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Cairo Calling: A Profile of Layla Ghaleb

Samia Qaiyum

Hip-hop ain’t dead,
It never died,
It just moved to the Middle East,

where the struggle is still alive.

Arabian Knightz, 2012


The year is 2021. Coronavirus continues its world tour, unlike dancer and choreographer Layla Ghaleb. She's in her home town of Cairo, under the weather and apologetic about it, but eager to discuss Egypt's thriving hip-hop scene over Zoom – just don't ask her which local dance artists we should be following.


“Can I not answer this question?” she asks cautiously. She is, however, quick to cite a B-Boy who goes by the name of Klash. “He's one of the best B-Boys out there and actually in China right now. My problem is that any person who has been very influential in the hip-hop scene has already left,” she says, echoing the frustrations of countless creatives across the Middle East.


Revealing details about her rather traditional upbringing, she says, “My father works in software and my mother is an Egyptologist, so there aren't a lot of artists in my family. Not even one, in fact. My mother did take me to ballet classes when I was five and I didn't really enjoy them,” she confesses. But where ballet classes failed, music channels like MTV and Mazzika stepped in.


Layla recalls shutting herself off and letting loose in the living room. “Growing up, movies like You Got Served inspired me,” she says. But it’s the 2003 film Honey that prompted her lightbulb moment. “That's when I knew dance was it for me. And I didn't find an outlet to train in the country, so I was just dancing for myself.” While Layla was lucky enough to find her calling at the age of eight, it wasn't without its challenges. After joining various dance crews helped her assimilate into the country's dance scene, she was put in what she describes as a very difficult situation.


“We were asked to perform in a place where I wasn't comfortable performing. I'm Muslim, and my principles are attached to my religion, so I won’t perform in a place that serves alcohol for a lot of reasons – but not because I just take whatever Islam says at face value. No. I understand the consequences on a human being and a community when alcohol is consumed disproportionately,” she explains.


Layla's stance led to her being kicked out of the dance group, and this enforced exit was the trigger for the first of two stints at Urban Dance Camp in Germany in 2015. “They kicked me out because they felt that I was changing the group's vision and I was running out of options to dance in Egypt, so I decided to create an opportunity for myself. That's how I ended up in Germany. I was still in high school at the time.” Unlike her first experience at Urban Dance Camp – which lasted only 10 days and proved to be a wake-up call – her second run in 2016 was two months long.

“I had been training and working to save up so I could be more prepared because the first time I was there? Let's just say it was a lot. And I took it hard. The second time around was better – my mentality was different. This alone made me not stress about the classes, and I was actually doing well from a skill point of view. It was the best experience of my life.” she says, lighting up.

The 25-year-old says Urban Dance Camp shaped her not just as a dancer, but as a person, too. “My teachers helped me define what dance is for me. Because of how much dance helped me, I realised how much I could help people with it,” she says. Layla realised there was no looking back, deciding to teach professionally. “It made me accept myself in ways I could not even imagine. Dance classes are life lessons. Teachers like Chris Martin and Keone Madrid saw dancing as a therapeutic approach as much as it is a skill, and their classes were the ones that shaped me.”


With such a backstory, Layla’s signature style has understandably evolved over time – and considering it’s a mash-up of hip-hop, jazz-funk, and contemporary, it's not one that can be neatly summarised. “My style is very different from a lot of people in my community because, again, I freestyle and new movements come very naturally to me. I love musicality. What I started with was very masculine; it was very popping-oriented. I remember my sister repeatedly saying that it didn't suit me, but as a 13-year-old, I was trying to prove her wrong,” she admits.

AntiSocial Social Club | Choreography by Layla Ghaleb & Mahmoud Shoukry

Ironically, it's her male dance partner Mahmoud Shoukry who steered Layla in the opposite direction. “He has a more feminine style that's like jazz-punk, commercial. Meanwhile, I couldn't even move my waist! It came together to create a style that's sometimes very feminine and intricate, and sometimes very masculine and even grungy. What I'm most known for is one that's slow, meticulous, on the music, on the words. I think that's where people see me as more unique.”


Incidentally, Mahmoud is also her business partner – the two launched dance studio GOODSPACE in two locations across Cairo earlier this year, pandemic and recession be damned. “The timing isn't ideal, of course, but what keeps me and Mahmoud going is the fact that we're doing it together. You know when you're tired to the extent that you can't stop just laughing because of how messy it is?” she chuckles.


But GOODSPACE isn’t about the bottom line. “We aren't really interested in making a lot of money – at the end of the day, we’re two simple people who created this space to empower our community. And if we become a successful brand along the way, great! But our goal is to give chances after knowing what it's like to have none.”


Interestingly, Layla is of the opinion that female dancers are at an advantage over their male counterparts. “The situation is actually reversed in our community – men are the victims because of this whole ‘macho man’ tradition amongst Arabs. I find that it's more of a challenge for them to fully be themselves when they are training.” she says, full of praise for men who turn to dance to find themselves.


“That makes me proud because I understand their fear, I understand the ridicule they face.” However, it's a whole other story on the business side of things, where patriarchal attitudes still reign supreme. “They think I'm the ‘neurotic’ partner when I'm just stating a point. If Mahmoud says it, it's fine. I don't let it bother me because I'm not trying to prove anything.”

Fostering a solid dance community aside, GOODSPACE is also Egypt’s first talent agency rooted in discovering and developing dancers and choreographers. “From an industry standpoint, we've been seeing a big gap in giving the dancers their rights. They work long hours for very little money and often aren't paid overtime.” As choreographers, Mahmoud and Layla work on music videos for big artists like Balqees, and witness how few rules are in place. “A lot of them accept less than they deserve because they don't expect anyone to stand up for them. Hopefully, we will have a well-established agency with artists who get minimum pay by 2025.”

Diplomacy (music video) by Balqees, choreographed by Layla Ghaleb and Mahmoud Shoukry 

But before Layla's long-term vision is realised is the current context of Egypt's hip-hop scene, which represents both the uncertainty of the ongoing pandemic and the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring, the latter of which is significant. For the uninitiated, it was the 2010 track Rais Lebled by Tunisian rapper El Général that is vastly credited for spurring on the young demonstrators across the country’s streets. Countless other artists in the tightly controlled countries of the MENA region have since followed suit, finding solace in this genre of self-expression.


Reluctant to comment on today's political dynamics, Layla turns her attention to the pandemic. “Dance is definitely getting bigger because of these circumstances. A lot of people explored the dance world as a result of sitting at home, wanting to try something new.” Slow progress is still progress. In a previous interview, Mahmoud spoke about the “undertone of judgement” by certain segments of society when the first hip-hop dance club was formed at The American University in Cairo back in 2003, describing this knee-jerk reaction as second nature whenever Egyptians encounter anything that feels out of the ordinary. “Because they never see that kind of thing, they just associate it with the one thing they know, which is belly dancing,” he said.

Rais Lebled (music video) by El Général

In contrast, today’s Egypt is a lot more tolerant of different art forms. “Whenever any studio brings out an international teacher or whenever one of us travels abroad, they always admit that they did not expect to see Egyptian dance talents of this calibre,” remarks Layla. “But it's very recent. The hip-hop dance community has only been around for three or four years, so I'm understanding when outsiders think the Egyptian dance scene starts and ends with belly dancing.”

Hip-hop music on the other hand? To say it is the fastest growing genre in recent years is an understatement. Even though hip-hop is still more Bronx than Beirut, the genre and the region is a match made in heaven, rising steadily and overtaking the hyper-commercialised love songs that long ruled the airwaves. And considering their similarities, it's about time. The Middle East has a long-standing tradition of poetry and oral storytelling, making the fusion of frustrated youth, angst-ridden rhymes, and the fascinatingly rich Arabic language a natural fit.

“The parallels between the aggressiveness of hip-hop culture and Egyptian culture are undeniable,” Layla says with a laugh. “Hip-hop culture is huge here, though not necessarily in dance – the rap scene is booming. And it is fitting very well because we have the same intentions. We want to go into the streets and have a cypher. We want to say what we need to say in a song.” The conversation inevitably turns to the subject of mahraganat, a genre of street music emerging from the 2011 Egyptian Revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak.


Translating to ‘festivals’, it combines elements of electronic dance music and shaabi, culminating in an underground, home-grown hip-hop scene of sorts. Unapologetically honest about the everyday realities of Cairo's most marginalised communities, it tackles themes of crime, discrimination, and poverty, complete with fast-paced rhythms and auto-tuned beats. And its popularity continues to soar. It's no wonder, then, that an MP dubbed mahraganat “more dangerous than coronavirus. Yet, attempts to ban the genre – essentially silence the disenfranchised – have proven futile.

Q&A with Layla Ghaleb

“A formal ban hasn't actually taken place,” says Layla, alluding to mahraganat possibly shadowing something else that Egyptians aren't supposed to see. “It's everywhere – all the weddings, all the parties, all the clubs, on the streets. It's what people live on.” She goes on to compare mahraganat to struggles in hip-hop culture, stating, “Mahraganat artists are from the lower class, but it has nothing to do with social standing – everyone in Egypt listens to it.”

As for Layla's circle – can it ever become a target of Egyptian authorities the way mahraganat has? “I think yes,” she says without missing a beat. “Dance could be taken out of context as something that's inappropriate or because of what a woman is wearing. They can definitely ban it,” she sighs. “We try our best, though. We always ensure that everything we're doing is clean because it's very tricky to do something creative in Egypt. But again, my partner and I have an advantage. We're in a circle of people that’s very Westernised, so we don't really get noticed that way.”

Hip-hop and mahraganat aside, Layla speaks of wanting to ‘clean up the mindset’ of Cairo's dance scene before anything else. “The community thrives on drama, and it's something that I try to stay away from because, honestly, I just don't see the need for all this competition,” she sighs. “I’m grateful whenever someone new joins the community, even if they're a competitor. It means the market is growing.”

But not everyone is quite as receptive. “That’s why I'm teaching, trying to have my students develop the right intentions towards dance. Platforms like TikTok have turned dance into this means of gaining views or followers. It's become about validation.” But Layla would be quick to correct anyone under the impression that dance is a world reserved for Egypt’s elite. “Every class has a dance community, but it's hard to stay united. Either the lower class refuses to answer to the upper class, or the upper class doesn't create space for the lower class. It's not like anywhere else. The dance community is very disconnected,” she asserts.


“We have a lot of work to do. There's still a lot of ego unfortunately. No one is willing to train if it means having to go outside of their group, which is why I’m never surprised when someone isn't familiar with Egypt's dance scene. And I hope people someday understand that hip-hop is only one aspect of what we do.” Layla returns to the subject of her own style, explaining that open style choreography is truer to who she is today.

“It's not really hip-hop. I've trained hip-hop and I've learnt hip-hop – and yes, it’s the foundation to a lot of styles. But I cannot say that’s what I teach. Hip-hop has specific moves with specific names. What I do is very freeing. It doesn't have any boundaries. I can do a move from hip-hop, but then I can also do an afro move or a classical move or a jazz-funk move, creating a mix of everything, so there's still a lot to teach. People always say, ‘Oh, you're a hip-hop dancer.’ And you know what? I just go with it because it's a very long story.”

Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021

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Samia Qaiyum

Samia Qaiyum is a Dubai-based editor specialising in travel and culture, contributing to the likes of Elle Arabia, Vice Arabia, Globetrender, National Geographic Traveller Food, and Condé Nast Traveller. A textbook third culture kid with a perpetual thirst for adventure, she has lived in five countries and travelled to 34 others, racking up all sorts of weird and wonderful experiences along the way – just don’t ask her to define the word ‘home’.

IG @askew82

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Samia Qaiyum

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