I do more than just go to Egypt, honest…

…I just happen to have gone there a lot recently!

My second trip to Cairo this year was at the end of May. It was also centred around bellydancing, but in a very different way to my last holiday. I went for a week long dancing course given by Randa Kamel, who as all my students know is my greatest inspiration. When it was announce last year that she would be doing this I waited for all of one week before rushing to the bank to put my deposit down and make sure I had a place!

The course took place at the Barcelo Three Pyramids hotel on Haram Street in Giza. This is the main road that leads you to the famous pyramids, and you could get a lovely view of them from the bar at the top of the hotel. Other than that the location is fairly unremarkable, there was a small mall near the hotel and not much else. The nightclubs were all still boarded up. However, the hotel itself was lovely, clean and modern with very helpful staff. Here’s a photo of the pool and shisha bar:

The pool at night

The pool at night

I could happily have spent all day lounging on one of those beds, but I had dance classes to go to!

On our first night everyone on the course went to the Nile Maxim for a special show with Randa. We were met by a folklore group:

Band and dancers

Our escort to the boat

who played and danced for us before leading us to the boat. There was a small band and singers to entertain us as we ate, followed by the tannoura dancer (scroll down for a photo, he did the same set as last time I was there). Then…..Randa! I was far too entranced to take photos, but there are a few video clips on YouTube taken by one of the girls. Randa did two sets as usual, then the other guests left the boat and the course participants had a special extra performance! She did oriental, baladi, saidi, shaabi and for the first time, Alexandrian. It was the best show I have ever seen her do and as you know I’ve been to a fair few :)

Our classes started the next day. The timetable had 1 1/2 hours warm up, 1 1/2 hours technique, a break for lunch, then 3 hours choreography. As the week went on the choreography took over the technique class, we had 4 to learn, all between 5 and 8 minutes long so it’s not entirely surprising. It was so good to have the opportunity to train like this. Most workshops I’ve been to, even ones ostensibly for advanced dancers, end up having to cater for a mixed range of abilities and fitness levels. Here there was no dumbing down, no stopping for a 5 minute break which drags out to 10, 15 minutes…no cries of “We’re too tired! We can’t do it!”. Even when faced with a daunting looking combination from a choreography we could be confident that Randa would break it down for us and get us all doing it in the end. It was hard work but oh so worth it. My head is full of new ideas but I need time and practice to process them all, although a few have been creeping into my classes and performances already.

Workshop room

Our workshop room - how's that for inspiration, a giant poster of Randa with the caption "There are no limits to dance"

There were 47 people on the course and the room was big enough for all of us. Randa taught all the classes except the warm ups, although she would sometimes sit in and correct people.

The days were so busy most people were exhausted, but for those who still had energy there was a competition. The heats took two nights and the final was on the last night. It looked like a lot of hard work for everyone who took part, I admire them very much for that, but I’m glad I wasn’t taking part! The final was very exciting, almost all the dancers performed with the band which was a real challenge. Some were clearly more comfortable than others in this situation and the top three were outstanding. I have mixed feelings about competitions which I think I wil write about at another time.

We had a day off in the middle of the week when were taken out for a relaxing day by a pool at a holiday village called El Ezba. Bliss :)

The pool

The pool

 

Camel by the pool

You could ride a camel by the pool - and why not?

Five trips to Egypt and I still haven’t ridden a camel…I’ll just have to go back.

I snuck off with a group of die hards one night to catch Dina’s show at the Semiramis. The curfew was still in force from 2:00am until 5:00am, so it was a pretty safe bet we’d still be in the nightclub at 5:00am. The first few of us arrived at midnight to claim our table, and over the next hour the rest of the group arrived. Some had had a full day of classes, an excursion to the Khan El Khalili and were still up for the show! Dina came on at around 3:00am and gave us a good 45-50 minutes. She managed three lighting quick costume changes, I imagine her dressing room is like a formula one pit stop to get her in and out so quickly. I always enjoy watching Dina, and it’s true what everyone says, you don’t really appreciate her until you see her live. We left ever so slightly before curfew and managed to get back to our hotel without being arrested :) I don’t think the curfew was ever taken very seriously.

On the last night of the week there was the final of the competition and also the chance for course participants to dance with the band if they wanted (for a fee of course). I hadn’t known this would be an option so I hadn’t brought a costume with me, but Randa arranged for me to borrow one from her designer Hisham Osman. Initially she’d offered to lend me one of hers (!!!) but hadn’t had the time to send home for it, which was understandable. So after about 6 hours sleep in 48 hours and running on pure adrenaline I danced with Randa’s band and it was the most incredible feeling. You can see the result on my video page if you like.

Me and Randa's band

Dancing with a band in Cairo, it doesn't get better than this!

There are unconfirmed plans to run the course again next year along with a follow up course. I will be there – of course.

A week in Cairo after the revolution

Copied from Facebook.

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.

Cairo traffic

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!

Demonstration

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.

The Great Pyramid at Giza

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.

Lots of costumes all over the place!

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 in a pink costume

Magda on the Nile Pharon

 

Tannoura

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!

Sign saying "Egypt Land of Peace"

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…