If you love Egyptian style belly dance, Cairo is the place to visit, not only to receive training directly from great dancers and shop for lovely costumes and accessories, but also to get a feel for the culture of the place where this dance genre originates from. From my experience, once you have travelled to Egypt at least once, you will get a deeper understanding for the music and the concept of this dance that goes beyond pure physical training. In Egypt, dancers can get training in different types of dance from raqs sharqi (classical oriental), to raqs baladi (traditional Egyptian improvised style), folkloric such as saidi and the modern social dance style called shaabi.
If you are going to Cairo to get dance training, the best option, especially if you have not been before, is to go with tours organised by companies that specialise in dance trips. One of such companies that I have travelled with is Farida Adventures, run by Kay Taylor and based in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. Kay has been leading trips to Egypt for dancers for many years and she has very good knowledge of the place and great contacts for dancers to receive training and to go shopping. If you go to Cairo with Kay, she will arrange a hotel stay for her group so you will not need to worry about finding accommodation yourself.
If you prefer to travel independently, a very good option is Yasmina’s Dancers’ B&B. Yasmina is a dancer originally from the UK, but who has lived in Cairo for a long time (I think about 20 years at the time of writing). I have been there myself and I highly recommend it. The B&B is located in Giza, near the Pyramids (which are visible from the B&B’s terrace where guests can sit and have breakfast). In addition to providing comfortable accommodation and lovely food (the cost includes breakfast and one cooked meal a day, which is delicious home-made Egyptian cuisine), Yasmina can arrange for you everything a dancer may wish, such as:
I spent 10 days in Yasmina’s B&B when I was in Cairo and I had a great time. The prices are good value for money, the B&B is spacious and clean, the company great (I also had the chance to meet other dancers who travelled alone to Cairo and stayed at Yasmina’s, so it is good for socialising and networking and I really enjoyed the late evening chats), the food lovely and it is great to know that there is someone who knows the place well who can give you so much information. Yasmina had three cats when I was there, which was great for me as I love cats (they are very friendly as they are used to new people coming and going all the time) but it may be a concern if you are allergic maybe. As for the location, the B&B is in a good area and, although it is far from the centre, it is near to where many dancers live and very close to the Pyramids. Also, being far from the centre, it is also miles away from where the troubles and demonstrations have been happening occasionally since the 2011 revolution. For more information on prices, availability, services and for contact details check Yasmina’s website.
In Cairo you can receive dance training from many reputable Egyptian dancers, as well as from non Egyptian dancers who have, however, lived and performed there professionally for a while. I would say that Cairo is the best place for this and other Egyptian destinations do not offer the same choice and level of teaching. In Cairo you can arrange training from teachers such as Randa Kamel, Dandesha, Hassaan (specialised in folklore), Mohamed Kazafy (great teacher, who started his dancing career in the Reda troupe) and many more. In terms of non Egyptian teachers but who know the culture and the dance extremely well, two I recommend are Sara Farouk and Lorna Gow (pictured below).
What I like about Egyptian food is its simplicity and the fact that they use a lot of pulses and fresh vegetables, which are very tasty in Egypt. If you go to any restaurant portions are quite big as Egyptians love eating nice portions and everywhere I ate the food was very tasty and good value for money. One restaurant in particular I remember is Abu Basem, near Khan el-Khalili market. We went there before starting shopping and they serve lovely grilled chicken with many vegetable side dishes and Egyptian pita bread. Very simple dishes but tasty and nice because of their simplicity, that lets the freshness of the ingredients come across at its best. Another thing I recommend travellers to try are tamiya, Egyptian falafel, made with broad beans rather than chickpeas. They are a popular street food, served in pita bread and they are very cheap but taste great and are quite filling.
In Cairo there are many famous tourist attractions, which I do not mention here as they are extremely popular; you can easily find information on the pyramids or on the Citadel. However, if you are a dancer or are enthusiastic about Egyptian music, there are a couple of attractions off the beaten track that could interest you.
One is the Um Kalthoum Museum. As many belly dancers know, Um Kalthoum was a legendary Egyptian singer still very loved in Egypt and to whom the government has dedicated a museum, visited by many school trips but not so well known by foreign tourists. In the museum you can see photographs, videos of Um Kalthoum and some of her personal possessions.
The second off the beaten track attraction for Egyptian music lovers is the new Cairo Opera House. This was inaugurated in 1988, it has two opera halls and an open air theatre and it is where ballet and opera are performed. It is possible to go on a guided tour of the premises.
If you go to Cairo for the first time and you are not familiar with the city an the culture, some of these attractions can be hard to find. Hence, it would be better to go with a specialised group that can introduce you to some hidden jewels. This is what I did myself, as I went with Kay Taylor’s group.
In terms of shopping for belly dance items, Cairo is a paradise and it has something for every taste and purse. In Khan el-Khalili you can find many shops selling costumes in every price range, which go from the cheapest but lower quality to better quality mid-range (equivalent of about an average of GBP 200 per costume). One of such upper-mid range quality is Yasser, which has a big choice of costumes and designs. Another shop famous amongst belly dancers is Al Wikalah, 3 floors of belly dance paraphernalia, where you can find anything you desire located at 73, Gawhar Al-Qayid St, Khan el-Khalili. In Khan el-Khalili, a good place to buy CDs and DVDs is a small shop near the El Fishawy, the oldest café in Cairo. I do not remember the name of the shop, but if you go near El Fishawy you should find it easily.
If you have money to spend, you can also buy designer costumes. The price range for these is the equivalent, at the time of writing, of about GBP 300 to 500 and you need to go to the designers’ shops, which are not in the market but are located around the city (someone such as Yasmina or Kay Taylor know where they are and can advise). Some of the most well known costume designers in Cairo are Hanan, Raqia Hassan (who is also a famous choreographer) and Eman Zaki (as Eman used to be a professional dancer herself, her costumes are designed with the dancer’s body in mind, hence they are extremely comfortable to dance in. They are also beautiful and of very good quality; worth paying for if you can afford them).
The places which are most visited to see raqs sharqi performances are boats along the river Nile. On the boat tourists can have dinner while watching a dance performance to live music and singing. The performance usually includes a solo dance performance and a tannoura number (a performance inspired by Sufi dancing, usually done by a man who spins around with a colourful skirt). There are various classes of boats, from the cheapest to the deluxe ones, such as the Nile Maxim where Randa Kamel usually performs. These performances are for tourists mainly, but if you go the first times with someone who knows where to take you, you can watch very good dancers, such as Luna of Cairo, Lorna Gow or Randa Kamel.
Another place I went to, which is mainly for locals, is the Felfela Vilage in Giza. On Fridays people go and eat there and there is a big stage in the middle where musicians play and customers can stand up and dance socially, in between performances. Performances are usually group folkloric dances, rather than raqs sharqi solos and the main attraction is Hassann (a multitalented singer, dancer, actor and choreographer) with his troupe.
Since the recent revolution, tourism everywhere in Egypt has dropped considerably. The last time I went, even Khan el-Khalili, usually very busy, was extremely quiet. I went after the revolution but before the coup d’état that deposed Morsi. When I went it was ok to go as long as you stayed away from Tahrir Square, especially on Fridays, which is the place and time when demonstrations are more likely to happen. Currently I do not know what the situation is. People I know who live in Cairo say that the situation is fine and it is not as dangerous as depicted in the media. I would go with what the Foreign Office advises, hoping that the situation settles soon and for a peaceful future for Egypt.
If you are considering going, you can talk to those who know the country well such as Yasmina or Kay Taylor, who goes to Cairo several times a year. Kay is happy for people to contact her directly on faridaadventures(AT)me.com