THE FARHA FESTIVAL: Getting back to Egyptian Roots
by Yvette Cowles

This year has been one of exploration for me. I've been studying and performing a number of different styles of dance, but I can't describe how wonderful it was to get back to my first passion – Egyptian style belly dance – and experience the best in teaching, music and performance at the Farha Festival organised by Kay Taylor of Farida Adventures and Sara Farouk, and held in Luxor earlier this year.

The setting for this fabulous festival was the luxurious Sofitel Hotel, set on the banks of the Nile. The location itself, the warm welcome from the staff and festival organisers ensured that the festival got off to a relaxing start and continued that way throughout the week. When not dancing we could go for a quick dip in the pool, a doze in the sun or a drink at the bar. And of course it was great to catch up with old friends, as well as make many new ones during the course of the week.

From the outset we were divided into two groups – one which was going to perform Kazafy's Saidi dance with boys from a local folkloric group – and the other to perform with Safaa Farid's group, the Fer'et el Nagoum band. Since it's so rare to have the opportunity to dance with a band of that calibre, let alone do so in Egypt, I chose the second option.

The teaching throughout the week was brilliant. On the first day Sara Farouk and master oud player Emad took us through the music of Abdel Halim Hafez and showed us how to interpret it like an Egyptian dancer. They also ran a session on the development of Egyptian dance music, focusing on the lesser known rhythms and styles that form the background to the dance today. Sara is a very charismatic teacher who offers her own, unique perspective on the dance. She and Emad made a great combination and it was fascinating to approach the subject from both a dancer's and musician's point of view.

Sara's input was definitely required during Emad's session on understanding Egyptian music. As a virtuoso musician, it was difficult for him to pitch the talk at a level understandable to non-musicians. Still, it made me realise how much I still have to learn!

Leila is a lovely teacher – unassuming, modest and extremely generous. She led a great session in Shaabi (Egyptian street music), showing how the movements used contrast with those in Oriental. She taught different movements to Oriental music, and then 'shaabified' them. It was great to be able to relax into the movements, rather than strive for the complete isolation required in a lot of the fusion and US influenced styles. As Leila said, there should be some movement through the body. That night we had the opportunity to see Leila perform with the Fer'et el Nagoum band. She was fabulous.

In her second workshop, Leila discussed the structure of classical Egyptian music, using the band to demonstrate. It was a fascinating insight into the music and really helped dancers of every level to understand how to interpret music. She emphasised how important it was to dance well to the songs of the Egyptian 'greats' such Om Kalthoum, Abdel Halim Hafez and Warda, who are so revered by the Egyptians that it can cause offence if they are not interpreted well, or if you choose to cut a much-loved piece of music in the wrong way. Leila emphasised that, in contrast to our Western obsession with complicated technique and combinations, simplicity and repetition speaks more powerfully to an Egyptian audience.

We also had the opportunity to try out the Tanoura (a form of the 'Whirling Dervish' dance devised for performance) with Said, who had regaled us with his spinning the night before. It proved much harder than it looked, as we appreciated when one poor girl fell over when spinning, banged her head on a table and nearly knocked herself out. While Kay did a great job in translating for Said, I think a more structured approach to teaching the Tanoura would have worked better. That said, I was still fired with enough enthusiasm to buy Said's tanoura skirt, vowing to hone my spinning skills. Sadly, having lugged it back in a specially made, reinforced bag, it's still lurking in the back of my wardrobe, waiting for me to develop the upper body strength required to spin it above my head.

That evening we got to sample the delights of Karnak. It was years since I'd been there and though in some ways it was barely recognisable – the hotel complexes, swanky new roads and state-of-the-art traffic lights – in others it remained unmistakably Egyptian. The following day a number of us went on a trip to the West Bank. It was years since I had been to Valley of the Kings and we had a great day out visiting the temples and a number of the tombs.

Yasmina and Kazafy were our teachers for the second half of the week. Yasmina ran an extremely valuable session on how to get the most from a band. She is an excellent teacher and very clearly demonstrated the different ways in which the same piece of music could be interpreted by a change of singer or instrument. And, as she said, seeing her coping with a band with whom she had not been working for a while was a valuable lesson. We saw the challenges and potential pitfalls that awaited us on the last day.

Yasmina's second workshop was on improvisational Baladi, its structure and how to dance to it effectively. As someone who moved away from this typically Egyptian dance style in recent years, dancing with Yasmina and the musicians helped me rediscover my passion for it.

In our first workshop with Reda Troupe soloist Kazafy we explored different steps, styles and combinations. He showed us the basic steps accompanied by tabla and then demonstrated how they fit with the music. Those of you who have been to any of the Farha shows will know what a fabulous dancer Kazafy is, and his teaching is every bit as good. I really enjoyed doing his Saidi routine with the male dancers too – it was great fun to be that girly!

During the week, Leila and Yasmina gave talks about their experiences as a foreign dancer in Egypt, providing a real insight into the Cairo dance scene. After his workshop, Kazafy spoke about his experiences with the Reda Dance Troupe. Having been introduced to Mahmoud Reda's dancing on TV as a child in Libya, during a visit to Cairo at the age of 10 he went to the Balloon Theatre and asked to join the company! Sent away, he was undeterred and returned the following week. Unbeknownst to his family, he began attending classes, in time progressing from very small parts, through the ranks to the role of soloist and assistant to Mahmoud Reda and Farida Fahmy, performing all over the world. It was truly a lesson in hard work, determination and an unshakeable passion for the dance.

The culmination of the week was a performance on the Sunday night. Those of us who had elected to dance with the band got a fifteen-minute rehearsal slot. As each dancer had a five-minute performance slot, many of the pieces had to be cut and how this was done was down to the dancer and the band. Even if you knew what you wanted, communicating it to the band proved quite a challenge. And in some cases, it didn't make any difference as the band went back to their usual arrangement anyway! This was obviously frustrating if it was your piece, but understandable given the fact that there were 16 of us. When it was my turn to dance I was paralysed with nerves just before I went on, but thankfully once the music started they evaporated and I was able to savour every moment with the band.

The Farha Festival was an unforgettable experience and Kay Taylor and Sara Farouk did a brilliant job of organising it. Thanks too to Sharif, Sara's husband, and Christine Emery of Farida Dance, as well as everyone else who worked behind the scenes to make things run smoothly. It was a great dance festival and a great holiday. Aside from the dancing, we got time for relaxation, sightseeing and catching up on the gossip. In the evenings we could venture out and take in a felucca ride or folkloric show. We even had the opportunity to have a professional photo taken by Tracey Gibbs. There are many dance festivals around but I have never come across one that so perfectly captured the joyful exuberance of Egypt and its passion for dance. I can't recommend it too highly.

Don't miss out on experiencing the last Farha Festival for yourself in August 2013!
To book click here


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