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Ahlan Wa Sahlan 2003 Opening

A video review by A'isha Azar

Ahlan Wa Sahlan 2003 Opening The Ahlan Wa Sahlan video set is footage of the Opening and Closing performances of the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival, hosted by Raqia Hassan in ' Cairo at Mena House. The videos can be purchased separately or together at www.haladance.com. This review focuses on the OPENING performance, (to be followed by a separate review for the CLOSING video). The video, while obviously not shot under "perfect" conditions in a studio setting, is wonderful and has much to offer. The footage is presented in such a way as to appeal as a keepsake to those who were fortunate enough to attend the event. For those who were not, we can still get lots of flavor and enjoyment, not only of the dancers, but also of the general good feeling and friendly atmosphere that seemed to permeate the event. It was like a great party!

The Opening begins with some footage of the general area, including some that shows how clearly the Great Pyramid and its companions can be seen from parts of Cairo. There are a group of Sufi dancers performing in an outside location. Hala said that this group opened the event and walked the procession indoors.

Moving inside, they are there on stage in full regalia. The video has both close-up and far footage of the dancers, so that it is soon possible to see individual characteristics of the whirling men in their white thobes and heavy, suspended, color segmented skirts. There are probably ten men on the stage and the sight is very impressive. The skirts are often twirling at an angle to the men's' bodies.

The Sufi dancers are followed by two Ghaziyehs wearing the costume style which became famous in the States in the 1970s, filmed then by A'isha Ali and Morocco. At that time the Mazin family of Ghawazi favored Qamar El Moulouk (Edwina Nearing) with an in depth interview, published as a series in the old Habibi magazine. At Ahlan Wa Sahlan, they perform with the truly relaxed air of women who have done this all their lives, and no wonder, since Hala informs me one of them is the famed Kyriyeh Mazin! Each movement has that perfect Ghawazi attitude and feeling. They have that stance that I refer to as "Lizard Hipped", where the feet are often just shy of too far apart, and the posture is a little more arched than for Raqs Sharghi, but perfect for "Raqs Shaabi".

The band for both performances was wonderful and folkloric, with that sound that only the Egyptian bands can ever get exactly right. There is just that certain quality of tonal flatness that is perfect and beautiful! This comes through clearly on the video.

A fashion show followed the Ghawazi performance. I was left with the impression of swirls of fabric from circle skirts in various colors, and lavish beads and sequins in both flatwork and fringe. The costumes were presented in a choreographed dance format. They were lovely, but one stood out to me as really special. It was in the style of belt that I refer to as "butt-hugger", meaning that the belt comes down over the derriere. The costume was an excellent fit on the model's body. In the video it appeared to be black and silver with beautiful flatwork on the bra and belt, with a short-sleeved vest effect, and chiffon panels attached from the sleeve to the wrist, matching the skirt. This was the style of many of the different colored costumes but it was particularly lovely in this combination.

And now, on to the stars of the show! The first dancer of Raqs Sharghi was Soraya. Hala informed me she is Brazilian. Soraya is quite Egyptian in her styling and has a very perky and darling stage personality. She is a playful dancer who frequently uses, quick, tiny and very feminine movements. She is a good interpreter of the music and has a nice, rather nervous little shimmy underlay in most of her work. She does some really interesting quick-tiny undulations from the pubic bone upward. It is possible to see a certain “Samba influence' in the way that she generates some of her shimmies, from the movement of the legs and the actual stance. She does a killer drum solo!

Soraya had one really outstanding costume, made of gold fabric that was covered with large squares of beadwork. The costume consisted of a tight pant with very flared leg below the knee, a belt of large draped pop-beads with turquoise accents, and a wonderful bra/ vest combination, with the vest ending at the bottom of the ribcage and sleeves that echoed the flared leg effect. The ensemble was completed with a headscarf in the same fabric.

Dandash was the next performer. There is something about her styling that is somehow reminiscent of Sohair Zaki, though she is not the technician that Sohair was. I think it is the way in which she controls her upper body and uses her hands. Dandash is a very contained dancer, with movements small and precise, not in imitation of Sohair's more robust style. She has an almost frenetic effect to her shimmy work, though there is a contradictory calm to her overall appearance. Raqia Hassan would approve of her almost constant shimmy beneath her movement. She does some wonderful perpendicular hip work, with tiny, sharp locks that I plan to make off with!

There was nothing really outstanding about Dandash's costuming. Her first costume was rather disconcerting because it appeared not to fit her quite correctly, or perhaps she was wearing it too high on the hips. She did wear a beautiful Beledi dress that nicely enhanced her movement style. It was a rather loose, sheer gold shift with biking shorts and bra beneath, of a shiny fabric. She wore a tiny scarf to accent her hip movements, and it did so to the fullest effect. She is a good dancer and this costume showed that very clearly.

Randa had fabulous costuming! Her opening dance costume was my favorite in the entire show. It had as its base a whitish catsuit with beaded motifs over the breasts, in place of a hip wrap or belt, and down onto the leg. She wore a dark skirt left very plain so that the catsuit was the focal point. The skirt was somehow rather full and very skimpy at the same time! I loved the effect!

Randa is a wonderful dancer. Her style appeals to me particularly in that I love the way some Egyptians appear languid and energetic simultaneously. She is strong on this dual effect. She has big, loose shimmies and her styling is a little like Dina's in the way she presents movement and holds herself, though I consider Randa a far superior dancer overall. She has physical strength and integrity of movement, complimented by a flare for the dramatic! She is very much in touch with the music and has a good movement vocabulary with a lot of variety for full interpretation. She uses locks in interesting ways. Another great aspect of her dancing is that her Beledi styling is distinct from her Raqs Sharghi; a thing that I have also seen in Lucy and appreciate very much.

Hassan Elasmar was a featured singer, and he was a good addition to the video in that he epitomized that full throated, raspy quality that is found in some Egyptian singers. He is a good showman and entertained the crowd, who was shown dancing to his songs.

There are some aspects of the video that deserve special attention. First, I noticed a complete absence of shebaka (body nets) on the dancers. Hala said that since the Festival caters mostly to foreigners, the dancers are not “bound by the same laws as in Egyptian night clubs". Dancers are not expected to wear shebaka under these special conditions, but would be doing so in their regular venues. (Although now that there are new laws in effect, several of the dancers in this video set will no longer be allowed to dance in Egypt, since foreign dancers are being excluded... we will see how long that lasts!!)

In costume trends, we see a lot of cleavage, and the skirts in general seem to be fuller than some in past years. It was interesting to note that beads were still at a minimum.

One of the nicer things about this video is that there were enough close-ups and far shots so that the viewer can see what the dancer is doing from a technical standpoint as well as appreciate what is being done from the artistic aspect. It was very well filmed considering the nightclub setting. And the sound is amazing!

One of my personal beliefs about doing reviews is that we should be honest if we want to be respected. Too many times we dancers just pat each other on the back as opposed to being real about our offerings. What would I change about this video? I would probably not pan to the audience while the dancers are performing, but concentrate on them alone. I would also cut down on footage of the audience, but not leave it out all together. I think some audience footage is in keeping with the "Egyptian" way of presentation. Especially since there were some famous folks out there!!

This is a video set that I would highly recommend. The quality of the film footage is very good within the venue, the sound is superb, and the dancing is great! Hala and Raqia Hassan deserve high praise for sharing the Ahlan Wa Sahlan performances with the larger dance community.

A'isha Azar is qualified to review this video set. She has studied, performed and taught the dances of the Middle East and North Africa since 1974. A'isha has studied with some of the finest Egyptian dancers, as well as other natives, both professional and non-professional, from various countries. She is primarily an Egyptian style dancer and also teaches and performs folkloric dances from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and other areas.