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Gilded Serpent presents...
Interview with
Magda Ibrahim

by Debbie Smith

Interviewer’s Note: When I look back at my very first encounter with Magda Ibrahim, I see in retrospect that in that first moment she revealed her essential nature to me. It was the first night of my trip to Egypt in summer 2005, and my tour group was at a small dinner organized by Hossam Ramzy at a small, beautiful restaurant overlooking the pyramids to which Magda and her husband, Atef Farag, had been invited. I had met Atef in his first tour to the U.S. in Spring 2005, and I looked forward to finally meeting his wife as well. When she was introduced to me, I said in Arabic “It’s nice to meet you, Madame Magda.” She smiled and responded “Magda, bass!” (“Just Magda!”) before kissing me on both cheeks. My first impression of a very warm, down-to-earth person was borne out by all my subsequent interactions with her in the two weeks that followed.

After attending the two classes she taught at Raqia Hassans Ahlan wa Sahlan festival (this was her first year on staff) and taking several private classes with her, I soon came to realize that in addition to her delightful personal qualities, she (like her husband) was also a highly skilled teacher, an excellent choreographer herself, and a veritable treasure of information about movement, music and especially the recent history of dance in Egypt. Her thirty-year career as a member of the Reda Troupe, from its “glory days” under the direction of Mahmoud Reda to the present, make her a valuable source of knowledge about the Reda troupe repertory and about the realities of being part of a state-sponsored dance company. The fact that of her being the wife of another lifelong Reda troupe member as well as a mother give her a completely unique perspective. Since I had already interviewed her husband about some of these subjects, I asked if I could do an interview with her as a companion piece. I feel very fortunate that I was able to sit down for this candid, well-thought and fascinating interview with one of Egyptian dance’s hidden treasures. Special thanks to Hala Fauzi and Catarina Melica for translation assistance.

Debbie: The first thing I want to ask you is about your background when you were young: how you first became involved in dance and how you started your dance education.

Magda: I was in the last year of middle school, 14 or 15. I danced in the folkloric troupe of a youth/social club in Heliopolis called Nadi el Nasr. That was my very beginning. Because the club had a troupe and trainers, and I liked folkloric dancing, I joined them, they trained me and I used to perform with them. The trainers were Egyptian, but they were amateurs, not famous people.

Debbie: How old were you when you joined the Reda Troupe?

Magda: It happened that the Reda Troupe put an ad in the newspaper asking for new members. So I went to apply at Mr. Mahmoud Reda’s office at 50 Qasr el Nil Street, and he auditioned me himself, and he said to me, “good.” I was 17, in the second year of high school. So I started then and went into contract with the troupe on 1-1-1976.

Debbie: I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the audition process. You had some dance training already, and I’m sure they were looking for talent. What kind of things did they ask you to show?

Magda: When I went to audition with Mr. Mahmoud, he didn’t give me or ask me for any steps: he just asked me what do I know. He had a tabla player who played for me and I danced; I did what I knew. He let me do whatever I wanted. And then he would ask the drummer to speed up, slow down, speed up, slow down the tempo repeatedly to see if I had the ear to respond to the change in pace, and thank God I did all that well and he said "OK". So that was the audition.

Debbie: And in the initial training period, who was the primary trainer? Was Mahmoud Reda training everybody or was Farida Fahmy training the girls, or were there several other trainers?

The Reda Troupe
back row l-r- 1, 2, Magda, Mahmoud Reda, 4, 5, 6,
front row- 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, Atef, 14

(Please contact editor if you know more names, year & where taken)
Magda: When I joined the troupe, I started of course at the beginner’s level and stayed there approximately six months (we would usually train every day one hour of ballet and one hour of folkloric) until I joined the mother troupe. For the beginners, there were the beginners’ trainers; Mahmoud and Farida had nothing to do with the beginners. Not until our trainers would tell them “these beginners are talented [enough],” and then we would move up to Mahmoud or Farida, but we wouldn't train with both at the same time. Maybe Mahmoud would teach a class, then Farida a class; whoever was free would teach. But it was mostly Mahmoud.  For example if Farida gave one class, Mahmoud would give ten classes. There were other trainers there too, but only until Mahmoud came, then he would take over. Like maybe if he had to go speak to someone, a senior dancer would substitute for him just until he got back. Once he was in the class, he was the sole trainer.  So they were only substitute trainers.

Debbie: Did your family have people who were involved in arts or were dancers already?

Magda: No, not at all. My father used to be a civil servant, an employee in the factories.

Debbie: When you started dancing and went on to join the Reda Troupe, was your family supportive of your career? Did you know at that time that you wanted to make a career out of dancing?

Magda: When I used to dance at the social club, we would give performances and my parents and siblings and my aunt would come watch and cheer me on. None of them would say, “No” or anything like that. Even when the Reda Troupe put the ad in the newspaper, they all encouraged me to go.  My older sister took me to the audition.  I really loved dance and even though I got my Bachelor’s degree in public service and was assigned to a government job, I wasn’t interested in pursuing it.  I had no other interests than to be in the Reda Troupe. What also encouraged me to stay, was that a very short time after I joined the troupe, I traveled with them to Germany, so I felt there was travel and money and prestige in it, so I no longer thought about working anywhere else where I wouldn’t travel or go anywhere.

But what my family totally objected to, and my father, God rest his soul, was that I not dance anywhere but within the framework of the troupe; no working in a nightclub or TV or films; I could go and travel with the troupe and return with the troupe, no problem, but if I got work outside of the troupe, no way; I could work in the troupe only.

So I never did Fawazir [TV entertainment shows during Ramadan nights] like Atef did. Even after I married Atef, I had the opportunity to work in other areas, but I didn’t think of pursuing that because I had gotten used to working with the troupe only.

Debbie: Was it because they felt that the Reda Troupe had a certain respectability that they didn’t object?

Magda: I’ll tell you why. Because if I worked elsewhere I would have had to the leave the house at midnight to go to work and wouldn’t get home until 5 or 6 am, and that kind of night life was not acceptable. Whereas the Reda Troupe is a government organization, so its performances would end by 11 or 11:30 and I would be home by midnight.  But to leave the house at midnight to go work and get home in the morning, that was not allowed. The schedule was the issue; it wasn’t allowed for me to get home very late.

Debbie: It sounds like you had a lot of work at that time and were touring, so I was wondering if you were living at home at that time and if your parents were still as supportive when you had to actually be gone so much of the time.

Magda: Yes, my parents had no problem since they knew all my colleagues, who used to come over to my house so my parents got to know them really well, and they knew they were good people from good homes so there was no problem. And anyway after five years I married Atef, so they had no worries about that.

Debbie: So you met in the troupe and got married five years later? Have you been in the troupe as long as Atef, about 30 years, as well?

Magda: Yes. We started together.

Debbie: I’d like to ask you about being in the group for thirty years; did you enjoy it, did you love it, was it like a family? Because I know you were one of the people who eventually trained the new people, so you were entrusted with teaching as well.  How was the experience for you of working with one group for such a long time?

Magda: The troupe’s “Golden Age” was until 1992, which is when Farida and Mahmoud left. Since then, until now, things are going downhill, in terms of the number of people involved in the troupe, in the work, in experience, in the artists present, in the administration, in everything.

Every day is worse than the day before, and this year is worse than last year.  It has kind of ended.

Even when we travel, as an example, in the Mahmoud and Farida days, they would take 10-12 boys and 10-12 girls plus all the live musicians. We would go country-hopping and have lots of shows; once we went to Yugoslavia 21 days, then to Romania; another time we went to London and from there to Austria, etc. Nowadays, those who travel are 5 girls and 4 boys and a trainer. A total of 10 people.  No musicians at all.  The maximum travel time is 5 days. One day going, one day coming back and a show over there, that’s it. Back then we used to be on the go all the time.  Now, for the whole year, maybe we would get 2 or 3 trips. 

Debbie:  Is that because they left and took with them a certain kind of leadership and artistic direction that was not replaced? Or is it because there is less funding for dance since that time?

Magda: I think that the reason for this kind of decline is that when Mahmoud Reda was the Deputy Minister / Under-Secretary of the Ministry of Culture, and had the influence and authority he really emphasized and supported the folkloric arts, and promoted them.

After he retired and left the Ministry of Culture and the troupe, the situation changed.  Now the folkloric arts and dances are not appreciated as much.  So there is no money anymore in the folkloric arts.

For example, when Egypt is to be represented abroad, they send statues, monuments or whatnot, so the situation changed.  They now promote other kinds of arts, but not as much folkloric dance. So the folkloric dances suffered since they didn’t get as much attention and funding

Debbie: You're still teaching a few times a week - is the level of skill and training in the troupe what it was in what you call the “Golden Age” of the troupe? Do you think there are new generations of very trained folkloric dancers coming up now, or is the level of skill not what it used to be in terms of younger dancers coming into their careers?

Magda: There is still the same level of practice and training.

But the problem is that now there is no one joining the troupe. Why? Because the salary of the Reda Troupe is about LE 160 per month, which dancers can earn in one day of work outside. So what happens now is that people come and stay 6 or 7 months to get their training and take their salary, I work hard with them, and then they leave.

There is no contractual obligation to make them stay or reimburse the troupe for the training they got.  We don’t have such things.  It’s like loose money. So now you find all the dancers who perform in the theater, nightclubs, video clips and such, they come to the Reda Troupe, I work very hard with them, they learn, then they leave.  They leave to work in Sharm el Sheikh or Hurghada or hotel shows, dance in theatres, nightclubs, music videos and movies. So if you count the number of troupe members, including all the trainers nowadays, it’s not more than 16 or 17 persons. And it makes sense to work outside the troupe since if you ride public transportation to and from practice, and have a cold drink on the way, the LE 160 gets spent maybe twice over. Because it is not rewarding financially, the young people have no incentive to stay in the troupe. 

Debbie: What is the main reason why you keep going in the Reda troupe? Is it to keep the repertory alive, to keep working, is there a certain goal, or is there nowhere else to go?

Magda: I’m a government employee.  In order to retire, I have to be 60 years old.  Now I work, I train 3 days a week, one hour each time, one hour of folkloric.  I get my salary, incentives and monthly bonuses.  So for me it’s not hard work, and it’s worth it.  Eventually, I won’t be able to work but I’ll get a pension.  So I’m looking at the long-term benefit also.

Besides, for me it doesn’t make sense to look for work outside.  I didn’t do it when I was young so I’m not going to start now.  I stopped running around from here to there.  But I do work on the side, helping Atef with his work.  For example, if he’s choreographing a dance I can memorize it for him so he can see how it looks on me, and he’ll say, “no, turn this way instead," etc, so I’m like his model. 

Or if someone would like to take a private lesson with me at home, stuff like that. So at this point in my career I’m not really interested in exploring new venues, or in quitting the troupe and becoming something else. And you know, in Egypt we also have this thing that the woman is not responsible for bringing money into the home, the husband is the one responsible for that.  He’s the one who has to provide.  Whatever I bring in, is an added bonus.  Nothing more is expected of me. (laughs).

Debbie: As an artist, you trained in the whole Reda repertory. What kinds of dances were considered to be your specialties in the troupe, and which were your favorites to work on - what kind of dances did you feel suited you best?

Magda: At first I worked normally, behind Farida Fahmy.  As I got better, little by little, I started doing solos.  But of course I did solos after Farida left the troupe. 

When Farida was in the troupe, no one else did solos.  After she left they started thinking, who could do the work of Farida’s solos? So, thank God, they chose three girls to do Farida’s solos and I was one of them.  When I got pregnant and I had my first child, my son Sherif, I delivered him and took him to my mother.

not Muwashahat danceHe stayed with my mother so he was no problem, I could come and go as I pleased, and was able to keep performing.  When I had my second child seven years later, my daughter Shereen, then I decided to quit performing. They said ok, you train the other dancers. So in 1995 I retired from performing, and started training.

As for the dances I loved the most, I loved and had always wished to perform any of Farida’s work. When you see Farida dance, you want to dance just like her.  So I was very elated by anything they gave me to do.  But the thing that I really, really wanted to do but didn’t get a chance to perform were the Muwashahat [Andalusian dances – plural. Here refers specifically to a group of choreographies Mahmoud Reda created in the late 70’s]. 

After Farida stopped performing, no one thought of recreating the Muwashahat. And the troupe no longer performed them. When I became a trainer, I realized that the dancers were getting tired of the same old repertoire so I decided to reintroduce the Muwashahat

I revived them in class by teaching them, but by that time I had stopped performing too (laughs).

Debbie: Why was it that you loved the Muwashahat so much? What was it about that style of music and dance?

Magda: The rhythm of the Muwashah [singular] is different. For example, from the time we joined the troupe until the period when Mahmoud Reda started doing the Muwashahat, we typically trained on the maqsoum rhythm, dum dum ta ta tak dum tak tak, fast fast fast, so there was no mellowing out. 

But when he started doing the Muwashah, the whole equation changed for him completely.  It was no longer the same steps: shake, haggallah, turn, jump, shimmy, etc.  That ended.  It became something totally different, the music and the steps were beautiful and serene. The music is difficult; I liked that.  I liked working on difficult music.

Even in my class, when I train, I hardly ever do fast rhythms. I work on the diagonal here and there; my work has more arabesques.  I choose the masmoudi rhythm more than the maqsoum.  I like the longer and bigger rhythms better, like 10 beats, and I don’t like the fast rhythms as much.  Many Muwashahat use the 6 beat rhythms.  The maqsoum rhythm is cyclical, you finish one phrase, long or short, and you’re back at the beginning.  The other ones [more complex rhythms] don’t have that characteristic.  So you have to think and you have the do the steps correctly or you will lose the music.  Because the music is difficult so you can easily lose it.  I like that challenge. The Muwashahat are very complicated rhythmically; they use rhythms such as the long masmoudi (ten counts), as well as the 5 count and 6 counts. So you really have to think when you dance the Muwashahat. So [that's why] I really love that style. Even in my class, when I train my students, I like to use the calmer rhythms rather than the faster ones.

Debbie:  You mentioned that when Sherif was born you would leave him with your mom, so I wanted to ask if that was difficult when you were during that time still active performing and touring with the group and you had a son, and you sometimes had to make choices based on your career-was it difficult to balance your family life and your career?

Magda: No, it wasn’t difficult at all.

Sherif was the first grandson in my mother’s family.  I didn’t worry about him because I knew that he was better off with my mom than with me.  She would care for him more than I would so I was at peace that he’s better off there.

  We were almost living with her in Heliopolis at that time.  So I never felt that I have any problem between work and my son.  When we traveled, we left him there.  She wouldn’t even give him back when I asked her.  When I had a vacation from the troupe and I would tell her I want him, that didn’t work for her. She grudgingly gave him back when he went to school. She might have preferred him not to go to school to stay with her (laughs).

Debbie: While we’re on the subject of family life, it’s an unusual situation in some ways to have a husband and wife who are not only in the same field, they started both at a young age and in the same company, and both stayed in that company for a long time, traveling together and working together. In some ways it’s probably good because you understand each other’s work and the schedule, and can also share artistically and help each other. Either you or Atef were saying that the other day. So I wonder what it’s like to be working so closely intertwined?

Magda: From my point of view I didn’t feel there were any drawbacks, at all. We would come and go together.  At late night parties we would be together.  We never had a social occasion or a wedding where I would be invited and he’s not.  Everything, we were in it together.  We went out, together.  We stayed home, together.  So things were manageable.  Even he would rarely go out by himself.  He’s not the type to go out by himself much. He knows all my friends and I know all his friends. 

So for us, it worked out, there are no drawbacks.  Together all the time.

Debbie: So this week, you are teaching as part of the Ahlan wa Sahlan festival, and you’re teaching foreigners who are coming to Egypt to study oriental dance. Is this the first time you’re teaching foreigners or have you done a lot of that, how do you like it, and do you see that as something that in the future you would like to continue doing when you’re done with the Reda Troupe, to keep passing on knowledge?

Magda: There is something I love in the troupe, and I work with both the professionals and the beginners in the troupe. When I enter the class to teach the mother troupe, I do a movement and they do it without a problem. At most, I might tell them to change their hands or head position or other small details, but they have been in the troupe for ten years and know how to do all the movements. So it’s not very fulfilling as an instructor – I show them a combination and they follow, except for when we did the muwashahat for the first time, since for them it was new.

So I love it when I teach them something new, and likewise I love working with students and beginners who don’t know all these things at first and I am very happy when I see that I helped them learn/memorize what I want them to do.

That is very enjoyable, to see someone who didn’t know how to do something before and now they do, and I’m the one who helped them do it, regardless of whether they are Egyptian or foreign.

Debbie: I wish that you would want to continue doing it.

Magda: As a government employee, I could theoretically be promoted to a higher, more prestigious and better-paid position, but that would mean an administrative position. But that’s not what I aspire to.  If they tell me come and be the chief of the troupe, that wouldn’t make me happy.  I have no aspiration to be on the administrative side.  For example, we have something called “artistic supervision.”  They said I could be an “artistic supervisor” which would mean I would have nothing to do with the classes anymore. I would be organizing shows, administering the troupe…etc.  I said no. 

It pays more salary but I don’t want to be a minister or deputy minister.   I would much rather be called the best trainer!

For example, today Raqia told me something that I really, really appreciated, she said, “There are no two people who differ [in their opinion] about you” (“no one disagrees about how good you are”), and that made me really happy since my goal is to be a great trainer.  She said you’re the only one in the festival who no one disagreed about.  So as I progress in my career, even if they offered me a directorship or an administrative position, it’s training that I want to do.

Debbie: Because you’ve been a dancer most of your life and you’ve actually watched a lot of dancers, in your opinion, what is it that makes a good oriental dancer, what are the qualities that a dancer needs? And I know that you’re not an oriental dancer, but you’ve done some oriental pieces in the Reda Troupe and you’re totally familiar with the style and you’re Egyptian and you’ve watched a lot of dancers, so I’d love your opinion on what makes a dancer great.

Relaxing with Magda & Atef at their home in 2005
clockwise from left: Rega'i, Atef, Magda, Debbie Lammam, Hala, Bahaia, Catarina Melica w camera
Magda: First of all, she has to love the dance. She cannot be a good dancer without loving the dance. She also has to have a good ear; I see many dancers who just go through the moves without having any connection to the music. She also has to be versatile and has to be able to adapt to the changes in the music (fast and slow) and not just good in one thing. She has to practice a lot, and if she loves it, she will do all those things. 

Some people just work and others, when they take the stage, it’s as if they’re saying; there’s no one here but me!  Some have the stage presence that will grab you.

For example, sometimes a dancer will perform and everyone in the audience will continue talking, while another dancer will perform and you can’t even move. She’s the one who causes these reactions.  She has to love dance a lot to be able to do all these things.

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