Like most things throughout belly dancing the spelling of Milaya (garment) and Milaya Lef (dance) is subject to change, depending on interpretation. So too is the origin of the dance.
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.
Beledi music is used specifically for the Melaya Leff (pronounced “ME-LIE-AH LEF”). The dance itself is from Alexandria, Egypt. A melaya itself is a large, black shawl made of nylon or silk, in which the women wrap themselves completely from head to toe. It is a modesty garment for when they leave the house. For the stage, the melaya is trimmed with gold or silver pailettes.
The word leff simply means “to wrap”. Under the melaya, the dancer wears a form-fitting dress that is short, ruffled and bright in color. She dons open-toed slippers with high heels called ship-ship, and on her head she ties a small scarf decorated with pompons or flowers. Also worn is a crocheted face-veil known as a burr’oh. The melaya is draped upon the body, and during the dance it slips off and is re-wrapped time and time again.
As Alexandria is a port city, the dance scene is between the fishermen and the women who are looking to profit by sharing their liberties. The men sit on the street beside a café, drinking and smoking their water pipes. The women compete for attention by flirting. Eventually, the men and women dance together. The men’s costuming is that of the typical fisherman, including a black trouser, a sweater, a multi-colored waistcoat and a white fisherman’s hat.
In Egypt, an Oriental dancer might use the melaya lef dance for the folkloric part of her show, but she doesn't do so wearing her Oriental costume. In the U.S., since most Americans doing Egyptian style dances don't have the opportunity to do a costume change after the Oriental set and come back out in folkloric costume, they rarely use the melaya leff in their Oriental performances.
The Milaya Lef is considered an Alexandrian dance, i.e. a dance from the city of Alexandria. The word Alexandria is also written as Eskandaria, or Es-Kandaria, in the colloquial Egyptian language. The city was named after its founder, Alexander the Great.
The Milaya is a large, rectangular cloth in which a woman can or could completely - from head to foot - cover herself if she went out of the house and on the road. It is as if it were the "road coat" of the Egyptian woman.
The dance developed in the 1920's when customs began to loosen in Egypt. For the stage, the Milaya is decorated along the edges or also in the centre with large golden or silver paillettes. "Lef" means simply "in windings".
Under the Milaya, the dancer wears a close-fitting, usually short, multicoloured dress with ruffles. In addition, she wears slippers with somewhat high heels, a small headscarf with multicoloured pom-poms (representative of flowers?) called a "Mandihl bi Uiya" and a net face veil, which does not actually hide the face, but nevertheless, simulates the traditional "Burr'oh" (burqa). The Milaya is then draped around the whole body, sometimes including over the top of the head.
The Milaya is manipulated to slip off and the woman must re-drape it again and again. One dances the Milaya Lef in Cairo and in Alexandria. In Cairo the style is Baladi (country-fled; modest), while in Alexandria the style is somewhat more impudent and the skirt is shorter. Alexandria is a port with cosmopolitan flair, and from the time of the Ptolemic era, its women already profited and possessed larger liberties. So it is also, naturally, with the dance.
The music used is a Baladi song and the rhythm is usually a fast 4/4 Maksoum. The instruments are typically Oriental: kanoun, oud, nay, violin, accordion and, as rhythm instruments, small and large tabla.
Either the female dancer or the male customer can initiate the dance; the setting is usually the same in either case: men sit at the road cafe, drink coffee, tea, play Backgammon and smoke the water pipe. The women, passing by on their way to do errands or shopping, compete for the attention of the men. They begin to flirt or, conversely, the men encourage the woman to dance. In any case, contact is established between them, after which they dance together on the stage. The men show off how masculine they are, and how skilfully they can move and dance. For a costume, they usually wear typical Alexandrian clothes consisting of black pants, a sweater and a multicoloured waistcoat, as well as a white fisherman's hat.
According to Ragia Hassan, the stage milaya is a lot lighter than the traditional wrap (usually woollen), it must be black and is worn by the beledi people. When a beledi• lady wears the milaya, she wears it very sexily and pulls it tight to show the outline of her figure.
When dancing with milaya use flat feet - no real toe work.
According to Aida Nour, the dance is always cheeky and any modern music can be used.
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