Interview with Shira: Travelling in Egypt and Breaking the “Bellydance Bubble”
I recently had the opportunity and privilege to interview Shira, of Shira.net 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, Shira.net, 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:
- I do enjoy returning to places I already know and like, to re-experience the things I liked on previous visits.
- 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.
- Because I’ve been there so many times, I’ve started getting to know people who live there, and I love reconnecting with them.
- 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!