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Aida Nor and Raqia Hassan
Gilded Serpent presents...
Egyptian Dance - Has It Crossed the Line?
by Amina Goodyear

Last summer June 2006 I had the dubious pleasure of experiencing both The Nile Group Festival and Ahlan wa Sahlan in Egypt. Fortunately they were very conveniently scheduled – back-to-back. The first week was spent in a hotel in Giza (not Cairo proper) studying with the Egyptian dancers of The Nile Group. After their closing show I took a very short taxi ride and moved to yet another hotel, also in Giza, to continue another week’s studying at Raqia Hassan’s Ahlan wa Sahlan Festival.

Both festivals, held in Giza were isolated and insulated from the people and the Cairo that I know and love.

This article is not going to be a critique on the dancers and teachers of the festivals I attended, but rather a confirmation of an opinion I had already made prior to attending the festivals. This was confirmed again and again while in Egypt during both of these dance festivals.

My decision to go to Cairo during the festivals was simple. I hadn’t been to Egypt for a few years and was beginning to wonder about the changes in the dance and music that my students related to me. Yes – I had videos of all the latest Egyptian dancers and teachers and, yes, I had videos of all the past Ahlan wa Sahlan festivals and videos of many of the instructors, most of whom were associated with either Mahmoud Reda (of The Reda Troupe) and/or Raqia Hassan (who had been a principal choreographer for The Reda Troupe). I wanted to experience first hand what my students had experienced…intensive dance classes with all the major players in a dance festival environment.  I was beginning to feel I couldn’t really make comments about changes in the dance today unless I, in person, experienced what they had experienced. I already had my opinions, but wanted to keep them to myself until I could make a judgment with my own eyes. I felt that I couldn’t speak out until I could validate my opinions.

Namely – The Egyptian dancers now, for the most part, are turning their backs on their own dance and are teaching watered down theatricalized westernized folk ballet.

I must say that with the exception of the taxi rides leaving the 5 star hotels in Giza and going into Cairo proper to visit local clubs and friends, or to study music independently of the prearranged packaged festival curricula, I could have been taking the very same workshop classes in a hotel ballroom at “anywhere” U.S.A.

Now, I feel I need to tell you a little about myself. I have been dancing all my memorable life. In 1965 I began my love affair with belly dance – primarily Egyptian belly dance and the music that makes it happen. I have danced professionally in clubs over 40 years (and am still dancing), and have been teaching for over 35 years (supporting myself dancing and teaching) and have maintained a performing dance company for over 30 years. I am a member of an Arabic band and an Arabic choir and also am founder of The Giza Club, (founded in 1990 dedicated to researching all aspects of Middle Eastern culture, music and dance) and The Giza Academy of Middle Eastern Dance videos (now in its 11th year of honoring dancers and videographers who have worked to preserve, maintain and further the art of Middle Eastern Dance through film and video).

Why all this peripheral information about me? Because I want you to know that I am Serious about this dance. I am not a vendor, big workshop producer or on the workshop circuit. I am actually at home in San Francisco working on my art and working hard at trying to preserve it. But this does not mean that I am stuck in a time machine dancing and teaching the dance of the 60’s or the 70’s or the 80’s or the 90’s or …

I do know that with time everything changes and we must change with the times.

As with all love affairs – In order to make it a successful marriage, both parties must grow together – paralleling each other. And this love affair – me with the music and the dance – can only survive as a successful marriage through nurturing, change, knowledge and staying on the same page – changing but continuing to love, honor and obey the love and traditions of when we first met.

Soheir Zaki in the early 80s, filmed by Edwina Nearing
Yes it's dark and fuzzy, but it is also rare and valuable!

This love affair has taken me to innumerable places including many trips to the Middle East, but primarily, first and foremost, to Egypt. My first visit to Egypt was in the early 80’s when I went two years in a row with Morocco on her whirlwind dance tours that she planned with Edwina Nearing. “Back in the day,” we could go to at least one club a night to see dancing (this translates as each club usually had 2-3 top name dancers, each with their own separate orchestra sized band, a folkloric show, music for our own listening pleasure and a singer), stay there until almost dawn, go to the hotel to take a nap, awaken when the cocks crow (or was it the muezzin on the loudspeaker), jump into a tour bus – see a requisite sight (the pyramids, museums, etc.) with a personal guide, have a free late afternoon to shop in the Khan el Khalili, wander the streets, or be fitted for a costume, maybe take a dance lesson, shower at the hotel and repeat the process again but at another club or casino.

In the 80’s it was possible to see Nagwa, Sohair, Fifi, Nadia, Zizi, Shushu, Nelli, Aza and more – each in a different 5 star hotel or in various casinos and clubs on Shariaa al Haram.

There was something special and exciting about going out to the clubs and experiencing the shows with the locals and vacationing Arabs from other Middle Eastern countries. Maybe the smell of DDT in the grilled pigeons, the boxes of Kleenex on the table, the ear-deafening, distorted music and the rather hokey shows (complete with magicians, or almost nude foreign jazz dancers with netted middle sections) being introduced in Arabic made the experience truly foreign.

These shows somehow were more memorable and endearing than the slick shows brought to us in a sanitized hotel ballroom atmosphere with English speaking M.C.s. at the two festivals I had attended in Cairo. I completely understand and appreciate the dilemma of the Egyptian festival producers’ desires to impress and cater to the visiting workshopees, but in doing so, something gets lost in the translation.

These dance tours (in which I opted to remain longer in Egypt beyond the tours) were the beginning of my intensive introduction to Egyptian culture. Because I had many Middle Eastern musician and dance related friends, and had studied intensively with Egyptian dancers on my own turf (mainly Fatma Akef, sister and former dance partner of Naima Akef, Egyptian top dancing actress of the ‘50’s and ’60 ‘s), I knew that the key to understanding Middle Eastern and Egyptian dance was actually immersing oneself in the culture and, if possible, this meant living in the land of that culture.

Since I was first, a wife and a mother, living in Egypt was not even a consideration. This was not how I was raised – family comes first! But in the 80’s life changed for me. My kids no longer lived with me at home (they had become adults) and neither did my husband.

I was finally free to do for me. This meant I could finally pursue the study of the dance by living in the culture from which it emerged. Unfortunately, too many decades had been committed to performing and teaching and this prevented me from moving to Egypt to self-immerse.

Therefore my visits were just that – visits. But I lived with families and in neighborhoods with the express purpose of studying, not just the dance and the music, but also the people. This was the key to making the dance complete and not just superficial and going through the motions. This was learning to “walk like an Egyptian!”

Said Darwish

And so, this brings me back to the present and the dilemma of the changing face of Egyptian dance today. As I stated before, I had certain observations and opinions – primarily of how I saw the dance, Egyptian dance, changing. And, as I previously stated, that, although I completely agree that “life changes,” and dance evolves, I am also committed to trying to preserve the traditions of Egyptian dance as we, I, know it. The dance of the Golden Age of Egypt. The Golden Age that had already undergone changes as it was influenced by Hollywood, South America, dancer and theater owner Badia Masabni and the composers such as Mohamed Abdul Wehab, Said Darwish (the father of modern Egyptian music) and Farid el Atrache – all of whom were lovers of and inspired by Western music and composers.

1937 poster announcing opening of Badia's Casino by the Nile in Giza

It appears, to me at least, that Egyptian dance has finally crossed that thin line in the sand between Egyptian and  -- something else. Something not Egyptian. Something – Western. Did our movies in the West inspire the East? Is it just the question of which came first - the chicken or the egg?

Can I criticize the changes of the dance when the dance that I know and love is actually a fusion, a bastardization of Egyptian and other cultures and dance styles? Did not Naima Akef tap dance? Did not Taheyya Carioca do the Carioca? Did not Samia Gamal study and apply ballet to her dance? Did not our beloved Mohamed Abdul Wehab lift Russian folk songs (and only slightly change them) for our dance melodies and for our mother Om Kalthoum’s songs?

So how can I criticize the changes when the dance was already changed when I met it? And it continues to change. Maybe it is because in my lifetime I have witnessed the changes made to the family by the invention of the television, the computer, and all the phases that modern technology and the airplane have brought us. We no longer seek the family for our world – our world is beyond that – light years beyond it -- and it is escalating at such a rapid rate (as witnessed in the Saudi Arabian peninsula where a tribe has moved from the 10th century to the 21st in just 20 short years).  I am addressing this change because I want to know why the Egyptians are now studying ballet and other dance styles and turning their backs on their own dance and culture.

Is their culture so much in the past – do they live in such a globalized world – that they no longer retain the uniqueness that we know as baladi? I don’t think so. Or I hope not! Is it the dance that changed? Or is it changed for us – the non-Middle Easterners. Do they think we want it changed? Or is it changed because they are bored with it (or ashamed) and want to give it yet another twist and don’t realize that enough is enough. Is it that this new generation is exposed to MTV and clips and has had its values changed.

Have I become like the religious converts or born again Christians? Am I so fanatic about my beliefs in preserving the traditions of the dance that I am a zealot struggling to preserve the dance that my Egyptian dancers abandon? Have I become just one more fundamentalist on a soapbox preaching my religion, my dance?

What I saw being taught, for the most part, was dance that seemed to have adopted Western concepts of choreography, counting and change. Gone, in the classes, was the beauty of the slightly changing repetitious movements and their accompanying ever so subtle accents. Although sometimes when they performed they would still practice what they didn’t teach.

This is difficult to teach because it is a time-consuming task and the teacher must assume the role of master with the student following her/his every movement including movements in daily life – not just superficial dance steps. The dance must come from within.

I like to refer to the movie “Drunken Master” starring Jackie Chan. In this movie, the student moves in with the master and is given tasks to complete that do not seem to apply to learning “kung fu”, but, in reality, these inane tasks are teaching the student the essence of his art so that he can call upon them naturally without thinking. The same is true in Egyptian dance. It is not just a dance of steps; it is a dance that must emerge from within. Most native Egyptians would just be able to call upon their history but we non-natives must try harder

As I mentioned before, in order to learn (and maybe someday come close to mastering) Egyptian dance, one must totally immerse oneself in the land, the culture, the language and the music. It must become a way of life.

A very few Egyptian dancers still subscribe to this “old school” of teaching which includes the follow the bouncing butt method of teaching. But these dancers are very much the minority and it takes time.

I wonder – with the invention of the new style – modern Oriental dance based on Moscow on the Nile ballets – how is it influencing the new dancers of the world. So many are making pilgrimages to the mother country to learn from the source of the dance. But what are they learning? They are learning what is coming out of Egypt today. First, somehow, they should learn and experience the basis, the root of pure Egyptian dance. But how can they, when the dance masters themselves teach fusion dance.

Is it because this fusion dance can be taught quickly, is stylized and is easier to learn and to count? After all most of this fusion is actually Western, and therefore already very familiar to us Westerners. And the method used to teach it is counting – which is a foreign or anti-Oriental concept. Therefore; instant gratification!

Are the new Egyptian dancers and dance teachers of today doing a disservice to themselves and to the new dancers of today? Is it up to us – the khawaga – the foreigners, to preserve the dance traditions that our masters seem to forsake?

I hope not.

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