His Dancing Journey from Suez to Cairo, Helsinki, and Beyond
Interview by Zsuzsi
of California on July 4th, 2010
Photos by Carl Sermon and others
posted July 6, 2010
Mohamed El Hosseny is a dancer, choreographer, and a native of Suez, Egypt. He is the director of El Hosseny Dance Company in Helsinki, Finland, and was an accomplished soloist in the famous Reda Troupe of Egypt. Mohamed recently arrived in New York for his second North American tour. Despite his busy 12-city tour schedule, I was able to spend a few moments chatting with him by phone about his life and career in dance, in anticipation of his forthcoming visit to California, which will be followed by workshops elsewhere in the United States, Canada, and Venezuela. His tour was organized by his North America manager and tour sponsor, Nourhan Sharif of Sharifwear. He was in New York when we spoke, enjoying the July fourth holiday in the US for the first time.
Zsuzsi: You began dancing at a very young age in Suez. What is your earliest memory of dancing as a child?
MoH: I started my artistic career as a musician when I was nine years old in the primary school in Suez. After a while, when I was about eleven, I began to play the accordion for a young folk dance group. I came to love dancing through this experience!! I found dance to be a better expression than playing music because you utilize the entire body, instead of only your fingers to play the accordion!
Zsuzsi:How did you wind up dancing in a troupe in Suez? Who were your teachers?
MoH: By luck, when I was 13 years old they were selecting able bodies at my school. They collected us in a room, and a man who was the trainer of the Suez folklore group called Mohsen Refaaey began to explain folklore in Suez. Mr. Mohsen had been working in the famous El Samer Theater in Cairo before moving to Suez to make a new folkloric troupe. I became so excited because he was demonstrating what looked to me like tap dance! He had retired the previous group of dancers he was working with, and desired to start a new team of dancers. Within one year I was growing very quickly as a dancer in his group, and I remember a funny situation from this time period. The new group had not grown as quickly as Mr. Mohsen wished, so he had to take some of the dancers from each group to make a show in Marsa Matruh (A city close to 300 kilometers west of Alexandria).
At this performance many spectators commented, "There is a small boy dancing brilliantly with big men!" These nice comments pushed me forward and I will never forget it.
I am thankful for the opportunity that both Mr. Mohsen gave me, and the audience that appreciated us! Mr. Mohsen is a very creative person and a great choreographer! We are still very good friends. He is like a father to me. We always played backgammon together in the cafes. I recently visited him in Egypt and we shared some time together. I am grateful for everything he taught me, from Suez folklore to interaction with students, I learned much from him!
Zsuzsi: Was your family supportive of your desire to pursue dance as a hobby, and eventually as a career?
MoH: Yes, my family gave me a chance to do everything in life with freedom and responsibility.
Zsuzsi: How did you join the Reda Troupe? Were you discovered, or did you have to audition?
MoH: I went to Cairo University‘s School of Art to study Eastern Oriental languages in 1992. It was there that I read in a newspaper an advertisement for Reda Troupe auditions. Approximately a thousand people came to this audition. I gave my name, and waited 3 hours! When I was about to leave, they finally called my name, so I stayed and danced with a group of men to see if we could do the steps. I passed this test! The Troupe had wanted to collect dancers to make a new show!
Zsuzsi: What was it like being a member of the Troupe in your first few years? What was it like working with Mr. Reda?
MoH: By the time I became a member of the Reda Troupe, Mahmoud Reda had already retired at 60 years of age. I was a big fan of his of course! When I first met Mahmoud Reda, I wanted to be like him, just like everybody did. I wanted to work with him personally, but that did not happen until later on. The ballerina Diana Calenti had come to the Reda Troupe as a trainer to teach ballet, and she selected me to be her partner, which was a big stepping stone in my dance career! Diana was from New York but lived in Canada. She had her own dance company there, a really great company and she inspired her students by showing us videos of other professional dance companies in the West.
She was my trainer, choreographer, ballet teacher, always demanding advanced techniques from us which developed us further as a group. She inspired everyone but for me personally she took my dance to another level.
Diana was the star of a film called “Search for Diana”, a joint production by Canadian & Egyptian filmmakers. The director was Milad Bisada, an Egyptian TV director. Diana had also collaborated with the composer Omar Khairat from the Conservatory in Egypt. They mixed classical and Oriental styles together very well which was very influential on my development as a dancer. They produced shows together in Canada, like Sorceress and the Magical Perfumes, and the Horiyya (Mermaid) ballet.
At first, I found ballet to be so difficult but after about six months, it was completely different! After training and building strength, my body began to change and we performed jumps, turns, clean body lines and exciting combinations, thus I grew to love it! Of course Oriental dance is full of ballet movements!
My advice which I tell all of my students is to study ballet at a beginner level for a few months. It will help your lines very much, so you have a nice bodyline without worrying about it and you can focus on learning the choreography and Oriental movements of the teacher in front of you.
I wished to be the number one dancer in the Reda Troupe, and I had to work so hard to achieve this, and finally it happened! After 2 years of hard work and practice, I was performing 13 choreographies out of a 15 choreography show (the other 2 numbers were for ladies only) with the Reda Troupe! I performed a solo with Diana in this show, and I had the good fortune of becoming a soloist in the Troupe faster than others had before me. I think she picked me as her partner because I was similar to her Russian partner. She was very important to my style, bringing in techniques from dancers like Baryshnikov and Alvin Ailey. It pushed me forward, and influenced all the dancers in the troupe.
Around 1997, Mr. Reda held another audition for his private company (much smaller than the one in 1992), so again I went to the audition and he selected me. With that company I performed at presidential parties, many TV shows and numerous events. Mr. Reda always placed me in solos at that time.
When I worked with him, I focused on how he directed his company, and his attention to staging and graphic design. But I didn’t want to copy his style or anyone else’s, I wanted to create my own.
Like many people who learned from him, it is difficult not to copy him after working with him extensively, but I tried to create my own style by playing music, and listening very deeply to it. I watched the orchestra very closely when I was in the Reda Troupe, observing all the instruments, how they play, their roles in the music. It helped me learn to interpret the music. I have enjoyed great relations with Mr. Reda over the years, and just a few months ago, I was asked to perform his work at his 80th birthday celebrations in Rome and Helsinki, which was an honor for me!
I also worked with Nagwa Fouad for 3 years. There I learned a lot about belly dancing in a nightclub setting.
Cabaret is very different from working on the stage, you need special music, special movements, different costumes.
Zsuzsi: You toured extensively with the Reda Troupe, even to places as remote as North Korea. Which country or countries did you like best?
MoH: I enjoyed all the countries, each one has a different beauty to offer.
Zsuzsi: What is your proudest achievement as a performer?
MoH: My biggest moment inside of Egypt was starring in Mr. Reda’s "Robibekika* Show". My biggest moment outside of Egypt was my first production in Finland, called "Layali Simsimaya". All of the choreographies were mine, and I am delighted with the results of this show!!
Zsuzsi: How did you happen to move to Finland and establish your dance school there?
MoH: After producing Layali Simsimaya, I began to teach there with Tuija Rinne‘s cooperation. Tuije is a well known dancer and teacher from Finland. I met her in Finland at the Yallah Festival, at that festival I also met Raqia Hassan and she asked me to teach a class of simsimiyya* at Ahlan wa Sahlan in 2003. At that class I used a live band to accompany me with traditional simsimiyya music for the first time in Egypt. Before that, people were trying to dance simsimiyya to Hakim songs or any random music. Tuije had come to my class because she had seen me perform with Reda in Finland the year before. After seeing this class she asked me to come teach a workshop in Finland. Then after that, she asked me to make a show there. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was very nice. She was very supportive and helpful, and a very good organizer. She understands the legal issues, and how to arrange artistic events.
I remember when I made Layali Simsimiyya. At first I thought it was just going to be a show of only half an hour. I began with the men in Egypt. I made professional contracts for them and treated them the way I wished to be treated as a performer. I could only imagine the parts for the ladies [Tuije’s students] because I was not in Finland with them yet.
Tuije had to train the ladies using videos. She would film what they were doing in Finland, then come to Egypt and show the men, and we would film ourselves and send it back for them. It was very hard. It was also hard to get the musicians to follow a precise musical score.
They are used to playing what they want, not each note exactly as written. I gathered the musicians for the band one by one from different places. I got two extra just in case any of them had problems and couldn’t come to Finland. We began to practice and recorded everything in the studio. I was in Suez three nights a week and in Cairo the other four nights. At night I worked on my own on the music and choreography. I think the best choreography is when you know the dancers who will be dancing in which dances. I went to Finland two months before the show, then the men came from Egypt just ten days before the show, and it was Ramadan. We had to practice all afternoon without eating. It was very difficult. After the show, I knew for the first time that I am a choreographer. Before that I wasn’t sure. I encourage my students to try it, sketch out what they want to see. After Layali Simsimiyya, Tuija asked me to stay in Finland and open a school with her.
Zsuzsi: The Finnish people seem very supportive and enthusiastic about your work. Is there anything especially challenging about working as an Egyptian dancer, choreographer and teacher in Finland?
MoH: Actually Finland gave me a chance to create because it is a calm, peaceful country, and it allowed me the space I needed to concentrate on becoming a choreographer. I developed myself there and created my own style of Oriental dance. My students are both helpful and hard working! I am grateful for the opportunities this country has awarded me!
Zsuzsi: How is life in Finland different from life in Cairo, or Suez?
MoH: The countries are totally different, each having its own character. I believe it was good for me to be in Finland and create in this calm atmosphere.
Zsuzsi: You are one of those rare dancers who is very talented in all three aspects of dance: performance, choreography, and instruction. Which of these three aspects do you enjoy the most? Which do you find most challenging?
MoH: Definitely choreography is most challenging, because I have to dance, teach, perform, train and do everything at a fast rate all at once! Teaching for me is fun & natural. If you know your stuff, especially the basics which are very important, then teaching is not stressful. Every time I make a show, everyone is happy with it but me. I wonder ‘what’s next?’
Zsuzsi: At your workshops in the US last year, I noticed that you seem unusually dedicated to your students, even after teaching them for just an hour or two. What do you enjoy most about teaching, and what advice do you have for other dance teachers?
MoH: My advice is to study hard and practice well. For example, if you don’t speak English, you cannot teach English, so you really need to master your craft in order to be the best teacher you can be! Every dancer has to go to Egypt and study, travel, go to Suez, Alexandria, Cairo, all over. Many teachers don’t know the traditions.
This is a message for teachers, you must learn these things so they will never forget you. If you want to be a really good teacher, you must make your students thirsty for your class! So they cannot wait to come to class again. First art, then business. Business will take care of itself.
I remember last year the students in California were so great! Their eyes were so full of emotion! Something I believe in is if somebody pays me for something, like teaching a class, I have to make it perfect. That’s why I kill myself in my classes. One class can change a person’s life! We are not sitting in a chair teaching Arabic in my classes. If you are sick you can sit down, but not the teacher! Even if everybody sits down, the teacher does not. Teaching is a message and a responsibility. I give much but I get a lot back from teaching as well.
Zsuzsi: In just a few years in Finland you have created a number of major theatrical productions with very innovative choreographies. Where do you get your inspiration for these new works?
MoH: I get my inspiration from my god.
Also, the ideas always come so suddenly, all at once. For example when I made the clapping dance (Kaff) in Layali Simsimiyya, it came from life in Suez.
My father had a fishing boat. After you catch the fish, they slap around together in the bottom of the boat, making a noise like clapping. So this dance imitates that sound.
Also Kaff is done with henna the day before a marriage. It is a competition between men and women. It was really like that in our rehearsals. The men would compete against the women, to see which team can dance better. I encouraged them to compete with each other.
After we finished Layali Simsimiyya, I wanted to make another Egyptian show, so I made Masriyyat, which means “from Egypt”.
Zsuzsi: Masriyyat was the show with the Ulm Kalthoum choreography, with eight dancers dressed like her, dancing to Enta Omri? What moved you to create that piece?
MoH: I think all my life I imagined that piece. When I was young I watched her like all Egyptians.
She is like the fourth pyramid of Egypt!! She did NOT dance when she sang. She moved her arms, her hands, her scarf and used her heel to accent the music only.
She used to sing on the first Thursday of every month. In the beginning she would sit in a chair while the orchestra played, then got up and sang, then sat back down. After the third song she always sat down. She did not wear her dark sunglasses on stage, but she was so known for wearing those glasses, so I had the dancers wear them, like the classic image of her.
Everyone in Egypt told me “you are crazy, forget this idea”. I needed the right song. I wanted to use Enta Omri but not the version with accordion, that would not be right. I found a version by Omar Khairat, the same composer who worked with Diana Calenti. His was a very classic version but without accordion. I knew if I had only one dancer in this piece, it would be too realistic, like an imitation of her, and that would not be good.
But if I use eight dancers all dressed like her, it’s obviously not realistic, it’s imagined, like a dream. Also it creates more movement on stage with eight of them, since her movements were so subtle.
Zsuzsi: How did other people react to the Ulm Kalthoum number, was it controversial in Egypt?
MoH: After, everyone in Egypt was amazed. People really loved it, no complaints.
Zsuzsi: What kind of response have your productions generally received in Finland and in Egypt, or elsewhere?
MoH: People in Finland loved my work. So far I have only shown my productions in Finland. Many friends in Egypt told me I am an ambassador for them in Finland, and they are very proud to see Egypt represented in this way. The Egyptian ambassador to Finland came to see our Masriyyat show. He brought me flowers and congratulated me, and said the show was amazing and he really enjoyed the Ulm Kalthoum number!
Zsuzsi: What has been your major artistic focus in the last year or two?
MoH: My first priority the past few years was to achieve a higher level of Oriental Dance, with a complete range of emotions & sophisticated technique and at the same time respecting the folkloric roots of Egypt.
My second priority was creating a show in 2009 named “Egypt”. I made this show because I am sad to hear some people comment belly dancing is just “shaking your ass” (sorry for the language) when the culture of Egypt is very rich and diverse! My wish for the dance and through this show is to bring respect to Oriental dance just like the dancing of Alvin Ailey, or other western professional companies that I have previously viewed in my youth. I want to show the public, if you want to dance Egyptian dance, it includes many styles and techniques, try to do it properly! It is not just shaking your ass.
You have to really show respect to Egypt as the mother of the dance and I love my country very much and always want her to be the second sun!
Zsuzsi: Thank you very much for taking time for this interview today Mr. Hosseny, and best of luck on the rest of your 12-city 2010 tour!
Mohamed El Hosseny: You’re welcome. It was a pleasure speaking with you. I’m looking forward to return to California in a few weeks!
Mohamed El Hosseny’s website at: www.elhossenydance.com
more info on Mohamed El Hosseny’s 2010 Tour www.egyptianacademy.com
Author’s bio page on Gilded Serpent: Zsuzsi
term: simsimaya- M Hosseny is referring to the dances of Port Said and Ismiliyya, Suez Canal folklore dance. Moh wears a sailor suit to indicate the culture along the water front. Simisimiyya is also a plucked lyre and is an instrument that is carried on the boats for good luck.The same word is also used to mean the whole genre of Canal district folk music, that has the simsimiyya instrument as the main instrument. It belongs closely to the folk music of the Suez canal towns of Port Said, Ismailiyya and Suez.
term: robibekika- In Arabic it mean "odds and ends" and probably meant that this was a a variety show.
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