The bellydancer who saves animals

Caroline Evanoff is an Australian belly dancer living and working in Egypt

Caroline Evanoff is an Australian belly dancer living and working in Egypt

I was able to interview Australian born belly dancer Caroline Evanoff who now resides in Cairo, Egypt about living in Egypt, staying safe, and her work with animal welfare agencies in Egypt.

How did you come to live in Egypt?
I caught the traveling bug years earlier while backpacking around the world, and particularly enjoyed my stay in Egypt. So years later, after studying belly dance in Sydney, I found myself with an affinity for the dance style of Raqia Hassan, who I had on VHS tape. After wearing it through from watching, I found it hard to find a teacher in Australia who specialised in her style of dancing. So I decided to go to Egypt for three months to study. This turned out to be a pivotal moment in my life, as I went for a short stay and moved there for good instead! In fact everything just seemed to fall into place. I met up with a dancer who then introduced me to Raqia, then very soon after I was offered work, I didn’t even have a proper performance costume but was introduced to Eman Zaki who agreed to make one for me and I could pay later. After that I never looked back, being in constant work ever since.

What can you recommend for tourists wanting to come to Egypt, is it safe?
People have always been scared of coming to Egypt, but since the revolution, people seem to be even more scared. As long as people take normal precautions, it is as safe as anywhere, and much more safe than a lot of other cities in the world! Petty crime has increased since the revolution, so avoid wearing lots of gold, wear a shawl and dress modestly, but you don’t have to be completely covered up either! It is fine for tourists to come, especially if you are there as part of a tour or stay with a local.

The Egyptian bellydance festivals are still running, and while the numbers are down, there are still a lot of people coming to them, if it was unsafe they would have cancelled them. Festivals such as the Nile Group Festival, Sphinx Festival or the Ahlan wa Sahlan Festival run by Raqia is the one I’m involved with runs each June, she also runs a Winter Teachers course in December.

I  also run a holiday program in Dahab on the South-East coast of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, where the focus is on a holiday and some gentle belly dance using Khalleegy, because that is the local dance style. The focus is on relaxing, enjoying the beautiful Mountain Sinai and the Red Sea.

Belly dancer Caroline Evanoff is passionate about animal welfare

Belly dancer Caroline Evanoff is passionate about animal welfare

I hear you do a lot of animal rescuing and encouraging others to do the same?
Yes, I am a volunteer at ESMA (Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals), Touch of Life Organisation and when I go to Dahab, I support “Help Dahab Dogs”, plus all my personal rescues. I have seven cats [unfortunately, one of her cats, Sami, died not long after her return to Egypt after prolonged liver problems]. I go to the shelter and visit but I mainly focus on fundraising. When I travel, at least one of the places will hold a fundraising night so I can take the money to Egypt. You are unable to have a Paypal account in Egypt which makes it hard to donate otherwise, so I collect it and give it to them. Also on FB someone will post that a dog has been run over at such and such corner and direct people to help. I also do a lot of walking around Cairo, so if I see an injured animal regardless of what it is, I will want to help; dogs, cats, sheep, donkeys, goats, foxes, and once there was a crocodile!

I live in a shaabi neigbourhood, and the local children used to torture the animals in fact one of my cats, Frankie, was dipped in car oil and left to drown. Now after 6 years, the children will be the first ones to run to me if they find an injured animal, or a dog has been beaten or they find kittens, and get quite angry if I don’t take them in straight away. But I have a policy of waiting for the mother to come back to the kittens. So they are really on to it, and I am really happy about that. They are the next generation so it is good to see these changes occur now to them while they are young.

This interview first appeared in OMEDA‘s The Shimmy Newsletter December 2012

Turning smarmy to smiley

Charni from Belly Dance Lessons Online had to learn how to have a confident smile while performing

Charni from Belly Dance Lessons Online had to learn how to have a confident smile while performing

We have all had the odd embarrassing gig, with costume malfunctions, or music glitches or even the classic trip up getting on stage, but I wanted to share an experience which happened a few years ago involving what to do if your audience thinks you are a stripper!

I was more at the beginning of my belly dance career, and had only had a few gigs under my hip belt when I was asked to perform before a lecture on Egypt by a Museum. The audience was made up of a very eclectic mix of people; students, friends of the museum, curators, Egyptologists and fans of the genre. In particular there was one person in the audience that I actually recognised. I will keep him nameless, but I had known him since I was a baby as he was a colleague of my Father’s. As I started dancing and saw a familiar face I thought “oh good someone I know”, unfortunately it soon became clear that this man who was standing in the front and not taking his eyes off me was not looking in admiration but in sleaziness. I could feel him undressing me with his eyes and I felt very uncomfortable with the leery grin fixated on me (or more specifically, my breasts) and I didn’t know what to do. I continued dancing focussing my attention on the others of the audience a smile on my face, but he was very hard to avoid. Then something in my mind went “bugger him, this is meant to be fun and I’m not going to let him spoil it!” and I threw myself even more into the music and the moves. I started engaging with the audience and letting my face reflect what my body was doing: as in a mock look of surprise at my shimmy or an eyebrow jump at the same time as a hip or shoulder, peeking cheeky looks over my shoulder etc. Then I aimed this directly at this man and ramped up the comic aspect. As I invited the audience to enjoy it with me, so too did this man, who ended up looking at me as a human being, his posture relaxed and he started clapping with all the others and tapping a foot to the music. The beast was tamed and began to genuinely smile. I finished with a flourish, proud and relieved to have turned the situation. Now I always scan my audience and if I see a similar look, I know just what to do – make it fun, it’s hard to laugh and leer at the same time!

This article was originally published OMEDA‘s The Shimmy Newsletter Spring 2010

To Dye or not to dye, that is the question…

Charni from Belly Dance Lessons Online asks a very important question.

Charni from Belly Dance Lessons Online asks a very important question.

Many, many, years ago, while I was a 19-year-old student at University, I was talking to one of my Women’s Studies lecturers and somehow the topic of her grey hair came up. She had gone completely grey in her 20’s, it was something that often happened in her family. So she just accepted that that was her hair and moved on. She said the funniest question she ever got about it was when someone asked why she “didn’t colour her hair her natural colour” we both found that hilarious at the time – grey is now her “natural colour”!

Fast forward 7 years and I found my first grey hairs at 26. I had three just at the front of my hairline. I found it hilarious! I marched into my Mother’s room, where she was recovering from surgery for ovarian cancer and told her she’d given me grey hairs! We made jokes that it was usually the other way around, that children gave their Mother’s grey hairs!

Six months later, and they had spread to all along my part line. So I parted my hair differently. A year later they were all through the top of my head. As you can imagine, with my Mother’s illness, I was still pretty stressed, so I dyed my hair it’s “natural colour”.

She died when I was 28, and by then I was regularly dyeing my hair. “Luckily” (depending on your perspective) my hair grows slowly, so it wasn’t as often as some people, usually before an important event or trip.

Should Charni from BellyDance Lessons Online dye her hair its "natural colour"?

Should Charni from BellyDance Lessons Online dye her hair its “natural colour”?

Once I became a Mother myself at 30, with the birth of my son, I didn’t have the time or inclination, so I just chopped it all off to a pixie cut, and the greys were less obvious. Then after my daughter was born three years later, I started to grow it out.

My daughter is now 5 years old and I have started to question whether I should keep dyeing my “highlights” as I refer to them. What message am I sending?
Should I emulate my University lecturer and just accept it? With my dark hair and youthful looks, I would be making a statement about being proud of what I look like. It would be telling my daughter that I am not the sum total of my hair colour, that I can be attractive AND have grey hair at the same time.

Then again is it any different to me wearing a colour which compliments my skin tone? Or an outfit which is flattering, make up, or fantastic eye-catching jewellery – or even dressing up in my belly dance costumes with full make up and hair done. Is this being less honest? I don’t think so.

So herein lies my dilemma. To dye or not to dye. Hmmmm, maybe I worry about it when she is six…

She thinks white belly dancers should be banned?!?

Charni of Belly Dance Lessons Online should not be dancing or teaching belly dance as she is not arabic, according to Randa Jarrar.

Charni of Belly Dance Lessons Online should not be dancing or teaching belly dance as she is not arabic, according to Randa Jarrar.

There has been a furor in the media recently over an article written by Randa Jarrar called “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers” she states that she feels it is “appropriation”, that this dance form is originally danced by arabic women and should remain so. Hmmmmm.

She refers to a white belly dancer as being dressed in “arabic drag” as  “that’s what that is, when a person who’s not Arab wears genie pants and a bra and heavy eye makeup and Arabic jewelry, or jewelry that is meant to read as “Arabic” because it’s metallic and shiny and has squiggles of some kind”. Ms Jarrar, I feel that it is a form of flattery, and is spreading the dance around the world. Also, as a side note, which seems to contradict Ms Jarrar’s points, belly dancing is a highly unacceptable dance form for Arabic women in Egypt, and most of the professionals in Cairo, are, in fact, not Arabic at all. And those who are, are actually shunned by their families.

There has been a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal from Sam Doloncot called “Yes, White Belly Dancing Is Inexcusable Cultural Appropriation”. He points out that, going by Ms Jarrar’s arguments, no-one of non-Chinese ethnicity should eat at a Chinese restaurant, and someone “who suffers a serious but non-permanent physically debilitating injury shouldn’t be allowed the use of a wheelchair, as this is an ableist appropriation of differently abled culture”, and other (quite amusing) comparisons.

I would also like to point out that Randa Jarrar is half Palestinian, half American, educated in the USA. So can she really speak on behalf of all Arabic women? Do I wish I had an arabic heritage? Yes, in many ways, I feel there are parts of the dance and culture I am not understanding properly; plus, as I don’t speak Arabic, I can only go by translations I am given of songs I am dancing to. However, to change my heritage would change me, a child of immigrant parents from the UK to Australia. And it was only a few generations ago, one side of my family immigrated to the UK from Italy, does this mean it is okay for me to eat pasta and pizza without feeling I am taking inappropriate cultural liberties?

Is it culturally disrespectful for me to belly dance or an homage?

Karim Nagi actually discussed this topic (in a reasoned and logical manner) in a panel discussion in the Diwan 2009 conference at The Arab American National Museum in Deerborn Michigan, USA. The audience consisted of Arab artists from various fields. Karim, an Arabic musician, discusses the Americanisation of Arab dance in America, and how Arabs can reintegrate into the developement of their own art forms.

What do you think?

“Belly Dance Saved My Life”

A while ago I posted a blog about a photo I saw of a belly dancer in a beautiful blue costume dancing with a veil. She was also in a wheelchair. Debra Ford commented to me on the photo alluding to her own experience in a wheelchair so I chased her up for more information.

It turns out that in May 2006 just a few months after starting her Mystical Rose Belly Dance school in the Western suburbs of Melbourne, she was in a horrific head-on collision with another car, both doing 100km per hour. Deb’s car flipped three and a half times skidding on its roof down the road. She ended up with a broken neck, which they had to piece together with a wedge out of her hip, two screws and a plate.

After the accident

After the accident

She also fractured her back in two places, had three pelvic fractures, a broken wrist and a totally smashed ankle, which got pinned under the accelerator and the brake pedals. Glass from the windscreen also scratched her eyes so badly she was blind for the first week and a half and only regained clear vision after three months. The shock to her brain has also caused some permanent brain injury.

This is completely beyond the understanding of most of us. In fact, it took the fire brigade an hour to cut her out of the wreck.  When they got her to hospital, they did test after test, trying to find the internal injuries, finally, after 17 hours, her husband mentioned that she was a belly dancer, who taught 10 classes a week, so they finally released her to intensive care. They said she shouldn’t even have survived, let alone not get any internal injuries – it was all put down to two things; her petite size and the strength and muscle tone she had in her abdominal muscles which held her together and protected her organs during the accident.

She was back teaching in a limited capacity by October 2006, in several casts, and crutches or a wheelchair. How did she do this? I wanted to find out about the woman behind Mystical Rose Belly Dance.

Debra went to her first belly dance class in 2001 in Baccus Marsh. This triggered a metamorphosis as she went from being very shy to becoming confident in herself and her abilities. Within 18 months she was an assistant to the teacher and helping arrange shows, and was asked to teach at a Neighbourhood House at Woodend. Wanting to further her studies, in 2003, she enrolled with Underbelly in Fitzroy and by 2005 had passed the teaching training there. In January of 2006, she opened Mystical Rose Belly Dance, teaching mainly Modern & Classical Egyptian along with Saiidi, Alexandrian and Khaleegi with 60 students, this was just before the accident in May.

Deb before her accident

Deb before her accident

The strength and purpose she gained through her dance and teaching kept her strong throughout her recovery period. In fact she was told she would not be able to dance again, so she decided to do the opposite!

She certainly had challenges involved with this, besides the pain and inconvenience of being in casts and immobile, she was also dealing with headaches and memory problems with the brain injury. While in rehab, she would spend hours watching belly dance dvd’s and Youtube videos increasing her knowledge and repertoire through her mind. As she was not allowed to put any weight on her ankle she would envision what moves she wanted to music and then get into a wheelchair to choreograph.

Her physical recovery was greatly aided by her years of belly dance training. As we all know, belly dance is about being able to control small muscle groups, in other words, total muscle control. It was this control and knowledge of muscle groups that helped her get the best out of her physiotherapy and speeded up her recovery.

Belly dance also aided her mentally while recovering. The nurses in the hospital were particularly supportive, asking her to teach them moves from her wheelchair. Not only did the nurses have fun, but Deb felt useful and “normal” as the rest of her day was all about her injuries. She says “Belly dancing is not only my life but also my rehab, so much more fun than the gym and I ever so slowly get more out of it.”

She still struggles on a daily basis to manage the pain and limitation in her back and ankle, and can’t sit or stand for long periods, and has had to adjust her whole way of living her life. She also had to retrain the way she stands and dances to make it appear as if she is moving “normally” as students will copy your movements exactly, whether you are doing them right or wrong, she says. She also has yearly CRN (Cranial Radiofrequency Neurotomy) which boils the nerves in her neck to reduce pain and migraines. Despite this she went to Egypt in 2009 to learn from the belly dance masters such as Mahmoud Reda, Farida Fahmy, Aida Nour, Khaled Mahmoud, Mahamoud Kazafy and Dina when she came to Australia.

Belly dance took Deb out of a wheel chair and all the way to Egypt!

Belly dance took Deb out of a wheel chair and all the way to Egypt!

Sometimes you are unaware of how you would cope when these challenges happen in life, when you really discover what you are truly capable of. I hope if anyone ever ends up in such a position, remember Debra Ford and take strength.

Some advice from the inspirational Debra herself: “My disability is permanent, so I’ve had to find the confidence and strength to remodel techniques to continue to pursue my love of belly dance. As long as you are enjoying what you are doing and the people around you provide you with the space and the means to participate give it a go.”

Egyptian President Elected

And the winner is… Muhammed Mursi (or known as Mohamed Morsi) of the Muslim Brotherhood! What this means for Egypt is yet to be determined. He has announced that he will honour all of Egypt’s international treaties (there were worries about the treaty with Israel).

President of Egypt Muhammed Mursi

Mohammed Mursi celebrates his win in the Egyptian elections.

Dr Mursi received a PhD in Engineering from the University of Southern California after a Bachelor and Master’s Degrees from the University of Cairo. He was an Assistant Professor at California State University for three years until 1985, before moving back to Egypt to teach at the Zagazig University.

Will his advanced education and time in America make him a more democratic leader? How will this affect the Raqs Sharqi dance community? Mursi is considered one of the conservative voices within Egypt’s oldest Islamist organization, so I guess we will just have to hope for the best.

Bellydancing in a wheelchair?

I found an inspiring photo of a dancer doing a veil dance in a wheel chair

This bellydancer in a wheelchair is very inspiring to all of us!

It never occurred to me before that you could belly dance in a wheel chair, this picture I recently came across shows otherwise! I love the elegance of her lines, the colour of her costume, her stage presence, just gorgeous!

I don’t know who she is (if you know please tell me!) and it got me thinking about the subject of bellydance and disability. So I did a bit of research. I had already heard and blogged about using bellydance as a means to recover from illnesses, but what about if you are unable to stand or are confined to a wheelchair? One belly dance teacher in North and South Carolina claims she specialises in bellydancing in a wheelchair.

Then I came across a YouTube video for “Chair Aerobics”

So, while not common, it is entirely possible. I will be on the look out for more information, as this is fascinating and inspiring!



Warda’s ex-husband Baligh Hamdy arrested for bellydance TV station broadcast!

Right on the heels of my last post about the sad news of Warda’s death, comes news that the owner of ElTet TV station in Egypt, Baligh Hamdy (or Hamdi) has been arrested.

Baligh Hamdy and Warda

Baligh Hamdy and Warda were not only married, but worked together for many years as he composed the music she sang.

He had been operating it for about a year and started by using free Youtube videos and broadcast them via satellite from Bahrain and Jordan into households 24 hours a day. (Quite hilarious actually, as he used a big mix of professional videos from concerts to the “at home” filmings of people doing a version of a choreography or just trying out some moves, if it was on Youtube, it was fair game!) The inside gossip is that his station was becoming more and more popular as the competing stations are showing news, weather and very conservative shows. By turning to his station, locals were able to see something fun and familiar. He started filming local girls and helped them to become popular.

His arrest was allegedly on suspicion of operating without a licence, inciting licentiousness and facilitating prostitution. Some Egyptians are wondering if it is because he was becoming too popular in an ever-increasingly conservative society, and with elections coming up, didn’t want anything to sway the vote.

Either way, the poor man must be reeling, he had a close relationship with Warda even after their divorce, so must have been already upset about this news when arrested.

More news when it comes to hand!

Great Arabic singer Warda dies age 73

The sad news has been announced that Warda died on May 17 of apparent cardiac arrest in her home in Cairo.

Warda,, the great Arabic singer, has died age 73 on May 17 2012

I defy any bellydancer who has not danced to, practiced to or listened to one of her songs as there were many. Her style has had an influence on many especially the work she did with her second husband, composer Baligh Hamdi. I am attaching a Youtube video of one of my favourite songs; Batwanis Beek.

Farewell, Warda, you will be missed.

Belly Dance Props

There are a variety of props used in raqs sharqi, some are “traditional” and some have only been used for the last few decades, years or months!

Some of the more “traditional” (I am putting this in brackets as traditional dance is such a big topic that what a lot of people think of as traditional is not at all – see Morocco’s book “You asked Aunt Rocky: Answers & Advice About Raqs Sharqi & Raqs Shaabi)  zills (finger symbols also known as zagat or sagat),

The cane or Assaya is a traditional prop used in Raqs Shaabi, mainly from the Upper Egypt or Saiidi region.

the cane or stick (Assaya) was used only by the men in a “fighting dance” and was taken on by women and turned into a playful, joyful dance, they are essentially saying “I take your weapon and use it for fun!” so it is quite cheeky. Swords and knives were traditionally used , once again by man as a mock fighting dance, and women used them in a playful manner, balancing it on their heads. However, the manner in which a sword is used can be quite modern with balances on the chest or with laybacks being only done in Western culture. The ever popular “veil” is a tricky one. While it is documented that kerchiefs and flowing pieces of material were held while dancing, however, the long flowing piece of material that is used either as an entrance prop and then discarded, or as a whole piece using “veilwork”

Charni from Belly dance Lessons Online Performing with a Double Veil

this is a totally modern and American invention. Since then it has evolved to be quite showy with beautiful spins and wraps, and also a very tricky double veil (holding and dancing with two equal sized pieces of material).

Props considered traditional are: the candelabra (known as shamadan) tea-tray (seneyya) which often has lit candles on it balances on the head. In reality no record has been found of these dances being a part of traditional Middle Eastern dance, and in fact there is account of the first dancer Zouba in the 1890’s who danced with a lantern on her head which became such a hit that she made it her signature, and others copied it.

Very modern Western props used nowadays include: Isis Wings (Brightly coloured concertinad shiny material with a loop around the throat and sticks in the hands), Poi (silk scarves on balls attached to the hand with a string and twirled and swung around), fan veils (chinese or spanish fans with a length of silk extending out, so can by fluttered and swirled), snakes (yes some dancers have a snake for dramatic value – it essentially stays wrapped around their body while they dance). You will also find the odd gimmicky prop used by somebody for dramatic effect, here is a video of a dancer using hula hoops!! I’m not quite convinced that it will catch on!