In 2005, I had the opportunity to see a show in Newcastle upon Tyne, featuring a troupe of Egyptian belly dancers. Dancers included Yasmina of Cairo, Aida Nour and Dandasha (also transliterated Dandesh or Dandash). The show was amazing and I was very impressed, as it was the first time I saw a belly dance show with Egyptian dancers. At the time I was still a beginner belly dancer and I was just starting to discover the variety of styles of this art form. The musicians were also good, and so were the Sufi dancers who impressed the audience with their uninterrupted spinning. When, a few years later, I had the opportunity to travel to Egypt, I saw a lot more of this spinning dancers and I found out that that type of dance, inspired by sufi, is called in Egypt tannoura. The main difference being that sufi is a ritual done for religious reasons, while tannoura’s aim is to perform for entertainment.
The dancers at the 2005 show in Newcastle were Yasmina of Cairo (I attended some of her workshops a few years later in the UK and I also stayed in her B&B when I visited Cairo), Aida Nour (a very experienced folkloric belly dancer, who is one of the organisers of the Nile Group in Cairo) and Dandesh. Dandash does not often travel outside of Egypt to perform, so she was the star of the evening, not so much because the other dancers were not as good, but because it was a rare opportunity to see her in the UK and the audience was impressed by her style.
What struck me most of Dandasha’s belly dancing style was her extremely relaxed and confident attitude on stage. She looked very at ease and relaxed as she shimmied her way through the performance and smiled in the most natural way. Her natural smile was something that I really noticed and liked. Dancers are usually advised to smile on stage, to show their enjoyment of dance, but some dancers’ smiles can look a bit forced, at times. Not so Dandesh’s smile. Dandash was also extremely confident and engaged the audience a lot, encouraging them to clap to the rhythm. What I also liked a lot of Dandesh’s belly dance style were her shimmies. She had very energetic, but at the same time effortless shimmies. Dandasha’s belly dance style did not include a great range of fancy movements, but the movements she did were impeccable and perfectly performed.
What I did not realise at the time, was that Dandesha’s style was the epitome of Egyptian raqs sharqi. That is, a style in which the connection with the audience is extremely important in a setting where expression and emotional involvement are more prized that technical virtuosity. In terms of movements, Dandesh is a minimalist, she does not do overcomplicated routines. However, the movements she makes are spot on and effortless and her dances are very effective. Used as I was to Western style emphasis on virtuosity with less interest in performer’s / audience connection, I was very impressed by Dandesha’s inner energy and expressivity contained within a few ‘simple’ movements (I say simple in inverted commas because they are not simple at all. They may be the core movements of belly dance, that people learn when they start, but to perform them with such mastery is not easy at all and it takes years of practice).
The day after the 2005 show, Aida Nour and Dandash run belly dance workshops in Egyptian belly dance and I attended Dandesh’s workshop. During the class, Dandasha taught parts of her renown choreography, where she imitates the styles of other famous Egyptian belly dancers. She also taught some interesting steps and shimmies steps combinations that I still remember. Most of all though, what I learned from looking at Dandash performing, was the knowledge of how important it is for a dancer to look at ease and confident on stage, a skill that is often the most difficult to master.
A few years later I came across Dandesh again, this time at the Farha festival in Luxor in 2012. The festival lasted a week and participants had the chance to attend various classes with different Egyptian performers and to watch live shows. Dandesh was one of the teachers and she also performed and she gave an informal talk, during which people could ask her questions.
This time , what I remember of Dandesha’s classes and performances, was her strong emotional involvement with the music and the songs she danced to, much more than it transpired seven years earlier. During her classes she taught routines that she made up as she went along, which were lovely even if improvised. Actually, one of the things that I learnt about Dandesha that time was that she never choreographs her performances but she improvises all the time (this is another key characteristic of traditional Egyptian belly dance and of most dance styles from Islamic countries, according to a very interesting article by Ibsen al Faruqi with the title: ‘Dance as Expression of Islamic Culture’).
Since emotion and interpretation of the feelings in the songs and in the music is crucial for Dandesha, she explained to us the meaning of the words of the songs we were using for the class and she encouraged us to feel and express the emotions. When she performed at the festival, she even almost cried as she was dancing to one of the songs. I did not know what the song was about, but it must have had a special meaning for her. This experience was for me a real insight into Egyptian culture and it helped me give a deeper meaning to the practice of belly dance.
I learnt that Dandesha is really appreciated by Egyptian audiences as they see her as the personification of what Egyptian music and arts are about. During the talk she gave, we had the opportunity to know her better. She told us that she had been dancing from a very young age (about eight years old) and she had always been encouraged by her parents (a family of musicians) as they saw the talent in her. She kept saying that she was gifted, as though acknowledging that her ability to dance was a gift from God, perhaps, rather than fruit of hard work as she gave the impression that from the beginning she always danced effortlessly and every movement came to her naturally. Considering the ambivalent attitude that Egyptians have towards dancers, especially female, she was privileged in that her family encouraged her to dance professionally, rather than trying to stop her, and audiences in Egypt have always appreciated her ability (this is at least what she told us). Dandesha is married and also her husband is supportive towards her dancing career. Surely the fact that she comes from a family of artists must have helped her pursue her passion in life.
Dandesha, between the time I saw her in the UK in 2005 and in Luxor in 2012, had stopped dancing for a couple of years but then she started again luckily. It is interesting to see the same dancer and learn from her at two different moments in time a few years apart, as you can see the changes and as the dancer’s style evolves. For example, in Dandesha’s case, even if she had the same confidence and technical ability in 2005, in 2012 she was definitely even more expressive and more concerned about bringing out the emotions in the audience.
You may also find interesting to read about my experiences doing workshops also with Hossam and Serena Ramzy .
Ibsen al Faruqi, L. (1978). “Dance as an Expression of Islamic Culture.” Dance Research Journal 10(2): 6-13.