Milaya Lef arabic
Melaya Luf - and other variations in transliteration

Milaya lef and gallibaya.

The milaya lef (winding sheet) is large black cotton wrap (over 3m long) that used to be worn by bint il-beled in Alexandria or old Cairo over normal clothes often with the mandil and bur'a. The garment was used for modesty, warmth and protection. Groceries could be stored in its folded pockets and small children could cling to it.

In some of the old Egyptian films there is footage of women in milayas but they don't dance as such in them.

In the early 1960s Mahmoud Reda created a dance tableau for his sister-in-law, Farida Fahmy in which she played the bint il-beled. Wrapped but flirtatious.

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.

Styles of dance

Since Reda's invention a range of styles have developed. I was introduced to milaya by Raqia in 1996. Her version (click for a 170kB, 20s clip) is very sassy, even sexy with the emphasis on attitude and the torso.

Next time I saw milaya it was with Denise Enan (who grew up seeing women wearing them every day, using them as baskets for carrying food or kids as well as modesty and warmth). Her version (click for a 590kB, 43s clip) was cheekier, lighter with a lot of manipulation - without doing the "flying veil" thing - open, unwrap, wrap, stole etc.

Aida Nour is from Alexandria and loves milaya - but I confess her style (click for a 280kB, 22s clip) is my least favourite style - lots of flying veil, swishing etc in which the prop becomes more important than the dance - and with the least personality in the dancer. (Note, I said "the least" - not none!).

Another Egyptian dancer, Nadia Hamdi, performed it in the States while chewing gum and this too has many followers!

The dance style can be earthed and strong or light and coy. But even when the mood is flirtatious - it is a knowing flirtation - and the woman is in charge. The moves tend to be relaxed and (deceptively) simple. In all cases this is a recent invented tradition. For me, to qualify as milaya lef dance there has to be some dancing, some attitude and some manipulation of the milaya lef.

There are also some fun non-traditional interpretations. For instance, Azziza from Brisbane in this clip (1.7MB) uses modern Nubian music - while wearing mandil, bur`a, and an assymetrical ruffled dress. While Tanya from Tauranga takes a very traditional song - and performs in a most untraditional costume (800kB)!

Stage Costume

Dancer: Azziza
Dress: Madame Abla
street style
Aida Nour
- street style wrap
Reda style
Aida Nour
- Reda troupe style
Raqia Hassan
Raqia Hassan
- held tight

Stage milayas tend to have sequins around the edge and across the center. (However, I have seen very good milaya lef performances with plain fabric milayas - but not veils they need some weight and stretch).

There are a number of wrapping styles. Normally you gather the milaya vertically first. Commonly for dance one shoulder is free and the head uncovered. However you can include a hood in the wrap. At the other extreme Raqia has a wrap which requires you to pull the fabric tight, twist and hold.

Any suitable dress may be worn under the milaya. Reda's original dress was a plain dress, mid calf with a pattern of roses printed on the fabric. These days the dress is often over the top with ruffles and asymmetry.

In addition there is the mandil (pompom headscarf), bur'a (an open weave face veil) and shoes.

Acknowledgements: Lectures and workshops by Aida Nour, Denise Enan, Raqia Hassan.

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