Sunday, 23 December 2012

Meleya Laugh

Lots of different things can provide the inspiration for a dance. Sometimes it’s a piece of music, or a film clip. Sometimes it’s an excuse to make a specific costume. And very, very occasionally, it’s a pair of shoes.

'Interesting' shoes

I came across these in a local store when I was walking to the till with something else. They were on the end of the aisle, and greatly reduced (I can’t think why). My first thought was, “Oh my, they’re hideous”. My second thought was, “But they would be perfect for Meleya Leff”.

So what, exactly, is Meleya Leff?

A meleya is a very large, black shawl, worn over normal clothes. It was used as a modesty garment by women of Cairo and Alexandria. The word leff simply means ‘to wrap’. As far as I am aware, there is no tradition of dancing with a meleya in Egyptian dance. The dance known as Meleya Leff was devised by Mahmoud Reda who, according to his sister-in-law Farida Fahmy, wanted to create a dance associated with the everyday life of Egyptian women. For more information on the dance, click here.

One misconception about Meleya Leff which I think it’s important to clear up; it is not a dance of prostitutes. Think about it: in 1961 the Reda Troupe was placed under the aegis of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, and became in effect the national dance company of Egypt. At President Nasser’s command the troupe performed around the world as cultural ambassadors for the country. They were hardly likely to be depicting Alexandrian ladies of easy virtue while doing this.

Original Meleya Leff costume

This is the classic Meleya Leff costume, worn here by Farida Fahmy. It consists of a short dress with an uneven hem, a headscarf trimmed with pom-poms, high-heeled wooden-soled mules known as ‘sheb-sheb’ for the sound they make, a face veil and of course, the meleya itself. Over time the meleya has come to be heavily trimmed with sequins, and the dress has acquired frills at the hem and neckline. The dress can also be one-shouldered.

I decided to make a Meleya Leff dress with a festive theme, to wear at our class Christmas party. The pattern was made by taking a leotard pattern, adapting it to be one-shouldered with a strap, and extending the line down from the hip to the required skirt length. I found a sparkly green knit fabric which was perfect for the dress, but it was very thin, so the dress is made with a black jersey lining. While the jersey part fitted perfectly, I put darts into the green dress to get a better fit. The flounces are made from the green fabric, folded double.

Completed, but plain, dress

Making a Meleya Leff dress is one occasion where taste and restraint very definitely go out the window. So I hit the Christmas decorations section of my local pound shop, and went wild (well, wild to the tune of about £6!). Tinsel, baubles, decorative trim, gold plastic clip-on poinsettias ….. and some battery-operated fairy lights.

Mmmm, tasteful

As usual, I made the headdress by sewing the headscarf of black sparkly material onto a rigid hairband. My pound shop haul included some trim which consisted of small white pom-poms attached to a sting of silver beads, so I bunched this up and sewed it onto the hairband as well. Finally, I cut small holes along the front edge of the headscarf, and poked the fairy lights through the holes. The switch was hidden under my hair, so for my grand finale I put my hand to the back of my neck, flicked the switch, and hey presto!

All lit up

Sewing on tinsel is surprisingly awkward to do, but eventually I got it stitched around the edge of the bottom ruffles. Then I sewed the sequin trim down the front of the dress, shaping it in a bit at the waist, and round the top of the skirt ruffle. I had a few sequins left, so I added them to my bauble earrings. The ensemble was finished off with a couple of poinsettias clipped to the bottom of the shoulder strap.

The complete costume

To my great joy, the dress got a second outing. Last week at work we had a ‘Wear your Christmas jumper to the office’ charity fundraiser. I don’t have a Christmas jumper, but I do now have a Christmas dress. I left the shoes and the headdress at home, and added a long-sleeved top underneath, for warmth as much as decency. Also, I must admit that I put the dress on once I’d arrived; I wasn’t prepared to risk getting a flat tyre on the day I was travelling dressed as a Christmas tree! Still, given that my usual office wear is black, black, black or black, with occasional forays into grey or navy, I think it’s fair to say that I caused a bit of a stir.

Not my normal work look

Merry Christmas, one and all!

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