Day 8: Just Like Salome, But Without The Scheming And Murder

I made it to belly-dance class today, and it was even better than I’d hoped. The Samia Allouba Center (the branch that actually exists, not the mythical one I tried to get to on Thursday) was easy to find. They’re basically a chain of gyms, like Egypt’s version of Bally or Crunch or what have you, with a particular focus on dance classes. Like a lot in Cairo it seems, the whole excercise phenomenon is largely an excuse to sit and drink tea and juice, nibble on fruit and cakes and gossip, since the heart of the center definitely seemed to be its cafeteria, which is the first thing you hit when you walk in. The place was filled mostly with women, though there were some men (actually, next door to the studio where the belly-dance class was being held, a group of men were engaging in what seemed to be a Jazzercise-style aerobics class).

Anyway, the belly-dance class got going right away – none of this precious, Yoga-warmup, stretch-out-and-rid-yourself-of-the-day’s-stress-and-find-your-“center”-for-20-minutes-before-we-begin stuff you get at the start of dance classes in the West – just walk in to blaring music and try to keep up.

The first thing I noticed as I jumped in and started shaking and shimmying with the group was everyone’s hair and bodies. There they were! In the reception and lobby and cafeteria areas – where as I said menfolk were present – most of the women had their heads covered and their figures quite thoroughly obscured, just as outside. I’ve been wondering all week if, in single-sex public settings, the ladies would shed some of these layers (like the women I hung out with in India’s Himalchal Pradesh who, when all the men were gone, would remove their neck scarves and use them as sweatbands) – this doesn’t happen on Cairo’s ladies’-only subway cars, but that’s different. Well, it sure does in dance class! Not only was there lots of long, full dark hair flying and bare shoulders and legs aplenty, but there was also a fair amount of cleavage and midriff to be seen. I wasn’t surprised – dance class is dance class after all, no matter where you are or what you believe in – but it was remarkable only because it was about 1000% more female flesh than I’d seen all week.

As you can imagine, given this state of relative undress, no one wanted me to take any pictures of the class. So here’s a generic image of an Egyptian belly-dancer yanked from the Internet:

Yup, we all looked just like her.

The class itself was wonderful. It was a little packed – roughly 20 of us in a room about 20 ft by 25 ft – but extremely joyful and giggly. The teacher, a 40-ish, apple-shaped lady called Saouna, started off very strict and rigorous, coming around and correcting all of our posture and yanking at our arms and slapping at our behinds. But then in the second part of the class she just let loose and started “yipping” and “ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ing” all over the place and only seemed concerned that we didn’t stop moving. After drilling us on a few basic moves, the class was mainly follow-the-leader style, though Saouna clearly didn’t care if we improvised and did our own thing (there was one girl there, Rana, who was obviously a professional dancer and was making up her own choreography as she went along – sometimes I followed her instead of Saouna, and that was much more difficult!). Saouna played each song progressively louder, so that by the end of the class the drum-and-wailing songs seemed to be pressing against the walls of the room. The class was geared for all levels – some of the girls were there for the first time, others had been doing it for years – but I don’t think anyone in there didn’t have a blast. Saouna taught mainly in Arabic, which was great – she did throw in some English for my benefit, but it really wasn’t necessary since I could see everything she was saying anyway. So next time I’ll ask her to just go ahead and do it all in Arabic – hopefully it’ll add to my vocabulary. The moves were a little bouncier and less snake-like than the Turkish- and tribal-style classes I’ve taken in the past with the Pittsburgh-based Zafira troupe:

But the main principles were the same.

Oh! And I made a friend – Rana, the girl who looks like she dances for more than just a hobby, came up to me after class and introduced herself, asked where I’m from, etc. Turns out she’s from Lebanon, though has been living in Cairo for several years, and actually rents an apartment on the same street as my hotel! So we exchanged contact information and agreed to get together for coffee soon – she seems very nice, and now I’ll get to learn a little about the difference between Egyptian and Lebanese Arabic!

Anyway, a blissful way to spend the evening, not to mention an excellent source of ladies with whom I can converse freely and practice the language. I’ll definitely be returning twice a week for the rest of my time here.

After class I hit the books and got some studying done over mango juice at an outdoor cafe downtown, where I also watched a cat (stray cats, particularly calico ones for some reason, are everywhere in Cairo, but everywhere) watch the smoking men watch their domino opponents:

On my way home, it started raining suddenly – it didn’t last long, but it was fairly powerful and felt wonderful. Cairo gets an average of 0.1 inches of rain per month, and according to a stunned-looking older man who crossed the street next to me during the downpour, “Never rain in the summer – never in June – never!” So it was quite a momentous occasion, and brought lots of Cairenes out their shops and homes and onto the streets to stare up at the sky and catch the drops on their faces. It ended as quickly as it started, but afterwards everything felt a little cooler and cleaner.

I got some more take-away kushari on the way home – here are the ingredients:

Here is the noble hero who put it all together and sold it to me in a large Tupperware container for a grand total of 2 Egyptian pounds:

And here’s me, about to indulge back at my hotel, perhaps a little overenthused about the finished product:

Whatever, you would be too. This stuff is gooooo-ood.

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3 Responses to “Day 8: Just Like Salome, But Without The Scheming And Murder”

  1. lulu Says:

    Yay, the belly dances and then digs in. The class sounded wonderful and great to make a new buddy who lives just down the road. xox

  2. El Matamoros Says:

    Whew! Sooner you than me! (By the way, I don’t suppose Madame Saouna played that grand old belly-dancing standard “In the south of France, where the ladies wear no…”, that you used to holler from in the back of the car? No? Pity….)

  3. Day 39: Last Day (With Asides About Food) « Annie’s Cairo Weblog Says:

    […] I became a conneusseur of the street food, as I’ve noted – always my first choice anyway.  Koshari is hands-down one of my favorite dishes of all time. It’s glorious. Once again, it consists of three kinds of pasta (spagetti, elbow macaroni, […]

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