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Interview with Shira: Travelling in Egypt and Breaking the “Bellydance Bubble”

ShiraI recently had the opportunity and privilege to interview Shira, of fame. Shira is a dancer and instructor, but is perhaps best known as a writer, researcher and lecturer on a broad variety of topics related to Middle Eastern dance and culture. Her website,,  is the most linked to bellydance site on the web, and one of the first resources many new dancers find when then begin their dance journey. 

Shira is such a wealth of knowledge and experience, it was hard to pick a topic- we could cover so many things! However, this time we talked about travelling to Egypt as a student of bellydance and Egyptian culture.

Mahin: What is your experience travelling in Egypt? When did you first go there and how many times have you returned?   

Shira: The first time I went to Egypt was in 1999.  Morocco was going for the purpose of doing some of her customary business in Egypt, and invited a few of us to come along as companions to hang out. I have been there 11 times so far.

11 times – that’s a lot!  What keeps you going back?

What keeps me going back is a mixture of things:

  1.  I do enjoy returning to places I already know and like, to re-experience the things I liked on previous visits.
  2.  Egypt is ever-changing.  Every time I’ve gone, I’ve had new-to-me experiences.  For example, last February was my first time experiencing the moulid for Hassan in Cairo.
  3.  Because I’ve been there so many times, I’ve started getting to know people who live there, and I love reconnecting with them.
  4.  It’s always a pleasure seeing live music & dance shows in Egypt

Thinking of your first visit to Egypt, what were your expectations and assumptions before you went and how was the reality different?

Probably the biggest thing is that I expected a third world country, and Cairo showed me that the major cities in Egypt are actually very cosmopolitan.

What do you think are some of the misconceptions the bellydance community at large has about the dance scene in Egypt? Or about travelling as a foreigner and dance tourist there?

One issue is that belly dancers who go there often go in a bubble.  They go in a dancer-led tour, to a dance event such as the ones sponsored by Nile Group, and aside from a couple of outside typical-tourist excursions they don’t really get to see what Egypt is like.

Dancers often take a lot of stereotypes with them, such as thinking Egypt is all about goddesses, pyramids, camels, and veiled women.

Going outside the “dance tourist bubble”, what did you see and experience that a dancer in one of the tour groups might miss?

Going to the Oum Kalhtoum museum. Hanging out outside the Victoria hotel (which is in a baladi part of town) and people-watching. Going to the Gayer Anderson museum. Going to the zar music show at the Makan theater.

Would you say the western bellydancer zeitgeist in general has a romanticized notion of Egyptian dance and culture, that does not allow for it to change and evolve as cultures inevitably do?

I do think Western belly dancers romanticize Egypt, especially those who have not been there at all, and also those who have confined their visits to the big festivals.  For some, it’s all about seeing the famous dancers perform, taking workshops taught by them, and shopping for costumes.  These are all good things to do, and I still enjoy doing them.  I just like to break out of that mold and explore the many other fascinating things Egypt has to offer.

And you’re right, Egypt’s culture does change and evolve, as cultures will do.

For someone visiting Egypt for the first time, perhaps travelling internationally for the first time, I imagine these tour groups are helpful in navigating an unfamiliar place.

That’s very true.  A lot depends on which tour leader you choose.  Some simply take you to a big festival, where you can take workshops from local dancers, and maybe they include a one-day tour to see the pyramids and Old Cairo.  Others might skip the festival, and take you to see more of Cairo culture in action.

A dancer can repeatedly go to the festivals without ever experiencing the other many fabulous things there are to do in Cairo.

How has the dance scene in particular changed for you from your first visit to your most recent one, regarding the quality and quantity of performances and venues you could go to?

I think the dance scene in nightclubs may be starting to pick up a little.  When I went in 1999, I saw Fifi Abdo and Dina do nightclub shows.  Fifi no longer dances in the clubs, but Dina is still at the Semiramis one day a week.  Some new Egyptian dancers have arisen in recent years.  Sahar dances on one of the boats, and Camelia Masreya recently started dancing again.  I’m hoping to see the Egyptian dancer Aziza on a future trip. Soraya Zaied, originally from Brazil but has worked in Egypt many years, dances several nights a week now.

Are the performers now just ask likely to have live music for their shows as when you first went in 1999? Has the size of the ensembles changed in general?

All of the performers I just mentioned work with live bands.  I don’t have a clear memory of how big the bands were, I just remember feeling as though the music was very rich and satisfying.  Soraya’s current band, in particular, is top-notch.

When you leave the 4 and 5 star clubs featuring big names like Dina, and the Nile show boats,  and go to the smaller venues, what kind of show would you see?

One big thing that differentiates the venues is “type of audience”.  The 5-star clubs in hotels tend to cater to Gulf Arabs as their primary audiences.  This is also true of some of the higher-end nightclubs such as Lucy’s Parisiana and El Layl.

Another type is the boats, which tend to cater to tourists from places other than the Gulf – Americans, Europeans, Asians, etc.  These would include boats such as the Pharaoh where many of the foreign dancers living in Cairo work.

And then there are the shaabi clubs, which are frequented by middle-class Egyptians.

The type of audience determines the type of dancer hired and the type of show.

Some of the boats hire their own bands, and the dancers have to perform with whoever the boat hired, instead of bringing their own orchestras. Whereas dancers in the high-end clubs tend to bring their own bands, in the shaabi clubs, with Egyptian audiences, some feature performers, others are just discos.  All of them really make you feel like you’re in a party atmosphere, which makes them different from the boats.

Of the shaabi clubs that feature performers, I’ve seen a format in which the club provides the band, and throughout the evening a series of different dancers take turns coming in, doing a set, and leaving.  None of them are internationally known names, but I’ve seen some very good dancing there. Some are quite playful, others look a bit bored as if they’re phoning it in.  The playful ones can really engage the audience.

The audiences in these watch-the-perforrmers shaabi clubs tend to be almost entirely men.  It’s not the sort of place a decent woman would allow herself to be seen, due to all the alcohol being served.  A tourist wanting to go to one usually needs to be accompanied by a man.  Otherwise, a taxi driver might refuse to take her to such a disreputable place that’s not fit for a woman.

Over the years of your travels, what influences of western music and dance (if any)  have you seen show up in Egyptian music and dance as done there?

The big festivals (such as Ahlan wa Sahlan) will hire western dancers to teach if they bring along a large tour group.  So, you might see tribal fusion taught at one of these big festivals. I have seen very little Western influence in the shows I’ve gone to.  Dancers are still mostly using the big-orchestra type of music.  

But, social dancing at weddings can be a different matter.  In 2008, when I was a guest at a wedding in Egypt in which I knew the family, the DJ played the macarena and everybody started doing it.  So of course I joined in, and soon I realized the Egyptian teen-agers were scrutinizing my technique, trying to dissect what I was doing so they could copy it!

There’s a new dance style that has emerged in Egypt over  the last decade, known as mahragan, and that shows very clear influences from hiphop.

As a woman travelling in Egypt, how were you treated in public and business transactions – for example in stores, restaurants and hotels?

I’ve always felt as though the locals (including men) treated me very courteously. There’d be an occasional annoying person, but that’s true here in the U.S. as well.

That said, there are certain things that can garner higher respect.  For example, I *never* tell Egyptians that I am a belly dancer.  It’s obvious, of course, to costume vendors.  But I don’t tell shopkeepers, restaurant owners, or hotel staff.  I tell them that I work in the computer industry, which is true.

I also dress fairly conservatively – tunics that are long enough to fully cover my hips, sleeve lengths no shorter than elbow length, and high necklines.  Pants that fit loosely (such as yoga pants) rather than leggings.

Overall, what has been your most surprising experience (positive or negative) in your travels to Egypt?

Surprising?  Hmmm.  I need to think about that a moment. I think it is the hospitality that they show to outsiders. So many times, I have encountered locals who were kind, welcoming, eager to show me their culture.

That is good to hear in today’s world! As a final thought, what advice would you give to dancers travelling to Egypt for the first time, given your experience there?

Buy a guide book before you, and read a little about the history of each place you plan to visit. Or, look up the places on the Internet to read about them before you go.  For example, if you will be staying at the Mena House hotel, read about its history.  If you will be going to Khan al-Khalili for shopping, read about its history.  Knowing some of this will make your visit much richer.

Did you have any final thoughts to add?

Another dancer who was with us in one of the groups I went to Egypt once said this:  she was told by a friend that regardless of your preferred dance style, it’s important to go to Egypt at least once.  That it will change you.  I agree with that comment.  I think it’s hard to say exactly how it changed me, but I know it did.

Thank you so much for your time – and your dedication to dance through your work on your incredible website!

You’re welcome!  I enjoyed our chat!


October 6, 2016 0 Comments

Back In The Day – What It Was Like To Be A Belly Dance Star in the 60’s & 70’s

Are you ready for a trip in the bellydance time machine? We’re turning back the clock about 40 years to a time when glamorous bellydancers graced the stages of big clubs almost every night of the week. I chatted with Roxxanne Shelaby, a California-based bellydancer and daughter of Lou Shelaby, owner of some of the most well-known Arabic clubs of the west coast.

Mahin: Tell us about yourself…

Roxxanne: My name is Roxxanne Shelaby and I am of Lebanese and Brazilian heritage. I grew up in my father, Lou Shelaby’s Arabic nightclubs, The Fez and the Cascades in Southern California. I have been belly dancing since I could stand up, started performing at the age of 5 and began my professional dance career at 15 at the request of Farida Fahmy principal dancer of the Reda Troupe from Egypt. I teach and perform nationally and internationally as well as produce Belly Dance events.

M: How is it that you came to know Farida Fahmy at 15?
R: She was living here and going to UCLA with Sahra C. Kent who is my closest friend. I met her through Sahra. They were planning to bring the Reda Troupe to perform at an Arabic festival in LA but the visas didn’t go through. So at the last minute Farida trained Sahra, Kamala and Latifa of Arabesque Dance Co. and several other dancers to perform in their place. I was just hanging out with Sahra and went with her to one of her rehearsals and they happened to need one more dancer so I was standing in for the “mystery dancer” since they didn’t know who they would choose yet. Farida liked my dancing and asked me to do it.

Roxxanne dancing with Arabesque Dance Company including Sahra C. Kent and Kamala in the late 80's.

Roxxanne dancing with Arabesque Dance Company including Sahra C. Kent and Kamala in the late 80’s.

M: What a lucky break! Did you perform in your father’s clubs?
R: It really was a lucky break!
Unfortunately not, I was too young. My dad sold The Fez when I was one and the Cascades when I was 14 but I did social dance a lot at the Cascades and we had a one- hour folkloric show choreographed by Sahra which I memorized because I saw it every night and would go home and perform in my bedroom.

M: I’ve worked for many Middle Eastern family owned restaurants and though I was usually treated very well, I was also aware that they did not see performing as a bellydancer to be fit for their own daughters. Can you comment on this?
R:  <laughs> You’ve opened a can of worms! I will do my best to be PC.

M: It’s an issue many dancers don’t understand! I know I didn’t really process that and make peace with it for several years.
R: Middle Easterners have a tenuous relationship with belly dancing (and in many cases with performing in general). They love the dance and want to have a dancer at every possible occasion. However, they would not want their own women to be professional dancers and in many cases for their sons to be musicians or performers. Artist are not considered as highly as other professions. And in a traditional culture where women are not supposed to draw attention to themselves in public, being a professional dancer on stage-drawing attention to themselves and wearing a provocative costume goes against their conventional ways.
My dad used to tell a story that illustrates this well. When he was in middle school in Boston, he and his sister performed in the school talent show. He played the violin and she sang a popular song at the time, something like “Dancing Cheek to Cheek”. When they got home, they both got a spanking from my grandfather – my aunt because she had the audacity to stand up in front of people and draw attention to herself and my dad because he was the male and supposed to protect his sister’s reputation. In this case we are not even talking about belly dancing but 2 teenagers performing a harmless song for their friends. But it shows how many feel about performers in general.
Also, here in the west we have dancers who are highly educated women. In the old country, they are not used to and they don’t understand how a woman like myself for example, who is an elementary school administrator can also be a dancer and loves to dance, and dances for many reasons beyond looking sexy or getting attention.

M: I recall this being a very confusing feeling when I first started out. I thought that maybe they really did look down on me even though they were very kind and almost always had me sit down to dinner with them.
R: They don’t hold women who are not of their culture by the same norms, so its ok for you to dance. They probably love your dancing and love you…and might not necessarily want you to marry their son
M:  <laughs>

R: My dad was the only musician/club owner who tried to bridge this gap. He taught the Arab musicians and patrons that these women (dancers) were good women, they dance because they love our music and culture and they are intelligent and often very well educated.
M: Historically speaking, what years were your family’s clubs open?
R: The Fez was owned by my family from 1959-1970 then sold but remained open until 1979. My dad bought The Cascades in 1976 and it was open until 1985.

M: Being a working dancer back then was so much different than now, it would seem. Having seen both first hand, what would say is the difference in the dancer’s importance in the club’s entertainment overall?
R: At my dad’s clubs the dancer was the star. She worked in one place and had a following. The people came to see her! She only danced to live music and especially at The Fez, danced for a mixed audience of Arabs and Westerners. This shaped their dance. They learned to dance in a more authentic way because they were dancing for the people of the culture.
They made their own costumes and learned by watching other dancers.There were really no teachers then and certainly no classes.

Advertisement for The Fez

Advertisement for The Fez

M: Were the stars of the clubs in that era doing this as a 2nd job or as their primary source of income?
R: From what I understand the majority of them only danced. They were dancing 6 nights a week usually.

M: How many shows per night and how long were their sets typically?
R The Fez had an upstairs room and a downstairs. Downstairs was a formal dining area with a stage and upstairs, “Sinbad’s Cave” was a more intimate space with low tables and cushions on the floor and the dancer danced in a smaller space closer to the audience. They danced at least once in each and possibly more depending on the crowd. There was also more than one dancer at the club. Their set was 45 minutes – can you believe that?
My dad believed in having different styles of dancers and he would rotate them every few months so the audience wouldn’t burn out.

M: Did the dancers venture into the crowds near the end of their set as is common these days?
R: At my dad’s clubs the dancers stayed on stage and were not tipped on the body. Money was showered over them or made into a necklace of dollar bills.

M: Yes, I’ve seen money necklaces – what a great way to be tipped!
R: Yes, I remember customers at the Cascades spending all night with the stapler and some dollar bills (or 10’s and 20’s) coming up with interesting ways to put the bills together for the dancers!

M: How did the dancers’ pay rates compare to current rates? Have you ever done a conversion with adjustment for the years?
R: Thats a great question. I would need to look into it – I don’t want to miscalculate. I can find out!

M: Do you know what the dancers were paid then?
R: Antoinette who was one of the first dancers said she started off at $5 a night – but that was around 1960.
(She looked up the conversion during our interview)
$5 in 1960 is equal to $35 now.

M: As many dancers who have worked with a band know, dealing with tips can get dicey. Do you know what was customary back in the day as far as sharing or dividing the tips with the band and dancers?
R: Yes, the tipping practice was that all the tips were put together and 1/3 went to the dancers 1/3 to the musicians and 1/3 to the house.

M: About the musicians – how large was the band and were they of mixed backgrounds?
R: The band was usually 5 members or so in the old days (60’s to mid 70’s). There was an oud, a drum, a violin, a singer and maybe qanoun or tambourine. They were mostly of Syrian or Lebanese heritage and some Arabs of Armenian descent and maybe a Persian or two. Then it started to change there would be a keyboard and maybe an electric guitar and there was an influx of Egyptian musicians.

M: When I interviewed Helena Vlahos a few years ago, she talked about the mixed bands that really were at the root of what ultimately became “American Cabaret” style.
R: Yes but that was in other clubs. My dad tried as much as possible to keep everything authentically Arabic. There may have been an Armenian, Turk or Persian, but they were playing Arabic music for the most part.
My research on The Fez has shown that the dancers there did not do the style of dance we now refer to as American Cabaret. They did play finger cymbals and dance with a veil but they each had their own style and as I mentioned before, they were dancing to Arabic music for Arabs. I’m told that this style of American Cabaret came here from the East Coast.

M: Did the dancers’ shows have any format musically or stylistically?
R: Yes! They entered wrapped in a veil, did a fast number then a taxim followed by something fast then a drum solo and then an exit. I’m teaching a Fez routine workshop!

M: That sounds like fun! Wish I could take that one! Did the dancers every use folkloric styles or props in their shows?
R: Yes, they did. Not so much in The Fez days, but in the Cascades days folklore became popular. They would include Dabke, Assaya, and some Khaleeji among others. We would feature dancers such as a Circassian man who would do a knife dance and an Egyptian woman named Alia who would do a Shamadan dance.

M: I’m imagining all this as you describe it and I feel like I’m being transported to a very exciting place and time to be a dancer! I wish I had a time machine!
R: You and me both! Thank you because this is exactly what my mission is with this documentary – to not only preserve a piece of our history but also to transport dancers, and other aficionados, back to one of the greatest times and places to be a belly dancer!

M: It just occured to me …being a “bellydance star” back then was to be famous among the club patrons and ethnic communities. Now it is to be famous amongst other dancers!
R: You said it!

M: That’s both a good and a bad thing. We’ve become an insular community in some ways.
R: Exactly! So many dancers today have not only NEVER danced to live music but they have never danced to Arabic music. I think all the styles of belly dance that have emerged are great, but we have to know what our roots are – our tradition – then we can go on and take creative license and fuse the dance with other elements.

M: Very true. I feel very fortunate that I danced weekly for years with Arab-born musicians. It was a HUGE part of my education as a dancer. Sadly, my students don’t have that experience available to them where I am based here in Phoenix..
R: IMHO you have not really danced until you have danced for an Arab audience!

M: I agree. That is a completely different experience than an American audience. and a world apart from an audience of other dancers!
R: Yes, and only dancing for other dancers has taken the dance in a completely different direction as well. As a promoter I took on the responsibility of promoting showcases with live music only so that dancers would be able to have that experience. Sadly many of them refused because they don’t know how to dance to live music and wanted to cling to the safety of their recorded music and memorized routines.

M: That is is so discouraging. On the flip side, sometimes when a dancer who IS able to and would love to dance to live music comes to a gig, the owner wants them to dance between the band’s sets to recorded music so the band can have a break. The only thing breaking in that scenario is my heart!
R: Ditto – but the only way that is going to change is by showing them we are good at dancing to live music and that the crowd wants to see that.

The dancer who the downward vertical hip figure 8 movement "maya" is named after.

The dancer who the downward vertical hip figure 8 movement “maya” is named after.

M: So many of our prominent master teachers began their performing careers in those days. Who were some of the The Fez’s stars we would recognize?
R: Aisha Ali, Feiruz Aram, Marta Shill, Helena Vlahos, Janaeni Rathor (Ansuya’s mother) and Tonya Chainis. Jamila Salimpour also appeared at The Fez and had a long standing friendship with my dad.

M: That’s quite a legacy. Did you interview all these women for The Fez documentary?
R: Yes I did!! And there are a few others that are not known by the dance community today but are legendary and are also part of the documentary. One is a dancer by the name of Maya Medwar . She passed on and is not in the documentary, but I did meet her. She is the dancer that Jamila Salimpour named the vertical figure 8 “Maya” after.

M: Ah- thats why her name sounds familiar. I have heard that story before. Im sure their interviews are fascinating – I can’t wait to see them! What’s the status of the project currently and when can we hope to see it?
R: It is almost finished! It will premiere at Cairo ShimmyQuake in Los Angeles on June 7, 2015. Then it will be available for purchase and download.

M: I predict a lot of dancers having a movie night once it is released! It will be quite a history lesson.
R: Yes I hope so! You know we are currently doing a Kickstarter to pay for the documentary. One of the prizes for donating is a movie night with me for a Q & A session in person or via Skype. There will also be private screenings as well.
M:  Thank you so much for the opportunity to get a window into this part of our history. I am so looking forward to the film!

February 12, 2015 7 Comments

Interview with “Improv Roulette” Founder, Elizabeth Joy

One of the most fun, creative and inspiring things I did in 2014 was to participate in an Improv Roulette event. It really was unlike any other dance experience I’d ever had. You can read all about it here, including my combat veil to “Living Dead Girl”!  Yes, I know you’re shocked!!

Naturally, I wanted to find out more about the person who brought this concept to the bellydance community – so I tracked her down for you.

Improv RouletteMahin: Tell us about yourself. How did you get into dance and what you’re doing now?

Elizabeth Joy: Hello, I’m Elizabeth Joy. I live in Providence, RI. I’m an active member in the Providence and Boston performance communities. I’ve been studying various facets of belly dance since 2007. I am currently primarily studying with Neylan of Providence and Aurel of Boston.

M: What styles) of bellydance do you primarily perform and study?

EJ: My mother is Lebanese and my father is a jazz musician. Music and the arts were always important in my family. Because of my mother’s heritage, I was introduced to the sounds of Middle Eastern music at a young age, but it wasn’t until 2007 that I finally signed up for a class.

I would consider myself a lifelong student. Every year, I can feel myself progressing as a dancer… and realizing how much more I have to learn. I am currently studying Gypsy Caravan style Tribal with Neylan as well as a myriad of Middle Eastern studies with Aurel, although her current focus is modern Egyptian with an emphasis on how it was influenced by classical dance training.

M: As some DBQ readers may recall, I came across your “Imrov Roulette ” after reading about it on Sophia Ravenna’s blog.  Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to actually attend one in Tucson.  For our readers who aren’t familiar with Improv Roulette, can you describe the experience for us?

EJ: Yes. Improv Roulette is a multidisciplinary collaborative performance experiment. Performers of any type get together quarterly to create spur-of-the-moment reactive performances. They use the environment, as well as other performers to create these pieces. Improv Roulette sets up a safe, casual setting that allows performers to creatively explore, without the pressure of performing a polished piece.

Improv Roulette is for any type of performer. Belly dancers, singers, guitarists, bagpipe players, puppeteers, acrobats, etc are all welcome. It is for the seasoned performer as well as the budding student.

M: One of the things I really enjoyed about the experience was there was no way to prepare. You had to just let go and approach it as play – which is something we often lose sight of when we train as dancers, in my opinion.

EJ: Exactly. I know that I am very much a person that wants to feel prepared…. but I feel a great sense of freedom in letting go and just experiencing and reacting to the music and the “audience” and my performance partner.

It lets in a sense of freedom and honesty and as you said, play. I once took a choreography workshop (ironically) with Cera Byer and she made a great comment about how we don’t play enough. We jump right into choreographing without giving ourselves and chance to explore first.

It takes some guts to put yourself out there as a plaything of fate, but ultimately I believe that it is worth it.

M: In your experience what has been dancers’ first reactions to the idea of participating in Improv Roulette?

EJ: It depends on the dancer! Some dancers jump at the opportunity to meet and collaborate with performers that they’ve never worked with before. Other dancers are understandably timid with the idea of getting up and performing without the ability to prepare. I acknowledge the act of courage that it takes to participate in this experiment, even with it being a safe and welcoming environment. It takes some guts to put yourself out there as a plaything of fate, but ultimately I believe that it is worth it. I would be willing to bet that the once hesitant participants would agree with my statement.

M: I think one of the really important factors in the event’s structure is that everyone who comes in dances. There is no audience other than fellow participants, so we all walk the same tightrope in turn.

EJ: Yes. That is a very important element. I like to joke, “No spectators, only victims.” Everyone, regardless of their improv experience, will being trying something new at Improv Roulette. Everyone will be challenged and everyone will be supported by the performance community in attendance.

M: The online comments preceding our Improv Roulette event were full of “I have to get better at improv first” kind of statements. I agree, just showing up is an act of bravery to some degree. When it comes to creative endeavors, I think it it scares you a little (and you can’t foresee any serious harm) you should definitely do it. This was such a great way to push personal boundaries artistically – and really liberating.

EJ: Well the best way to get better at something is to do it! Because Improv Roulette is not a formal performance, it really is a good place to get improv practice in. I agree that if something pushes you out of your comfort level, it’s probably worth trying. I am primarily an improv performer in my solo work, and yet I still feel a great sense of freedom in the Improv Roulette experiment. It takes me out of my general process of working on a piece and allows my body and mind to just react.

M: Agreed!  How did the idea for Improv Roulette come to you?

EJ: Well it really came out of me experimenting by myself in my living room. I enjoyed exploring my movement to unexpected songs. But I was missing the element of interacting with others. This is, I think, and important skill that performers need to practice. Knowing how to instinctively play off of the audience or interact with a collaborator really brings a technically accomplished performer into the realm of entertainer.

M: Bellydance is definitely a style where being able to “entertain” as well as perform is so important!

EJ: I agree. I think it’s Nadira Jamal who wrote a wonderful article about having both hard skills and soft skills.

M: It seems that Improv Roulette has escaped your living room and is spreading! Where has this concept gone so far and where do you see it headed in the future?

EJ: Yes! I wanted it to be as inclusive as it could be so that very first Improv Roulette was not in my living room! I rented out a beautiful yoga studio just north of Providence and invited all of the performers in every discipline that I knew. And only six people showed up. Just as you experienced, people were a little intimidated by the idea. But as the participants shared their experiences, interest grew. And it’s still growing. In 2014 I began working with other community builders to start regional Improv Roulette chapters across the country. Right now we have three official chapters with a few more in the works. I am specifically working with organizers that are active members of their current performance communities and really believe in the concepts of collaboration, community, and creative spontaneity. I

M: Do you have any non-dance practices that you routinely use to feed your creativity?

EJ: I do! I have a career in textile design and a background in fiber arts. I am often creating sewing/dyeing/fabric manipulation projects both for dance costuming as well as other end uses. I also have a love for gardening and when I’m not in rehearsal, I’m usually digging in the dirt… that is when it’s not covered in two feet of snow.

M: Did you have any closing thoughts for our readers?

EJ: Well first and foremost, that you for the opportunity to be interviewed. Your blog and DBQ are always informative and enjoyable. I also appreciate the chance to tell more people about Improv Roulette. I really believe in the power of collaborative experimentation and the power in taking creative risks. I believe that Improv Roulette gives performers the opportunity to discover something about themselves and their work. It really is work, constantly growing, so we’d might as well feel the elation that comes with taking risks and discovering something about ourselves in the process.

For  more information on Improv Roulette please visit here.


What do you think? Does the idea thrill you? Scare you? Would you do it? Tell us in the comments below…

January 29, 2015 4 Comments

Interview with Egypt’s “Ambassador of Rhythm”, Hossam Ramzy

Hossam Ramzy






If you told me back in 1996, when I was a baby bellydancer, that  I’d one day  speak with the person that recorded the music I performed my very first student solo to, I’d have said you were crazy! But it happened – and here it is. An interview with the one and only, Hossam Ramzy! 

Mahin: The “Rules for Dancing” article (on your site) provides solid examples of connections between movement and music for dancers. How much room do you feel there is for a dancer to have artistic freedom of expression while staying within the Raqs Sharqi style?

Hossam Ramzy: Yes, I feel it is vital for the dancers as well as the musicians to understand one policy for dancing and making music so that both sides of the dance, the music maker and movement maker, can understand and apply the same principles.  When they feel like departing from these rules, at least they will know that they are and they will also know when and how to return back.

A dancer has as much artistic freedom of expression as she will ever need, providing she is interpreting the music. Raqs Sharqi is the dance of the cabarets in Egypt and this is where it started. The only thing a dancer is required to do is to translate the music perfectly and in her own individual style.

Moving while not interpreting the music is not ”dancing” in Egypt.

Mahin: For the dancers that do play sagat in performance (recorded or live) what guidelines or “rules” would you give to compliment the music effectively?

Hossam Ramzy: That would be to become experienced in using the sagat and to be perfect with the rhythm of the song. Another very important point is.. DO NOT OVER CROWD THE MUSIC….. play them sparingly and make them a delightful feature rather than an overbearing noise.

Mahin: In addition to your classic and traditional music, you’ve done a lot of collaborations and pieces that fuse your native style with other music traditions such as on Rock the Tabla. What are your thoughts on the fusion of Raqs Sharqi with other dances?

Hossam Ramzy: Raqs Sharqi is a fusion dance. It has been colored by every style possible. Ballet, Indian (northern, classical, folklore & even Rajasthan) , Persian, Ottoman, Greek & Russian (as brought by the Reda Troupe). It is called Raqs Sharqi as the French named this new fusion in the night clubs of Cairo as Le Danse Orientale. We are used to fusion… we have had nothing but fusion. But what is our true dance of Egypt that is being fused with these styles? It is the BALADI. This is the traditional dance of Egypt. This is what the women dance and this is what we know it by.

My thoughts are if you are going to fuse two genres of music together, you have to study both, learn both well and then amalgamate parts from both sides that compliment one another… not any haphazard throwing any two styles and saying this is fusion. Just because one may dress in a Sari and dance the Mambo… it does not qualify as fusion.

Mahin: The bellydance world has it’s eyes on Egypt’s “Al Rakesa” competition lately. As an Egyptian, a musician and someone who works with dancers all over the world, do you feel that it is “fair” (for lack of a better word) to have foreign dancers competing against Egyptian dancers in this setting? Why or why not?

Hossam Ramzy: Does it ???? I never heard of it.

I don’t believe in competitions in dance and I personally think it is a money making ploy to get the dancers to compete against each other, earn a cheap and useless title and go around believing they are “it”. Which they are not. I never pay any attention to this kind of stuff and I have no respect for it. It is a money making ploy. No competition in dance. Thank you.

Who was the winner of two years ago… no one remembers or gives a damn. Same thing will be with the next one who wins it. Plus, who is judging them? Some of the judges I have seen in some competitions dance like a 3 legged lame duck. Let’s cut this BS and let’s get down to true Egyptian dance.

Mahin: In researching to prepare for this interview, I came across (what I believe to be) your Scientology website. Did a change in your personal philosophy/religion change your approach to your music or your work in broader sense?

Hossam Ramzy: Yes, this is my page there. You may be able to say that, but I did not change my religion. Scientology is a religious philosophy that enhanced my understanding of life. I believe in all religions and I study most of them too.

Mahin: As “Egypt’s Ambassador of Rhythm” what is the most important value in your mission to share your music and culture with the rest of the world?

Hossam Ramzy: I wish to help others understand the music, the rhythms and the dance. I want them to be able to use and gain the benefits I gain from my art form too.

Mahin: In these times, it would seem that Raqs Sharqi is an art in exile from it’s native land. Do you have any thoughts to share on this dance’s place in Egyptian society in the past and looking toward it’s future?

Hossam Ramzy: I think we have a different understanding of what the dance of Egypt is…. Raqs Sharqi is not the dance of Egypt. Baladi is.

Mahin: What on the musical horizon of the Arab world has your attention right now?

Hossam Ramzy: Nothing whatsoever. They are mostly competing to copy MTV stuff. The blind is leading the blind and they are wasting their time and culture. We have some Egyptian pop singers inviting black American rappers to sing with them… what the ^&%$£? What a load of rubbish.

Mahin: And in the world music scene in general?

Hossam Ramzy: For those who are not copying the MTV gang, there is so much soul and there is so much heart in some of the great and magnificent artists such as Miss Annoushka Shankar.  Have you heard her last two albums,  “Traveller” and  “Traces of You”. Please listen and write to tell me your feeling on that.

Mahin: You have collaborated with so many interesting artists of differing backgrounds. If you could work with one artist that is no longer living, who would it be?

Hossam Ramzy: Miles Davis, RIP. I was invited by him to one of his concerts and he said “We should jam soon, Hossam”, but we both missed that chance.

Mahin: If you could collaborate with any living artist on your dream project, who would you choose?

Miss. Anoushka Shankar.

Mahin: Life is full of crossroads. If you had taken the other road away from music as your father wished, what do you think you would have done with your life?

Hossam Ramzy: It would have been wasted on material stuff, but I think I am an amazing chef and probably would have opened my own restaurant – and played music in it! ha ha ha

October 24, 2014 1 Comment

“She’s Got Hips” Podcast Episode #6

Part II of our interview with “The Costume Fairy” aka professional costumer, Gail Wolfenden-Steib on prepping new costumes for long, trouble-free wear and best costume choices for theatrical stages. 3 ways to increase grace and fluidity in your dance – an answer to a “Daily Bellydance Quickies” subscriber question, events, a look at digital dance life online and more!

SGH Podcast Episode #6

March 13, 2011 0 Comments