Once upon a time, there was a girl called Lucy…

10370907_854707011225335_4960555578067273817_nThere was a dancer called Lucy, a girl who came from Mohamed Ali Street, in Cairo; a dame in distress; a queen who often forgot her noble condition.

I lost the count of the times I headed to her usual performing place “Le Parisienne”, a cockroach infested nighclub at the decadent Pyramids Street (once the glamourous, hot spot for performing arts in the Middle East), just to watch her dance. How the mighty fall!

We shared some musicians – a delicious promiscuity – and they took me to watch her after we´d finish our work. I´d usually finish around 1.30am, if there was no wedding after that, and Lucy would start performing, if she was in the mood for it – Inshah Allah institution -, around 3 or 4am.

I´d wait, sip some tea and despair until she, eventually, showed up. While I sat waiting, hoping for a glimpse of heaven, I´d be observed and haressed by prostitutes and rich Arab guys who had their mouths stuck to “shishas” and their eyes stuck to hell, no matter where they looked. I needed that blessed time, a gift to myself, a parentheses in the mad, savage world of Cairo Oriental Dance scene. Some nights, I´d head for “Le Parisienne” in ecstatic joy – a particularly amazing night; great audiences and feed-back; me and my orchestra on fire, hitting the Inspiration spot without a moment of rest.

Other nights, I headed to that dark night-club with a sinking heart and many question marks – those were the nights the police showed up to extort some money, checking my cloths, work papers and “moral” behaviour; those were the nights when another dancer – or her manager – made a point on eliminating competition, letting the police know I was, allegedly, carrying drugs in my work bags; those were the nights when I felt the sting of prejudice in my skin: the impossibility of a healthy relationship with a man because I´m a “rakkasah”; the neighbours gossiping; someone refusing to rent me a place because I would, no doubt, throw bacchanalia parties there. Ah! The glamour of it all. 

When Lucy got on that sombre stage, she would first please the dollar crowd – those rich guys who fill night-clubs in order to pick up prostitutes, drink alcohol (forbidden by Islam) and having the sordid pleasure of throwing money over dancers´heads, going as far as sticking the notes in their belts and bras. Lucy played the game, although she didn´t look like she needed the money. I could understand why poor “dancers” would do it – they desperately need that money; they often have families to support and no other way to make a living. But Lucy is a big star. She has made it and, aside from the wealth accumulated through her work, she´s (or was) married to another classic: the rich business man, owner of the mentioned “Le Parisienne”. So why? Why lower yourself getting into a game you don´t even need to play? Another mystery.

I covered my face in shame, sadness and frustration. If I could, I would have dragged her out of those tables where she did her “khalleegi” act in exchange for dollars thrown over her head; if I could, I would stop her from shaking her breasts on those jerks´faces. I couldn´t. I would have been immediately arrested.

The decadent part of the performance was endured with deep breathing (thanks, yoga!), some more green tea (so out of context) and a well trained poker face. Lucy would rock those tables and chairs, driving those repressed beasts crazy. They would haul, yell, laugh out loud and pour their dirty money over her, swashbuckling, boasting with male lust and pride.

Then, after the waiters collected the dollars thrown over her and that male testosterone was put at ease, Magic started. Maybe 5 minutes of it – not more. Lucy – a slave turned into a queen. She would leave the hauling wolves behind, proud of their masculinity (in Egypt, money defines a man´s worth), go up the stage, right where she had started, and stand there, for a few moments, motionless and with her eyes closed. The smell of her perfume invaded the stage and the tables around it, mixed with the tobacco from the “shishas”, haxixe and other fragrances I´m not sure I want to know about; a brand new light, warm like the sun, covered her as if she was a saint, or a redeemed sinner, rising towards the sky. A question popped in my mind: was that a woman or a goddess? Better said: was that a woman or the goddess revealed through that woman?

From the moment she retreated to her private world, a mist of reverence and divinity covered the whole nightclub. No prostitution, no cave men, no dirty dollars or any other kind of decadence survived: we were witnessing a divine moment in its purest form. Her musicians would give us their best Mona Lisa smiles; they would focus, preparing for the REAL THING.

One thing´s for certain: the world around her, that world where she had been eager to please and tease, vanished into thin air. The message was clear: it was her time: to dance, to be, to feel, to fly. Mostly for herself. Those guys and their money were reduced to ashes. No one and nothing mattered anymore. Lucy got into a particular Wonder*land of her own where no dirtiness would even come close. Those were moments no amount of dollars could buy: divine, pure, noble, goose bumping.

In those nights, I was honoured to enjoy Oriental Dance Master Classes. I got backstage with Lucy on several occasions and had awckward chats that exposed our similarities but, above them, our differences. Although we worked with the same musicians and in the same market (sort of), we were miles away from each other. Utterly distant. A distance that doesn´t come in maps. We were also close; living in the same house, practically.

She often warned not to put my purse on the floor because it wasn´t good for money attraction. Supersticions!

In a show that could last 2 hours, I´d catch only 10 minutes of real dance but those 10, or 5, minutes were worth all the waiting and the despair. Her movements were simple, raw, absolutely honest and heart breaking. Her body served as a tool to express her soul – period. There was no concern on how she looked, how well she could move or how high her technique was – what she did was beyond and above any “technical” consideration. A loving, warm fog surrounded her body, bringing her into the Untouchable Club.  The Visual and the Invisible Dance I mention in my book “The Secrets of Egypt – Dance, Life & Beyond”. Magic. I repeat: magic. 

Other times, she wouldn´t show up. Simple as that.

-She´s sick; she´s out of town; a family problem came up; she´s working in a wedding; Cairo traffic, you know…- the typical excuses.

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Samia Gamal, an Egyptian Dance Icon, photographed for LIFE magazine.

In those cases, the manager knew he´d have to give me my money back. The only reason why I spent those damned nights there was to watch her. I´d return home, tired from my own work and frustrated for the lost night, exasperated at the thought of never watching that magic again.  1507117_10206793304730632_6902735314528705072_n 10982192_10206793303850610_3333781573759828574_n 10985218_10206793304530627_2717260702269522643_n 11063855_10206793304370623_101013128240639243_n

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