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MELAYA LEFF
(a.k.a. Eskandarani/Alexandrian Dance)

Vivacious and flirty, look but don't touch!

Some folks call this a folkloric dance, others say it was invented by Reda. I suppose it depends on whether you are using the melaya leff (wrapped cloak) as a prop, which was done before Reda, or if you are doing the flirty kind of dance Reda choreographed, which seems to be what most folks mean when they say Melaya Leff dance.

The costume for a Reda-style Melaya Leff is based on a short ruffled dress and a huge Melaya Leff. The Melaya is usually black, made of dense, somewhat stretchy fabric (jersey is often used) and can be plain or decorated. Ornamentation (sequins or pailettes) is sometimes applied to the hems, to the middle (running lengthwise), or to both. The sizes offered for sale are commonly 8 foot long by 5 foot wide (96 x 60) but Gamila El Masri finds anything under 10 foot to be too short to allow full range of draping and wrapping. She recommends a piece that reaches the floor when draped over your shoulder: 10 - 10.5 foot long (120 - 126 inches. And SHE likes silk charmeuse for stage: lighter than jersey but heavy enough to move properly. Nashwa, however, uses an 8 foot long Melaya; if you are making one, she recommends one that is your arm span plus 24 inches in length and from your shoulder to the floor in width.

Other parts of the costume can include a headscarf bedecked with pom-poms or artificial flowers, an open-work crocheted face veil, ankle bracelets (Gamila El Masri prefers using one only, for extra cuteness), and mules or slip-on shoes with heels. Tarik Sultan's description of Nadia Hamdi clanking around on stage in wooden clogs makes me want to look for some wooden clogs in my size. Those open-work crocheted face veils disconcert me, but if you want to try making one, a dancer posting on Bhuz recommended using a solomon's knot crochet stitch to make one, a knot which generate its own borders. I've also seen pictures of black netting cut to size and trimmed with black ribbon that also serves as ties.

Andrea Rugh

From her book Reveal and Conceal: Dress in Contemporary Egypt:
It is in this way of carrying and adjusting the melaya that it can become a provocative form-revealing item of apparel. Commonly when walking, a woman gathers up the bottom half, pulls it tightly around her and lets the ends hang over one arm; in back view, the shape and movement of her buttocks are clearly visible under the cloak. The "entrapping" quality of the melaya is expressed in the proverb, "She spread out her melaya for him," which means she scolded him. The melaya liff, associated originally with the city, has spread rapidly through the Delta and among the more worldly of the Upper Egyptians. Egyptian Christians tend to associate the melaya liff with Muslim use but that distinction is not strictly observed in contemporary Egypt.

Farida Fahmy

Ms. Farida was the Reda Troupe' lead dancer for twenty-five years. In her article, Dancing With the Millayah Laff, Farida states that Mahmoud Reda combined the dramatic potential of the Millayah with the concept of the bint al-baladi (woman of the country: intelligent, lively, charming, straighforward and dependable) to create what many Western dancers think of as the Melaya Leff. Ms. Farida describes the Millayah Laff as a piece of clothing, evolving from a long coverup that women wore in public into a long wrapped shawl about 3 yards long and 5 foot wide. She strongly objects to Western versions that include dancers in tacky and very short dresses wielding shiny, sparkly millayah covered with shiny plastic coins. She also objects to a lot of the dancing as well.
In these performances, the dancers were completely oblivious (no fault of their own) to the dynamics, energy, temperament, aesthetics, body language, movement preferences and gestures of the Egyptians. These dancers strutted, their steps were perky and their expressions and gesures were completely alien to the Egyptian norm. The movements were filled with bumps, grinds, breast popping and shimmies, and many seductive, evocative movements that followed the belly dance trend of the time. During the dance the supposed millayah was thrashed, twirled and flung around in a somewhat cheerleader fashion. In some parts of the world some of the foreign teachers... went as far as portraying the wearers of the above described millayah as harlots and tramps dancing in the streets. They even had to chew gum while dancing to stress the point.

Keti Sharif

The milaya il'laff is a type of oriental shawl which gained popularity in Egypt in the 1930s and 1940s. It alluringly conceals and reveals, being made of a dark and heavy faric that can nonetheless be wrapped tightly around the body... [it] became a popular Egyptian fashion item for women, around the 1950s... At family parties and local celebrations, often held outdoors by the sea, the women would slowly begin dancing with the milaya, using the re-wrapping gesture as part of their dance. The tightly wrapped shawl would accentuate the movements of the hips and waist, and this, coupled with the throwing of the milaya over the arms, became the basis for a stylised Alexandrian 'fishing' dance. Before the men went out to sea, the women would dance playfuly on the pier, clicking together the heels of their sheb-sheb (clogs) and walking with a teasing sway of their hips to 'reel in the fishermen' with mock gestures... the 'dance of the milaya'... has come to represent the dual, subtle yet flirtatious aspect of Middle Easter dance and is an integral part of Egyptian baladi.

Morocco

Milaya Leff is a theatre dance, created by Mahmoud Reda. It is usually set in a "blue-gallabiya" area in Alexandria, one of the places where the Milaya Leff, a specific type of modesty covering, was worn from the 1930s through the 1960s. You might still see a few today... A dancer wears a very theatricalized version of what a working class girl might have worn, but there are usually gold quarter-sized pailletes on the borders and crochet work in the middle for stage. The milaya leff is often worn over a ruffled dress (maybe tight, but not too short!) or an ankle-length, white gallabiya (for a stronger 'character')... The character is a bit comedic, so there is more leeway in behavior. It is very girlish flirty (not sexy-flirty)... Nadia Hamdi did it fabulously, pretend chewing gum and all.
Music is upbeat, but not too fast, not maksoum. Bos wa Choof (Look at that girl), Skandarani, Shaka Hakka Bekka, and Feen Kalamek are often used, among many others.

Jasmin Jahal

Beledi music is used specifically for a dance known as the Melaya Leff (pronounced ME-LIE-AH LEF). This dance is from Alexandria, Egypt. A melaya itself is a large, black shawl made of nylon or silk, in which the women wrap themselves completely from head to toe. It is a modesty garment for when they leave the house. For the stage, the melaya is trimmed with gold or silver pailettes. The word leff simply means 'to wrap.' Under the melaya, the dancer wears a form-fitting dress that is short, ruffled and bright in color. She dons open-toed slippers with high heels called ship-ship, and on her head she ties a small scarf decorated with pompons or flowers. Also worn is a crocheted face-veil known as a burr'oh. The melaya is draped upon the body, and during the dance it slips off and is re-wrapped time and again. As Alexandria is a port city, the dance scene is between the fishermen and the women who are looking to profit by sharing their liberties. The men sit on the street beside a café, drinking and smoking their water pipes. The women compete for attention by flirting. Eventually, the men and women dance together. The men's costuming is that of the typical fisherman, including a black trouser, a sweater, a multi-colored waistcoat and a white fisherman's hat.

Tarik Sultan

This is a theater dance, not any type of folklore. It was initially created by Reda. It's a character dance. It's based on the baladi girls from the local neighborhoods. It's supposed to be earthy and flirtatious, but not an invitation. The dance has nothing to do with prostitutes or prostitution. A Bint il Balad is the quintessential good girl, so although she's flirting, the attitude is look and suffer, but don't you touch, because if you do, you're going to get a wooden slipper upside your head... Nadia Hamdi, who was a dancer from Mohamed Ali Street, always did this dance in her routine. Not only did she chew gum, she wore real wooden slippers, shebsheb, which she would clank around in... whether or not you chew gum is optional. The most important thing is the attitude and comedic value.

Kashmir

Keep the context of the society in mind. These women could push the boundaries because they were within in their own neighbourhood. Everyone would be aware that it was play. This was not "prostitute trolling for johns." Any funny business would bring down the wrath of the community.

Mohamed Shahin

Alexandria /Alexandrian dance originated in the north of Egypt, by the Mediterranean Sea. This particular dance depicts Alexandrian people's behavior. Alexandrian women are beautiful and soft when they walk and they dance softly. The men are very brave and work by the sea, mainly fishing.
Costuming for men: Loose, long pants to allow maximum comfort while working on boats. They also wear vests and hats called 'yanke' to protect themselves from the sun. Men sometimes carry a knife while dancing: in their daily lives, they use the knife to clean the fish and cut the net. Costuming for women: Short dress with short sleeves usually in a light color, a small scarf on the head to cover the hair, and the very famous accessory called 'Melaya, ' a big, black shawl that covers them entirely and which is traditionally worn when they go out of the house.

Gamil El Masri

Gamil El Masri wrote a wonderful article for the (now defunct) magazine Bennu in which she relates the details of the folkloric dance research she did in Egypt as choreographer for the Egyptian American Folkloric group. Cane dancing (Raqs al Assaya), balancing water jugs (Raqs al Balas), Shamadan dancing, tray balancing, and dancing with a Melaya (Malaya Leff) all received 2-5 pages of history, descriptions and pictures. For the Melaya Leff, the author described the pros and cons of various types of veil construction (Ms El Masri prefers charmeuse edges with bead and pailette trim); the various kinds of (always flirty) dress styles she prefers (she loves a pleated skirt with a lot of circumference at the hem... so she started wearing thigh-length pink silk bloomers to 'cover' any costume malfunctions due to breezes -- much to the delight of the audience); and the various story lines and music that she incorporated into her stage productions (the most famous of which might be a flirtaous dance with an erk sous [licorice drink] seller).
 

REFERENCES

Reveal and Conceal:Dress in Contemporary Egypt, written by Andrea Rugh, is is a source book for those wishing to understand the cultural significance of female Egyptian dress. There is a section with photos that addresses the Meleya liff and describes various styles and wraps and materials used.

Solomon's Knot at LionBrand.com.

1951 movie featuring a dance with a melaya leff, much different than the one developed by Reda. The movements tie in with Keti Sharif's description of the 'fishing dance.'

Another pre-Reda dance with melaya leff veils used as props, this one featuring Samia Gamal.

Farida Fahmy, Reda's lead dancer for many years, wrote Dancing With the Millayah Laff.

Farida Fahmy also sells a Costume Designs for Dancing with Milayah E-book on her website. Her costume e-books include 8 to 12 drawings and some text. $10.

Kashmir includes some good description about costuming in her article about melaya leff, including a guide to Making a Mandil, the pom-pom-bedecked headscarf often seen on melaya-leff dancers.

Keti Sharif Bellydance, A Guide to Middle Eastern Dance, Its Music, Its Culture and Costumes, published by Allen and Unwin in 2004.

Morocco, You Asked Aunt Rocky: Answers & Advice About Raqs Sharqui & Raqs Shaabi, published in 2011 by RDI Publications.

JasminJahal.com.

GamilaElMasri.com. Her very informative article was in the now-defunct BENNU.

MohamedShahin.net.

Nashwa at DanceLikeAnEgytian.com.

Reda's choreography, created in 1959.

TarikSultan.com.

A Melaya Leff by Aida which seems to incorporate most of the elements that Farida Fahmy finds so objectionable in modern interpretations of Reda's choreography. The dancer's leff features the now-familiar 2 piece construction with heavy ornamentation down the middle and around the edges.

And here is a picture of Farida Fahmy in what I call her 'Marilyn Monroe' pose; maybe breaking a few of her own rules about being seductive and evocative BUT -- a beautiful woman and a beautiful pose!



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