of dance you’re performing, the venue and the time of day.
Your costume doesn’t need to be a $1300 designer creation. It does need to be a costume i.e. “a bra from Target” with a few sequins stuck on it will not do. I cannot say this often enough, but a costume bra is very different to a lingerie bra. You can use your bra from Primark (I guess that’s equivalent to Target) as a base for your costume but it needs more work than ten minutes with a hot glue gun. Hint: if the original straps are visible it will always look like you are dancing around in your underwear. I wish I could forget the dancer I saw performing (in a professional setting) in white leggings, a coin belt that shed as she danced, and an undecorated bra from New Look. How do I know it was from New Look? Because I saw the exact same one there the day afterwards. Her costume was a perfect reflection of her dance ability. I had to be led away quietly for a strong drink.
Student dancers, please don’t be worried. If you are performing at haflas a simple long skirt and coin belt with a nice top is just fine as long as it satisfies the principles in that second paragraph. Just be aware that if you want to step outside the hafla setting you are going to need to invest money and/or time on your costuming.
If you are earning money from dancing at some point you need to be registered for tax purposes, and that means keeping records and accounts. You also need to think about public liability insurance (you’d be extremely foolish to start teaching dance without it), music licensing, advertising, creating and maintaining a website…in short, pretty much everything a small business start up has to consider. You have to be able to deal with clients and customers in a professional manner. Can you accept a compliment? Can you handle a complaint? Can you deal with competition from other dancers, ideally without creating a rift that splits your community in two? This brings me onto…
Supporting the dance community
You can support the dance community in two ways: by playing nice and by not being an idiot. In other words, by taking positive actions and by avoiding engaging in negative behaviour (but I prefer the glib version!). So: playing nice. This includes everything discussed so far in order to be a good role model for the up and coming dancers in your community. It is also attending classes, workshops, haflas and festivals and encouraging other dancers or your students (if you teach) to do the same. You could go further and organise an event for your dance community. It is also important to show your support as an audience member, if you swan off as soon as your performance is over, or spend all your time hiding out in the dressing room, or sit scowling through every performance other than your friend’s (and I’ve seen all of these!) it will reflect badly on you.
Alas, without infinite time and money it is impossible to show positive support to everyone. You can still support the community in other ways. Not undercutting is a big one. Not allowing your personal feelings towards other professionals to interfere with your participation – we’ve got a small sandbox to play in which is why we have to play nice. Not scheduling your events to clash with someone else’s. Not representing bellydance in an inappropriate or sleazy way. I could go on but I think you get the idea.
I believe all of the above points are the absolute minimum necessary to make a professional bellydancer. The relevance of each is down to the individual – maybe your website is not as important to you as your training, for example – but no one point is sufficient. No, not even the one about being paid. The obvious next question to ask is “What makes a GOOD professional bellydancer?” and there’s a lot more scope for argument there!
 I make this distinction for the following reason. The definition of a hafla varies between regions but it is always an event put on by the bellydance community for the bellydance community, rather then the general public. A hafla is in no way inferior to any other performance setting.
Wikipedia tells me there are 79 million people in Egypt, so I’d guess there are 79 million opinions on what happened during the revolution and what can and should happen after it. I don’t need to add to that number. However, a fair number of people who have me listed as a friend have an interest in Egypt from a dance tourism perspective and I thought you might like to hear about my recent trip to Cairo.
This wasn’t some kind of intrepid post-revolutionary expedition. It was a dance holiday organised by Kay Taylor of Farida Adventures, arranged almost a year ago for me and a group of my students. We planned a week full of a mixture of sightseeing and dance activities, early mornings and late nights. After January 25th we all anxiously watched the news, swapped emails and discussed the latest developments and possibilities in class. The groups before us had to cancel or postpone their trips, but a week before ours Kay was receiving good reports from her friends in Cairo and most of our group decided to go ahead with the holiday. The FCO changed its travel advice the day before Kay and I flew out!
So what did we find?
As I stepped out of the car outside out hotel in downtown Cairo I was struck by the fact that nothing had apparently changed since I was last there in December. It was 11:00pm and the pavements were crowded with shoppers and stalls, the shops and takeaways blazing with light and noise.
Traffic outside the Khal El Khalili at around 7:00pm. It's always rush hour in Cairo!
After some time changes became apparent, the stallholders were doing a roaring trade in patriotic merchandise (flags of all sizes, T-shirts, car stickers) and there were more soldiers and tanks than I remembered. To a westerner such a pronounced military presence can be alarming, but then you notice that most soliders are distinctly at ease (with a cigarette dangling from one hand) and many tanks are being used as props for a photo opportunity. Yes, we did have a photo taken with our “local” tank!
Demonstrators in Tahrir Square
Tourist sites were open. The Pyramids at Giza were almost deserted, the usual hordes of tourists at the foot of the great pyramid replaced by horse and camel owners desperate for business. Entrance to the great pyramid is usually limited to 300 people per day, meaning you have to be quick if you want a ticket, but there was no problem getting tickets and there were only 15 people inside. Likewise the queues at the Egyptian Museum to see the Tutankhamun exhibition, notoriously lengthy, were apparently non-existant. When we chartered a felucca we were practically the only ones on the river. The Khan El Khalili was open but not as bustling as usual, and shops started to shut early because of the midnight curfew. A lot of the jewellery shops had empty windows. The huge drop in the number of tourists is clearly having a devastating effect on the tourism industry in Cairo.
Note the distinct lack of tourists
The costumiers have been working hard throughout the revolution. How many of us dancers realise quite how many people depend on our lust for costumes to make their living? I bought costumes from Eman Zaki and Sahar Okasha, who both have new collections just waiting to be worn…and as an aside, for goodness sake pay for your costume. I was shocked by some of the stories I heard. There were also visits to Hanan, Pharonics and Aziz.
Hanan's atelier after we had finished
For anyone wanting to watch some dancing the Nile dinner cruise boats are sailing, the Nile Pharon is apparently sailing every day and was almost full on our cruise- there were three wedding parties there! The Nile Maxim wasn’t quite so busy, but we were treated to Randa’s first show in a month and had the additional bonus of a dance from Asmahan who was in the audience. The clubs on Haram Street are boarded up and charred, a very sad sight. The seedy nightclub near our hotel appeared to be open for business but we didn’t investigate! Dina was not dancing at the Semiramis, maybe she will be back in time for another group to enjoy her show in the near future. As with all Kay’s trips we had a party night graciously hosted by Yasmina with entertainment from her adorable niece, some amazing Nubian dancers and the wonderful Dandesh, who had been coaxed into dancing for us!
Magda on the Nile Pharon
The tannoura dancer on the Nile Maxim
As far as personal safety is concerned I think we all felt safe and welcomed by the people we met. Walking back to the hotel to beat the curfew (which isn’t exactly strictly observed!) felt safer than walking in London. Yes, there are still demonstrations happening on Fridays but these are mostly confined to Tahrir Square which is a very small part of Cairo. It’s advisable to avoid it just because the demonstrations make the traffic even worse!
The young Egyptians we met were very keen to reassure us that we were welcome and safe
If you’re thinking of a holiday in Egypt, do it. Everything is in your favour: flight prices, exchange rate, lack of crowds, plus you will be making a big difference to people who depend on tourism to put food on their table. It’s an amazing country which has a tough road ahead of it. Even better, go on a Farida Adventure! What I’ve written here barely covers half of what we did. This was my third trip with Kay and I hope there will be many more to come, inshallah…