July 23, 2014 | by Elena Faye
Mercedes Nieto leading a workshop
organizers prepare to announce the line-up for the 2015 festival, they’re also reflecting on what was the first of many NYCairo events to come. The brainchild of international touring artist Mohamed Shahin and New York City-based entrepreneur Hanna Hanna, NYCairo was first conceptualized over two years ago. “We’d been thinking about doing a festival for quite some time,” says Hanna. Though the two had been friends for years, they had never collaborated professionally. Fortunately however, the partnership was a natural one, and planning began almost immediately after the idea was proposed, driven by a strong desire to bring a high-quality international festival to New York City.
As one might expect, New York City is a hub for bellydance, playing host to strong communities of Egyptian, American cabaret, and fusion styles. Yet despite this, the city lacks an annual dance festival offering top-notch instructors – both Egyptian and international – and other festival staples such as a competitions and gala shows. “There simply hasn’t been anything like this done in NYC,” notes Hanna. “With all due respect to all that came before us and did a lot, nothing of this nature and size, with the collaboration of so many well-respected artists, has been brought to the city.” Aside from Shahin, the featured instructors included Tito Seif, Mercedes Nieto, Jehan Kamal, and special guest Eman Zaki, who participated not only by vending her world-famous costumes but also by teaching a rare workshop on “Golden Era” vintage stylization. “Unfortunately, often times we see a lack of quality teaching on one level or another. This is by no means a disrespect to the many excellent teachers we have here in the city, but in our industry there are may self-appointed ‘Master Instructors’ who in my humble opinion should still be studying instead of teaching. We feel the need to enhance the quality of dance education overall by working with authoritative figures in the field,” explains Hanna. “So much of the rich history and authenticity of the dance is not always passed down. We felt we could bring a lot to the table by collaborating with people who know the dance, the history, and are very well respected.”
Hanna, who is married to NYCairo instructor Jehan Kamal, has spent the much of his life immersed in the belly dance community. As the co-owner of Bellydance America, New York City’s first bellydance costume boutique, and a student of Arabic music, Hanna was able to bring both his business skills and artistic sense to the planning of NYCairo. “The most challenging aspect was trying to do it all as cost-effectively as possible, while still hosting the festival in the heart of New York. This was by far one of the hardest things to accomplish given the incredible high cost of things in this city.” Despite the challenge, he and Shahin located an ideal venue that conveniently housed the workshops, shows, and vending in a single location, and also allowed for the festival to be affordable for attendees. “Our rates in the end were not any high that other comparable festivals, despite the expense of holding an event in Manhattan,” Hanna says.
It was also important to the organizers to incorporate live music, something that increasingly rare in the contemporary bellydance scene. Where Manhattan’s 8th Avenue was once littered with Middle Eastern venues featuring nightly shows of both music and dance, today it is a rare treat to see dance performed to a full Arabic orchestra. Determined to showcase some of the remarkable Arabic musical talent in the city, Shahin and Hanna arranged for the participation of the Artistic Director of the New York Arabic Orchestra Mr. Bassam Saba. This made for a gala show rich with an infectious energy that comes from the combination of live music, generous dance performances, and an enthusiastic audience.
Despite some bumps along on the way, the NYCairo Festival made an exceptionally positive impression among all those involved. “The topics covered a wide range of Egyptian dance styles presented by top talent, and I was happy that they kept the instruction level high,” reflects San Francisco-based dancer Lara. “NYCairo is exactly what this community needs,” says dancer Vanessa, currently based in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. “The organizers brought excellence & professionalism to not only the stage but in all areas of this event.” With such enthusiastic feedback from attendees, performers, vendors, and instructors, the future is looking bright for this festival, and we can be sure that NYCairo 2015 will be an event not to be missed.