Beirut - To boldly go where only few Western dancers have gone...

Sometimes it’s the little things that make you fall in love… I hadn’t been even in Beirut for an hour in May 2004 when I fell for the city.
My taxi was driving me from the airport to my hotel late at night, and on the highway there was a sign that said something in Arabic and under it in French “Centre Ville”.
It might sound cliché but I found it so charming that the Lebanese would choose French as a second language on their street signs.
My enchantment did not end there, it lasted for the entire week I was in Beirut!

The next day was a Sunday, and I walked down to the sea to stroll along the Corniche which goes on for many kilometers.

You have to understand that back in 2004 there wasn’t much information to be found for tourists in Lebanon. No guidebooks or anything, because there were just not enough people who would need one!
I mostly went by what I remembered from my first trip to the Lebanon in 1992.

Back then the country was just beginning to recover from a long civil war (1975 to 1990) – and everybody told us we were crazy to go! We stayed mostly in a town up in the Chouf mountains and only spent one afternoon in Beirut.
While the smaller towns in the mountains barely had any traces of the war left, Beirut was a depressing sight: The entire hotel district and the old center had been bombed to pieces and the buildings that were still standing were covered with shooting holes all over.

Since then I had been curious for years to see how Beirut had changed – and what a difference 12 years later! Although there were still some ruins from the war, the town had been rebuilt, especially in the center.

There was a place down by the shore that rented out bicycles which I did of course, because I am a big bicycle fan. Riding up and down the Corniche was a nice start for my vacation. Also, on Sunday the traffic wasn't too crazy - that would come on Monday...

In the evening I wanted to go to a place where I could watch a dancer at night. After some asking around at hotel receptions I was recommended the Awtar.

As usual in the Middle East, people in Beirut tend to eat very late when they go out and they also take along their children, even after 11 PM! It’s best to arrive towards midnight when the band and singer start.

Some of the other guests were groups of very fashionable women. I was the only women in flat shoes while all the others were wearing dangerously high stilettos!

From time to time some people got up to dance to the live Music like these men who were doing a dabke (line Dance):
Of course I had to eventually join in the fun and shake around a bit myself. Apparently two elderly men liked my dancing a lot because one of them brought an artichoke to my table afterwards – he had asked for a flower, but didn’t get one, so the closest thing to a flower available was this artichoke. How sweet!

I always appreciate a nice bathroom and Beirut has many of them! Here's the one at the Awtar:
At around 1:30 AM the dancer Bassema started her performance. Her show was about half an hour long and like in typical Lebanese fashion she danced on very high heels. Her style was very lively and included a lot of accents and hair tossing.
She also did a part with a cane that she used mainly to walk through the tables and get up people to dance with her for a few moments.

It was a great start for a dance filled week!

I had been watching videos of Lebanese dancers for quite a while and was fascinated with their style. I was also fed up with the brainwashing of Egyptian dance teachers who kept telling us that theirs was the only true way to dance Raqs Sharqi, when clearly there many other styles around! So what better way to learn more than taking classes in Beirut myself?

From Monday on my agenda looked like that of a business manager: full of appointments for every day! I had asked around in Internet dance forums to see if anybody could give me information on dance classes and fortunately got some tips. On most days I was taking classes for 2 to 3 hours.

The best recommendation had been Helena Cremona. She used to be an ensemble dancer for Nadia Gamal - the mother goddess of Oriental dance in Lebanon who is still famous and loved many years after her untimely death.
 Helena even received a teacher certificate from her.

I took two hours with Helena every day. On the first day she showed me a choreography that she planned to teach me and I just watched her with a big smile on my face and said: "Yes, that's what I want!"

Although I was already an experienced dancer, it was quite a challenge for me to adjust to Lebanese style. The movements are somewhat the same but still done differently and then there's a lot of special moves as well.

In the afternoon I walked to the Caracalla school. Now here's how you will be identified as a foreigner: you walk. Lebanese people drive, everywhere! But I like the way you can really experience a place by walking, even if it turns out that the address you are looking for is somewhat further away than you thought...

They have drop-in classes at Caracalla and I went there twice. They have a very stylized, ballet-oriented style of dancing.

One of my biggest dance idols of all time is the Lebanese dancer Amani. Of course I asked her for private lessons, but she charged 200 US$ for the privilege. Now I am sorry, but I just think that there is nothing anybody can teach me in just one hour that would be worth this much money…
She was however nice enough to give me the contact data of one of her chorus dancers, Samira Haddad. And she agreed to meet me for an interview later that week. Here’s one thing I learned over the years: tell people that you will write an article about them for a German dance magazine (which I actually did!) and they will be flattered and tell you everything!

I had to go a bit further for my lesson with Samira, somewhere towards Jounieh. In true Beirut fashion I wasn’t given a proper street and number but instead she told me which bakery to wait at. This is how navigation works here, by landmarks.

From the bakery we went to the nearby gymnastics school where we held our lesson. We talked in French and the one thing she kept repeating was “plus grand!” – bigger! Because according to her, the bigger the movements, the more beautiful the dance.
After the lesson we sat down for a little chat in which I asked her about her work as a dancer. She teaches various dance styles beside Oriental (ballet, jazz etc.) and has also performed in many countries as a group dancer. in stage shows But she also still has a day job because because like in other countries, it's not easy to make a living from dance alone.

Of couse I didn't only dance but also walked around the city center a lot.

Fortunately the bombed houses weren't just all  replaced by new concrete Towers. Especially  the buildings in the Souk area and around the Place de l’Etoile were renovated in their original style from the 1920ies with the local yellow stone.

While these buildings still looked somewhat sterile because they were so new, I expected that a few years later they should fully show the charme of their French/Oriental mixed style.

Still some work to be done...

There was still a lot of construction work going on, not only for flats and offices but also churches and mosques that very often stand just beside each other.
Outside of the center, the buildings and streets didn't look very different from other cities in the Middle East – just a bit cleaner. View from my hotel window:
I did a lot more of course, so go over to PART TWO to see more dancers, sights and even a Video!