With all good things, comes responsibility and sometimes trials of fire. Did Harry Potter have a bunch of tests to pass in order to become worthy of his magic? I think he had nothing on me and many who came to Egypt. Here are three three tests I had to face.
Test #1: Entrepreneurial. Wrestling with the time consuming, complex, and distracting challenge of tracking down new suppliers for Alimah’s Closet, buying, ordering and shipping merchandise was not easy.
Even before my dance course began, on arrival day in Egypt, I trekked to the Khan el Khalili Bazaar in search of “the hip scarf guy”. Thank God, Kanina was with me for this day and many of the other other outings b/c it was a lot of information to take in.
At the hip scarf guy’s store, checking out his line of merchandise, took a lot of time, counting out Assaya (canes), Tahtib (sticks), and hip scarves took quite awhile. Sadly, the progress ground to a halt when I discovered he was unable to take a credit card. Either that or his sons who were in charge that day didn’t know how to work the machine. It was hard to tell what the exact issue was bc the sons did not speak English and I was conversing through a friend of my cab driver. Since the cash card I brought, like a traveler’s check by visa, would not produce cash out of any atm machine I tried, I’d have to leave a deposit, return another day when the owner was in the shop and hope they’d take a credit card then. I began to leave a deposit of $100 not realizing that $100 is equal to $600 pounds, basically. Currency exchange had not yet become part of my brain. Luckily, the folks with me pulled my money back and re-worked my deal for me. oy vey.
SIDE NOTE: Everything takes a ton of time in Egypt and often multiple visits.
SIDE NOTE: If you go to Egypt, bring cash. Nobody would take a credit card it seemed.
Another day during dance week I tried not to resent the fact that while my dance friends were at breakfast, I was going to visit a costume factory.
I was breaking my promises to my family and walking the streets of Giza alone to find this factory. I kept my eyes to myself as I passed amazing old world sites; a weathered man pulling a cart of oranges yelling up to the windows and passers by; A huge tray of fresh pita-shaped bread awaiting buyers displayed 18 inches off the ground on bricks at a corner store; Cats – lots of cats; random cars by the side of the road fighting the desert sand and dust; and people scanning this odd white girl as I walked. Acting sure of foot and not as if I were counting streets so I knew when to turn right, I was a bit nervous, for sure.
I blew my cover and scared the life out of myself and 2 men when I mistakenly opened the wrong door and found myself in someone’s house. I was not sure it was a house and tried not to stare bc any garage in America with a dirt floor and piles of stuff vs an arrangement of furniture. Against the wall, heat was produced by an open flame burning coals or something in a large metal dish on metal legs. The guys stared at me and I them until I produced an Arabic written card explaining where I was going. Luckily they took me there and it was only steps away. So many of the Egyptian people I met are extremely lovely and kind.
The factory owner and his family, too, were just a delight. Bringing me mango juice and showing me around to the cutting room, beading room, sewing room, etc. I acted as if I had not just survived my heart-pounding, artery-clearing first solo flight in Egypt and cordially smiled as I met the owner and his family. We went over what he makes best, how he designs for troupes, his asking his prices, turnaround time, how he takes payment and so on – all before my morning dance class started.
I felt very different than the other clear-eyed dancers in the room when I got back to the dance course. I found that getting into the moment for dance proved quite a clunky gear shift.
As it went, between classes all week, I was planning an outing or meeting with a few kind dancers who also had stores and studios like mine. SHOUT OUT TO RAKSANNA and FATIMA: MUAH! I was trying to get updated phone numbers that worked bc mine were not working or I just did not know how to dial yet, picking brains for who makes what product best at what price point, updating my list of people to see with newer names, and probably annoying the heck out of my friends.
I tried not to judge my situation, to just do what I had to do and experience it as it was coming at me. But it was draining to be keeping this double focus. The other dancers at Randa, Of Course were enjoying dance, dance, dance and then going to bed early while I was arranging English speaking guides, wandering around areas I’d never been in, seeking out people, trying to log what I’d found for products, prices, etc, and “Acting as if” I was the business woman I hoped to someday be.
I do have to state that in spite of feeling sorry for myself I was and am proud of myself. I was paying my dues, sacrificing some dance progress and sleep, for sure, but finally getting my own list of resources that I could be proud of and that was a huge accomplishment. This was something I’d wanted to do for years. The suppliers Bill and I “Purchased” when we bought the store were not, in fact, worth the money we paid. Dance store colleagues I had back home, who were all lovely people, would never give me the names of the suppliers they were using, nor would I ask bc, as I was learning here it Egypt, it took a great investment of time, courage, and money to find and secure relationships with Egypt’s belly dance designers and factories.
It was also, I admit, truly fascinating to see the factories and costume designers who were once just a vapor to me. All of these folks were sincere and wonderful people who were eager to work with me. Service like this is lost in America. All had their families’ involved as I suspected. Little kids helped, mom’s, aunts, brothers, sons, sisters, etc Some families were “competitor designers” competing with their own families. Yet they helped each other out in most cases. Some were business men and some were business women but all had in common the Egyptian work ethic. And, all were making glamorous costumes, bras studded with rhinestones and sequins while on a backdrop of a dirt-road kind of country full of muslim standards. It was quite a lot to take in. I came love Egyptian people and how much they were trying to interact with me, protect me from shady deals, etc. I wanted to buy from every single one of the designers – especially since the revolution has caused massive job losses and hardship when practically all of the tourism dried up.
So, test #1: To improve the quality of my store’s items, upgrade my supplier list, and to support this country and the people of Egypt whom I was falling in love with, was a puzzle, a time suck, a threat to my dance progress and my sleep, and a credit card nighmare for this math novice working in a different currency but I pressed on. Harry Potter would have been proud of me. PASS.
Test #2: Are you willing to be “a work in progress”?
Classes at Randa Kamel Of Course, here in Egypt were going wonderfully for me.
Between Folkloric dance, modern Egyptian style, assaya(cane), Randa’s Technique combos, rhythms, stage make up, seeing shows, dance outings, visiting the costume vendors in the hotel, getting to know an international group of women, Sara Farouk updating us daily on opps to see dance or what not, sweet but strong, heart-felt speeches by Randa about our level of commitment to high standards and feeling the music we were all having a great time. “Were” is the key word.
Then, on Thursday, Randa’s Oriental style routine hit us hard. It was not just me. Many in the class were challenged by this material. But run after run of each section of the dance I found myself following the leader, hanging on by a thread, behind the beat, and unable to internalize the dance or hear the music. The volume of direction changes, weight shifts, new arm patterns, and “micro turns” had me frustrated to say the least. It was also a fast number so a mis-step left you in danger of being mowed over by the other dancers. Getting back “on”, I felt like a frog trying to cross a highway full of moving traffic.
Old mental traps which I’d battled with in younger years re-presented themselves. Little demoralizing habits, such as, playing humbling imaginations that the whole room was looking at me when I was visibly on the wrong foot, labeling myself a “bad” dancer, nursing a mental block against the routine by thinking I would never get it so why try, telling myself I did not deserve to be in this class and had wasted my money coming here. oy vey.
This routine went on for two whole days of class and so did those pesky thoughts. To stay on my feet trying, fighting through all the negative chattering in my head took all the focus I had. Like a mud slide in my mind, my mood was always trying to slip away on me. I wanted to give up and sit down so badly. But, I refused. Sitting was to let errant thinking win.
I remembered many an episode in college where taking dance with the dance majors left me in quit-mode. I seemed to think that I was either awesome or I stunk and there was no patience or kindness for being in the middle range. I later learned that if one is not willing to suck, be imperfect, be “In progress”, if one gives up when the task is hard, the growth ends. So, like the great pyramids, I stayed standing, fighting it out with myself here in Egypt.
I said to myself, “get back into the music and out of your head, listen, enjoy, let it flow, just flow”. I tried to find one area where I could make a little improvement each time. I tried to remember that this number was hard for everyone, not just me, and that I had no right to assume everyone was ace-ing it but me. I myself had heard some seasoned Randa followers admit that they were lost at times. Kanina had mentioned that most people looked lost when she took a break and observed.
In the end, I did not ace that routine. But, I did show up, stand up, and not sit down to avoid this character-building workout. Even if I did not get this routine, I would pass the test, dammit.
Test #2: Willing to be a work in progress. PASS.
Test #3: Revealing one’s self
Congruently running my nervous system ragged were 2 days of a very hard Oriental routine AND the fast approaching Au Revoir Show which I had signed up to dance in while back in Boston.
SIDE NOTE: What I did not tell a soul, even myself, was that I had a dream, a wish, a fantasy that while in Egypt, I wanted to dance AND sing during my show with an Egyptian band. Everytime the wish crossed my mind I thought it seemed impossible.
1. I don’t know any musicians here so how would that opp ever arise?
2. How would I rehearse with a band if the opp did arise? With the busy schedule I am keeping of classes, researching alimahscloset suppliers, and seeing Egypt, this seemed impossible.
3. How would I explain my vision of a cabaret singing/dancing act to anyone here?
4. Without my dear friends, students, family, and fans in the audience, would the song and dance act work? This group here could think my song and dance dreams odd
5. My Arabic. Do I really think my Arabic singing strong enough to put out in Egypt? Would I make a fool of myself?
Well, without forethought, when Sara and Samir, our organizer and the band leader asked what song I wanted to dance to, I said “Bitwannes Beek if you let me sing a little bit of it with the band”. I could not believe those words came out of my mouth in that moment. And, that Samir and Sara said yes was even more shocking. What the hell had I done and what had they agreed to?
As it turned out, the band leader, Samir, kept thinking we’d sing it together or that I’d be mouthing the words during my dance. I boldly pressed on until my vision of a dance and song act, with a mic stand placed in front of me on the stage was clear to all. And, Samir gave me a 5-10 minute rehearsal, gratefully, in which I had to express the song was not in the correct key but, of course, the Arabic musicians do not use the word “Key”, it’s maqam instead.
I was calm and grateful on the exterior. Inside, though, beneath the bravado, I was nauseous. Obsessing about the opening moments was actually a 2 day affair in my head filled with personal coaching to “stay in the moment”. The pristeenly clean dancers in these parts seemed to choreograph bc the band seemed to play “record copy” but I was unable to find the time to choreograph between classes and appointments for Alimah’s Closet. So my fears of seeming sloppy as I improvised the opening were hard to tame.
Pouring over Arabic pronunciation of the song at every free moment, including when I was asleep, and singing phrases for Samir and other Arab speaking people was building confidence in my singing. But, the band, the sound system, my improvised dancing and the audience reaction were impossible to predict.
In the show’s running order Kanina was first. She was also a bit concerned about dancing in the company of the “Modern Egyptian” Crowd. She chose Sowwah, a classic tune which seemed to draw an odd look from a few gals at lunch when they asked her song. I was bummed that Kanina, who can zill to any tempo, decided not to zill because in this dance land, zills are not common. She wondered might it throw the band off? In her few minutes allotted with the band leader, he sang her the tune as he felt they’d do it. She, too, like me worked on it in her head and at the random 2AM moments of free time we had.
Finally, both of us, supporting each other and sympathizing with the challenge, had to come to a place where we decided to “Dance for ourselves” vs try to please the many classmates and staff in this foreign dance land. “Let’s do this for the gals back home and for ourselves. We are dancing our dance in Egypt”.
The primping on Friday night began. Randa’s hair stylist came to my room and used an antique method to curl hair. Using a propane fire pot, he heated a tiny metal rod and the u shaped clamp that hugged the rod. Wrapping a strand of hair around the rod at a time from the scalp to the end of the hair, he tiny-curled my whole head with that fire and hot rod method. He spoke no English so it was hard to say “Are you sure this is safe to have an open flame in a hotel room with only one door and the window which is blocked off”? LOL As with many a moment in Egypt, the skill of going with the flow proved worth it. I sat for about an hour during which I sang to him and myself and the hair came out really cool.
As the night began, the competition dancers performed first. Each were truly super stars and a joy to watch. Both Kanina and I were clapping and being supportive – trying to stay in the moment. The huge buffet was opened soon the moment came. It was time for our shows to begin. Even if poorly received, I hoped to look back over my shoulder without the regret of having not tried and that was almost all I had to hang onto in the face of the nerves. But, even better than knowing we tried, I can happily report that both Kanina and I stepped up to the plate called Egypt and hit it out of the park.
First, Kanina. Stunning in Turqouise, completely looking at home in her dance, Kanina opened the show with all the grace and pride that I know her to present back home. I was so proud of her that I was beaming and yelling like any football fan at a superbowl. She was luminous backed by that big band, lit up in a wonderful light show, and doing her thing.
My show was later in the night. The wait was painful as fabulous show after fabulous show passed across the stage. As my music started, I swooped in with my cape turning in a spiral shape on the floor in front of the stage. I opened my cape along and offered my heart strait at Randa’s table as the first accent sounded. What a sweetie, Randa, who yelled with appreciation. I repeated the phrase in the other direction and then to the stage I went as the tempo kicked in with 4 or 5 drummers rocking the stage like they do in Egypt. I incited some clapping as my dance unfolded for 3 minutes roughly. Then came the full band stop in Bitwannes Beek. Usually, at that point, the band’s singer would begin singing and… I stepped to the mic. What a freakin’ thrill to be myself. I love to sing, I love to dance, I have one life to mix it all up within. Both my singing and dancing selves united and Randa was yelling and people were clapping. What I feared might be seen as odd seemed to thrill the audience and compliment the Arab speakers in the room.
When the vocal part ended and I began to dance again, i was met again with more yelling and happiness from the audience. What a generous and open minded group to follow my dream with such enthusiasm.
As my last beat finished, I had asked the band to give me a long and tremmering shimmy section with which I filled my pink and silver costume up with shimmering movement while I gave a heart felt air kiss to each band member. As the tremor built, I then jumped up and down to one knee as I threw one giant kiss at Randa on the accent from the band that I turned into an exciting punctuation mark. I then hopped up and ran off the stage on toes, cape in the air. Thank you, Shadia for the cape.
My sweet friends from France were all hugs. Seriene saying she was moved to tears. Said from Germany gushed “OMG, the singing, the dancing, the costume, everything”! And, Sheila from NYC, who encouraged me to come to Egypt was full of compliments. Mamdo, one of the vendors who’d seen me all week was all smiles and fascination wanting to know how I did it- learned the Arabic song. The Hotel staff whom had become our friends were thumbs up. Kanina said, “You nailed it” and she noted that the band played a tad faster than she knew I wanted the song. And, best of all, Randa, during my show was yelling out loud her appreciation of my choices.
So, I had admitted my dream, went for it AND it made sense and brought joy to others. The relief was great and I… y’know, cried a little in the bathroom. I was so happy it was over. LOL. I wanted to call Bill immediately bc he knows how hard it is to play for other artists, he is a drummer, and he heard my angst about the classes and my fear of putting myself out there in Egypt. But I did not want to miss any of the rest of the show so I changed quick and got back to the event.
Kanina and I and everyone from the staff and classes danced our hearts out for the rest of the night. I’m sure that everyone in the show felt a great reason to celebrate having passed the test of revealing their dances and their selves on that brightly lit stage.
OH! almost forgot, the entire room sang happy birthday to Kanina as she came up to get her Randa, Of Course certificate. Or, was that when she went up to win her Hisham Ozaki original costume?! She had a fabulous night, indeed. So happy for her.
TEST #3: reveal yourself. PASS.