Dancing with the Millayah Laff

by Farida Fahmy, Master of Dance Ethnology UCLA

For some years now, I have been intending to write about the millayah laff, and how it was introduced in dance in the repertoire of The Reda Troupe.  I was always putting it off, as I waited for my frustration and disappointment to subside. I hope that I remain as objective as possible in this article in spite of my critical opinions.

Farida Fahmy, May 2014


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What is the Millayah laff?

The millayah laff is, most probably, the offspring of the “habarah” that was worn in 19th Century Ottoman Empire. The habarah was the name given to a wide silk floor length cover up which the well to do women wore over their complete outfit on leaving their homes. Edward lane, describes the habarah in his book “The Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians” written in the mid 19th Century, as being, “…. composed of two breadths of glossy, black silk, each cll–wide, and three yards long: these are sewed together, at or near the selvages (according to the height of the person) ; the scam running horizontally, with respect to the manner in which it is worn……..”
He goes on to say that women that were not from the very poor classes used a cover up that was similar in form as the habarah but made of cotton, either in blue and white chequers or cross stripes and was called “mileyah”, hence the name millayah. It is not known when and for how long it took for the habarah to evolve and become the millayah laff as we know it.

Bint al-balad and The Millayah Laff

The millayah laff literally means wrapping sheet. It was an overwrap that was worn by bint al-balad, (literally meaning   daughter of the country). It is a term given to the females of social groups that reside in the urban communities of the inner and older districts of cities and towns in the delta region and the Canal Zone). In the 1930s, 40s, 50s and the early years of the 1960 of the 20th Century it was very common to see women of all ages wearing the millayah Laff in the streets and allies in the heart of Cairo and in other inner cities.

The millayah laff or the millayah for short, was not only worn by women from working classes or those who lived with smaller incomes, but was also part of the dress tradition of well to do women, such as wives and daughters of wealthy merchants. The millayah was made of black thick crepe that was worn over pseudo-western style dresses that followed the fashionable trends of the time. Women also wore gallabiyahs that are similar to men’s urban gallabiyah but cut to fit the female figure.

The kind of material used for the millayah ranged from pure cotton to high quality blends of silk and cotton or silk and wool weaves. With time it developed into a shorter version and approximately measured 2.75 meters long and 1.50 wide. The millayah together with the burqu’ (a face veil made either of light crinkly or lace – like material), were manufactured in textile factories and sold readymade. The burqu’ gradually disappeared before women gave up wearing the millayah. It was the younger generations that stopped wearing it before the elders of their families, as the elders were less inclined to relinquish a long-life tradition.

Bint al-balad is characterized as being, intelligent, lively, straightforward, charming and most importantly dependable. To this day, a woman who shares such characteristics is referred to as a true bint balad. However, as in all societies there are some exception to the rule, and there are always those who deviate from the norm.

 
    Bint el balad in the repertoire of the Reda Troupe

One of the important misleading elements that lead to a misconception about the millayah and the role it played in dance, is the name “the millayah dance”. This lead all the foreign dancers to believe that this type of dance is a traditional or indigenous dance which still takes place in the streets or allies of inner cities. In fact, the dancing of bint al- balad with the millayah was first introduced by The Reda Troupe as a theatrical dance presentation.

In the earlier dances in the dance repertoire of the Reda Troupe on stage, Mahmoud Reda turned to the characters and environment that influenced him in his youth. They are his own impressions of the customs and traditions of a society he grew up in, and a culture in which he was immersed. Many of the characters he depicted in his dances were typical urban figures found in the old quarters of Cairo.
 
 

The characters he chose to depict through dance, possessed movement qualities and mannerisms that could be expressed through dance. It was the first time that these characters were made to dance on stage. He created movements out of the familiar behavioral movements and actions. He introduced the possible dance variations and deviations that he felt could be the natural outcome of their movement qualities, posture and stance. In doing so, he merged the movement traits and specific gestures of these characters with innovative dance steps. Thus creating a dance idiom very specific to his choreographies. In this way dance grew out of non-dance movements.

Costumes and paraphernalia played an important role in influencing the carriage and movement of their wearers. Mahmoud Reda paid attention to how different types of clothing and accoutrements determined the way the characters he presented danced on stage through emphasizing how they handled their personal items.
Bint al- balad and the millayah offered Mahmoud Reda more opportunities for manipulation and incorporation into dance movements. Sawsan al- masiri, in her “ Ibn El Balad: A  Conception of Egyptian Identity.” describes  eloquently the motions that bint al-balad goes through when out doors as follows:

Bint el balad will wrap the milaya laff in such a way that her midriff and hips are clearly outlined to show the shapeliness of her figure. The overwrap allows part of the body to show, like a bare arm, while the other is covered…[the] the scarf is supposed to cover her hair however, it is usually left loose enough so as to slip continuously half off, necessitating frequent stops to adjust it and the milaya. Thus in the middle of the street bint el balad can take off her scarf, tie it again around her hair, then re-wrap the milaya around her body, all of which allows her to perform a series of alluring gestures by which to attract the attention of passers by…

The influence of the millayah in bint al- balad’s body language and non verbal communication was introduced and blended into movement and steps, then merged into the choreography. The millayah became integral to, and an extension of the movement process. The movements introduced became a style both new and unique.

 
 

More than fifty years later, so much misinformation was handed down from generations to generation of dancers by both Egyptian and foreign teachers. This is due to the misinformation that was given to both of them by Egyptian teachers in the 1980s and 1990s of the last Century. These teachers did not inform them about the difference between what was traditional or indigenous and what was the product of the theater dance genre that was very particular to The Reda Troupe. This was either due to their lack of knowledge or carelessness, plus their lack of artistic prowess.

I had sincerely hoped that these teachers, who were either students or others who knew the work of such a prime mover as Mahmoud Reda, would have at least attempted to introduce movements that were both homogenous and generic to his original movement process that pertains to bint el balad.

 

 
 

Why The Frustration?

I had stayed away from travelling and teaching for many years. It was a choice I made after the death of my husband. I had also decided to remain by my aging mother, to look after her and savor her company. After her death, I began to travel and teach in many countries around the world. In attending the recitals and “compulsory” competitions that always take place in belly dance festivals, I was confronted with young women dancing with what was supposedly the millayah.  They wore tacky, loud colored, frilly very short dresses. They had in their hands or hanging on their arms, shiny and sparkly gauze like materials, or a smaller version of millayah that was either in black silk or colored, and always covered with shiny plastic coins.

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 gestures 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 supposedly millayah was thrashed, twirled and flung around in a somewhat cheerleader fashion. In some parts of the world some of the foreign teachers, unbeknownst to them, 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.

After watching such performances, I was always left in a state of disillusionment and frustration. I asked myself many times why was I so disappointed? After long thought and trying to understand why I felt the way I did, I realized that there were two main reasons. The first reason was that for 25 years I worked side by side with Mahmoud Reda and succeeded through my dance and Mahmoud Reda’s creative genius to bring forth to the stage yet another style of dance that enriched our theatrical tradition. I had hoped that, at least, some of the teachers would have been able to follow through and evolve this dance style and its vocabulary of movements. What happened instead was a distortion that was already established and presented by belly dancers in many parts of the world. The second reason is that the millayah was part of my country’s cultural heritage. I love and respect my country, and I hold its people and their traditions very close to my heart. When I danced with the millayah I always felt an inner respect and pride that was, for certain, felt by my audience.

 
         
  Article Farida Fahmy 2014
Images Mahmoud Reda
Design pdf andf web Keti Sharif www.ketisharif.com
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