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Meeting Tahia and Samia in 1977

The First Belly Dance Tour to Cairo, Part 2

Author poses with Samia and Tahia in 1977

Pamela Sloane/Hirt)
posted May 15, 2012
Adapted from the original in Habibi Magazine
with many additional photos

Veteran belly dancer Dalilah from Las Vegas sponsored a tour to Cairo for American belly dancers so they could learn from the cultural source of the dance.  She would leverage her connection with Egyptian film and dance legend Tahia Carioca to arrange special dance-related activities, including meeting Samia Gamal. I did meet with Tahia and Samia on September 22, 1977 – my birthday – and this version features highlights of that exchange. We hoped that Tahia might take to the stage this night and demonstrate what this meant. But the outspoken Tahia made it quite clear her performance days were over.  “I want see the American girls dance!” she declared in her Arabic-accented English. Later she stepped aside with me for an interview in which I recorded her feelings about American belly dancing and the current state of the dance.

Tahia Carioca 

In contrast to Samia’s lightheartedness, Tahia showed sharp resentment regarding the direction danse oriental was taking.  Determined to ensure her unparalleled legacy as a primal force in her field, she declared, “Nobody has studied with me,” adding that she does not teach, nor does she ever plan to do so.

I took those words to mean that she does not recognize any current dancer as the carrier of true Egyptian belly dance, especially considering that her only acknowledged successor, Samia Gamal, was also retired.  The fact that neither she nor Samia demonstrated any dance for us, as had been promised, during our visit underscored her exclusive attitude that only she could be recognized as portraying Egypt through her dance. 

She went on to excoriate today’s state of belly dancing in Egypt, calling most current dancers “servants” who are not really dancers, and that there is “no one actual dancer that can represent the country.”
Tahia was very surprised to hear that there are schools all over the country teaching oriental dance. 

To her, true danse oriental is not teachable.  Either you have it or you don’t; either you are born with it or you are not.

By extension, because she manifested the spirit of the country, she had won Egypt’s de facto permission to represent the people through its ethnic dance.  This is probably the origin of the expression “Tahia is Egypt and Egypt is Tahia” and probably why Tahia grew into the role of standards-bearer in Egyptian danse oriental.

 

Retrospectively, more insight about Tahia emerged several years after this tour when I took belly dance lessons from a retired Syrian dancer in Detroit.  In chronicling her long career in Middle Eastern dance, the dancer told me that she had danced in the same venue as Tahia several times in Egypt, and that she had gotten to know the famous star.  Tahia took on a maternal attitude toward fledgling dancers.

Backstage when admiring younger dancers invariably sought her out, Tahia would admonish them to maintain high principles; to “act like a lady” and carry themselves with pride at all times both on and off the dance floor.

To Tahia, “even the way you walk” as a dancer is vitally important to represent their country’s dignity through its dance.

I perceived Tahia to be a vigilant guardian of her established niche.  Once early in her career, a young dancer wore a beaded belt with her boyfriend’s name inscribed in the beadwork.  Seeing this, Tahia rebuked her roundly, telling her it was “not ladylike” to broadcast her boyfriend’s name on her dance costume.  The chastised dancer never wore the belt again.

Back at the theater in Cairo, Tahia informed me that Nahed Sabry is in the hospital for 15 days, and that she endorses Nahed as the only dancer that comes close to “the old days.”  Tahia groused bitterly that the “old days are gone because no one today comes from a good family.  Today everybody dances.”

It became quite apparent as I faced Tahia that evening that I was conversing with the embodiment an era coming to an end.  Those American oriental dance enthusiasts gracing her theater in central Cairo this afternoon from the United States were poised to pick up the torch of Egyptian danse oriental – so lovingly handed down bythe dance goddesses Tahia and Samia – and evolve their own version to share with the world.

Dalilah, Samia and Tahia

Samia Gamal

After 17 years of retirement, Samia appeared alarmingly youthful and active – still possessing that admired tiny waistline and slim, rounded hips.  The brunette Samia of the 40s, however, had become the blonde Samia of 1977.  Dressed in a regal, two-piece ensemble of white silk, richly trimmed in deep turquoise arabesque cording, she was still as slim as the romantic, nymph- like characters she portrayed in her black and white movies of Egypt’s Golden Age of Dance and Cinema.

All smiles, Samia circulated unabashedly amongst everyone present.  Samia expressed herself with as much vivid theatricality in English as she did in Arabic. Her exuberant laughter, friendliness, wit, and cheerful playfulness provided ample reasons for her legendary notoriety as an artistic ambassador of the Egyptian people.

As she gadded about, I couldn’t help but note the striking similarity between what she is like in person and the fantasy character she portrayed in her heyday movie, “Little Miss Devil.”  The character, Karamana, emerges from a magic lamp at the bidding of the protagonists’ guardian angel to help catalyze the sluggish process of fate in his love affair. 

As it turns out, she had once been the protagonist’s sweetheart in a past life, and she decides to turn matters back into her favor rather than his.  As a love-struck, invisible imp, she wreaks diabolical havoc on all involved.  With a flippant clap of her hands and nod of her head, scenes are suddenly turned topsy turvy and amusing confusion results.  There is no end to her good-hearted mischief except to pause for the inevitable production numbers in which her famous dancing further entertains.

Her buoyant personality shows through in the dance scene.  The danseuse is still the same Samia with the effervescent spirit and inclination toward playful pranks.  Weaving her way effortlessly through the music, the twinkling eyes and beckoning smile never diminish.  Never still, her fluid movements are as integrated as the parts of a clock; perfectly rhythmical and synchronized.  Even through the movie land polish, the prescribed choreography and the contrived jinni character, the true source of the cinematic energy is in the person of Samia Gamal.

This unique animation showed itself in Tahia’s theater that day in Cairo.   So many ghostly remnants of Karamana were reflected through Samia that I wondered which came first – the actor or the character. 

When we sat down to talk, Samia could hardly contain the enthusiasm she felt for oriental dance, commenting that the American’s interest in the dance “…is a good thing – to help them understand Arab culture better, and the dance makes you feel beautiful.”

I asked her about the origin of her technique.  She looked at me with a sly smile and cocked her head wistfully.  “Well, you see, the origin of a dancer’s dance is not something one discusses,” she informed me, then went on to draw a verbal picture of the dance’s essence and roots.

In a dreamlike rapture, Samia described how “technique should be fueled with the feeling of the Nile.”   With the flowing gestures for which she is famous, she imitated its reeds swaying listlessly in the breeze on a hot afternoon, and envisioned the wandering desert sand against the emerald farmland along the Nile.  Of paramount importance to Samia’s bucolic imagery were the Egyptian people living out lives of unfaltering joy. 

I thought of some of these images as I later watched her play with a light green chiffon veil supplied by Tahia, which was, by the way, the closest we were going to get of a Samia Gamal live performance. Her love for the homeland flowed freely through her fingertips and into the veil, commanding its unbroken flying waves and graceful swoops as she interacted with it in one unified gesture after another.

Afterwards, I asked this beloved film legend what she is doing in her retirement.  “Oh, I keep very active all the time, dancing around the house and taking up swimming.”  Plagued by muscle cramps, she went to the doctor who told her that more activity would relieve the cramps. So, in light of the current popularity of oriental dance, Samia informed me she is planning to make a comeback including a trip to the United States.

Reviving a legend is very risky, even inadvisable, but, according to Tahia, there is no one great dancer any longer who aptly represents Egypt as a national figure.  Tahia herself may have considered a comeback, but health and present commitments prevent her.  It may be that only Samia could fill the void, and that it may be incumbent upon her to do so.

At age 54, Samia is still energetic and talented enough to withstand the rigors of a renewed show business career.  But this time, the surroundings, requirements, dedicated fans, and general receptive atmosphere for the dance will have changed after two decades.  What impact her revival may have on oriental dance, especially in the United States, will be quite interesting to watch.

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