Time for Cairo!

I’m thrilled to be able to return to Cairo once again for learning and visiting. This is my first solo trip to Egypt, but I’m meeting good friends, and I’ve taken this exact route each time… which is why I chose it! 

On the plane!

The 10-hr flight over went smoothly, watched Hidden Figures for the first time (though the “edited for content” airplane  version), and got some decent sleep (!) thanks to the airline sleep mask and my memory foam travel pillow (definitely worth it). 

Had a relaxing layover in Istanbul with a delicious cup of sahlep. (Look up a recipe on YouTube–so yummy!) Now it’s time for a short 2-hr flight to Cairo, then navigating the city to my destination! 😀

Sahlep with cinnamon


Dancer Origin Stories #5 – Shahrzad

This installment of Dancer Origin Stories features the positively magical Shahrzad. 

Since childhood Shahrzad has been immersed in the dances of the Middle East and North Africa. Now based in Cairo, Egypt, she travels around the world to teach and perform.


Cairo, Egypt 2015

The first time I encountered her was in 2014, when her performance at the Las Vegas Belly Dance Intensive inspired an immediate standing ovation.

About a year later, I was planning a visit to Cairo and heard that she would be there. She was kind enough to arrange a private lesson for my friends and I. Her teaching skills were deeply impressive and I resolved to bring her to Maine at the next opportunity.


The time has finally come! This coming weekend, Shahrzad and her partner, Marshall Bodiker are coming to Portland, Maine to teach workshops and perform at the 10th anniversary Springtime Spectacular!

Let’s learn about Shahrzad’s origin story.


Q. What is your first memory of dance?

A. Now that I think about it, I cant really remember a time when I wasn’t singing and dancing, I can’t even pinpoint a certain moment because it was always there.

Q. Was social dance or music a part of your life growing up? If so, how?

A. My parents were always playing music, all kinds of music, so I was really interested in music from a very young age and loved moving to it.

Q. How did you first encounter the dance form that you primarily teach and perform now?

A. I saw belly dance videos advertised on TV!

shahrzad01-250pxwQ. What phase of life were you in when you took your very first dance class? 

A. I was maybe 10 or 11 years old. I had recently started home schooling and my parents were very open to letting me explore my interests, so when I saw belly dancing and started asking for classes my mom found them for me pretty quickly. She ended up taking them with me for several years.

Q. What led to you becoming serious about your dance studies?

A. My mom will be the first to tell you that I decided I wanted to be a professional dancer almost immediately after starting classes. I was so young, I’m not sure what exactly it was that drove my ambitions, but once I started my obsession with dance really took over my life and I was willing to train and practice as much as it took to get me where I wanted to be.

During my teenage years I tried all different kinds of belly dance but once I started to learn about Egyptian dance and folklore, I was hooked.

I have always been a history nerd so learning about the cultures, traditions, and history surrounding Egyptian (and general North African) dance styles I became really fascinated. The fact that there was a seemingly endless amount of things to learn really drew me in.

Even now after 15+ years of dance I feel like I’m just scratching the surface–and I love it!

Q. How do other dance forms you have studied inform your primary style?

A. I have dabbled in lots of dance styles! I’m always training in different Middle Eastern and North African folkloric styles to add to my repertoire but have also studied ballet and Indian classical dance.

shahrzad04-250pxwQ. Tell me about one of your most influential teachers. 

A. I have trained with so many amazing ladies, but there are four in particular that I feel had the most influence on me and all in very special ways.

The first is Habiba of Philadelphia. She was one of my very first teachers and was the first person to introduce me to Egyptian style dance and folklore, she solidified my interest in style and really started me on a great path.

Habiba sent me to Nourhan Sharif who strengthened my technique and her rhythm training classes had a huge influence on me, having those classes gave me a great sense of musicality early on.

Nourhan sent me to Faten Salama, a former member of the national folkloric troupe of Egypt. Faten gave me a huge amount of folkloric and oriental training. Having all of that folklore early on was a blessing and shaped my style a lot.

All three of these teachers encouraged me to study with Madame Raqia Hassan when she came to teach classes in the United States. Her technique, musicality, and choreography was so beautiful to me and although it was difficult at first it just seemed to fit my body and felt so natural.

I feel really lucky for the teachers that I have and really respect the fact that they all knew what to give me and also who else to send me to so I would have really well rounded training.

Q. Share the memory of learning a movement that came easily to you…

A. Most hip movements were fairly easy for me to pick up when I started dancing. I was really flexible, especially in my hips and back, so I think that helped a lot. I started dance at a time in my life when I was very shy and had low self confidence. I just remember feeling so great coming out of class every week feeling like I was actually good at something.

Q. … And a movement that you had to work hard to master.

A. There is one shimmy that I learned first at age 17 and I swear I am STILL trying to master it!

It is a shimmy from Soraia Zaied where you lock your legs together and move both of your knees at the same time instead of back and fourth… it’s hard to explain. At least I feel like I can do it now but it might take a few more years to really do it full speed like she does.

Most hip technique has been relatively easy for me to learn so I really love when I find something I cant do, it gives me something to work towards.

shahrzad03-250pxwQ. Tell me about one “ah hah” moment that you recall, whether technical, emotional, or conceptual.

A. This is kind of random but I recently had an “ah hah” moment when I was in the states and dropped into a yoga class.

We did a little shake out at the end of class and the teacher said something to the effect of, “If you watch animals you will see that when they feel stiff or feel tension they have no problem just shaking it all off. As humans we hold so much tension and emotion in our bodies and never give ourselves the chance to let it out.”

It got me thinking about why I dance. When I’m on stage or in class I feel euphoric and the less I dance the more stress creeps into my body and mind. Nothing feels better to me than shimmying for hours on end and I feel like now I finally know why that is!

Q. What dance skills translate to your everyday life?

A. Oooo, I’m not even sure how to answer this. I’m a full time dancer so my dance life and every day life are one and the same. Everything in my life at this point circles back to dance in some way so its hard to feel any kind of separation between work and every day life.

Any small amount of time that I’m not doing dance related things I’m usually just curled up at home in bed or on the couch, haha!

But I guess relating to what I said before, dance is really a huge stress reliever for me, the more I’m working the better I feel mentally and physically.

Q. What else would you like to add, if anything?

A. Lately I’ve been having some weird ‘How the hell did I get here?!’ moments so it was nice to think back on where I came from and how my dance career started.



About Shahrzad

Shahrzad has been enchanting the stage since she discovered her passion for Arabic dance and music at the age of 11. Since then, she has immersed herself in a variety of dance disciplines–including Modern Egyptian belly dance and many regional and folkloric dance styles from North Africa and the Middle East. Her professional career started when she was 17, working full time performing with live bands at top venues and events in the United States. Most of Shahrzad’s technique and choreography is influenced by her training in Egyptian dance. She has been mentored by some of the top Egyptian dance instructors in the world including Madame Raqia Hassan, Nourhan Sharif, Faten Salama, Habiba, and many more. She has traveled extensively to do in depth study about music, dance, and cultures from which these arts come from so that she can give students a deeper knowledge of the roots of belly dance as well as its modern uses. Inspired by her interest in teaching, Shahrzad underwent a 2 year Pilates apprenticeship. Now as a fully certified Pilates instructor with extensive training in anatomy and movement she is able to bring a new level of education to her students by breaking down technique in detailed terms right down to what each muscle of the body is doing. Shahrzad currently lives in Cairo and travels internationally to teach.

Check out her website for instructional DVD’s, online classes, and more! http://shahrzadraqs.com/

Cairo Day 4 – Khan el Khalili, Muezz El Din  & Tanoura 

Time for our first solo day out! We got a taxi to Bab Zuweila, hoping to find the tentmaker’s souk, then visit Khan el Khalili. 

Bab Zuweila is one of the three gates still standing from the walls of Cairo. I’m not sure of its exact date, but it’s around 1000 AD. “Bab” means door or gate. 

Even though we were in the area, we didn’t manage to find the tentmaker’s souk, but we did find a mixed market on a winding pedestrian-ish street through an archway right near Bab Zuweila. It was going in generally the right direction for Khan el Khalili, so we went in.

There really isn’t any such thing as a solely pedestrian street… there will be scooters, tiny trucks, possibly donkey carts, and hand-pulled carts no matter what, and everyone goes with it. You need to be assertive to get anywhere, but not rude. Sort of like the subway at rush hour, but without the angst and body contact. (In the metro there are women-only cars, so that’s another story, but on the street physical contact is avoided.) 

Went we came out through the archway at the end of the street, some college student-age girls were sketching the architecture. 

We were at a busy two-way road with a fence down the median, and I recognized Khan el Khalili, the old market, on the other side. Yay! We walked a ways till we found the tunnel under the road, and came up in front of Al Hussein mosque on the other side. 

We settled in at El Fishawy with tea, coffee, and temayya (Egyptian felafel) sandwiches. This cafe is set on a mirror-covered passageway near the sort of front entrance to Khan el Khalili. It’s one of my favorite places to sit! 

El Fishawy

Tea and coffee at El Fishawy

After our refreshing lunch, we found our way to Mahmoud’s shop… it’s practically a palace of belly dance heaven! Four floors of hip scarves, jewelry, folkloric costumes and bedlah, all granite and marble… and quiet!

The view from Mahmoud’s

Next, following Yasmina’s map, we found our way to Sharia (Street) Muezz El Din. Wow!! This street is lined with beautiful mosques from medieval times, and, of course, vendors including a silver area and a copper area. 

Sharia Muezz El Din

Sharia Muezz el Din

Our destination was the Egyptian Textile Museum. Just 10 le to enter, this museum is filled with ancient pieces of cloth, starting with textiles found in the tombs of Pharaohs! Mummy bandages with writing, finely pleated dresses, funerary cloths… The threads are so very fine! The written info next to the pieces was very helpful. Even after visiting the tombs and the museum, it’s still hard to understand that these are real bits of fabric that are so old–not statues made of stone.

Unfortunately, we had only about 45 minutes before the museum closed. I’m looking forward to returning and seeing more! I hear there is assuit in this museum, too.

Exiting onto Sharia Muezz el Din at sunset was magical. The street, with all its textures and patterns, glowed pink and orange! 

Bashtak Palace

Sabil Kuttab on Sharia Muezz el Din

Sharia Muezz el Din

It was time to recharge so we headed to Nagib Mafouz cafe. This spot is an heavenly spot of calm in the middle of the intensity of Khan el Khalili. Plus, they have really nice restrooms–a precious find!

I ordered sahleb, a hot milk drink with rosewater that is thickened with sahleb root powder (or corn starch or arrowroot, depending on your access), and topped with nuts, raisins, coconut… It’s so warming. It’s winter here in Egypt so it’s the perfect drink for this season. (50-65 degrees Fahrenheit feels warm compared to Maine, but people here are feeling chilly!)

At Nagib Mafouz cafe

After a nice and relaxing sit, we wound our way out of the market, across the street via the tunnel, and around the corner to Wikalet al Ghouri for the tanoura show.

This is one of the most incredible ongoing (three times a week?) events here in Cairo. Each performer is absolutely absorbing to watch individually, and the group as a whole moves as one. 

The building is from the 1500s, a former hostel for merchants. There are four floors surrounding a courtyard. Each floor is lined with doors, creating a really cool setting for this show. Musicians stand in the spaces between the pillars on the second floor, and the dancers and more musicians use the raised stage set up beneath. I wrote more about it last year, here… I’ve been so looking forward to attending again! 

Wikalet al Ghouri

Photos are allowed, but no video, and they actually police it, telling those filming to stop. It’s so nice to be in the moment rather than trying to document. 

Tanoura at Wikalet al Ghouri

After the show, we caught a taxi back home to Yasmina’s and to rest…. ahhhhh…. 

Cairo Day 2 -Part 2 -Dina’s Show

The previous night, Yasmina asked us if we wanted to see Dina. Honestly, it hadn’t occurred to me as a possibility! This is one of many fabulous reasons to stay with Yasmina. 😀

After some research by Yasmina to confirm times and rates, we discovered that it was in fact entirely possible! She has just one weekly public show, Thursdays (well, Friday morning!) at the Samiramis hotel. Yasmina confirmed our reservation and it was a plan!!

After a day our with Nibal, seeing Coptic Cairo, Old Cairo, the Citadel, and the Egyptian Museum, we headed back to Yasmina’s for a 2-hr nap, which was not hard to achieve. 

We called an Uber about 10:30 pm (Thursday night traffic is like Friday night in the US–the start of the weekend) and headed into town. 

The nightclub in the hotel has four tiers for decent views of the stage from everywhere. You can choose different prices based on how close you want to sit. We chose the middle tier price (about $65), and we were fortunate to have a table at the front of an upper tier so we could see well. 

The show started at midnight with three singers performing Egyptian pop songs with recorded music. They had about an hour and a half.

Some appetizers and dips came out fairly early on, though it was too dark to get any photos. (Sorry, Nell!) There were little sausages, pate or foie gras, mini samosa-like pockets, smoked salmon rolls, and some pics of crab, shrimp, and fish. 

A group of four (two women and two men) came in after a bit and sat in the tier directly below us. One woman wore a black turtleneck, pants, and high boots. The other wore a casual someone loose tank top and sort of 90s trendy-again jeans. They both couldn’t get enough of dancing at their table and they were AWESOME. 

The curtains reopened around 2 AM, and there was an 11-piece band on the stage–2 tabla players, 1 giant riqq, 1 frame drum, 1 drum kit, 2 keyboards, 3 male back up singers, and 1 electric bass. 

The singer started offstage, and came out in an absolutely fabulous nude bodysuit with black lace over, sparkles, and spikes on the backs of the shoulders and arms–yes, spikes!–plus a long lace and sparkle train from the back of her waist. She was wonderful! 

At long last it was time for Dina’s show. The curtain opened on a 22+ piece band that enitrely filled the stage. Everyone in the audience had their phones out in anticipation of Dina’s entrance–and then she arrived!! 

Dina’s band at the Samiramis hotel

I was bouncing in my seat with excitement, as you might imagine. It’s really her–right there! Her entrance was everything I could have hoped for. Could not look away! 

Her first costume–cause I know you want to know–was a kelly/seafood green, quite simple and elegant with a  long skirt and graduated slit/swoop, with a heavier gold sequin piece that dangled from the center of the bra and attached to the center front of the skirt. 

After two songs, she exited, and a female singer came out in a gorgeous pink galabeya. Yes, it was time for Taht Il Shibbak! In person!!

Costume number two was an elegant velvet semi-dress, with a vivrant orange/yellow/red bra and teal/forest green skirt with a v detail at the back of the waist. 

Costume number three was a white/black/silver dress with sheer panels and, well, fascinating design. 

Costume number four–and final–and a feat of engineering, indeed, all white and sparkly! 

I’ll screenshot the costumes in the near future! Took some video to document the experience, but really tried to watch more than record…. it’s such a different experience to actually be in the moment. What an incredible night! 

After the show

After the show, we Ubered back to Yasmina’s, since the hotel has free wifi. I had wanted to get an unlocked phone and an Egyptian sim card for this trip so we could Uber more, use Google maps, and look stuff up while we were out, but I just didn’t get to it before leaving. Verizon has a 100MB/100 minutes/100 texts international plan for $40, so I opted for that, using wifi where possible, and the occasional data moment when needed. So far, so good, fingers crossed… (Which, by the way, is not a gesture used or known here, acording to an Egyptian friend.) 

We got home just before the 5 AM call to prayer. Due to excitement and jetlag, I didn’t fall asleep till 8 AM, and then slept till 3 PM. Yeesh. Not terrible to have a day to relax in Yasmina’s beautiful home, however!

Cairo Day 2, Part 1 – Cairo Sites

I slept solidly for almost 6 hours, and woke up before the first call to prayer. Still had nearly two hours before the alarm so tried to go back to sleep with no luck but I’m on vacation, darn it, so I WILL stay in bed. 😉

After a solid breakfast, Nibal picked us up and we headed in to the city. Crossing the Nile for the first time in daylight (too tired post-airport to notice was thrilling. So much water… and… it’s the Nile!! 

Coptic Cairo 

Our first stop was Coptic Cairo, in the south of the city. In the beautiful Hanging Church we saw incredible ivory/cedar/ebony inlay, icons of various saints and martyrs, stained glass…. 

Entrance to the Hanging Church

This Coptic Orthodox church dates to the 4th century AD, though much of the contents are more recent, roughly 12th century. It’s called such because it’s suspended in the top of a fortress tower. There are some clear panels installed in the floor so we could look down and see the areas below. 

Entrance to the Hanging Church

The Coptic calendar counts from 282 AD rather than from the birth of Christ. 282 is when the Romans stopped persecuting the Christians. 

Hanging Church

Next stop, just a couple of blocks away, was the Church of St George, an Armin Orthodox (Greek) church where St George (yes, the famed dragon slayer) hid from the soldiers. 

Church of St George

It’s ornate and colorful, with lots of gilding and beautiful daylight. 

Church of St George

Old Cairo

From there, we walked just a little further to Old Cairo. 

Here there is the church of Abu Serga (Saint Sergis), with original wood from the 4th century AD. Baby Jesus and family hid in the grotto of this site for three months. This year, it was open and we were able to enter! 

Leaving Old Cairo


Next stop was the Citadel and the mosque of Mohammed Ali. The Citadel was built by Saladin in the 1170s in anticipation of the Crusaders, but they never attacked it as he stopped them further north. However, the fortress remained a power center for 700 years. 

Inside the Citadel

Also within the walls is the gorgeous mosque of Mohammed Ali. It took almost 20 years to complete in the first half of the 1800s, and Mohammed Ali dies before it was finished. His tomb is within. 

Mosque of Mohammed Ali

Mosque of Mohammed Ali

The views from the Citadel look west, and are absolutely stunning as it’s on a hill–of course, being a fortress!

View from the Citadel

Nibal arranged for the driver to order coffee so it was ready for us when we finished here. It’s like Turkish coffee, thick and strong and amazing. Energy for the Egyptian Museum next! 

Egyptian Museum 

Our final site of the day with Nibal was the Egyptian Museum, a striking purpose-built pink building on Tahrir Square dating from (?). 

I’m so glad that we went to the pyramid/necropolis sites prior to visiting the museum. Having seen in person where many of these ancient statues and tombs came from made viewing them in the museum so much more real and understandable. 

Nibal walked us through about 40 pieces, with history, context, and legend. One of my favorite pieces was the basalt (?) top to the smaller pyramid behind the Bent Pyramid that we had visited the day before. Yes, we also saw Tutankhamen’s famous fold mask, jewelry, and tombs contents. They’re really real!

Photos are currently allowed at the Egyptian Museum but you need a special ticket and we opted out if that. 

After this incredible day we returned to Yasmina’s for dinner and a nap before heading out to see Dina’s show later on….

Cairo Trip – Day 1 – Pyramids 

Yesterday’s 24+ hours of travel was long but it went smoothly. Flights were on time, luggage arrived quickly, and Nibal was there to meet us at the airport with a great driver to take us to Yasmina’s place in Giza. We were walking zombies and fell asleep after a cup of tea and a struggle with figuring out the time. 

Due to this confusion, set our alarms an hour earlier than necessary, for half an hour after the first call to prayer, which sounds out from multiple mosques simultaneously at 5 AM. But that meant a leisurely morning and a good breakfast thanks to Yasmina before Nibal picked us up at 8:30. The mist started to clear so we caught a glimpse from the terrace of the Great Pyramid emerging before heading out. (Squeeee!)

Morning in Giza

Nibal took us first to Saqqara to visit the step pyramid and surrounding tombs and temples. I had visited last year but found that a retuen visit made everything seem more real and since it wasn’t all brand new to me I could retain a bit more! 

The step pyramid is the oldest of the pyramids, from roughly 2400 BC. It’s 66 meters high and currently being restored. 


The surrounding tombs at ground level have beautifully detailed relief work, and some even with color, depicting motion and life–including a panel of dancers!

Titi’s tomb is a short descent into the ground via a small shaft. Inside the high ceiling is entirely covered in relief stars, and the walls in hieroglyphics detailing his good works and other such things related to his life and place in the afterlife. There was a large class of 10-year-olds visiting from a local French school so I had fun eavesdropping on the kids and teachers… It was really great to see so many more tourists present than last year! 


After 3 or 4 hours exploring the grounds at Saqqara, we headed for Dashur to see the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid. 

The Red Pyramid is made of red granite, hence the name. We decided to go inside, which I had previously avoided doing to my claustrophobic fears. To enter, you climb steps 35 meters up the side of the pyramid, then enter a 3.5-foot-high shaft and decent 65 meters, so you end up quite far underground. 

Ready to climb down into the Red Pyramid!

I was afraid the air would be hard to breath and I’d be stuck in a tiny space with no way out but the way I got it. It was quite warm and a bit stuffy inside but nowhere near what I had feared. 
Turns out, there is an incredible echo chamber inside! It’s maybe 15′ wide and 25 long (this may be way off, and that’s one of 3 chambers inside) but really, really high with stepped sides. Any sound you emit just lingers in the air… dreamy!!

Inside the Red Pyramid at Dashur

Climbing back up was way more taxing than climbing down–shockingly enough. 😉 The stiff breeze at the top was most welcome! 

The Bent Pyramid site has been newly opened to the public. Previously you could just view it from afar but now you can walk around its base–and see another (less well built and hence crumbling) one on the far side. The Bent Pyramid started at 54 degrees but the realized partway through construction that it would be too heavy at that height so it was changed to 43 degrees, which is the ideal angle at which successive pyramids were built, if I remember right. 

At the Bent Pyramid at Dashur

The walk in the desert was refreshing, however wobbly our legs from the Red Pyramid climb…. Sun and wind and incredibly old human inventions. 


Our last site of the day was the famous pyramids on the Giza Plateau. With a quick stop at Felfela for some pita sandwiches, we were refuled and ready to try to wrap our minds around more stuff! The sun was starting to set, with a large red sun peeking put from the clouds. 

There was 180 years between the Bent Pyramid and the Great Pyramid at Giza. The Great Pyramid is 146 meters high and took roughly 20 years to complete. The stones are not cemented; they are held together by their weight and engineering. It’s the last remaining one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.

The Great Pyramid at Giza

The smaller of the big three at Giza is about 60 meters high, just a bit smaller than the step pyramid at Saqqara. The six smaller ones were for queens. 

After a drive to the panorma above were we can see 6 of the 9 pyramids at this site, we went back downhill to the Sphinx juuuust before the monument closed up for the night. The Sphinx is 22 meters high and carved from a single piece of stone! 

Check our the Sphinx’s tail detail!

Back home to Yasmina’s for a delicious dinner, typing of this blog, and now sleep. Tomorrow out plans are to visit the Egyptian Museum, the Citadel, and Old Cairo with Nibal. Then home to gather ourselves and spiff up before heading out to see Dina.