Leyla Amir…. Pre Egypt. 1971-1981
You could say my Egypt interest began when I was 8 years old, when the moving of Abu Simbel appeared on National Geographic on the TV we had finally gotten into my home. I was mesmerized not so much by the monument but that they could move it. My young eyes saw a colossus of amazement.
My next touch was to see, in the movie Valley of The Kings, with a scene with Samia Gamel. Of, course at the time I did not know who she was, but now, who doesn’t know her!
Thru my years I had always wanted to be a singer, opera no less, as I had a voice and a ballet dancer, being influenced by the movies The Red Shoes and Fantasia. Alas, ballet classes were not available to me, and stage fright did me in for singing, so my dreams crumbled at an early age.
Life took its course...and it was not exactly the life I had really envisioned for myself… UNTIL…one day, in 1971, I saw an ad for Belly Dance classes in my area. It was the road that started me on my new journey …and actually has saved me thru thick and thin of my up and down roller coaster I call life. I started as a hobbyist, but was able to advance quickly to a professional level. On the lower end of the spectrum, one would also enter the world below the surface of jealousy and of course the ever-present advances of men…both in the USA and Egypt.
In my area of the Midwest, there were a few “Arabic “style teachers, also known nationally at the time, that vied for students. We unfortunately did not have a huge Arabic community for clubs, but more Greek clubs, which a few of the dancers worked in. Music in class was limited to cassettes or records to what I called Faux Arabic music for dancers, done by what would become the standard for that type of music in the USA.
My first gig in an Arabic club was to an eclectic Arabic musicians’ band that was heaven to my ears …it was real and had the sound I loved. As a musician myself of 5 different instruments I did not require much rehearsal because many of the songs I knew and my ear could hear the phrasing easily. There were only a few clubs and they catered to mostly Greek music and the dancers who were proficient to dancing to that music, which I was not… I did not speak the language of the Greek music. The music has to talk to me before I can perform to it….so from where I was living at the time, my opportunities were
not a lot.
In my area…many of us had to learn to make our own costumes since that was all that was available for us at the time. If we were lucky, we would have a pro dancer that came into the community with their beautiful pro costumes that were deliciously and ornately beaded and fringed. For me, I would say they had a Turkish look...total glamor. In the Mid West the Turkish style to Turkish music was not a part of the curriculum un less it was to usually use the rhythm Kash La Mar as part of your routine…. Just as using the Egyptian Zar as part of your floor work.
After meeting my now Egyptian husband, my dance, with his strong influence , I began to change as he introduced me to the culture of Egypt, the dancers, and the music We eventually opened 2-night clubs in Chicago, and for me, the constant club work all the time was the push over the line into what I would consider pro.
At the time in my part of USA, there was a formula of the “Belly Dance” style that had at least 5 parts to the structure. As I traveled the USA to expose myself more to as many known instructors of the time and to keep absorbing the style and expanding my knowledge. You could see that pretty much across the country from West Coast to East Coast, with variations in the styling and music, with the Coasts favoring, from what I saw, the Arabic music, and mostly found in the heavily populated communities of Arabic Nationals.
The blossoming in the USA of the dance, required a place for the many new students to perform. Many did the popular “Belly-Grams” which I decided to pass on, or the festivals with solos or troupes formed by the students and teachers, which is the path I took. It was a time also that the festivals were starting to pop up thru the country more and more, giving dancers more options to learn and perform beyond their area. I spent time criss crossing the USA to experience as much as I could. I myself did numerous small events back In the day…and still do with my event Dreams From Cairo.
In 1976 I traveled to Egypt for the first time. All I could say was WOW. I was like Dorothy landing in The Wizard of OZ. It would never be the same for me, my destiny was sealed. I was in music heaven!!! That first time I only stayed 2 weeks but would return in 1981 when my husband opened his tour company (still operating) and I returned to get started in a dream of Dancing in the Mother Land of Raks Sharqi.
As soon as I arrived my second time, I got busy working to get my 5 * license (they said I was the first to receive from USA) which also gave me the right to sing and act. I felt very honored and was pleased that my style looked Egyptian and required little tweaking to fit in. Until 1999 Egypt was my second home and an adventure in dance and archelogy I will never forget, especially being able to perform in Egypt’s Golden Era of super stars who commanded the respect and money they deserved as artist.