by Luna

by Luna



Blog Intro

Hello, I'm Luna, and I'd like to welcome you to "Kisses from Kairo,"* my blog about living and working as an American belly dancer in Cairo.

Life in Cairo isn't easy for dancers, foreigners, women, or even Egyptians. It is, however, always exciting. That’s why after living here for seven years, I've decided to share my experiences with the world. From being contracted at the Semiramis Hotel to almost being deported, not a day has gone by without something odd or magical happening. I will therefore fill these pages with bits of my history in Cairo—my experiences, successes, mistakes, and observations. Admittedly, my time here has been rather unique, so I want to stress that while everything I write is true, my experiences do not necessarily reflect the lives of other dancers.

In addition to my life as a belly dancer, I will write about developments in costuming, performances, festivals, and, of course, the dance itself. I will also make frequent references to Egyptian culture. I should note that I have a love/hate relationship with Egypt. If I make any criticisms about the country, please keep in mind that I do so with the utmost love, respect, and most of all, honesty. Egypt has become my home, so I want to avoid romanticizing and apologizing for social maladies, as most foreigners tend to do. Nothing could be more misguided, patronizing, or insulting.

I hope you find this blog informative, insightful and entertaining, and that we can make this as interactive as possible. That means I'd love to hear from you. Send me your comments, questions, complaints, suggestions, pics, doctoral dissertations, money, etc., and I will get back to you. Promise. :)~

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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Cabaret Day

You know that feeling of being stuck in a rut and not being able to get out of it?  That's what it's been like for me these past two months. I think it's a combination of feeling like I've accomplished everything there is to accomplish in Egyptian belly dance land, and that what's to come is more of the same, plus a sense that I may have outgrown this country. I'm not faulting Egypt.  I'm faulting myself.  I have a tendency to get bored... with things, places... people. And just when I was seriously starting to contemplate a major life change, the gods distracted me with the mother of all gigs-- a birthday party at one of the seediest cabarets in town.   

You're probably wondering what the big deal is.  The big deal is that, aside from jolting me out of my boredom, a "5-star" dancer performing in a sleazy cabaret is a no-no.  Here, if you're a featured dancer at a 5-star hotel or cruise, dancing at low-class venues puts your reputation and sometimes even your career at risk.  That's because well-to-do Egyptians have a tendency to be very classist. They despise whatever they consider to be beneath them, and condescendingly dismiss lower class mannerisms, behaviors, and tastes as baladi, or (my favorite) bee'a-- lowlife.  (There are some deep historical/psychological reasons for this, but I'll refrain from getting into them here.) If the rich owner of the ritzy-by-Egyptian-standards Nile cruise that you work on finds out that you moonlight at cabarets, he just might fire you-- you are now tainted. :)

The poor have their own version of classism too. Just as 5-star venues hire 5-star entertainers (which usually means lighter-skinned, lean, "clean," and foreign when possible), so the owners and customers of lower-class nightclubs prefer their baladi performers. Baladi dancers are usually darker-skinned, less athletic, and several rolls thick. Their costumes are cheap and raunchy, and they have a distinct method of makeup application that makes them easily identifiable (if anyone's seen that documentary about baladi dancers in Egypt, you know what I'm talking about.)  Their dancing is less balletic, less refined, and much juicier and vulgar. In fact it's completely untrained.  It's basically belly dance minus Mahmoud Reda. Raw and real.

The musicians aren't exactly eye candy either. Unshaven, disheveled, and sometimes toothless, they play for hours without taking a break. By the looks of them, you'd think they were third-rate musicians. Especially when you notice the cigarette wedged between the keyboard player's fingers. But I kid you not, these are some of the most talented artists ever known to Egypt. And they've only gotten better since the revolution... since venues can no longer afford to pay for the 25 piece bands that accompany each singer and dancer who performs on a given night, they hire a house band and have each performer come solo.  This means that the house band has to memorize the repertoire for no less than 5 different performers. Which means they have to be good.  Really good.  Though they would never be allowed to work in upscale places, the music they produce is so amazing that I get goose bumps every time I hear it. Just goes to show how much real talent never makes it aboveground into mainstream stardom.

Being that the tastes of the rich and poor couldn't be more different, there is virtually no crossover between the two worlds. So imagine how out of place I felt when I entered the cabaret knowing that in another 10 minutes, I'd be up on that makeshift stage performing for people who wouldn't necessarily like my style.

The person who hired me for this show is a well-known singer and a friend of mine. He knows what type of dancer I am and which venues are appropriate for me, so I didn't think twice about accepting the gig. As soon as I stepped foot in the club, however, I was in for a surprise. The place featured a full sampling of Cairo's "undesirables." There was even a group of gay Egyptian men, but I didn't figure that out until I watched them dance. :)

I hadn't even passed the corridor when I was warmly greeted and then rushed into the bathroom by a woman calling herself Um Amir--Mother of Amir. She was beautiful, but overly made up in the typical baladi fashion: white foundation on her dark skin, layers of black eye paint, heavy black kohl, and bright red lipstick.  She reminded me of  Morticia Addams, only with a rhinestone-studded black one-piece from Saudi Arabia. Since it's rare for women to be involved in the business side of the entertainment industry, I was delighted to learn that Um Amir was the owner of the cabaret.

In the confines of the bathroom, Um Amir helped me slip into my brand new velvet-lycra Sahar. This was the first mistake I made.  My costume was a combination of baby pink and blue, and too girly/pretty/cheery for this place. But it was all I had with me. Unlike my regular work on the boat and at weddings, I'd only be wearing one costume. Also unlike my regular work, I'd be dancing to the house band, not my band.  And they wouldn't be playing an entrance piece for me. Not even the standard Set El-Hosen or Mashaal. That meant I'd be entering to whatever the singer was singing. In all my stagemanship, I lifted my chest, spread my wings, went on releve, and made my grand graceful entrance onto the stage. That was mistake number two. Cabaret dancers don't do stage presence. And they're in no rush to get started. What I should have done was slowly approach the stage with an air of indifference, slouching and with my eyes to the floor for maximum effect. 

The third mistake I made was being too enthusiastic on the stage. I was smiling in full force, busting out my shaabi moves and adding a bounce to my sharqi moves. Basically having fun. But nothing I did seemed to move the audience.  They just sat there, staring blankly at me with their sheesha pipes in their mouths. That's not the kind of reaction I'm used to.  Huh, maybe I'm not interpreting the song correctly, I thought. Not that I could have known what it was-- these shaabi singers are notorious for ad libbing songs and mawals. Hmm, maybe I should tone it down a notch. Or two.  Maybe I should try to look pissed.  Or tough. Or, I don't know...

...but I was sweating. So much so that the stash of 5 pound notes some guy threw on me was actually sticking to my skin! Boobs, arms, stomach. (Finally, my sweat serves me well! :D ) I looked like I'd just been tarred and feathered with money!  After several customers followed suit, the stage was awash with bills. It made dancing very slippery. The house staff quickly dispatched what I like to call the "tipper picker upper," a boy whose sole job is to sweep the tips off the stage all night. I was happy to have the stage cleared, but not too thrilled about him jamming the broom into my bare feet!

Two singers and four songs later, I wanted to get off. I was bored, and so was the audience.  My continued presence was completely unnecessary. Just like the baladi dancers I used to poke fun of, I kept flashing glances at my manager across the room, pointing my finger at my wrist to signal that my time was up. He signaled back that no, it wasn't. Gaaah this was torture!!! I hate being on stage when people don't want me there. Or when I'm not enjoying myself.

I turned to face the band. I don't know why, but I felt the need to look at them, to make eye contact. Maybe I was looking for approval. If I couldn't get it from the people in front of me, I wanted it from the people behind me.

I noticed the keyboard player playing with a cigarette in one hand. I noticed the unshaven faces and the un-tucked shirts. Then I looked at the drummer.  He was toothless and triangular and wore his pants up to his chest. He caught me looking at him, and subsequently took one hand off the tabla to position it for a nice lazy shoulder shimmy. Along with a big, gaping smile. That was  my approval. ;)

And then, this smallish young man jumped up on stage.  He spread his legs, leaned back, and started doing the wildest shoulder shimmy I'd seen in a while.  He kept leaning further back until he had no choice but to drop on his knees and lean back some more until his head was touching the floor. The crowd went wild. Show off! So that's what these people want to see.  Ok, I can do that, but... but... I'm not sure I should? I'm still a girl and still in Egypt. I was confused. So I just stood there and watched, cheering him on. As if he hadn't already made his point, he got up and started doing all sorts of exaggerated figures 8's and circles. Not dancing with me, but AT me.

After he wore himself out, another guy got up to dance with me. His name was Khaled, and he was extremely flamboyant. He was short, flabby and hunched over, had black bushy eyebrows, and was very smiley. Like the previous dude, he started off with super fast shoulder shimmies punctuated with occasional dips to the floor. He began to twirl me around, ballroom style, and even attempted a split. Which was more funny than impressive, as he extended one leg forward while kneeling on the other. An amused customer showered him with 5 pound notes.

By this time, I really wanted out. I had been dancing for almost an hour and had just been showed up by those two guys.  No amount of pointing to my wrist was going to make my manager sympathize with me, so I just took a bow and walked off.  I snuck back into the bathroom, and when I looked in the mirror, I saw that I was covered in money! As I peeled the soggy  bills off my wet skin one by one, I noticed that they had a glossy finishing. They were fake! All gazillion of them! That surely resolved the issue of whether I was getting tips!

(Point of clarification: Most cabarets have adopted this system of fake fives. What happens is that the house sells a stash of fake fives, let's say a thousand of them, for 50 EGP pounds.  This is a win-win situation in that the venue makes money, and the customers get to show off how "rich" they are. The artists obviously benefit nothing from this. It is really absurd, but it's a sign of the bleak economic times we're living in.)

If I got nothing else out of this experience, I realized that working the cabaret scene is definitely not for me.  It requires much less effort and enthusiasm than I always put into my performances. And besides, my look is all wrong. I'm too tall, thin, white, and foreign.  I was happy to have had this experience though because I had been longing for it for some time. 

I was also happy to have just been there.  The music was outstanding, and the group of gay Egyptian men who kept dancing even after I finished made my jaw drop.  There was one guy in particular who was exceptionally captivating. He was wearing a t-shirt that said "I am hip-hop."  Between his ultra slinky energy and flabby shimmies, I couldn't take my eyes off of him. But what the heck, there's no stigma against staring in Egypt (it's pretty much a national sport here). In fact I sat in the back of the cabaret until it closed just so that I could observe him all night.  

Now, I've seen a LOT of belly dance. But I can honestly say I've never seen anyone dance the way he did. Definitely not any of the contemporary Egyptian or foreign dancers, not any of the male dancers, and not any of the legendary Egyptian dancers. Watching his smooth traveling undulations and wrist curls simultaneously impressed me and made me jealous. That's something I've never felt towards any dancer before. That's something I've never felt towards any MAN before!

I decided that I must get this man's phone number. It's becoming increasingly rare that I watch a dancer and want to take class with him or her, but  I can't wait to share a studio with this person. He's obviously not trained, but that's what I like about him. He dances from within. I want to do a little "follow the bouncing butt" session and just soak up all his feeling. If I can. 

The night ended at 5am, after a cacophony of popping balloons (they almost sounded like tabla "taks " while the band was playing, and made for some great accents!). The management had decorated the club with multi-colored balloons hanging from coiled up Christmas lights; eventually the balloons were unable to stand the heat of the bulbs and burst, one after another.

Only in Egypt. :)


  1. I love it. You get to see another side of life in Egypt that you won't see in Hotels and weddings. All a part of soaking in life experiences. Nice :)

  2. This is awesome! I wonder how this guy was dancing.

  3. I love to read your postings. Luna , here in Egypt we never expect belly dancers to have the ability to do something like this.

    The first time i noticed you was in ELTET channel , and i was surprised to know that your are american , I saw a lot of foreign dancers before but non on them were good as you are .

    every thing you said in this post was very true , but be careful next time as the kind of audience in these places have the impression that belly dancers are prostitutes , and dance for money only.

    you are a very cultured person , and that is amazing to see someone like you have the talent of very very professional dancing and the ability to notice the life and kinds of people around you.

    I hope you never leave Egypt , you deserve to be the TOP dancer of Egypt nowadays because really you are better than all ...

    I hope we always communicate with each other...

    love you,

  4. Hi Luna! I am so lucky to click on this website. You are amazingly intellectual and beautiful! I am coming to Cairo in June. Is it possible to meet you there? I am a PhD and I would like to know more about belly dance.

  5. The times I have really injured myself onstage have been in front of "dead" audiences - it's as though I work harder and harder to try and wake them up, and sprain my ankle/wrench my back/cut my feet in the process. With a great audience, sometimes just crooking a finger or tilting the head is enough to engage them. I'm glad you had the sense to call it quits when you did and focus on something exciting and meaningful for you.