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Gilded Serpent presents...
Atef Farag:
A Life in Dance

Interview by Debbie Smith

It was a few months ago that I heard Atef Farag's name for the first time. Several friends who are either in Cairo now or have been in the recent past mentioned him as

a great teacher with a background in the Reda troupe. When I heard that he would be coming to the US for the first time this summer I became even more curious to find out more about him.

I decided that it would be fascinating to interview him after reading about his background. I have a long-standing interest in capturing the experiences and opinions of dance artists in their own words in our field so that they may be preserved as part of the historical record. I am also fascinated by the ways that the careers of the Egyptian dance artists who started with groups like the Reda Troupe reflect larger social, political and cultural forces at play in post-Nasser era Egypt. My questions were fairly simple, and I wanted to draw him out without influencing the answer too much, so there was no real expectation, agenda or angle for the interview other than to learn more about his career, as expressed in his own words. The interview was conducted by phone in Arabic on April 11, 2005 and I am indebted to Hala Fauzi for help with the translation. The text is unexpurgated although some repetitive phrases were edited out. 

1. How did you get your start in the field of dance, and what were your experiences before joining the Reda troupe? 

I started dance when I was twelve years old, when I was in elementary school.  In Egypt at that time there were 'socialist unions' [equivalent to social clubs -dl] that had corresponding youth organizations, which held a "social awareness" contest between the elementary schools of the area.  They took 5 representative pupils from every school to enter that contest and I was the winner from my school - I was in the sixth grade then. 

They contacted us in the summer and said they were starting a "young people's organization" with you all and that organization would feed into the "youth organization", which would in turn feed into the "socialist union". 

We would be educated politically and artistically. "Who would like to study acting? Who would like to study singing? Who would like dancing?" I chose dance.

I worked in that organization from 12 to 14 years of age.  Our trainer at the time was from the National Folkloric Troupe, and he suggested that I apply to join their newly formed dance school.  I learned the music and some simple dancesteps, I entered the final exam and passed.  When I was admitted to the National Folkloric Troupe's dance school I was 14 years old. The people who helped create this troupe were from Russia, so their training system was Russian. I had three years of classical ballet training, pirouettes, chaîne turns, and things like that.  We also studied something called 'character dance' which was based on Russian folkloric dance.  One month before I was to graduate from the National Folkloric Troupe's school, I saw an ad for dancers to audition for the Reda Troupe so I applied and joined them in 1975.

  1. Was anyone else in your family an artist, and did they encourage you?

There were seven children in our family.  My father was involved in the arts.  He worked in the cinema as a lighting technician and he had many friends who were artists.  All the actors in Egypt at the time were his friends, and he was well known in the field of movie lighting and electrical wiring of movie sets.  My dad encouraged me and he had no objections to my path because I was also taking care of my studies.  For them, of course, studying was important, and I was among the top of my class. Since I was studious and diligent they gave me the freedom to do what I wanted to do, although they were watching me closely.

My father actually helped me with the Reda troupe in 1975.  At that time, I was in my final year of high school.  Before the final exams, I had to pay a lot of attention to my studies [in Egypt the final year of high school determines what a person will do for the rest of his/her life].  I had been in the Reda Troupe for about 6 months, and we were under probation, which means they took us and trained us and taught us a few troupe dances.  I had to stop my training with them for three months to focus on studying for my final year of high school so I would be able to get into a good college. 

All my colleagues who continued with the troupe ended up signing contracts with them, but because I stopped, I didn't.  I passed my final year exams and started college in Liberal Arts, specializing in Geography.

I tried to go back to the Reda troupe but was unsuccessful.  Very shortly thereafter, Mahmoud and Ali Reda went to shoot a movie called Ah Ya Leil Ya Zaman at my dad's studio.  [Stars of the film included, Roshdy Abaza, Warda and Adel Adham]

When my dad told me Mahmoud was coming to the studio every day to work on the film, I told him I wanted to rejoin the troupe.  My dad talked to Mahmoud and I went to meet with him at the studio telling him that I had been in training with the troupe, that my trainer's name was Geddawi and why I had to stop for my studies.  My dad's nickname was 'El Hagg Zaky', and Mahmoud  told him "Don't worry Hagg, Atef is with me."

I immediately signed a contract with the troupe and from that time was with them.  That's how my dad helped me with my artistic career.
  1. What did you learn from your 30 years with the Reda Troupe?

Atef takes a break with Mahmoud Reda

When I joined the troupe in 1975 in my first year of college, I loved the troupe very much and I loved dance very, very, very, very much.  I had a good dance foundation from the National Folkloric Troupe, and Mahmoud Reda liked dancers who had a good concept of ballet.  I was good to such an extent that I traveled with the troupe outside Egypt within 6 months of joining.  We hadn't even traveled inside Egypt yet, not even to Alexandria. This first trip was to the Moroccan town of Agadir.

From the time I joined the troupe, my eyes were on Mahmoud Reda.  I wanted to know and understand everything from that man. 

We absolutely adored this man and absolutely respected him.  After I matured a little bit, I understood that this love and admiration for him came from our basic love for dance, and in our minds, this man was and is the master of dance.  He is the TOP dancer in Egypt so our love for him came from our absolute trust that he was, as they say, the God of dance in Egypt.  So I started learning from him. I watched how he dealt with us administratively and how he formed our training sessions.  For our training, Mahmoud Reda had 10 drills that went with 10 different rhythms. 

He gathered in them approximately 90% of the dance steps and that was half the class.

Whoever masters and does these steps well can do any step in dance.  For the other half of the class, we would be standing on the diagonal and he would construct drills to the same rhythms. I started to see how he constructed steps.  In dance we use something like an alphabet: ABCDEFG.  In his work, I saw how he put the B next to the D next to the O next to the W to come up with a beautiful dance phrase.  I started to understand when I end a drill, when I end a move, which foot do I have free that I can step with next, where is my body in space, where is the weight? What step matches the previous one? What step I can do now that leads to the following one?  I learned from him the technique of doing choreography, how he designed his dances.

The way he dealt with us - he was very, very, very stern but also very, very, very loving.  At work he is the boss and we're the students.  He could be very firm with us and no one could disagree or talk to him. In contrast, when we were socializing, you could find him joking with us.  By the way, Mahmoud Reda loves joking a lot!

The relationship between us has a lot of respect, love and admiration. He's a very educated and well read man, and can speak fluently on any subject. 

I used to study geography at the time and he used to work in something with astronomy.  He would ask me "You, geography dude, why is the sky blue?" I didn't know, so he would tell me.  When we traveled, for example in Yugoslavia, driving by seashore he asked, "Atef, the geography dude, do you know what is the name of this sea?" I said "the Adriatic sea." He said "Very good! Now tell me where the Adriatic sea starts and where it ends!" and so I decided that I should read a lot to be like Mahmoud Reda. 

I had a chance to apply much that I learned from him in 1989, when Mahmoud took me to the American University in Cairo (AUC).  I initially went to be his assistant.  AUC wanted us to train their dance troupe to participate at an international folk dance festival in Spain.  A trainer had to accompany the group to organize the schedule. 

In these festivals, for example, they might require a 15 minute performance, then the next day, 20 minutes then the next day, a half an hour, then sometimes solo performances; there are many different requirements like that. 

Someone has to understand how to organize the troupe performances: who is dancing where and when, how to fill the stage whether it's big or small, if the stage is small, how to decrease the number of dancers so that they don't collide, etc.  I learned all this from Mahmoud.  For example, when we used to travel, the first thing he did was check out the stage and its capabilities: the size, what equipment it has, where the lights were, where the musicians should sit, the sound- the lighting, is it computerized or manual? He would start planning the lighting.  Since he knew the dances so well (the entrances and exits, the costumes and their colors) he could plan the lighting accordingly.  He taught us tips such as when there are lights from below going up, the dancer's face will look like a ghost or if there is very bright lighting, the face's features will melt away and won't be visible and we learned when to dim the lights to give a desired silhouette or look.

Atef poses with Farida Fahmy
After we trained the troupe at the AUC for about 3 months, we went to Spain.  They asked Mahmoud to travel with the troupe, but he was busy at the time, as was Madame Farida [Fahmy].

Mahmoud and Farida told the AUC's manager to take me to accompany the troupe to take care of business and management.

Farida then took me aside and said, "Now that you're going to manage these students, never point out anything that's wrong unless you're able to fix it."- she was talking to me about the girls' dances. She knew that I knew the boys' dances very well because I was the one who trained them under Mahmoud's supervision. If a girl did something wrong on stage or in rehearsal and I found a mistake, I could not say there was a mistake without being able to correct that mistake and tell them how to make it right. 

From that time I started to concentrate on the women's dances and learning their parts so I would be able to correct their mistakes. I traveled with Mme Khafaga of the AUC and I started to apply everything I had learned from Mahmoud. 

I briefed the troupe on how to behave, how to dress, how no one should interfere with the management of the festival, how to work with our guide, how to eat.  These festivals are pretty standardized- typically there are 20-25 troupes from all over the world. I showed the troupe how to act in such environments: how to respect the place we're in, how, if I don't like a towel or a fork, I still accept it nicely, how to deal with the management of the festival.  "I'm an artist and my job here is to dance, nothing else is my business.  I have a trainer and a manager, only the trainer and the manager can represent me."  How to behave in the airport, everyone goes and puts their bag in front of the counter in one long line, no mobbing the counter.  I learned all these things from Mahmoud.  When we got there, I had to plan for at least one week ahead, plan the dances and solve problems. For example, if I had a dancer in two dances, how to plan so they could exit in time for the costume change. How big was the stage, how far were we staying from the venue so we could arrive on time?  I was about 27 years old.

At this festival, they saw how solid the AUC troupe was, how polished they were in spite of being new, and they didn't imagine that such a young person was in charge of the whole show.  And the AUC manager Mme. Khafaga had me under her microscope.  As soon as we arrived back, in the airport, she told me "Atef, I want you to work with me." I told her I would ask Mahmoud  and with his permission, I worked there by myself from the summer of 1989.

The success I achieved was not my creation.  All that belongs to Mahmoud Reda. 

4. How did you switch to teaching Oriental dance?

Atef dances with Reda Troupe in 1995

The beginning of that was Mme Farida; she's the one who brought to my attention that I had to know the girls' dances.  Also, around 1980, I found that Mahmoud was paying more attention to the girls' work more than the boys' work.  For the boys, other trainers would come train us, but Mahmoud trained the girls himself. I also saw that there are many dances for girls only but not many for boys only. Sometimes there is a dance where like the 'Haggala' for example where you have many boys and only one girl, but most other work, we can do Shamedaan (candelabra), we can do oriental, we can do folk songs, all with girls only.  So I realized that the girls' work was more interesting.

When I went to the AUC, I had students of both genders, but the ratio of girls to boys was 5:1.  In any given year, if I got 20 girls, I would get 4 or 5 boys. The girls also came in with a better dance foundation- their families taught them ballet and what not. 

The boys often had no dance background whatsoever. So since they were the majority and were better dancers than boys, I began to prefer working with the girls.  Girls' dance vocabulary is also richer than boys. 

That is to say, the fabric that you're working with is wider.  Boys' dance is limited a little bit and it depends more on athletic ability, high jumping and physical stamina.  But with girls the work is more varied, you can create from one step 40 and 50 different steps, that is, you can vary the phrase a number of different ways.

Every year we used to travel to dance festivals, and we toured all of Europe.  I always wanted to show something very specifically and uniquely Egyptian that no one else does, for example, a candelabra dance.  I also wanted to do Oriental dance because again, that is very specifically Egyptian. I started training girls more than boys and designing dances especially for them.

As to the issue of steps, I started taking the folkloric steps that I knew or I created or designed and giving them the Oriental style, no longer pure folklore.  I added Oriental "innuendoes," adding a shimmy for example, or increasing the shimmying.  The shimmy is a girls' move, we don't use it for boys much because it's very Oriental.  I started using it more often to give the dance the Oriental style for showcasing it outside Egypt.  I started taking the folk steps and adding the Oriental touch so that the steps took the shape of Oriental dance.  But even up to now, when I put together an Oriental dance, I don't like to put any sexual innuendoes in it.  Because I work with students, it's inappropriate to give them a dance that has sexual innuendoes or the pure Oriental that is performed by the "awaalem".  

Pure Egyptian Oriental dance does tolerate a lot of sexual innuendo that is not present in my work.

When I worked with foreign students at the ALI (Arabic Language Institute), I only had foreigners, no Egyptians at all.  Foreigners from different countries such as Korea, India, America, Canada and Europe all gathered at the ALI to learn Arabic, and I found the most appropriate thing to teach them was Oriental dance.  I also didn't get any men there at all.  Since 99% of the people who came to me were foreign women, what they knew about dance in Egypt was Oriental dance. I tried teaching them some folklore but they already knew and liked Oriental dance, so I worked on that, in the more conservative Oriental that is free from any sexual innuendoes.

5. What, in your opinion, is the essence of a good Oriental dancer?

First of all, for Oriental dance, size is very important.  Since the dancer is by herself on stage, she has to have certain physical characteristics to qualify herself.

In my opinion it doesn't work for a short woman to do Oriental; her height should be appropriate to fill the eyes of the viewer.  That is, she shouldn't be little on the stage, that's the first thing.

The second thing is the ear.  The ear has to be very good because most of her work is on rhythms and Oriental dance depends a lot on rhythms.  Even in the middle of an Oriental dance there has to be a part called "the empty".  That 'empty' is a rhythmic-only section, only the drum (drum-solo). Flexibility and femininity are very important. The Oriental dancer has to have a beautiful stage presence. 

She has to have a very strong presence and she has to have radiance, making everyone who is watching her feel she is dancing only for him. She has to have such magnetism that those watching her forget to eat or talk.

6. What changes have you observed in dance over the span of your career?

In the forties during the time of World War I, there were a lot of foreign soldiers and officers in Egypt so the overwhelming trend of dance at the time in the nightclubs of Emad Ad-din Street was the sexy style.  Because most of the patrons were soldiers and officers and the like, there were a lot of sexy moves in dance.

When that era ended and the next era came, the first one who made a change in dance in my personal opinion was Naima Akef

Naima Akef changed the dance into something completely free of sexual innuendoes and it became about flexibility, beautiful execution and elegance on the stage plus her sense of humor. 

During that time Samia Gamal and Tahia Carioca were also transforming dance from a "vulgar" dance more into a rhythmic dance, each in her different style.  Samia Gamal had more "show" tendencies in her dance than Oriental.  She used to travel a lot on stage.  Tahia Carioca, like Sohair Zeki, danced all in one place, not moving a lot, using the internal belly work.  In my opinion, Naima Akef had both under control.  She could work in one place, and she could also use a large area- she was fundamentally trained in the circus.  She learned in Circus El Helw (the most famous circus family in Egypt).

After that was the era when Nagwa Fouad came. Nagwa Fouad also combined the big expansive movements on stage and working in one place, but Nagwa added something else. 

She added many folkloric touches to her work and brought on a folkloric trainer to work with her.  She incorporated other dancers in her work, men and women.  She did dances that had a story line and drama- it wasn't just dance for dance's sake, but had a dramatic dimension.  For example, she would do a Mamluk dance [The Mamluk sultanate (1250-1517) emerged in Egypt and Syria]. She would enter the stage carried on the shoulders of slaves; she would recreate the incident or the historical era of that theme.  So she incorporated the folklore with the dance and her dance tableaus became like that.

We then come to Mr. Mahmoud Reda.  His origin was the folk arts; he loves the folklore.  When he teaches or choreographs a dance for anyone, there has to be the folkloric touch- even has the folkloric feel.  Whoever performs it has to be an Egyptian or love Egypt or have lived in Egypt or know a lot about Egypt.  It has a very Egyptian spirit.

Now in Egypt we have Russian girls performing dance.  They are very good technically.  Their technique is perfect, beautiful, but they don't give you the feeling of the Egyptian character.  Do you know who gives me that feeling even though they are not Egyptian?  The Brazilians, for example, give me that feeling, the Americans and South Americans; 

the southern people, in general have that feeling more than the northerners. 

They can be doing the same step, the northern person would excel technically, for example the one who lives in Canada can do the technique better than the one from New Orleans but the hot weather and the steps of the one from New Orleans will be more continuous.  So the "taste" of the dance will better from the one from the south than from the north. Despite the technique of the Canadian being higher like the Russians,

the technique is very high and the flexibility is very high but the taste and the spirit are lacking.  That is the change that happened in dance over time. 

I personally believe that the strongest era for dance was the era of Naima Akef, Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca and the beginnings of Nagwa Fouad, and another great dancer named Keti that appears a lot in old Egyptian movies: very beautiful, very clever.  That is the strongest era of dance.

After that comes Fifi Abdo, for example.  Fifi Abdo also creates dance tableaus that are heavily influenced by the folkloric style.  For example you'll find a neighborhood coffee shop, she holds the shisha, she stirs the coals, she crosses the flame seven times like the countrywomen.  dance turned more to the folkloric Egyptian traditions.

6. Do you have any observations on th ecurrent place of dance in Egyptian society?

Now, the interest in dance in Egypt from the government's point of view is based on the interest in dance for the tourism industry. 

A film poster starring
Samir Sabry

They don't pay much attention to the public dance troupes and there are no national troupes that teach dance, especially after Mr. Mahmoud Reda..  There are no trainers or choreographers except for the students of Mahmoud Reda who took on that role, like Raqia Hassan.  There is also another very, very important person who teaches dance and he is very good, a pioneer in teaching dance and that is Ibrahim Akef.  He's one of the very first people who started teaching dance as an absolute art in its own right, the traditional style of dance. 

We don't have any government-sponsored body that takes on that role.  They left it to personal efforts and individual initiatives of the dancers.  The government's role is limited only to hosting tourism weeks where they have to showcase dance of course.  For example, I worked a lot with Samir Sabry [very famous Egyptian singer & entertainer] and we had to have an dancer with us in the show in a prominent role.  We did theatrical shows but we had to have an dancer with us in the show, since that's a distinguishing characteristic of Egyptian nights. 

So there is no government interest in nourishing the dance

A Faten Salama video cover
especially after Mahmoud Reda left the troupe, they left it to individuals' initiatives and to Mahmoud Reda's students. For example, the dancer Dina was in the Reda Troupe, her basis is folkloric training.  Aida Nour is one of the best people who teach dance in Egypt has also spent many years with the Reda Troupe. Raqia is also from the Reda Troupe.  You'll find that all the people who are working in that field are all students of Mahmoud Reda.  They are the ones who teach both Egyptians and foreigners. My wife, Magda is with me in the troupe, she's from the same generation of the Reda Troupe like me, and she's the one in charge of teaching the beginners who start learning dance in Egypt. 

I didn't see anyone from the National Folkloric Troupe teach dance.  We have a style that is very Egyptian, and the National troupe has more of a Russian influence.  Faten Salama is a graduate of the National Troupe.  I have not seen her work, but

the general perception is that the National troupe has a style that is a little un-Egyptian; it has a certain degree of abruptness.  It doesn't flow completely. 

Atef teaches class

It doesn't have the Egyptian smell and the Egyptian taste.  That is only found in the graduates of Mahmoud Reda's school and they are the ones who are taking on that role.  But the government only takes.  It doesn't try to innovate or teach or open dance schools or anything at all. Its mere role is that whoever becomes successful, it endorses them as good publicity for Egypt and its tourism and they put oriental dance in their publicity brochures.  That's all.  That is of course dangerous, not good.  Especially now that the number of girls who come join the dance troupes that we have now in Egypt is not much.  When Mahmoud used to put an ad announcing the need for dancers to join the Reda Troupe, we used to get hundreds, now we barely get tens, and those who are good enough are very little.  So there is definitely a decline.

60% of the nightclub dancers who also made it to the Haram St [most famous entertainment district in Cairo] are foreign dancers. 

Even the government noticed that lately, so they stopped issuing licenses for Russian dancers especially to perform Oriental dance in nightclubs. They used to be lots and lots of them.  When I worked with Samir Sabry on his shows, I used to work with 2 Egyptians and 7 or 8 Russians.


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