The first time I meet Vanessa of Cairo is in Seattle where she is teaching a weekend of bellydance workshops. I am attending her “Modern Egyptian Pop” bellydance workshop. Her large presence is a little intimidating for a shy person like me but her teaching style is wonderfully clear, funny, and dynamic. Two months later when I am traveling in Egypt I reach out to work with her again.
Our second meeting is at Café Latino in Cairo, Egypt where I’m sitting at a table outside in the sun on the bank of the Nile River in the bustling fusion restaurant. Vanessa had originally recommended the place to me for a bite before we had a dance lesson at a nearby studio but she had messaged me when I was at the café to let me know the studio had flooded and we wouldn’t be able to have our lesson after all. This is life in Egypt, you never know what to expect.
Vanessa arrives to the restaurant wearing a casual off the shoulder top, black yoga pants, a large smile, and huge fake nails. When she comes through the door to the patio people immediately take notice and stare. She is loud, funny, and charming even when voicing complaints to the manager. You see, Vanessa has been coming to Café Latino for years and sending visitors to Cairo there to eat as well and she has some things she wants the management to change.
I listen as she goes into detail about how the enchilada sauce used to be very good and now it is a weird fusion with soy sauce that doesn’t work, how the French fries are just…embarrassing, and how because there is no English translation on the menu visitors are confused on what to order. This is true, I have been in Egypt for about a week and have been able to figure out pretty much all menus I have encountered (even without English) but this one is different, the fusion makes for translations I don’t understand and the descriptions from the English-speaking staff are not quite accurate, though I hadn’t expressed any of that to Vanessa. Somehow Vanessa manages to be assertive, theatrical, charming, funny, and completely heard in this exchange. The staff want to help this zany American, they are clearly on her side. I feel like I am watching a scene unfolding in a movie perhaps starring a young, glamorous Stockard Channing.
Vanessa started dancing young in her home state of Texas. After her parents noticed her interest in dancing they enrolled her in ballet lessons at the age of 4. Her training soon grew to include jazz, tap, and contemporary dance as well as musical theater. In high school Vanessa went to a Renaissance Fair where she saw her first bellydancer and was hooked. That dancer, Miabella of Ft. Worth, became Vanessa’s first bellydance instructor. We bond over our mutual beginnings in dance as our stories are surprisingly similar. We both started taking ballet young after our parents noticed our interest in dance and we both started taking bellydance as teenagers, completely enthralled by this beautiful artform.
After graduating college with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Ballet, Vanessa moved to New York city to further her dance and acting career. It was in New York that Vanessa met Gamila El Masri, the “Queen of the Ibis." Gamila became Vanessa’s mentor and taught her so much knowledge about Egyptian dance including the folkloric styles that Vanessa would later become so well known for performing.
At this point we notice a little girl at a nearby table crying loudly. Vanessa jokingly says “remember how nice it was when there was no crying?” Then she turns to the baby and makes faces until she stops crying and starts laughing. It takes about 30 seconds, that’s how charming Vanessa of Cairo is. The parents love her too, of course, how could they not?
We spend a couple of hours together just riffing on all matters of dance. She is refreshingly honest with none of the airs that performers sometimes give off. Vanessa is on a mission to let dancers know they don’t have to copy that trendy dancer on Youtube, bellydance has and always will be at its heart a dance about individual expression. She wants to see a dancer shine in their own way and doesn’t feel competition is promoting the best of what bellydance is.
“I think that each of us are different. I certainly don’t try to ‘set myself apart.’ I think that a certain quality and confidence can only come after a certain number of years, or through countless hours and hours and hours of not just training, but performance. And also, at the end of the day, there will always be the newer, younger, prettier dancers coming up: eager to work, and show how good they are. If you don’t realize this, you will be in for a shock. So, in order to be able to work continuously for years, you need the technical vocabulary and regional content. And in addition to being a knowledgeable, versatile, and strong performer, you need to have a sense of humor and a good personality. The audience has got to like you—this is key.”
And boy do they like her. Vanessa has been living and dancing in Egypt full time since 2008. She currently performs at private events, theater productions, and 5-star hotels in Cairo, most notably the Sofitel El Gezirah. These contracts with 5-star hotels are coveted and the competition between dancers is fierce. She notes that she is lucky not to be tied to any particular place for her work leaving her with flexibility to perform where and what she likes. Vanessa is also in great demand as a workshop teacher all over the world and is a regular instructor at the prestigious annual Nile Group Festival in Cairo.
But she wasn’t always Vanessa of Cairo, when she first moved to Egypt to pursue her dance career Vanessa was based out of Sharm El Sheikh, an area to the Southeast of Cairo known for its tourist resorts on the Red Sea. Here, Vanessa was the first American woman to create, own, and operate a production company in Egypt called Vanessa Show Productions where she hired dancers from all over the world to put on full length shows. After six years performing and running her business in Sharm El Sheikh, Vanessa decided due to the down turn in tourism it was time to move on to Cairo.
The restaurant manager insists we have a complimentary dessert dish; a plate heaped with zalabia, a type of donut made in the Middle East. Half of the zalabia are dipped in white chocolate, the other half in milk chocolate. They are decadent, sugary, and delicious. As we eat the zalabia we joke about the trend for bellydancers to post tons of selfies of themselves on social media making duck faces. We decide that the only people interested in seeing hundreds of duck face selfie pics are those dancers themselves. She says we should take a duck face selfie together for laughs.
We are soon joined by Vanessa’s significant other, an Egyptian actor and folklore dancer named Yasser, who pulls up a chair and declines our offer of zalabia. Originally from Beni Suef, Yasser was a dancer with the Ministry of Culture Folkloric Troupe in Egypt for years. They met in Luxor a decade ago during Vanessa’s first official dance contract in Egypt and eventually became partners in work as well with Yasser managing aspects of Vanessa Show Productions. Because they are both performers in Egypt they have a special bond and create a supportive environment for each other. It is clear that theirs is a true partnership and I can tell that they have each other’s backs. Vanessa note she has “been extremely fortunate to have had the support and understanding from my significant other. Not everyone has been that lucky.”
As we wrap up the evening Vanessa volunteers to take me to the famous Egyptian Balloon Theater where we can sit in on the Reda Troupe rehearsal. The Reda Troupe was formed in 1959 with the intent of bringing Egyptian folklore dance to the stage in huge theater productions that made Egyptian dance a source of national pride. For many, it is impossible to discuss the popularization of bellydance without discussing the Reda Troupe. Entering the theater and then the private rehearsal, I can’t help but feel like I’m in a dream. It’s all so surreal and incredible I can’t help but feel immense gratitude towards Vanessa and Yasser.
“At this stage in my career, I’m really me. I’m not trying to be anybody else, and I’m staying true to myself within this art form. I might also add that I may have developed a certain style over the years, but I’m still doing Raqs Sharqi. Or when its Folklore, it’s abiding by the standards taught to me. I’m not trying to change the dance. It is what it is, and it should be honored and kept. As performers, and especially as teachers, it is so important that when we are doing a specific cultural dance, that we are respecting it, and being careful to keep the integrity of its heritage. Of course there is room for personal expression and style, but it is not a free-for-all!”
Post meeting, talking about her life overall, Vanessa gets reflective. She writes, “And when the next step comes, it will be time to move to another level, or possibly, another staircase, and one day undoubtedly, I’ll go to the most important step of my existence; I imagine that it will be a beautiful white, spiraling staircase, that takes me to the sky….but until that day comes, I’ll keep climbing.”
At the end of that warm March night in Cairo, I feel like I have known Vanessa for years. She is so generous with her time, attention, knowledge, and experience and I am truly moved by her spirit. We never did take that duck face selfie though.
The author with Vanessa at a party in Cairo, Egypt