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

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?

“I’m too shy to bellydance!”

The amount of times I have heard this! When you see a bellydancer performing,

Charni from Belly Dance Lessons Online loves performing

she looks confident, sexy, she looks happy and smiles and shows she is comfortable in front of an audience. What the audience needs to know is that she worked hard and trained for years to get that way AND many of them were VERY SHY when they started. Shy of their body, shy of their ability to dance, shy to dance in front of other people. How did they get confident? Through doing bellydance classes! You discover your strengths, work on your weaknesses and get a sense of achievement. As you improve, you amaze yourself with what you and your body can do and the feeling is wonderful! (Warning, it is also highly addictive!) Look up a class near you and go! If you really feel too shy then do your classes in the privacy of your own home with Online eClasses, and when you feel more confident, then you can attend a class near you.

You won’t know until you start, go ahead, you deserve it.

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!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0HHNh9l7kg

 

Farida Fahmy: review of the film produced by Keti Sharif

“Farida” film viewing Sunday March 23 2012 at RMIT Melbourne

Charni from Belly dance Lessons Online reviews the DVD "Farida"

Charni from Belly Dance Lessons Online reviews the DVD "Farida"

Hosted by Keti Sharif who also produced it, this film chronicles the life story of Farida Fahmy through interviews with Farida and her brother-in-law, Mahmoud Reda, enhanced by photos and footage from the Reda Troupe of which Farida was principal dancer for 25 years. It was fascinating to hear about how the Reda Troupe started and about the three great influences of Farida’s life: her father, her husband and her brother-in-law Mahmoud Reda.

Her father, a Professor at Cairo University, was very advanced for his time (for any country let alone a conservative country like Egypt). He encouraged both of his daughters to study and do sports and follow creative pursuits, Farida with dance and her sister, Nadeeda, with painting. He withstood much criticism for this. It was through this support and his good public standing, that helped pave the way for dance to become a legitimate profession at a time when it was deemed socially unacceptable. As Farida puts it, he encouraged her to always find out “why” something was the way it was in order to gain greater depth of understanding.

Mahmoud met Farida’s sister at a sports club when Farida was only 13 so he saw her grow up. When she got older she married Mahmoud’s older brother Ali who was already a dancer. Ali was a great husband and supportive of her dancing career. Her husband went on to direct her three films with the Reda Troupe: Agazet Nus El-Sana (Mid-term Vacation, 1963), Gharam Fil Karnak (Romance at the Karnak, 1965) and Harami El-Waraqa (Thief of the Lottery Paper, 1970). The first two are the only ones referenced in the film and are apparently shown on Egyptian television almost every week! They were key to Egyptian cinema as they were the first to incorporate the music and dancing into the storyline, rather than stopping the story to have a song and dance!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mL_QBvJtsuE

Mahmoud told a funny story about filming the movie “Love in Karnak” where Farida had to kiss Mahmoud. He found it very awkward as that was his sister-in-law and didn’t feel at all romantic about having to kiss her in front of her husband who was directing the movie and telling them to kiss! When filming they had to do 23 takes as something kept going wrong!

Farida has a confident, humble style to her reminiscing about the Reda Troupe. I know that sounds a contradiction in terms, however, she says that she was such a success because she had complete and utter trust in Mahmoud and did what he told her, but also acknowledges that she must have had the talent inside her to express what Mahmoud wanted her to. While Mahmoud talks about her amazing dedication and professionalism, she says that she felt she had to set an example of how to behave for the other girls and just did what was expected of them.

Farida also very carefully sorts out some of the misconceptions about dance and origins as opposed to theatre. She talks about the different styles, and the costuming (the first ones were designed by her sister) and how they were not being “authentic” as it was all for the theatre; for an audience sitting in their seats wanting a good show, not a gathering at a party, which is a different audience. It was very illuminating.

The interviews were conducted in Cairo during 2011 (a very tumultuous year in Egytpain history!), and I love how you can hear the constant horns, yells and cries from the street when Mahmoud is on the screen.

I highly recommend this film for anyone interested in raqs sharqi, the Reda Troupe, Egyptian cinema, belly dance and a story of real people who got a dream to materialise and changed a country in the process.

The DVD can be bought through either Keti or Farida‘s websites. Charni was neither paid nor receives payment for her endorsement, and in fact purchased a ticket to see the film.

Funny Belly Dance joke for you!

So here is my joke, you be the judge of whether it is funny:

A belly dancer walks into a bar (don’t all good jokes start that way?) it has dusty implements on the wall so corroded with rust you can’t even tell what they were. There are cracked vinyl booths lining the walls, the floor is sticky and there is a decided smell of cooking oil, stale beer and cigarette smoke. The Manager sees her standing in the door looking around and comes up to her “ Ahh you must be the belly dancer I called, come right this way!”

“You mean I’m in the right place?” she says confusedly.

“Of course you are, come this way”.

“But the man on the phone said it was an Egyptian themed bar, this doesn’t look Egyptian to me!”

“What do you mean?” the Manager blusters, “doesn’t it look pretty shaabi!”

Hahahahahahahahaha!

Get it? It’s a play on words of shaabi and shabby…. Ah well (embarrassed cough), it seemed funny in my head!

The thing is a belly dancer (or Raqs Sharqi dancer), often ends up in some weird places booked to dance! The floors ARE often sticky! That’s a story for another time!

Morocco: review of her new book

“You Asked Aunt Rocky: Answers & Advice About Raqs Sharqi and Raqs Shaabi”

Carolina Varga Dinicu, known as “Morocco” or “Aunt Rocky” released her large tome on Arabic dance late 2011 (Mine is signed – woo hoo!). This is a collection and gathering of her research of over 50 years in the ethnicity of all sorts of Arabic dances. She has been asked questions about dance over the years by various people and has kept a copy of the correspondence, a lot of these questions and answers are included. The book is divided into helpful divisions covering Shaabi (folkloric style) and sharqi (cabaret style) props, teaching tools, tips on working in the industry and many, many interesting anecdotes stories and experiences.

One of her assertions is that calling it “belly dance” is a misnomer and incorrect and disrespectful to its origins. It also gives a sleazy image in the mind of the general public (a scantily clad woman dancing in front of men as a source of titillation). I am in two minds about this. Firstly, while I agree, that I want to honour its origins, if I referred to myself as Raqs Sharqi Lessons Online, no one would know how to find me or what it was I did. So how can I introduce people to the beautiful (and super fun!) dance style of raqs sharqi unless I call it by the name it is known by: belly dance.

Cover of Morocco's Book "You asked Aunt Rocky"

“You asked Aunt Rocky: Answers & Advice About Raqs Sharqi and Raqs Shaabi”

 

Bellydance or Sharqi?

Would a shimmy by any other name jingle as much?

In the western world, Middle-Eastern or Arabic Dance comes under the banner of “Belly Dance” or “bellydance” but this expression was only coined in 1893 when it was translated from the French danse du ventre or “dance of the belly”. In reality there are many different names, all of which are correct. Just as ‘Ballroom’ is also known as ‘Dancesport’ and has many different sub-categories so does Belly Dance.

Another name for Belly Dance is Oriental Dance or Oryantal Dansi (Turkish) meaning “dance of the east”. However, it is getting more commonly known for the Arabic version Raqs Sharqi or Raks Sharki or “eastern dance”, or “Raqs shaabi” the street version of the dance These terms are not differentiated in western ideas, but in Egypt you have the street style, more closely linked with folkloric and then you have the classical Egyptian performed in night clubs and hotels known as “sharqi”. Various spellings include sha’arki, sharki, sha’abi. With the folkloric style being referred to as Raqs Beladi or Raks Baladi. Within these styles are many different types of dance depending on the instruments and tempo of the music.

Why all the names? And spellings? The answer to that is as varied as the different names! Middle Eastern dance forms (as in dances that originate from all the different Middle-Eastern countries (remembering that all the villages and families had their own way of dancing) are popular in all the Middle Eastern countries, and each one has it’s own language and interpretation. Also we have translations from Arabic, which uses a completely different alphabet so translations tend to be phonetic. Being the English language, phonetics are tricky with so many ways to spell the same sound no wonder we have so many interpretations!