Vol. 1 No. 1 2007



BEYOND BOOKS (Dance)


Belly Dancing Excitement at Egypt's Oriental Dance Festival


By Tahma


Cairo--For almost a decade, belly dancers from all over the world have been making the pilgrimage to this Mecca of the dance, Cairo, Egypt, for an annual festival called Ahlan Wa Sahlan. The festival takes place in Cairo at a five star resort that is literally at the foot of the pyramids.

For one week, more than one thousand dancers are immersed in everything belly dance: daily classes taught by masters and superstars, nightly competitions, and heaps of vendors offering costumes, props, music and other dancerelated items.

The origins of belly dance are hotly debated, as is the correct term for the art form. In fact, many would argue that the term is not the most accurate label, but will use the term because it is the most widely understood by the general public. The most widely accepted terms in the community, for the most popular forms (Egyptian andTurkish), would be Raks Sharqi or Oriental Dance.

Egyptian styles vary regionally and historically. Turkish "gypsy" forms, and many other forms that have become sisters to the art, vary due to authenticity being lost in translation (such as American cabaret), or even by deliberate attempts to take parts of the dance and fuse them with other forms of dance, creating something new (such as American tribal style).

In recent years, the dance has had a huge surge of interest based on popular music infusing more Arabic influences, and presenting corresponding representations of belly dance in the music videos (mostly completely inauthentic, fantasy representations). And, of course, we must also thank the pop star Shakira for this onslaught of interest.

As a professional dancer, I have only been a diligent student of this form of dance for approximately 4 years, and this was my first time at the festival. Upon my arrival, I must admit that I experienced an absolute sensory overload beginning with my ride from the airport to the hotel at 4 a.m. The streets were so alive in what most closely resembled a hot night on the Vegas strip. They were bright, noisy and bustling.

However it quickly dawned on me that the streets were almost exclusively packed with men-drinking tea, smoking pipes, and filtering in and out of nightclubs. My American instinct put me at immediate discomfort. However, I later felt much more comfortable in the city as Cairo has very low crime. I was soon abler to take in the beauty of this historically rich and beautiful city, and its wonderful, colorful, creative people.

Also, for an American, in such uncertain times, I made learning how to "blend in" a priority, and quickly adopted a ultra modest dress, so that I could walk the streets without a second glance from the natives of the city. As a person with a father who is part WASP, and part African-American, and who knows what else; and a mother who is MexicanIrish; and me with a decided ambiguous look, many people assumed I was from Aswan or Luxor, where the Nubian people live.

A few days later, the festival began and chaos ensued. You can easily imagine the behavior of over 1,000 women from different parts of the world in one place for close to a week. Well, it was even worse than that. Although, the majority of women were great, there were plenty that exhibited shockingly ugly behavior. There was of course a lot of pushing and shoving when we were clamoring to enter shows and classes. But much worse was the blatantly sneaky behavior of cutting in bathroom lines under the guise of "having to get up front to wash (ones) hands;" sneaking to the front oflines for dance shows via scooting in front of someone from the side of them when they weren't paying attention, and pushing ones way to the front of the dance class

As the festival continued, luckily, this behavior seemed to subside. Halfway through the festival I decided to spend more time outside of the festival, and outside the resort walls. I think that the true gem in this trip was my ability to immerse myself in the culture that made this dance what it is. I was so sad when it came time to leave.

This Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival is the largest in attendance for belly dancing in the world that I am aware of, and lasts for only a week in July. However, a smaller version is is also held in the winter. There are also other competing festivals such as the Nile group which is also held in summer and winter

A great website for more information on everything belly dance related (history, styles, festivals, local events and teachers), check out www.shira.net.



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