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  • Writer's pictureby Zara Dance

The three craziest stage experiences of working on Egyptian cabaret (so far...)

I have been working as a freelance Egyptian bellydancer for over 3 months now and it has been amazing! I have danced for the very rich, 5 star hotels, boats in Zamalek, cabaret clubs, TV dramas, films and famous singers. I regularly dance in several clubs with amazing live bands, some of them provide male backing dancers for my entrance. Some gigs have been on exciting islands which require a boat to get to! But hey, these months have been the craziest rollercoaster ride of my life and as much glamour as I have had, I have had just as many hilarious, unglamorous experiences. BUT THAT IS WHY I AM HERE - for experiences, to learn about the world of bellydance and report all the gossip back to you. I have a unique opportunity because of my Egyptian licence to work in places and stages rarely experienced by foreign dancers. Here are some of the funniest experiences I have had to date - I’m sure I’ll have more:

Monopoly Worries IF any of you have ever been to an Egyptian cabaret you will know tips are big business. Plates and plates of money are thrown over the dancers, the singers, the musicians, the owners of clubs, other guests, BASICALLY ANYBODY! If you are in the room, you are likely to get covered at some point. To those from the West this can be a crazy concept to get ones head around. How can money be so easily thrown? I have easily seen over £1000 (yes English money) thrown in the 30mins I have been on stage.

Let me explain how this tipping usually works, as I am sure a lot of you are keen to know. The customers buy plates of money. In the TOP clubs there is a pound to pound exchange: What you pay is what you receive on your plate but in wads of 5LE notes (about 20p value to each note), so it is easy to throw and there is a lot. These plates, piled high, usually go on the table in front of the most important guest. In most clubs, still considered quite high up, there is a double exchange rate. So you get double on your plate to what you pay: giving you more money to throw for your money lol. The plates are diligently watched in all the clubs. Once you buy your plates, the money MUST be thrown. Once thrown, collectors run around the stage (as you still dance) and tables and collect all the money up. The notes are returned to be piled up and sold again on another plate load of money.

If you are a dancer who performs with the house band, as I do, you are paid a set price regardless of the tips thrown. On some quiet days not much is thrown but on other days it’s thousands. If you are a dancer who comes with and performs with her own band (the Queens of Cabaret) the tips are split on an arranged ratio between the club and the dancer. The dancer pays her band out of this money.

As I said this is how it usually works………

So I go to work in a club on Pyramid Street. I am ALWAYS nervous when I first work at a new (potentially regular) venue - regardless of how long I have been working as a dancer. I don’t know what the stage is like, what the customers are like, how good the other dancers and performers are… ...

As the dancer in front of me finishes I watch her come off the stage….and there is A LOT of money on the stage. There is soooo much that they aren’t even manually collecting it. They are just sweeping it up!?!? I start to panic. Oh my, she must be an amazing dancer. What are they going to think when they see me? I feel sick to my stomach. I go on to the stage and start to dance There is a full house band of about 10-12 musicians but they are displaced from the stage so I find it hard to connect and communicate with them. As I start to dance the money starts to flow, tons of the stuff starts to be thrown. The audience are great fun – I notice they are a young crowd, in their 20s. They start ordering more plates of money.

How do such young people have so much money??? To the point that after each song the stage needs to be swept down!

Hahah! As I look down to the floor, I notice that amongst the 5LE notes there are FAKE notes – like monopoly money. I laugh to myself, so hard! Obviously, the money is watered down to give these young crowds the feel of the high life. I breathe easy and relax a lot more and I ended up having an amazing 45min on the stage with the young fun crowd and great live music. I have danced there a couple of times now and

THE IRONY is: I get paid the same amount per set as I do in the clubs that don’t water down the cash and quite a bit more than offered by the hotels and boats I have worked on!

Keyboard Keel Over One of my favourite clubs I work on is a stationary party boat. It doesn’t have a live band but they do have an amazing keyboard player and two shaabi singers whom I LOVE. They are semi famous singers and they are amazing at their job. They sing fantastically and they have such amazing personalities. They walk around the stage with me and bounce off of each other as well as me. We make a cute trio. In certain parts of the songs, they sing to me the cheeky lyrics and I dance the lyrics back. This chemistry and acting on stage makes the set an easy one and very entertaining.

One day we start the set and it begins as normal. We are all on fire and the crowd is engaged. This is a party boat. But then the keyboard music starts to go weird. I lose one of the singers. He disappears off stage. I can tell something is going on. A few minutes later, at the end of the song, the other singer disappears. He gestures for me to stay and keep dancing. The music then goes to CD. I can see a drama going on in the DJ box where the keyboard player is. The keyboard player has passed out and they are trying to get him out, to get him to hospital. I’m on a high stage so I can see it all.

The audience are oblivious.

I am left for the next 25min with a JUMPING CD playing Alf Leila We Leila - I LOVE this song but…. For 25min and on a party boat and skipping!!! AHHH the 25min felt like ages.

THE IRONY is: a lot of the regulars liked me dancing to the song and I have become known for it (the dancer who does Alf Leila We Leila) and now at the end of my slot on this boat they always play a 5min version of Alf Leila We Leila… I think they are taking the piss lol. Thankfully the keyboard player recovered and is ok.

Dwarf Distractions. This must be the funniest experience just because of how random it was. I was dancing in a club in Heliopolis. They have two levels, I can’t really tell the difference between the levels but I think the bottom level is a more chilled out area and the top is the party floor, but to me they seem pretty much the same. Anyway, I start my gig on the bottom floor and all goes well. Nothing unusual, it’s very much the same as every other club I have danced in recently.

My second set is in the upstairs club. I expect it to be pretty much the same. It is slightly busier than the downstairs club but that is it. The set up is the same, a singer, keyboard player and a few drummers. I get on the stage and do my magencey.

After this the songs begin to roll, as does the throwing of the money. Then out of what feels like nowhere several little people (people with dwarfism) appear and run around me collecting the money from the stage and tables! As they go around the tables they disappear out of sight because of their height. I am completely distracted. They keep re-appearing out of nowhere every time money is thrown, scuttling around collecting the notes. I feel as if I am in a weird bellydance version of Snow White!

They are obviously are employed for their novelty factor... not really sure how I sit with that ?!?!? lost for words.....

THE IRONY is: I am sure this will not be the craziest thing I see as I continue my work in Cairo. I will keep you updated with more crazy stories as they happen.

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