When first asked by my manager if I wanted to dance at a Baladi wedding I hesitated. It is the kind of thing other dancers announce with pride that they would never do, and in some ways I don't blame them. “What’s a Baladi wedding?” I hear you ask.
Well, have you ever been watching YouTube videos of bellydancers and clicking on link to link you come to that DARKKKKKK area of YouTube bellydance videos where there are women dancing, at what looks like a wedding in Egypt, in little more than a thong and inch of fringe? These videos can be quite alarming. Well, that’s what CAN come under the umbrella of Baladi weddings. But like any type of wedding there can be different levels (usually associated with wealth).
I ask my manager if this is what he’s talking about.
“Nooooo, that’s a cheap Baladi wedding. It will be like that but more classy. This is a VERY, VERY, BIG wedding. Lots and lots of stars will be there to perform. Tarek El Sheikh, Ahmed Sheba and Shafika (all famous singers) will be performing and there will be lots of famous people in the audience, directors etc.”
“Ok, what do I have to do?”
“You go to the wedding; take an abaya; you sit on the stage and any time you want to, you get up and dance your dance. The rest of the time you can sit in a corner of the stage, in your abaya (long black over dress/coat/kaftan) and drink tea, eat, smoke shisha. Enjoy like a guest.”
I’m informed that I will have to stay on the stage for up to 5 hours, the entire wedding basically. The pay is good. And I check what costume I will have to wear. It’s ok as I can wear my normal costumes. I’m told I will be accompanied by another dancer who dances at these Baladi weddings all the time and that she will help me and tell me what to do.
Experience and authenticity
I think about it. The way I see it, I am dancing in my normal costume, my manager is in the audience the whole time. If it’s good enough for stars as famous as Tarek El Sheikh then its good enough for me. I say yes. After all, I’M HERE, IN CAIRO, FOR THE EXPERIENCE. I want to know more about this dance and its context in my country, my culture. Also, I like the idea of free shisha!
Another important reason as to why I should do at least one of these weddings is that nearly EVERY Egyptian music video with a bellydancer is based around this type of wedding. It is the standard template. Also, nearly every film has a scene at one of these weddings. I myself have been in a few of these videos. I feel a bit like a fake being a bellydancer at a pretend baladi wedding in a music video not having done one for real. Who am I to say it is ok for me to do imitations of these weddings but imply that I am above them in real life?!
The day of the wedding comes and I’m really excited. The sun is about to set and the last call to prayer is happening. We meet up with the other manager and dancer in a car outside the wedding area. I’m told this is the only place I have to get changed. Baladi weddings take place in the street. I change into my costume at the back of the car. I meet the other dancer, Mona. She’s lovely and really kind. I’m taken aback as bellydancers aren’t always so kind on first meeting. She’s wearing a nice dress kind of short, very similar to an Alexandrian/ Malaya dress. She says she will get ready on the stage. I put my abaya on over my costume.
We go to the stage and I leave my phone and my other costume with my manager. I don’t want to lose them. The band has set up and it’s only a few minutes until the first singer, Shafika, arrives. There is hardly anybody present in the audience but Mona insists we need to dance, so we dance. She just dances in her dress. I feel a little stupid in my costume. There are two massive screens each side of the stage projecting what is happening on the stage. On the highest stage are the band and in the corner, two chairs set up for us dancers. The lower stage area is for the singers. There are massive speakers. The band has about 20 musicians.
How a Baladi wedding works.
I quickly become acquainted with how a Baladi wedding works. The bride and groom are not necessarily centre stage, actually the dancers and singers are centre stage, because it is all about the guests having fun. This is about the guests and how much money they “donate/GIFT”. They all come for free to the wedding, enjoy the food, the show and the atmosphere and then give gifts (donations) of money to the bride and groom. Therefore, paying out for big singers is an investment on the wedding party’s side, the better the entertainment the more likely they are to come in the first place and the more they are likely to donate . The money collected at the wedding is like a traditional, start up, cash flow, system for the couple.
There are two Nabatchis. A Nabatchi is a person who stands on the microphone and says the names of the people donating money and how much has been donated. Not only is this broadcast out on the microphone but there is a dedicated writer who logs all the information in a book as the Nabatchi shouts it out. Who has given money and how much is carefully logged so the bride and groom know to donate an equivalent amount in the course of their life when they are invited to these people’s family weddings.
The wedding starts to pack out really fast! From what started out as only a few guests quickly swells to over a thousand guests, maybe even more. Most believe it is only men who go to Baladi weddings but (for this one at least) that’s not true. The wedding area is a tent (tent but there is no top) in the street. It is set up in an L shape so at the front of the stage are all the male guests and to the side of the stage is the women’s section. I’m not going to lie. There are A LOT of men. However, large groups of children congregate around the stage. Basically, everyone living in the surrounding area is at the wedding, EVERYONE. Anyone can walk into the tent. The fact that there are tons of children in front and the women all to the right of the stage really distracts from the fact that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of men sitting in front of the stage. To be honest not many seemed to be watching what was going on, on stage. They were all chatting way, socialising at their tables doing what looked like mini business deals. A lot of the time I felt like I was more entertainment for the kids who all had their smart phones out filming. This was what made me the most uncomfortable, just how much this was being filmed. I’m not used to it as in cabaret clubs filming is not permitted. Goodness knows where those videos are. Will I be in one of those links on YouTube that I talked of?
I can’t see my manager anywhere. He’s gone missing. I want to have my phone and take some photos IT'S A LOT TO TAKE IN and I want photos with all the famous singers. Also, I want my other costume. Mona changes a lot. With every new singer, she has a new costume/dress. Under her original dress was a bellydance bra, she slips on the matching skirt and whips off the dress for one change. This is all being done on the stage in the corner by the band. For another change she throws on a Saidi style open front dress over the bra and whips off the skirt. She is amazing. We start to get a following of boys (kids) who are standing at the edge of the stage, mesmerised by us. It is as if they have never seen a woman before. I suppose they probably hadn’t seen so much female flesh before. These weddings happen in well established, traditional communities where most of the women are covered. But don’t be mistaken these are not poor people.
Why hire sluts?
As the night goes on and the place packs out, more and more donations roll in. Many of the singers hardly have a chance to sing and I can see them getting frustrated. Basically, the only thing happening is the Nabatchi shouting on the microphone about the amazing amount of money Mr blah blah or the blah blah family has given. It gets a bit boring. Mona and I are just sitting on the stage. Two other women have joined us but they sit more in audience's view on the lower stage. I ask Mona if they are dancers, she replies and says something along the lines of, no they are not dancers they are just sluts. A bit harsh, I think........but I can't deny what they went on to do could be seen as slutty (I hate that word and hate to slut shame but just describing what happened) They are basically women employed to be a bit sleazy on stage whilst also doing a bit of bellydance. They are in, what I suppose Egyptians would call, sexy outfits. That is, very short skirts and low cut tops but I’m from the UK where most girls (especially me lol ) dress like that on a Friday night out, so to me it’s pretty normal. They set up their chairs centre stage, not like me and Mona in the corner. They are on show the whole wedding acting a mix between divas, sitting crossed legged on their mobiles, whilst the Nabatchi goes on and on, and a bit like girls out ‘on the town’ in the UK, acting like they are drunk. I doubt they were drunk as I saw no alcohol at the wedding. However, I did see a lot of hash (weed) being passed round, especially amongst the artists.
Why were they employed? Why do people have these women at their wedding? From what I can figure out : I suppose it is because the women at the party were confined to their section under hijabs. These women were just filling a gap which is not there at western weddings/parties. I mean, would thousands of men turn up to a wedding to just sit in an all male environment and give away their money? I don’t think so. They want a party atmosphere. These girls brought that. I like to think of them more as 'party makers' than 'sluts'.
Mona is an amazing dancer. I would even go so far as to say that she is the best dancer I have seen live in Cairo. Any current dancer you think of as amazing, MONA EATS FOR BREAKFAST. Her shimmies are powerful yet soft. She was so in control and shined happiness and beauty. Not only is she a brilliant dancer but she can do crazy tricks like dropping into the splits in amazing ways. I'm in SHOCK. I want to dance like her!!!
It was frustrating that every time the we and the singer got into a song and if felt as if the party was going to kick off. Somebody would make a big donation and the Nabatchi would interrupt, which leads to more people giving money and us just going back to our chairs. All in all, I did very little dancing at the wedding most of the time I sat in the corner being annoyed by a following of kids.
Tarek El Sheikh arrives.
It gets to about 2am. I’ve been on the stage since 8/9pm, mostly sitting, bored, and now busting for a wee. There is nowhere to go. I haven’t seen my manager since we got there. I’m in the same costume. Mona has changed about 4 times. I look so unprofessional in comparison, especially next to her amazing dancing.
The band of 20 musicians starts to pack up. They have been playing for all the singers. I ask Mona, “What’s happening?”
“Tarek is coming. He has his own band”
I get excited. Mona looks indifferent. “I’ve worked with Tarek El Sheikh like 100 times. He does these Baladi weddings all the time”. Mona only dances at Baladi weddings. It is her business. She doesn’t work in clubs or anywhere else. She’s mets many a famous singer and this is nothing new to her. Apparently Tarek does weddings like this all the time!
Wow, Tarek makes a grand entrance! My jaw is on the floor! His band set up FAST. There are no less than 4 keyboards, trumpets, violins, and LOADS of drummers, including a western drum set. He also has a singer employed just to do his entrance who sings, “El Sheikh, El Sheikh!, El Sheikh” (“the king the king! The king is coming”) and the band burst into an amazing entrance piece. In walks Tarek El Sheikh. A path through the crowd of thousands has been made and he steps onto the stage. Everyone is cheering loudly. He starts his first song and we get up to dance. There are strict rules and body guards around him to ensure nobody takes any videos up close or especially with a dancer.....!?
This is the only exciting part of the wedding. The Nabatchi has finally shut up. I look deep into the crowd for my manager. I want a video. I want my phone to take a picture. Goodness me, I’m on stage with Tarek El Sheikh and his band is amazing! The crowd are going wild. We are dancing wild. The two "party makers" are dancing EXTRA WILD, shimmies like I’ve never seen in my life and a lot of dancing together (a bit of girl on girl dancing). I can’t find my manager. I am determined to get a photo with Tarek.... After his first song I hatch a plan. One of the photographers of the wedding had been trying to make eye contact with me and flirt. I go up to him and tell him I want a photo with Tarek. He gets excited at the thought of getting my number to send a photo to me. The photos he sent me are the only ones I have from the event.
Keeping up appearances:
The Nabatchi is at it again. In this break loads of kids and people are going up to Tarek and asking for selfies. His guards are ensuring all is clean. I go up and the guard says that I have to be covered to take a photo. I run and get my abaya. The photographer takes a few shots. I tell Mona that he wouldn’t have a photo with me in my costume. She explains that Tarek is very strict on what and who can photo and film him because he wants to keep his name and position with the upper classes. He doesn’t want to be seen doing these Baladi Weddings and “Local” Clubs (I actually work in a night club where he also works but at completely different times) so as not to bring his name into disrepute! Everythinng is about image here in Cairo.
My manager often tells me I now need to stop dancing in all the clubs because I have started to make a name for myself and need to keep up a good image to break into the upper class markets. We argue a lot about this because I LOVE THE CABARET CLUBS SO MUCH and I hate snobbery. I can empathise why Tarek, despite being a star, still wants to work in such places. This is where he started, how he first became famous. He probably yearns for it - NO MATTER HOW POSH THE WEDDING OR EVENT IS IN THESE UPPER CLASS HOTELS. IT JUST ISN'T THE SAME AS BEING IN A CABARET CLUB WHERE THE AUDIENCE JUST GET YOU AND YOU HAVE THOUSANDS OF POUNDS THROWN ON YOU ! TRUST ME I KNOW !! There is no adrenaline rush quite like it.
Guns are blazing
The Nabatchi finally shuts up and Tarek sings again. There is a long mawwal (slow solo singing traditional at begining of shaabi songs), so we don’t get up to dance straight away, then the song finally drops and we get back on stage. I follow Mona’s lead as to where to stand and at one point I follow her down to the very bottom stage where Tarek has gone. We dance either side of him. The wedding is going crazy. It feels amazing. Tarek is really in the moment. We all are. Mona starts doing some crazy hair flicks like in Iraqi dance. I follow – the crowd GO WILLLLLLD I can hear it! One crowd member starts shooting off his gun into the air. This has happened at family shaabi weddings which I’ve been to so I’m not overly surprised. However, this then starts a chain reaction. I suppose it’s some crazy show of masculinity. More and more alpha men in the audience start shooting off their guns.
“This wedding just got lit!” Mona shouts at me as we dance either side of Tarek. The energy is ELECTRIFYING ...... but not for long…...
The song ends and the Nabatchi gets on the microphone and gives everyone a lecture about not shooting off their guns. I agree with his points but it did dampen the atmosphere. He then goes on for ages calling out all the names of people who had donated and thrown money during that song. Thank goodness he had waited for the song to end! After an age, when the Nabatchi is at last silent, Tarek sings a few more songs, including one of my favourites, Nidum (regret), which I LOVED DANCING TO. The groom got on the stage for a few minutes and this was the only time I saw him. Apparently, the bride was there for the whole wedding, in the women’s section, but I never saw her. For his last song Tarek took the microphone, left the stage and with guards clearing the way, he walked through the crowd, stopping and posing for selfies whilst singing himself out!
Fajr – Sunrise
After Tarek goes, the party atmosphere goes too. The original band returns, another singer comes on but is over run by the Nabatchi calling out all the donations. Everyone is bored including me. The kids especially are bored. A group of them has congregated at the side of the stage staring at us. They start throwing stones and stuff at us. I don’t blame them. I want to throw stones too. I am bored and so desperate for the loo. I have been busting to go for ages. Muna has a go at them every now and again, so do some of the music technicians and stage managers and musicians ..... but it all just becmes a fun game for them, run away for a little while and return when no one is looking.
Fajr finally comes (sun rise) and the call for prayer. The music stops. LOADS of people leave the moment the speakers of near by mosques start the call. My manager finally appears. He encourages me to get my stuff quickly. “We are leaving. We need to leave now Zara or they will make you stay until the last guest leaves.” I could tell that the party was about to take a turn and only dodgy people would be staying after fajr. The organisers weren’t happy. They wanted me to stay. I leave Mona on the stage. She has to dance until the end.
“Where have you been? I‘ve been looking for you.” I ask him angrily. “I wanted my phone and my other costume and to GO TO THE TOILET!”
“What? I‘ve been here the whole time sitting in the crowd. I was watching. You did a good job. I was making sure you were ok.” He then shows me loads of photos of him enjoying the wedding, sitting at a table with famous directors, important mangers and tons of food and cake and even a selfie with Tarek as he was walking and singing himself out of the venue!!
“Well I’m glad you enjoyed yourself!”
We talked about the wedding. My manager told me that when we left, over 450,000 LE had been donated. And more was still coming in. That is nearly £20,000. Not a bad little nest egg if you ask me. As I said, these people are not poor.
Would I do a Baladi wedding again? It's child's play....
If you ask me it was pretty inoffensive. Yes there were two women, "party makers" employed to act slutty but to me and from England it looked no different from a couple of women on the lash.. It was like other gigs I do in clubs across the world where there are dunk guests.
If the money was right, I would say yes to do another Baladi wedding, but to be honest I found (except for the AMAZING 45mins with Tarek) the overall experience pretty boring, so I’m in no rush.
I HATED performing for so many kids who were at the front and hanging around us all the time. I'm not a clown: It's rather ironic because working at these weddings you are projected, or people think of you, as a form of adult entertainment. IN REALITY It was more like being a clown at a children's party.
I also didn't like how all the kids and other people were filming me on phones - I've never danced for sooo many phones. The kids made a wall of cameras around the stage. The wedding was in an area in which I know only ONE PERSON who live near-by. A week later that ONE friend called me and said he had seen me on a phone performing at the famous big wedding. For me I can understand why Tarek limits these videos...