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Journey through Egypt - A Review

First published in Bellydance Oasis, Issue 58, 2017. Slightly edited and updated.

"Journey through Egypt" (JtE) is a course created and taught by Sahra Saeeda. If you've never heard her name, you probably haven't been learning Egyptian style dance for long, though hopefully you'll recognise one of these album covers!

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Sahra danced in Cairo for many years, as well as studying dance ethnography at University in California and working for many years with Farida Fahmy and Mahmoud Reda. Her life's work since then has been researching the dances of Egypt, and it's this extensive knowledge that she shares in her JtE classes.

In October 2016, dedicated dancers converged in Jakarta from all over Asia and as far afield as Russia and France to attend Part 1 of JtE, consisting of 20 hours intensive classroom learning. (Part 2 develops this further; Parts 3 and 4 are experiential and conducted as a tour actually in Egypt.) It's limited to 25 participants and was sold out. On the first morning, Sahra immediately put us at ease by sharing her personal story of how she came to Oriental Dance and the delightful tale about how she met and became close friends with Farida Fahmy; I won't steal her thunder by repeating it here! I am often intimidated by famous or glamorous dancers, but it was impossible to feel intimidated by Sahra. She was warm and engaging, and spoke with the ease and clarity that come from experience in presenting, deep knowledge of the material, and thorough preparation. We were given notes, but Sahra needed none herself.

The key concept was that of six "tables", each containing pieces of a separate part of the big jigsaw puzzle that is Egyptian dance. Table 1 is homestyle dance: the way everyday people dance in their homes and at parties and celebrations. Table 6 is the way the dance is represented in Cairo, on the silver screen or the stage. In between are local professionals, regional troupes, and the Reda and Kowmeyya dance companies. This framework provides the basis for analysing and understanding the dance and movement found throughout all of Egypt as well as across various regions.

We began with a mini-exam; but it wasn't scary! It was simply a self-test so we could assess our knowledge about regions and styles. This formed the basis of the lessons, exploring each of the 8 regions in more detail across the 6 "tables". For each, Sahra started with a discussion of the local peoples, their origin and culture. We looked at their traditional clothing as well as how it's modified for stage: Sahra brought with her many real examples that we were able to touch, feel and try on. With the aid of video footage we then explored the dance, from the homestyle dance moves, posture, cultural significance and more. Most of this was simply done through verbal description, but Sahra also showed video both of homestyle and stage dances, brought costumes for us to examine and wear, and broke it up with mini dance lessons (especially for less familiar styles). A highlight of Day 1 was our recreation of the traditional wedding zaffet, complete with bride and groom and their mothers; the candle-carrying "virgins" flanking the bridal party; musicians and dancers. The afternoon session was dedicated to Nubian culture and dance. This included dressing up in typical dresses and comparing them to stage versions, being taught how to correctly tie our hair and head scarves, and learning the latest moves that Nubian teenagers these days rock out at wedding parties.

For the remaining two days, we geeked out in a similar way on the styles of each of the other regions. Some, like Cairo and the Saiid, are well known to most Oriental dancers. Others, such as Siwa and the Suez region, are little known amongst any but the geekiest of folklore aficionados (such as we dancers from Farrah in Sydney). Even to those of us who've been learning folklore for years, there was so much more richness to be discovered. And it was clear that we barely scratched the surface of Sahra's in-depth knowledge: she could probably have spent a week on any one of the topics that were given a couple of hours in the course. I guess that's why there are another 3 levels to JtE! The whole thing was peppered with delightful anecdotes from her time in Egypt as a dancer and researcher: such as the hilarious tale of Dina's bike shorts and the morality police; or the time when she and Mahmoud Reda crashed a sabou'ah (party celebrating a baby's first week in the world).

Of course it wasn't just sitting in a chair taking notes, though much of it was. Questions were always welcome, and we veered down a couple of little rabbit holes that were of special interest to particular people in the group. There was so much to absorb that despite being plied with snacks and coffee by our host Christine, we were all knackered by the end of each at and grateful for our nearby hotel! My only complaint was that the dance sessions were not as frequent as I would have liked. As dancers, we can find it difficult to sit and learn through listening rather than doing; but it is so important for us to learn all of this information and I wouldn't have wanted to miss any of it. So even though we didn't dance all that much, we will all now understand what we are doing next time we attend a workshop or watch a YouTube clip of a particular style. We have a sense of what is "authentic", where and how to ask the right questions to find valid information, a sense of which "table" a particular dance might represent, and the skill to sort the good from the bad. It was all so fascinating and inspiring, my only problem is deciding which area to focus on in my own work! I can't wait for Sahra's visit next year, when we'll get to go over all of this material, and extend it with JtE2.

The three days of JtE were followed by three days of "Festival el Raqesa", featuring two additional international artists: Nesma from Spain, and Shahrzad from USA/Egypt. Sahra taught just one dance workshop which showed how Cairo-style Oriental dance has developed from the Awalim era, through the Golden Age, and up to the Modern Egyptian style. It was Ralliart, especially in the context of everything we'd learned from her; and showed that she's also a superb dance teacher. Her performances in the Gala Show were full of personality and that authentic Egyptian feeling. The other teachers' workshops, while a massive contrast from each other, were fabulous too; but this article will be too long if I go into them, except to say I'm totally in love with Nesma!

At the Gala Show, we were treated to performances by each of the guest teachers, as well as many of Asia's leading dancers and teachers, who we'd go to know over the preceding days. Because the organiser wanted a strong representation of folklore in the program, Farrah troupe was invited to perform 3 dances as well as solos from each of us. It was an honour and a palpitation-inducing thrill to dance in front of Sahra, but she proved to be a wonderfully supportive and encouraging audience member who just beamed at us approvingly the whole time. I'm not sure if I remembered to breathe!

I'd like to give a huge shout-out to the event sponsor and organiser, Christine Yaven of Bellydance Jakarta. Her organisational skills are remarkable: all the logistics were smooth, she was calm and helpful in the face of every request, and even had time to organise dinners, hairdressers and SIM cards for us. Most of us had never been to Indonesia before, but her excellent planning and communication took away a lot of our stress and concerns. Thankyou Christine for making our stay so enjoyable! We felt warmly welcomed not just by the local dancers but all of the other teachers and dancers from Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. Several of them are hoping to join us in Sydney next year for JtE2. I look forward to developing my friendships with these other dancers who share the desire to dig deeper below the surface of this dance we all love.

Journey Through Egypt is coming to Sydney!

Join us for Journey Through Egypt in Sydney in September / October 2017: For more information see the FaceBook Page.

Level 1 is running TWICE:

Level 2 (6-8 October) is full but we are taking a waiting list in case of cancellations.

Associated events:

Watch Tara's video review of JtE here:


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