Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
21 - 27 October 1999
Issue No. 452
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current IssuePrevious IssueBack Issues

Dancing into the twilight

By Nehad Selaiha

Rida troup
 
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In 1946, Hassan Fahmi, a lecturer at the Cairo University's Faculty of Engineering, and his British wife, a fashion designer whom he had married during his studies in Britain, sent their little daughter Farida, one of two, at the age of six to a private school to receive lessons in ballet and dancing, side by side with her regular schooling. This was not such an uncommon thing to do as it may seem now. Institutions of this kind, which also provided training in music and other artistic skills, were numerous in the '30s and '40s and were usually run by expatriate artists. Their customers came almost exclusively from other expatriate families, the shifting foreign community in Egypt, Egyptian aristocratic or socially privileged families who adopted the Western way of life and its modes and mores. In most cases, the reason for sending little girls to such schools was not to train them for a prospective profession; indeed, that was rarely the motive, particularly in the case of Egyptian families. Rather, dancing lessons were regarded as part of a programme to equip a future debutante with the necessary social accomplishments which would give her an edge on her peers in the marriage market.

In the case of little Farida though, those early lessons in ballet and other forms of dancing which continued over many years were to change her life and dramatically alter the course, concept, and social and moral status of oriental dancing and with it the image of the female Egyptian dancer.

In 1957, Farida, still at school preparing for university, took part, perhaps by way of an escapade, in a grand national musical work of operatic proportions, produced by the state, and intended as a celebration of the triumph of the Egyptian people over the Tripartite Aggression of 1956. Ya Leil Ya 'Ein (a phrase which traditionally forms the prelude of all Egyptian mawwals or ballads, and which in that musical provided the names of the hero and heroine) was an instant success; it achieved immense popularity with the public, the critics and, more significantly, the regime. The press described it as the first genuinely Egyptian opera and it was sent on tour to China and Russia, performing in Moscow and Peking among other cities.

Farida got part of the acclaim and was recognised as a budding dancer of unusual talent and immense promise. She was dark, slim, tall and willowy, with typical Egyptian features of the kind you come across in the paintings of Mahmoud Said. And she danced with the grace and lightness of a nymph, seeming like an airy presence while leaving a very vivid impression on the senses. She seemed to have a natural gift for sinking her corporeality so completely into the movement that she became purely the dance while building up the abstract lines of the choreographic design into an ineffable poetic metaphor.

With all the limelight, the acclaim, the touring, it was a heady experience for 17-year-old Farida, but also a kind of self-discovery. Her passion for dancing had continued to grow over the years, but Ya Leil was the catalyst which transformed it into a commitment and a career. The following year, 1958, she decided to team up with the Rida brothers (Ali and Mahmoud) whom she already knew and who were in the process of setting up their own popular and folk dance troupe. It was a sensational decision which made the headlines in many of the art pages in newspapers and magazines. For the first time ever, an educated young woman from a good family -- with a father from the academia at the head -- was voluntarily embracing what had long been regarded as an immoral, degrading profession to which females were only driven by poverty and dire need.

It was universally believed then (perhaps is still now) that no respectable woman of whatever means would willingly stoop to this, the most demeaning form of public entertainment. Indeed, it was not unusual then, as many old movies testify, to hear oriental dancers contumeliously dismissed as ghawazi -- a word of controversial date and origin, but which denoted in the early 19th century (according to Edward Lane in his Modern Egyptians) dancing-girls who "perform unveiled, in the public streets, even to amuse the rabble." The force of the social and moral stigma that had long attached to the profession is eloquently manifested by Mohamed Ali's decree to exile all ghawazi to Upper Egypt in the middle of the last century.

Acting was different: the founding of the Ramses Company by Youssef Wahbi, a member of the aristocracy and the son of a Pasha, in 1923, the establishment of the National Egyptian Company for Acting in 1935 by the government, together with the insistently didactic view of theatre as a school for morals -- fiercely blazoned by the critics of the first half of our century as the only criterion -- had made acting less of a social risk for females by the time Farida was born. Add to this that acting in those days was heavily vocal, with a lot of posturing and gesticulating but minimal physical contact, and did not involve any of the wiggling and wriggling, not to mention the extensive baring of the body that traditional oriental dancing required.

But perhaps Farida would not have been able to make her daring decision had she not had Hassan Fahmi for a father. He was a genuinely enlightened man, with a real respect for the arts, and with progressive views which he, unlike many of his generation, did not flinch from carrying out whatever the consequences. He stood behind Farida every step of the way, steadfastly defending her decision in the papers and firmly announcing that his daughter would go to university and continue her education until, as he hoped, she got a Ph.D. "When people see a dancer with a doctorate, perhaps they will begin to respect oriental dancing as an art," he once said. The remark caused a lot of satirical mirth at the time and triggered many jokes; but Farida did join the English Department of Cairo University in 1963, at the height of a brilliant and fiercely active career, graduating in 1967 without flunking a single year, then got a postgraduate diploma from Ain Shams University in 1971 and, later, a Masters Degree in Fine Arts from the University of California in 1988.
Fahmi Rida Rida troupe
Farida Fahmi and Mahmoud Rida: the couple who revolutionised the popular Dancing

Hassan Fahmi's active support extended to the Rida brothers and their burgeoning dance troupe: he blessed the marriage of his two daughters -- Farida and Wadida -- to Ali and Mahmoud respectively, wielded his influence to secure the theatre of the Engineers Union in Ramses Street for the troupe's first season in 1960 and, later, as dean of the Cinema Institute, gave them valuable assistance with their movie projects, all of which were directed by Ali Rida. Another invaluable asset for the new company was composer Ali Ismail who worked closely with Mahmoud Rida, the company's choreographer and lead dancer. Together, with creative contributions from Farida, the female lead, and her husband who managed the company, they started a new tradition in Egyptian dancing.

Using material from daily life -- the movements and gestures of ordinary people, and drawing on the rich and diverse local traditions of dancing in different parts of Egypt, as well as on the various contributions, innovations and refinements introduced by such leading and original oriental dancers as Badi'a Massabni, Tahia Carioca, and Samia Gamal (all of whom sought the expertise of foreign dance-masters), they evolved strikingly fresh and authentic kinetic rhythms, patterns and combinations. Sometimes, to provide a programme of dances with structure or give it a dramatic form, they would use a thin narrative line to string the items together -- usually a journey or a quest. In this, they were perhaps inspired by a well-known formula popularised by composer and singer Farid Al-Atrash in several of his films. In his short 'movie operettas' which usually came near or at the end of the film, Al-Atrash, as the lead singer, would embark on some kind of quest which involves wandering through several Arab countries and different parts of Egypt, displaying their characteristic dialects, music and dancing in refined or adulterated forms. Of the troupe's works which used this or another narrative formula, the most memorable were The Ring of the Anklet, Wafaa Al-Nil (the annual festival of the Nile inundation), and Ali BaBa and the 40 Thieves, based on the Arabian Nights.

In these, and several other works, many on patriotic themes, popular dancing of whatever variety, even ghawazi dancing, was unearthed, researched, and rid of its crudities, without severing its vital links with its origins, or sacrificing its invigorating sensuality and primitive exuberance. Whatever foreign serums were injected into the choreography, and this was done in carefully controlled doses, became part of its main blood stream which was then infused with poetic meaning, contemporary relevance and expressive energy. Through this process of pruning, blending and grafting, oriental dancing was reborn as a thoroughly Egyptian art, embedded in the body language and movement vocabulary of daily life, and eloquently expressive of Egyptians, their cultural richness and variety, their temperament and states of mind. Equally important in an Islamic society was the rehabilitation of dancing as a joyous celebration of life, history and the national identity as well as of the human body in all its glorious vitality and sad transience.

The sixties were triumphant years for the Rida Troupe: they produced their best work, were at the peak of their popularity at home, and often got rave reviews when they toured abroad. Invariably, Farida was singled out for special accolades, the highest of which was given in the French press. And yet, as early as 1963, the company began to lose momentum, and this coincided with -- was perhaps caused by -- its loss of independence. That year, due to deep financial difficulties, the troupe agreed to become one of the state-owned companies. And although the Rida brothers stipulated full control and no interference, artistic or otherwise, clashes and conflicts were inevitable. There was also strong competition from a new grand-scale national dance troupe created by the Ministry of Culture on the model set up by the Rida brothers but with Russian choreographers and coaches. Mahmoud Rida had acquired his training with European companies; and what with Farida's British mother and English education, the group was suspiciously regarded as pro-Western. In those days the tide of socialism was at its height, and with it the influence of the Soviet Union in many spheres including culture and the arts. One therefore suspects a degree of bias in the government's treatment of both companies, at least in terms of funds and facilities.

As the years went by, the Rida Dance Troupe became one of several of its kind, spread over the country, and all funded, controlled and administered by the Ministry of Culture. The troupe struggled on through the seventies, trying to guard its individuality and independent identity, and to salvage something of its former glory. But in 1983, Farida, disheartened, or simply tired (she was 43 then), left for the United States and spent the next five years there documenting and analysing the artistic development of Mahmoud Rida's choreography; it was the subject of her M.F.A thesis.

She rejoined the company in '88, but this time only as a costume-designer, a talent she inherited from her mother and cultivated during her years as a dancer. Two years later, she was appointed manager and artistic director of the company but resigned the post in 1992, leaving the company. Mahmoud Rida too gave up dancing, restricting himself to managing the company, and choreographing and directing its shows.

The company still goes on, and is currently performing its latest work, A Heart in the Junkyard, at the Balloon Theatre. But without the posters and billboards you could easily attribute it to any of the many popular dance troupes who perform there. With the withdrawal of Farida and Mahmoud from the scene, the company was virtually dead. Those who have not seen its earlier work and watch it today side by side with other popular dance troupes would be quite at a loss how to explain its prestigious artistic status and the size of its reputation. Apart from one dance, in which the traditional Egyptian wooden slipper (qubqab) is manipulated to create a local version of tap-dancing and create a musical dialogue with the live orchestra, the choreography in A Heart comes across as anaemic and dated. I searched hard for signs of the troupe's former effervescence, exhilarating freshness, lightness of touch and sparkling joy in the dance and could only find a few faint traces here and there.

Even the thin and by now quite hackneyed story-line was carelessly stitched, leaving many silly and ridiculous gaps. A fisherman goes to sea, is abducted and bewitched by a nymph or a mermaid (the costumes are vague) and deserts his sweetheart upon being released and coming back to the shore. In despair, the sweetheart gives away her heart to a rag-and-bone trader. When the fisherman suddenly recovers from the spell (how, nobody knows), he repents and sets out on a journey which takes him to the countryside, to Upper Egypt, to the desert, and again to the bottom of the sea, to recover the lost heart. He never finds it; nevertheless, he is united in marriage with his beloved and the story ends happily after a dancing match between the mermaid and the bride which the bride wins. Don't ask me how she can still love the fisherman without a heart. Even fairy stories have a kind of logic.

This does not mean that A Heart is not worth seeing. It is. It offers decent, relaxing entertainment with well-trained, competent dancers, some excellent singers, a reasonable score, played live (itself a treat in theatre nowadays) and efficient scenery with occasional clever manipulation of sheets of flimsy cloth to create the effect of waves. But gone... gone is the magic.

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