Gilded Serpent presents...

Nelly, Beloved Star of Egypt

An Interview with Nelly Fouad

Nelly Fouad

by Caroline Evanoff
posted February 4, 2012

As a dancer who loves Egyptian style Raqs Sharqi  you probably have come across many famous "Schwaya Baladi" clips, including the adorable dancer Nelly Fouad with the megawatt smile:  her skill, her creativity, her sheer joy of performing, and not to forget those cute  little caps!  When I first met Nelly 13 years ago it was as if those clips had come to life! She hadn’t changed a bit.   And even now when I see dancers meet her for the first time I know they are thinking the same thing and can’t help being starstruck.

Nelly Fouad, born in Alexandria (under another name), joined an "Awalim" troupe whilst still in high school at the tender age of 13. The group, led by "Alma" Sinaya, taught the young Nelly all the basics of how to dance. Nelly was a quick learner and was soon sent off to perform in weddings at night. In order to keep her two lives separate, schoolgirl by day, performer at night, she  took on her famous name of "Nelly" after her Armenian grandmother.

I asked Nelly if there was any comparison to the Awalim of Mohamed Ali street and she said no, they were different; the Alexandrian Awalim had a real school for teaching the arts — they were strict and corrected your mistakes.

The pivotal point in her career came as she filled in for Souheir Zaki one night in a musical stage production. Nelly caught the eye of director Mohamed Selim who had promotional photos taken of the young Nelly. This led her to Cairo,where she had once dreamed of studying  design and decor at college.

Incredibly, it was Nelly’s mother, in fact, who had encouraged Nelly to follow a dance career instead!

This is highly unusual in the Middle East, but it turned out that Nelly’s mother was a neighbour of Souheir Zaki and admired her greatly. (Souheir Zaki is one of the few Egyptian dancers in history who is referred to as a lady or  "mokhtarrama," meaning  respectable .) "What about your father?" I asked Nelly as she smirked and said "My mother was very strong."  End of argument.

Whilst in Cairo, Nelly met the famous singer, composer, oud player and actor, Farid al-Atrash. One of the most influential artists of 20th century Arab culture he was a valuable contact to have. Farid owned a nightclub in Beirut (his mother was Lebanese) and invited Nelly to perform there which she did everyday for a year. He also helped put Nelly in the spotlight through promotional articles in Lebanon. She returned to Cairo on the wings of success and quickly started her career becoming one of the famous dancers in Egypt. Her career on stage and film spanned from the late 1970s, reaching her peak in the 1980s. She worked in all the top nightclubs: Semiramis, Cairo Hilton, Concorde el Salam, Marriott, etc. She also worked in Haram Street nightclubs such as Andalous and Arizona, which Nani Sabry (also present at this interview) was quick to point out that "Haram street was not like now, the nightclubs were all five-star back then."

During this time, Nelly continued to improve her skills, studying with teachers and choreographers  such as Salwa Thaleb, Hassan Affifi, Dowlet and her husband, Mohamed Khalil. However, it was with Mme Raqia Hassan that she studied the longest and they remain best of friends to this day.   (During the interview they "argue" over the best way to make "maracona bil forn"and other Egyptian  recipes with the ease and fun that only comes from a long term friendship.) Such friendship also led Nelly to finally teach.  Raqia had been pushing Nelly for years to teach but Nelly held back (as her fans waited patiently as well) . Nelly was a little shy at first but now is proud to be a teacher at Ahlan wa Sahlan festival for the last two years, in addition to teaching privately. She also appears in Raqia Hassan’s DVDs Volumnes 10 and 11,   showing that she hasn’t lost a thing in her "time out."  I had been waiting  for years to find out how she executed some of her signature moves, and when I remind her she immediately jumps  up to demonstrate with all the vigour and ease of someone who just loves the dance!

Her signature stomach move — which she describes as a "stomach shimmy" as she breaks it down again for me: subtle use of the pelvis pulling in –and her famous "shuffle" (choo choo) shimmy on demi pointe.

Nelly’s impromptu performance reminds Raqia of when she first met Nelly and says that "all the dancers from Alexandria have good hips and movements, they dance well.  Nelly just  needed some guidance and refining of the moves".  Raqia also exclaims that it was the first time she had seen the movement which she calls "maya" and Nelly jumps up again to demonstrate her version of the outward figure 8 move.  

Raqia says that that move must have come from Alexandria as dancers in Cairo were not doing that move at that time.

I asked Nelly what she thought about dancers today to which she replied "I love Dina," and regards to foreign dancers, "Beautiful and technically fantastic…..but they lack the feeling of Egyptian dancers."

So I ask if she has any advice for the foreign dancer and both Raqia and Nelly concede "Yes, they have to come here, to Egypt, to live and learn Arabic; that is the only way to capture the feeling.”

Nelly is one of the most down to earth, generous,  beautiful-spirited dancers and  teachers out there. Over the course of her career she also travelled to perform in London, Tokyo, Iraq, Dubai, Syria and the USA. Surprisingly, she has only taught workshops once abroad in Paris with Mme Raqia.

Personal facts about Nelly:

  • Her favourite dancers are Souheir Zaki and Naima Akef
  • Her costumes were designed by Mme Abla and Mme Rowya
  • She loves dogs and currently  has 3
  • She has one daughter who studied in the U.S.
  • Nelly danced in three Egyptian films: Aghala min Hayeti, AlBaad Yezaheb ela el Mazzoon Marrateen and Akhuwait al Banat.

Nelly is one of the star teachers at Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival as well as the Winter Intensive Course for Teacher Training both in Cairo.
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  1. Terry

    Feb 8, 2012 - 10:02:26

    Thanks for this article!  She has always been a favorite of mine.


  2. Kendra

    Feb 9, 2012 - 02:02:37

    Great contribution, thank you! It was educational and historical. In my opinion, there is not enough of this kind of information in the Gilded Serpent. 

  3. Barbara Grant

    Feb 11, 2012 - 06:02:33

    Thank you for the article and also the videoclip! I’ve seen her performances on video, but before this article, I didn’t know her name. Best, Barbara.

  4. Leilah Ali

    Mar 5, 2012 - 10:03:55

    Just watching Nelly Fouad dance is enough to make you happy!

  5. Sharon

    Jun 4, 2021 - 06:06:37

    I simply adore her! It is such a shame there are not more clips of her! Is there any way you can update this article?

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