Gilded Serpent presents...
A Life in Dance
was a few months ago that I heard Atef Farag's
name for the first time. Several friends who are either in Cairo
now or have been in the recent past mentioned him as
great teacher with a background in the Reda troupe. When I heard
that he would be coming to the US
for the first time this summer I became even more curious
to find out more about him.
that it would be fascinating to interview him after reading about
his background. I have a long-standing interest in capturing the
experiences and opinions of dance artists in their own words in
our field so that they may be preserved as part of the historical
record. I am also fascinated by the ways that the careers of the
Egyptian dance artists who started with groups like the Reda Troupe
reflect larger social, political and cultural forces at play in
post-Nasser era Egypt. My questions were
fairly simple, and I wanted to draw him out without influencing
the answer too much, so there was no real expectation, agenda
or angle for the interview other than to learn more about his
career, as expressed in his own words. The interview was conducted
by phone in Arabic on April 11, 2005 and I am indebted to Hala
Fauzi for help with
the translation. The text is unexpurgated although some repetitive
phrases were edited out.
How did you get your start in the
field of dance, and what were your experiences before joining
the Reda troupe?
started dance when I was twelve years old, when I was in elementary
school. In Egypt at that time there
were 'socialist unions' [equivalent to social clubs -dl] that
had corresponding youth organizations, which held a "social
awareness" contest between the elementary schools of the area.
They took 5 representative pupils from every school to enter that
contest and I was the winner from my school - I was in the sixth
contacted us in the summer and said they were starting a "young
people's organization" with you all and that organization
would feed into the "youth organization", which would in turn
feed into the "socialist union".
would be educated politically and artistically. "Who would like
to study acting? Who would like to study singing? Who would like
dancing?" I chose dance.
I worked in
that organization from 12 to 14 years of age. Our trainer
at the time was from the National Folkloric Troupe, and
he suggested that I apply to join their newly formed dance school.
I learned the music and some simple dancesteps, I entered the
final exam and passed. When I was admitted to the National
Folkloric Troupe's dance school I was 14 years old. The people
who helped create this troupe were from Russia,
so their training system was Russian. I had three years of classical
ballet training, pirouettes, chaîne turns, and things like that.
We also studied something called 'character dance' which was based
on Russian folkloric dance. One month before I was to graduate
from the National Folkloric Troupe's school, I saw an ad for dancers
to audition for the Reda Troupe so I applied and joined them in
anyone else in your family an artist, and did they encourage
seven children in our family. My father was involved in
the arts. He worked in the cinema as a lighting technician
and he had many friends who were artists. All the actors
in Egypt at the time were his friends, and
he was well known in the field of movie lighting and electrical
wiring of movie sets. My dad encouraged me and he had no
objections to my path because I was also taking care of my studies.
For them, of course, studying was important, and I was among the
top of my class. Since I was studious and diligent they gave
me the freedom to do what I wanted to do, although they were watching
actually helped me with the Reda troupe in 1975. At that
time, I was in my final year of high school. Before the
final exams, I had to pay a lot of attention to my studies [in
Egypt the final year of high school determines
what a person will do for the rest of his/her life]. I had
been in the Reda Troupe for about 6 months, and we were under
probation, which means they took us and trained us and taught
us a few troupe dances. I had to stop my training with them
for three months to focus on studying for my final year of high
school so I would be able to get into a good college.
my colleagues who continued with the troupe ended up signing
contracts with them, but because I stopped, I didn't. I
passed my final year exams and started college in Liberal Arts,
specializing in Geography.
I tried to
go back to the Reda troupe but was unsuccessful. Very shortly
thereafter, Mahmoud and Ali Reda
went to shoot a movie called Ah Ya Leil Ya Zaman at my
dad's studio. [Stars of the film included, Roshdy
Abaza, Warda and Adel
When my dad
told me Mahmoud was coming to the studio every day to work on
the film, I told him I wanted to rejoin the troupe.
My dad talked to Mahmoud and I went to meet with him at the studio
telling him that I had been in training with the troupe, that
my trainer's name was Geddawi and why I had to
stop for my studies. My dad's nickname was 'El Hagg
Zaky', and Mahmoud told him "Don't worry Hagg,
Atef is with me."
immediately signed a contract with the troupe and from that
time was with them. That's how my dad helped me with my
did you learn from your 30 years with the Reda Troupe?
Atef takes a break with Mahmoud Reda
When I joined
the troupe in 1975 in my first year of college, I loved the troupe
very much and I loved dance very, very, very, very much.
I had a good dance foundation from the National Folkloric Troupe,
and Mahmoud Reda liked dancers who had a good concept of ballet.
I was good to such an extent that I traveled with the troupe outside
Egypt within 6 months of joining. We
hadn't even traveled inside Egypt yet, not
even to Alexandria. This first trip was to the Moroccan town of
the time I joined the troupe, my eyes were on Mahmoud Reda.
I wanted to know and understand everything from that man.
adored this man and absolutely respected him. After I matured
a little bit, I understood that this love and admiration for him
came from our basic love for dance, and in our minds, this man
was and is the master of dance. He is the TOP dancer in
Egypt so our love for him came from our absolute
trust that he was, as they say, the God of dance in Egypt.
So I started learning from him. I watched how he dealt with us
administratively and how he formed our training sessions.
For our training, Mahmoud Reda had 10 drills that went with 10
gathered in them approximately 90% of the dance steps and that
was half the class.
and does these steps well can do any step in dance. For
the other half of the class, we would be standing on the diagonal
and he would construct drills to the same rhythms. I started to
see how he constructed steps. In dance we use something
like an alphabet: ABCDEFG. In his work, I saw how he put
the B next to the D next to the O next to the W to come up with
a beautiful dance phrase. I started to understand when I end
a drill, when I end a move, which foot do I have free that I can
step with next, where is my body in space, where is the weight?
What step matches the previous one? What step I can do now that
leads to the following one? I learned from him the technique
of doing choreography, how he designed his dances.
The way he
dealt with us - he was very, very, very stern but also very, very,
very loving. At work he is the boss and we're the students.
He could be very firm with us and no one could disagree or talk
to him. In contrast, when we were socializing, you could find
him joking with us. By the way, Mahmoud Reda loves joking
relationship between us has a lot of respect, love and admiration.
He's a very educated and well read man, and can speak fluently
on any subject.
I used to
study geography at the time and he used to work in something with
astronomy. He would ask me "You, geography dude, why is
the sky blue?" I didn't know, so he would tell me. When
we traveled, for example in Yugoslavia, driving
by seashore he asked, "Atef, the geography dude, do you know what
is the name of this sea?" I said "the Adriatic sea." He said "Very
good! Now tell me where the Adriatic sea starts and where it ends!"
and so I decided that I should read a lot to be like Mahmoud Reda.
I had a chance
to apply much that I learned from him in 1989, when Mahmoud took
me to the American University in Cairo (AUC). I initially
went to be his assistant. AUC wanted us to train their dance
troupe to participate at an international folk dance festival
in Spain. A trainer had to accompany
the group to organize the schedule.
these festivals, for example, they might require a 15 minute
performance, then the next day, 20 minutes then the next day,
a half an hour, then sometimes solo performances; there are
many different requirements like that.
to understand how to organize the troupe performances: who is
dancing where and when, how to fill the stage whether it's big
or small, if the stage is small, how to decrease the number of
dancers so that they don't collide, etc. I learned all this
from Mahmoud. For example, when we used to travel, the first
thing he did was check out the stage and its capabilities: the
size, what equipment it has, where the lights were, where the
musicians should sit, the sound- the lighting, is it computerized
or manual? He would start planning the lighting. Since he
knew the dances so well (the entrances and exits, the costumes
and their colors) he could plan the lighting accordingly. He
taught us tips such as when there are lights from below going
up, the dancer's face will look like a ghost or if there is very
bright lighting, the face's features will melt away and won't
be visible and we learned when to dim the lights to give
a desired silhouette or look.
After we trained
the troupe at the AUC for about 3 months, we went to Spain.
They asked Mahmoud to travel with the troupe, but he was busy at
the time, as was Madame Farida [Fahmy].
Atef poses with Farida Fahmy
and Farida told the AUC's manager to take me to accompany the
troupe to take care of business and management.
took me aside and said, "Now that you're going to manage these
students, never point out anything that's wrong unless you're
able to fix it."- she was talking to me about the girls' dances.
She knew that I knew the boys' dances very well because I was
the one who trained them under Mahmoud's supervision. If a girl
did something wrong on stage or in rehearsal and I found a mistake,
I could not say there was a mistake without being able to correct
that mistake and tell them how to make it right.
that time I started to concentrate on the women's dances and
learning their parts so I would be able to correct their mistakes.
I traveled with Mme Khafaga of the AUC and I started
to apply everything I had learned from Mahmoud.
the troupe on how to behave, how to dress, how no one should interfere
with the management of the festival, how to work with our guide,
how to eat. These festivals are pretty standardized- typically
there are 20-25 troupes from all over the world. I showed the
troupe how to act in such environments: how to respect the place
we're in, how, if I don't like a towel or a fork, I still
accept it nicely, how to deal with the management of the festival.
"I'm an artist and my job here is to dance, nothing else is my
business. I have a trainer and a manager, only the trainer
and the manager can represent me." How to behave in the
airport, everyone goes and puts their bag in front of the counter
in one long line, no mobbing the counter. I learned all
these things from Mahmoud. When we got there, I had to plan
for at least one week ahead, plan the dances and solve problems.
For example, if I had a dancer in two dances, how to plan so they
could exit in time for the costume change. How big was the stage,
how far were we staying from the venue so we could arrive on time?
I was about 27 years old.
At this festival,
they saw how solid the AUC troupe was, how polished they were
in spite of being new, and they didn't imagine that such a young
person was in charge of the whole show. And the AUC manager
Mme. Khafaga had me under her microscope. As soon as we
arrived back, in the airport, she told me "Atef, I want you to
work with me." I told her I would ask Mahmoud and with his
permission, I worked there by myself from the summer of 1989.
success I achieved was not my creation. All that belongs
to Mahmoud Reda.
did you switch to teaching Oriental dance?
Atef dances with Reda Troupe in 1995
of that was Mme Farida; she's the one who brought to my attention
that I had to know the girls' dances. Also, around 1980,
I found that Mahmoud was paying more attention to the girls' work
more than the boys' work. For the boys, other trainers would
come train us, but Mahmoud trained the girls himself. I also saw
that there are many dances for girls only but not many for boys
only. Sometimes there is a dance where like the 'Haggala' for
example where you have many boys and only one girl, but most other
work, we can do Shamedaan (candelabra), we can do oriental, we
can do folk songs, all with girls only. So I realized that
the girls' work was more interesting.
When I went
to the AUC, I had students of both genders, but the ratio of girls
to boys was 5:1. In any given year, if I got 20 girls, I
would get 4 or 5 boys. The girls also came in with a better dance
foundation- their families taught them ballet and what not.
boys often had no dance background whatsoever. So since they
were the majority and were better dancers than boys, I began
to prefer working with the girls. Girls' dance vocabulary
is also richer than boys.
That is to
say, the fabric that you're working with is wider. Boys'
dance is limited a little bit and it depends more on athletic
ability, high jumping and physical stamina. But with girls
the work is more varied, you can create from one step 40 and 50
different steps, that is, you can vary the phrase a number of
we used to travel to dance festivals, and we toured all of Europe.
I always wanted to show something very specifically and uniquely
Egyptian that no one else does, for example, a candelabra dance.
I also wanted to do Oriental dance because again, that is very
specifically Egyptian. I started training girls more than boys
and designing dances especially for them.
As to the
issue of steps, I started taking the folkloric steps that I knew
or I created or designed and giving them the Oriental style, no
longer pure folklore. I added Oriental "innuendoes," adding
a shimmy for example, or increasing the shimmying. The shimmy
is a girls' move, we don't use it for boys much because it's very
Oriental. I started using it more often to give the dance
the Oriental style for showcasing it outside Egypt.
I started taking the folk steps and adding the Oriental touch
so that the steps took the shape of Oriental dance. But
even up to now, when I put together an Oriental dance, I don't
like to put any sexual innuendoes in it. Because I work
with students, it's inappropriate to give them a dance that has
sexual innuendoes or the pure Oriental that is performed by the
Egyptian Oriental dance does tolerate a lot of sexual innuendo
that is not present in my work.
When I worked
with foreign students at the ALI (Arabic Language Institute),
I only had foreigners, no Egyptians at all. Foreigners from
different countries such as Korea,
Canada and Europe all
gathered at the ALI to learn Arabic, and I found the most appropriate
thing to teach them was Oriental dance. I also didn't get
any men there at all. Since 99% of the people who came to
me were foreign women, what they knew about dance in Egypt
was Oriental dance. I tried teaching them some folklore but they
already knew and liked Oriental dance, so I worked on that, in
the more conservative Oriental that is free from any sexual innuendoes.
in your opinion, is the essence of a good Oriental dancer?
First of all,
for Oriental dance, size is very important. Since the dancer
is by herself on stage, she has to have certain physical characteristics
to qualify herself.
my opinion it doesn't work for a short woman to do Oriental;
her height should be appropriate to fill the eyes of the viewer.
That is, she shouldn't be little on the stage, that's the
thing is the ear. The ear has to be very good because most
of her work is on rhythms and Oriental dance depends a lot on
rhythms. Even in the middle of an Oriental dance there has
to be a part called "the empty". That 'empty' is a rhythmic-only
section, only the drum (drum-solo). Flexibility and femininity
are very important. The Oriental dancer has to have a beautiful
has to have a very strong presence and she has to have radiance,
making everyone who is watching her feel she is dancing only
for him. She has to have such magnetism that those watching
her forget to eat or talk.
What changes have you observed in dance over the span
of your career?
In the forties
during the time of World War I, there were a lot of foreign soldiers
and officers in Egypt so the overwhelming
trend of dance at the time in the nightclubs of Emad Ad-din Street
was the sexy style. Because most of the patrons were soldiers
and officers and the like, there were a lot of sexy moves in dance.
era ended and the next era came, the first one who made a change
in dance in my personal opinion was Naima Akef.
Akef changed the dance into something completely free of sexual
innuendoes and it became about flexibility, beautiful execution
and elegance on the stage plus her sense of humor.
time Samia Gamal and Tahia
Carioca were also transforming dance from a "vulgar"
dance more into a rhythmic dance, each in her different style.
Samia Gamal had more "show" tendencies in her dance than Oriental.
She used to travel a lot on stage. Tahia Carioca, like Sohair
Zeki, danced all in one place, not moving a lot,
using the internal belly work. In my opinion, Naima Akef
had both under control. She could work in one place, and
she could also use a large area- she was fundamentally trained
in the circus. She learned in Circus El Helw (the
most famous circus family in Egypt).
that was the era when Nagwa Fouad came. Nagwa Fouad also combined
the big expansive movements on stage and working in one place,
but Nagwa added something else.
added many folkloric touches to her work and brought on a folkloric
trainer to work with her. She incorporated other dancers
in her work, men and women. She did dances that had a story
line and drama- it wasn't just dance for dance's sake, but had
a dramatic dimension. For example, she would do a Mamluk
dance [The Mamluk sultanate (1250-1517) emerged in Egypt
and Syria]. She would enter the stage carried
on the shoulders of slaves; she would recreate the incident or
the historical era of that theme. So she incorporated the
folklore with the dance and her dance tableaus became like that.
We then come
to Mr. Mahmoud Reda. His origin was the folk arts; he loves
the folklore. When he teaches or choreographs a dance for
anyone, there has to be the folkloric touch- even has the folkloric
feel. Whoever performs it has to be an Egyptian or love
Egypt or have lived in Egypt
or know a lot about Egypt. It has a
very Egyptian spirit.
Now in Egypt
we have Russian girls performing dance. They are very good
technically. Their technique is perfect, beautiful, but
they don't give you the feeling of the Egyptian character.
Do you know who gives me that feeling even though they are not
Egyptian? The Brazilians, for example, give me that feeling,
the Americans and South Americans;
southern people, in general have that feeling more than the
They can be
doing the same step, the northern person would excel technically,
for example the one who lives in Canada can
do the technique better than the one from New Orleans but the
hot weather and the steps of the one from New Orleans will be
more continuous. So the "taste" of the dance will better
from the one from the south than from the north. Despite the technique
of the Canadian being higher like the Russians,
technique is very high and the flexibility is very high but
the taste and the spirit are lacking. That is the change that
happened in dance over time.
personally believe that the strongest era for dance was the era
of Naima Akef, Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca and the beginnings of
Nagwa Fouad, and another great dancer named Keti
that appears a lot in old Egyptian movies: very beautiful, very
clever. That is the strongest era of dance.
comes Fifi Abdo, for example.
Fifi Abdo also creates dance tableaus that are heavily influenced
by the folkloric style. For example you'll find a neighborhood
coffee shop, she holds the shisha, she stirs the coals, she crosses
the flame seven times like the countrywomen. dance turned
more to the folkloric Egyptian traditions.
you have any observations on th ecurrent place of dance in Egyptian
the interest in dance in Egypt from
the government's point of view is based on the interest in dance
for the tourism industry.
A film poster
pay much attention to the public dance troupes and there are no
national troupes that teach dance, especially after Mr. Mahmoud
Reda.. There are no trainers or choreographers except for
the students of Mahmoud Reda who took on that role, like Raqia
There is also another very, very important person who teaches
dance and he is very good, a pioneer in teaching dance and that
is Ibrahim Akef. He's
one of the very first people who started teaching dance as an
absolute art in its own right, the traditional style of dance.
We don't have
any government-sponsored body that takes on that role. They
left it to personal efforts and individual initiatives of the
dancers. The government's role is limited only to hosting
tourism weeks where they have to showcase dance of course.
For example, I worked a lot with Samir Sabry
[very famous Egyptian singer & entertainer] and we had to
have an dancer with us in the show in a prominent role.
We did theatrical shows but we had to have an dancer with us in
the show, since that's a distinguishing characteristic of Egyptian
there is no government interest in nourishing the dance
Mahmoud Reda left the troupe, they left it to individuals' initiatives
and to Mahmoud Reda's students. For example, the dancer Dina
was in the Reda Troupe, her basis is folkloric training. Aida
Nour is one of the best people who teach dance in Egypt
has also spent many years with the Reda Troupe. Raqia is also from
the Reda Troupe. You'll find that all the people who are working
in that field are all students of Mahmoud Reda. They are the
ones who teach both Egyptians and foreigners. My wife, Magda
is with me in the troupe, she's from the same generation of the
Reda Troupe like me, and she's the one in charge of teaching the
beginners who start learning dance in Egypt.
A Faten Salama video cover
didn't see anyone from the National Folkloric Troupe teach dance.
We have a style that is very Egyptian, and the National troupe
has more of a Russian influence. Faten
Salama is a graduate of the National Troupe.
I have not seen her work, but
general perception is that the National troupe has a style that
is a little un-Egyptian; it has a certain degree of abruptness.
It doesn't flow completely.
Atef teaches class
have the Egyptian smell and the Egyptian taste. That is
only found in the graduates of Mahmoud Reda's school and they
are the ones who are taking on that role. But the government
only takes. It doesn't try to innovate or teach or open
dance schools or anything at all. Its mere role is that whoever
becomes successful, it endorses them as good publicity for Egypt
and its tourism and they put oriental dance in their publicity
brochures. That's all. That is of course dangerous,
not good. Especially now that the number of girls who come
join the dance troupes that we have now in Egypt
is not much. When Mahmoud used to put an ad announcing the
need for dancers to join the Reda Troupe, we used to get hundreds,
now we barely get tens, and those who are good enough are very
little. So there is definitely a decline.
of the nightclub dancers who also made it to the Haram St
[most famous entertainment district in Cairo] are foreign
government noticed that lately, so they stopped issuing licenses
for Russian dancers especially to perform Oriental dance in
nightclubs. They used to be lots and lots of them. When
I worked with Samir Sabry on his shows, I used to work with
2 Egyptians and 7 or 8 Russians.
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
5-5-05 Initiating Dance
Dialogue: Current Trends, The Panel Discussion at Carnivals of
Stars Festival, transcribed
from video by Andrea, Panel members included: Heather as moderator,
Monica Berini, Shira, Barbara Bolan, Amina Goodyear, Debbie Lammam.
Visual Melodies produced
by Serena and Hossam Ramzy DVD Review by Debbie Lammam
The essence of Oriental dance is in a dancer’s
ability to interpret Arabic music.
Art, Activism &
Magic: Krissy Keefer In Her Own Words by Debbie Lammam
...women dancers are not expected
to think and speak.
Nour: A Biography
dance, having its own rules, was like the flight of a soul, especially
for one who sees dance as art and not just personal exhibitionism.
Belly Dance in Brazil
...they are trying to organize a Code of Ethics
Making New Musical Inroads in
France and Ireland by Mark and Ling Shien Bell
Helm takes Rhythm Diatribes
Workshops to Europe, series continues...
Farida Fahmy Workshop review by Perizad
you know, leave at the front desk in a little bag.
presents Ahlan Wa Sahlan Oriental Dance Festival Opening Cairo
2003." A video review by Mara al-Nil
my personal preference is to focus on the dancers, some people
may enjoy celebrity spotting, or looking for friends and fellow
dancers fortunate enough to have attended the gala.