Gilded Serpent presents...
by Debbie Smith
Note: When I look back at my very first encounter with
Magda Ibrahim, I see in retrospect that in that
first moment she revealed her essential nature to me. It was the
first night of my trip to Egypt in summer 2005, and my tour group
was at a small dinner organized by Hossam Ramzy
at a small, beautiful restaurant overlooking the pyramids to which
Magda and her husband, Atef
Farag, had been invited. I had met Atef in his first
tour to the U.S. in Spring 2005, and I looked forward to finally
meeting his wife as well. When she was introduced to me, I said
in Arabic “It’s nice to meet you, Madame Magda.” She smiled and
responded “Magda, bass!” (“Just Magda!”) before kissing me on
both cheeks. My first impression of a very warm, down-to-earth
person was borne out by all my subsequent interactions with her
in the two weeks that followed.
attending the two classes she taught at Raqia
Ahlan wa Sahlan festival (this was her first year on
staff) and taking several private classes with her, I soon came
to realize that in addition to her delightful personal qualities,
she (like her husband) was also a highly skilled teacher, an excellent
choreographer herself, and a veritable treasure of information
about movement, music and especially the recent history of dance
in Egypt. Her thirty-year career as a member of the Reda
Troupe, from its “glory days” under the direction of Mahmoud
Reda to the present, make her a valuable source of
knowledge about the Reda troupe repertory and about the realities
of being part of a state-sponsored dance company. The fact that
of her being the wife of another lifelong Reda troupe member as
well as a mother give her a completely unique perspective. Since
I had already interviewed her husband about some of these subjects,
I asked if I could do an interview with her as a companion piece.
I feel very fortunate that I was able to sit down for this candid,
well-thought and fascinating interview with one of Egyptian dance’s
hidden treasures. Special thanks to Hala
Fauzi and Catarina Melica for translation
The first thing I want to ask you is about your background when
you were young: how you first became involved in dance and how
you started your dance education.
I was in the last year of middle school, 14 or 15. I danced in
the folkloric troupe of a youth/social club in Heliopolis called
Nadi el Nasr. That was my very beginning. Because the club
had a troupe and trainers, and I liked folkloric dancing, I joined
them, they trained me and I used to perform with them. The trainers
were Egyptian, but they were amateurs, not famous people.
How old were you when you joined the Reda Troupe?
It happened that the Reda Troupe put an ad in the newspaper asking
for new members. So I went to apply at Mr. Mahmoud Reda’s office
at 50 Qasr el Nil Street, and he auditioned me himself, and he
said to me, “good.” I was 17, in the second year of high school.
So I started then and went into contract with the troupe on 1-1-1976.
I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the audition
process. You had some dance training already, and I’m sure they
were looking for talent. What kind of things did they ask you
When I went to audition with Mr. Mahmoud,
he didn’t give me or ask me for any steps: he just asked me what
do I know. He had a tabla player who played for me and I danced;
I did what I knew. He let me do whatever I wanted. And then he
would ask the drummer to speed up, slow down, speed up, slow down
the tempo repeatedly to see if I had the ear to respond to the
change in pace, and thank God I did all that well and he said
"OK". So that was the audition.
And in the initial training period, who was the primary trainer?
Was Mahmoud Reda training everybody or was Farida
Fahmy training the girls, or were there several other
When I joined the troupe, I started of course at the beginner’s
level and stayed there approximately six months (we would usually
train every day one hour of ballet and one hour of folkloric)
until I joined the mother troupe. For the beginners, there were
the beginners’ trainers; Mahmoud and Farida had nothing to do
with the beginners. Not until our trainers would tell them “these
beginners are talented [enough],” and then we would move up to
Mahmoud or Farida, but we wouldn't train with both at the same
time. Maybe Mahmoud would teach a class, then Farida a class;
whoever was free would teach. But it was mostly Mahmoud. For
example if Farida gave one class, Mahmoud would give ten classes.
There were other trainers there too, but only until Mahmoud came,
then he would take over. Like maybe if he had to go speak to someone,
a senior dancer would substitute for him just until he got back.
Once he was in the class, he was the sole trainer. So they were
only substitute trainers.
The Reda Troupe
back row l-r- 1, 2, Magda, Mahmoud Reda, 4, 5, 6,
front row- 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, Atef, 14
contact editor if you know more names, year & where
Did your family have people who were involved in arts or were
No, not at all. My father used to be a civil servant, an employee
in the factories.
When you started dancing and went on to join the Reda Troupe,
was your family supportive of your career? Did you know at that
time that you wanted to make a career out of dancing?
When I used to dance at the social club, we would give performances
and my parents and siblings and my aunt would come watch and cheer
me on. None of them would say, “No” or anything like that. Even
when the Reda Troupe put the ad in the newspaper, they all encouraged
me to go. My older sister took me to the audition. I really
loved dance and even though I got my Bachelor’s degree in public
service and was assigned to a government job, I wasn’t interested
in pursuing it. I had no other interests than to be in the Reda
Troupe. What also encouraged me to stay, was that a very short
time after I joined the troupe, I traveled with them to Germany,
so I felt there was travel and money and prestige in it, so I
no longer thought about working anywhere else where I wouldn’t
travel or go anywhere.
what my family totally objected to, and my father, God rest
his soul, was that I not dance anywhere but within the framework
of the troupe; no working in a nightclub or TV or films; I could
go and travel with the troupe and return with the troupe, no
problem, but if I got work outside of the troupe, no way; I
could work in the troupe only.
So I never
did Fawazir [TV entertainment shows during Ramadan nights]
like Atef did. Even after I married Atef, I had the opportunity
to work in other areas, but I didn’t think of pursuing that because
I had gotten used to working with the troupe only.
Was it because they felt that the Reda Troupe had a certain respectability
that they didn’t object?
I’ll tell you why. Because if I worked elsewhere I would have
had to the leave the house at midnight to go to work and wouldn’t
get home until 5 or 6 am, and that kind of night life was not
acceptable. Whereas the Reda Troupe is a government organization,
so its performances would end by 11 or 11:30 and I would be home
by midnight. But to leave the house at midnight to go work and
get home in the morning, that was not allowed. The schedule was
the issue; it wasn’t allowed for me to get home very late.
It sounds like you had a lot of work at that time and were touring,
so I was wondering if you were living at home at that time and
if your parents were still as supportive when you had to actually
be gone so much of the time.
Yes, my parents had no problem since they knew all my colleagues,
who used to come over to my house so my parents got to know them
really well, and they knew they were good people from good homes
so there was no problem. And anyway after five years I married
Atef, so they had no worries about that.
So you met in the troupe and got married five years later? Have
you been in the troupe as long as Atef, about 30 years, as well?
Yes. We started together.
I’d like to ask you about being in the group for thirty years;
did you enjoy it, did you love it, was it like a family? Because
I know you were one of the people who eventually trained the new
people, so you were entrusted with teaching as well. How was
the experience for you of working with one group for such a long
The troupe’s “Golden Age” was until 1992, which is when Farida
and Mahmoud left. Since then, until now, things are going downhill,
in terms of the number of people involved in the troupe, in the
work, in experience, in the artists present, in the administration,
day is worse than the day before, and this year is worse than
last year. It has kind of ended.
we travel, as an example, in the Mahmoud and Farida days, they
would take 10-12 boys and 10-12 girls plus all the live musicians.
We would go country-hopping and have lots of shows; once we went
to Yugoslavia 21 days, then to Romania; another time we went to
London and from there to Austria, etc. Nowadays, those who travel
are 5 girls and 4 boys and a trainer. A total of 10 people. No
musicians at all. The maximum travel time is 5 days. One day
going, one day coming back and a show over there, that’s it. Back
then we used to be on the go all the time. Now, for the whole
year, maybe we would get 2 or 3 trips.
Is that because they left and took with them a certain kind of
leadership and artistic direction that was not replaced? Or is
it because there is less funding for dance since that time?
I think that the reason for this kind of decline is that when
Mahmoud Reda was the Deputy Minister / Under-Secretary of the
Ministry of Culture, and had the influence and authority he really
emphasized and supported the folkloric arts, and promoted them.
he retired and left the Ministry of Culture and the troupe,
the situation changed. Now the folkloric arts and dances are
not appreciated as much. So there is no money anymore in the
example, when Egypt is to be represented abroad, they send statues,
monuments or whatnot, so the situation changed. They now promote
other kinds of arts, but not as much folkloric dance. So the folkloric
dances suffered since they didn’t get as much attention and funding
You're still teaching a few times a week - is the level of skill
and training in the troupe what it was in what you call the “Golden
Age” of the troupe? Do you think there are new generations of
very trained folkloric dancers coming up now, or is the level
of skill not what it used to be in terms of younger dancers coming
into their careers?
There is still the same level of practice and training.
the problem is that now there is no one joining the troupe.
Why? Because the salary of the Reda Troupe is about LE 160 per
month, which dancers can earn in one day of work outside. So
what happens now is that people come and stay 6 or 7 months
to get their training and take their salary, I work hard with
them, and then they leave.
no contractual obligation to make them stay or reimburse the troupe
for the training they got. We don’t have such things. It’s like
loose money. So now you find all the dancers who perform in the
theater, nightclubs, video clips and such, they come to the Reda
Troupe, I work very hard with them, they learn, then they leave.
They leave to work in Sharm el Sheikh or Hurghada or hotel shows,
dance in theatres, nightclubs, music videos and movies. So if
you count the number of troupe members, including all the trainers
nowadays, it’s not more than 16 or 17 persons. And it makes sense
to work outside the troupe since if you ride public transportation
to and from practice, and have a cold drink on the way, the LE
160 gets spent maybe twice over. Because it is not rewarding financially,
the young people have no incentive to stay in the troupe.
What is the main reason why you keep going in the Reda troupe?
Is it to keep the repertory alive, to keep working, is there a
certain goal, or is there nowhere else to go?
I’m a government employee. In order to retire, I have to be 60
years old. Now I work, I train 3 days a week, one hour each time,
one hour of folkloric. I get my salary, incentives and monthly
bonuses. So for me it’s not hard work, and it’s worth it. Eventually,
I won’t be able to work but I’ll get a pension. So I’m looking
at the long-term benefit also.
for me it doesn’t make sense to look for work outside. I didn’t
do it when I was young so I’m not going to start now. I stopped
running around from here to there. But I do work on the side,
helping Atef with his work. For example, if he’s choreographing
a dance I can memorize it for him so he can see how it looks
on me, and he’ll say, “no, turn this way instead," etc,
so I’m like his model.
Or if someone
would like to take a private lesson with me at home, stuff like
that. So at this point in my career I’m not really interested
in exploring new venues, or in quitting the troupe and becoming
something else. And you know, in Egypt we also have this thing
that the woman is not responsible for bringing money into the
home, the husband is the one responsible for that. He’s the one
who has to provide. Whatever I bring in, is an added bonus.
Nothing more is expected of me. (laughs).
As an artist, you trained in the whole Reda repertory. What kinds
of dances were considered to be your specialties in the troupe,
and which were your favorites to work on - what kind of dances
did you feel suited you best?
At first I worked normally, behind Farida Fahmy. As I got better,
little by little, I started doing solos. But of course I did
solos after Farida left the troupe.
Farida was in the troupe, no one else did solos. After she
left they started thinking, who could do the work of Farida’s
solos? So, thank God, they chose three girls to do Farida’s
solos and I was one of them. When I got pregnant and I had
my first child, my son Sherif, I delivered
him and took him to my mother.
stayed with my mother so he was no problem, I could come and go
as I pleased, and was able to keep performing. When I had my
second child seven years later, my daughter Shereen,
then I decided to quit performing. They said ok, you train the
other dancers. So in 1995 I retired from performing, and started
As for the
dances I loved the most, I loved and had always wished to perform
any of Farida’s work. When you see Farida dance, you want to dance
just like her. So I was very elated by anything they gave me
to do. But the thing that I really, really wanted to do but didn’t
get a chance to perform were the Muwashahat [Andalusian
dances – plural. Here refers specifically to a group of choreographies
Mahmoud Reda created in the late 70’s].
Farida stopped performing, no one thought of recreating the
Muwashahat. And the troupe no longer performed them.
When I became a trainer, I realized that the dancers were getting
tired of the same old repertoire so I decided to reintroduce
them in class by teaching them, but by that time I had stopped
performing too (laughs).
Why was it that you loved the Muwashahat so much? What
was it about that style of music and dance?
The rhythm of the Muwashah [singular] is different. For
example, from the time we joined the troupe until the period when
Mahmoud Reda started doing the Muwashahat, we typically
trained on the maqsoum rhythm, dum dum ta ta tak dum tak
tak, fast fast fast, so there was no mellowing out.
when he started doing the Muwashah, the whole equation
changed for him completely. It was no longer the same steps:
shake, haggallah, turn, jump, shimmy, etc. That ended. It
became something totally different, the music and the steps
were beautiful and serene. The music is difficult; I liked that.
I liked working on difficult music.
Even in my
class, when I train, I hardly ever do fast rhythms. I work on
the diagonal here and there; my work has more arabesques. I choose
the masmoudi rhythm more than the maqsoum. I like
the longer and bigger rhythms better, like 10 beats, and I don’t
like the fast rhythms as much. Many Muwashahat use the
6 beat rhythms. The maqsoum rhythm is cyclical, you finish
one phrase, long or short, and you’re back at the beginning.
The other ones [more complex rhythms] don’t have that characteristic.
So you have to think and you have the do the steps correctly or
you will lose the music. Because the music is difficult so you
can easily lose it. I like that challenge. The Muwashahat
are very complicated rhythmically; they use rhythms such as the
long masmoudi (ten counts), as well as the 5 count and
6 counts. So you really have to think when you dance the Muwashahat.
So [that's why] I really love that style. Even in my class, when
I train my students, I like to use the calmer rhythms rather than
the faster ones.
You mentioned that when Sherif was born you would leave him with
your mom, so I wanted to ask if that was difficult when you were
during that time still active performing and touring with the
group and you had a son, and you sometimes had to make choices
based on your career-was it difficult to balance your family life
and your career?
No, it wasn’t difficult at all.
was the first grandson in my mother’s family. I didn’t worry
about him because I knew that he was better off with my mom
than with me. She would care for him more than I would so I
was at peace that he’s better off there.
almost living with her in Heliopolis at that time. So I never
felt that I have any problem between work and my son. When we
traveled, we left him there. She wouldn’t even give him back
when I asked her. When I had a vacation from the troupe and I
would tell her I want him, that didn’t work for her. She grudgingly
gave him back when he went to school. She might have preferred
him not to go to school to stay with her (laughs).
While we’re on the subject of family life, it’s an unusual situation
in some ways to have a husband and wife who are not only in the
same field, they started both at a young age and in the same company,
and both stayed in that company for a long time, traveling together
and working together. In some ways it’s probably good because
you understand each other’s work and the schedule, and can also
share artistically and help each other. Either you or Atef were
saying that the other day. So I wonder what it’s like to be working
so closely intertwined?
From my point of view I didn’t feel there were any drawbacks,
at all. We would come and go together. At late night parties
we would be together. We never had a social occasion or a wedding
where I would be invited and he’s not. Everything, we were in
it together. We went out, together. We stayed home, together.
So things were manageable. Even he would rarely go out by himself.
He’s not the type to go out by himself much. He knows all my friends
and I know all his friends.
for us, it worked out, there are no drawbacks. Together all
So this week, you are teaching as part of the Ahlan wa Sahlan
festival, and you’re teaching foreigners who are coming to Egypt
to study oriental dance. Is this the first time you’re teaching
foreigners or have you done a lot of that, how do you like it,
and do you see that as something that in the future you would
like to continue doing when you’re done with the Reda Troupe,
to keep passing on knowledge?
There is something I love in the troupe, and I work with both
the professionals and the beginners in the troupe. When I enter
the class to teach the mother troupe, I do a movement and they
do it without a problem. At most, I might tell them to change
their hands or head position or other small details, but they
have been in the troupe for ten years and know how to do all the
movements. So it’s not very fulfilling as an instructor – I show
them a combination and they follow, except for when we did the
muwashahat for the first time, since for them it was new.
I love it when I teach them something new, and likewise I love
working with students and beginners who don’t know all these
things at first and I am very happy when I see that I helped
them learn/memorize what I want them to do.
That is very
enjoyable, to see someone who didn’t know how to do something
before and now they do, and I’m the one who helped them do it,
regardless of whether they are Egyptian or foreign.
I wish that you would want to continue doing it.
As a government employee, I could theoretically be promoted to
a higher, more prestigious and better-paid position, but that
would mean an administrative position. But that’s not what I aspire
to. If they tell me come and be the chief of the troupe, that
wouldn’t make me happy. I have no aspiration to be on the administrative
side. For example, we have something called “artistic supervision.”
They said I could be an “artistic supervisor” which would mean
I would have nothing to do with the classes anymore. I would be
organizing shows, administering the troupe…etc. I said no.
pays more salary but I don’t want to be a minister or deputy
minister. I would much rather be called the best trainer!
today Raqia told me something that I really, really appreciated,
she said, “There are no two people who differ [in their opinion]
about you” (“no one disagrees about how good you are”), and that
made me really happy since my goal is to be a great trainer.
She said you’re the only one in the festival who no one disagreed
about. So as I progress in my career, even if they offered me
a directorship or an administrative position, it’s training that
I want to do.
Because you’ve been a dancer most of your life and you’ve actually
watched a lot of dancers, in your opinion, what is it that makes
a good oriental dancer, what are the qualities that a dancer needs?
And I know that you’re not an oriental dancer, but you’ve done
some oriental pieces in the Reda Troupe and you’re totally familiar
with the style and you’re Egyptian and you’ve watched a lot of
dancers, so I’d love your opinion on what makes a dancer great.
First of all, she has to love the dance. She cannot be a good
dancer without loving the dance. She also has to have a good ear;
I see many dancers who just go through the moves without having
any connection to the music. She also has to be versatile and
has to be able to adapt to the changes in the music (fast and
slow) and not just good in one thing. She has to practice a lot,
and if she loves it, she will do all those things.
with Magda & Atef at their home in 2005
clockwise from left: Rega'i, Atef, Magda, Debbie Lammam,
Hala, Bahaia, Catarina Melica w camera
people just work and others, when they take the stage, it’s
as if they’re saying; there’s no one here but me! Some have
the stage presence that will grab you.
sometimes a dancer will perform and everyone in the audience will
continue talking, while another dancer will perform and you can’t
even move. She’s the one who causes these reactions. She has
to love dance a lot to be able to do all these things.
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
Atef Farag: A Life in Dance
Interview by Debbie Lammam
Egyptian dance does tolerate a lot of sexual innuendo that is
not present in my work.
Art, Activism &
Magic: Krissy Keefer In Her Own Words by Debbie Lammam
dancers are not expected to think and speak.
10-9-02 Middle Eastern Dance,
a Beautiful, Ancient, yet Misunderstood Art by Hala Fauzi
are all the books about this dance written by Westerners?
Much, Much More
by Margo Abdo O'Dell
Please do not
call me a belly dancer. Because for me, it is not just a flip
of the hip, the wink of an eye.
It is not just the sparkle of jewels, the want of applause.
Photos of Saturday Workshop &
Evening show from Aida Nour & Magdy El-Leisy Workshop 2006
Photos by Lynette Harris & staff sponsored
by Little Egypt held on Feb 25, 2006 in Los Angeles, California-
CASUALS- Show photos still coming!