Folkloric footwork

After a decade in seclusion the star of the Reda Troupe returns to the world of dance and talks about it with Richard Woffenden and Fatiha Bouzidi


Farida Fahmy met Mahmoud Reda when she was in her early teens. He married her sister Nadeeda and for her part Farida went on to marry his brother Ali. But it was to be Farida and Mahmoud who would go down in history as the greatest dance partnership in Egyptian history. The Reda Dance Troupe was founded in 1959. Together they helped make it a national institution for almost three decades. Following the demoralizing defeat of 1967 and until the October war of 1973, the Reda Troupe continually performed for the troops. They made two films with the troupe Agaza Nus Al Sana (Mid-year Holiday) in 1961 and Gharam Fil Karnak (Passion In Karnak) in 1963. She also had acting roles in two other films, Jamila Buhraid (1958) by Youssef Chahine and Ismail Yassin fil Bolis Al Harbi (Ismail Yassin in the Military Police) (1958) directed by Fatin Abdel Wahab. In 1984 at the age of 43, she left dancing and set off to get her MA at UCLA in Dance Ethnology. She currently lives in Zamalek and occasionally gives master classes in dance both here and abroad.

Scene One: Ramsis Station a long, long time ago. A group of dancers arrive at the station, eager, full of life and well disciplined–well almost, there has to be the odd piece of monkeying around for comedy’s sake–but what we see is a highly disciplined troupe who are not afraid to show it. Predictably a dance routine breaks out and Ramsis Station is filled with perfectly coordinated music, color and movement.

Scene Two: Move forward a few decades and enter a big balloon tent by the side of the Nile. There is a dance troupe on stage. The faces are all different but the name of the troupe remains the same. Even some of the choreography is recognizable, but the passion and intensity have been eroded. There is still some impressive dancing by certain dancers but the group dynamic is not there any more. What has happened to the Reda Dance Troupe?

The Reda Troupe was the toast of the Egyptian cultural and social scene for many years. Guests would be taken to see the troupe perform by people who wanted their visitors to see the joy of Egyptian dance. They transformed the perception of dance from something rather seedy to the height of respectability. Mahmoud Reda was the choreographical brains behind the operation, but the figurehead of the Reda Troupe was lead dancer Farida Fahmy. No other female dancer commands the level of respect that she had then and still receives today. Mention her name to anyone who was around during her era and you will see them instantly smile as they recollect a time when dance really meant something to them.

There were performances filled to capacity, tours that went nationwide and international, films (including Gharam Fil Karnak–Passion In Karnak–which features the Ramsis Station dance routine) and television specials. Most people who saw the troupe live at the time of Fahmy’s performances agree that the recordings don’t capture the true magic. Even the films that were directed by Fahmy’s husband, Ali Reda, which are fun and give an idea of the spirit of the troupe, don’t give the whole picture of the Reda Troupe’s ability. It is the difference between attending a rock concert and watching a feature film staring the band.

Despite this lack of documentary footage, however, there is enough to bring in new interest and particularly abroad there is a revival in the early work of the Reda Troupe. So while the typically modest Fahmy expresses surprise when asked for an interview, she is well aware of, if a little bemused by, this new wave of enthusiasm about her career.

Notoriously shy, Fahmy has not had the easiest of times since she retired from the Reda Troupe in 1983 and at first seems ill at ease discussing her life. But once she starts remembering her glory days, she fills the room with reminisces of her life and particularly the three central men in her life: her father, the engineer and linguistics expert Hassan Fahmy, her husband, the film director Ali Reda and her dance partner and choreographer Mahmoud Reda.

"I am a very lucky woman, I had a genius for a father, a wonderful husband who I adored–I have never seen such a man with his love of art, his manliness and gentleness and strength," she says, "And then to have Mahmoud as a teacher, a colleague and a dancer. My mother was also superb till the day she died when she as 96. It has been amazing."

Farida Fahmy back in the day

All these people were tied up in the Reda Troupe to different degrees and so it is little wonder that she is so passionate about her career. "When we started the Reda Troupe, it really was the first of its kind," she recalls, "Previously there had only been belly dancing in night clubs and theater dancing. We created a whole new dance form and had a standard–one international critic told us we were one of the twelve best dance troupes in the world–that we were keeping up until the time when I left. Now, the troupe is still running off the momentum of the reputation that we had then."

But Fahmy is unable to go back into the Balloon Theater where the Reda Troupe now perform since for her it is Reda in name only. A naturally very emotional woman–something that is reflected in her dancing–the current weakened state of the troupe is too much for her to face. Fahmy traces the problems back to the time when the troupe was nationalized in 1961. Prior to this it had been very much a family concern with Fahmy’s parents actively involved in the troupe. And while this family atmosphere continued for many years, trouble was waiting around the corner.

"At the time we were thrilled as we thought we would actually start to get paid properly," says Fahmy, "But the weed of bureaucracy that has been built around the troupe is now choking the beautiful flower."

The worse part of it all for Fahmy has been the treatment of Mahmoud Reda by the government when it forcibly retired the choreographer. "It was his baby, his everything. There are things you just shouldn’t do," she points out, getting very emotional over the way her friend and fellow dancer has been treated, "How can you tell a man who has created a creative art form that has influenced the whole of Egypt and the Arab world that it is time for him to get his pension book. It is nothing to do with age."

But Fahmy believes it does have something to do with Egypt. "Egypt always seems to have singular geniuses. It doesn’t have continuation, be it in singing, squash, science or anything else," she explains, "If you think about Martha Graham and how all her students could break out into every area of dance. It is like a trunk with wonderful branches. In comparison we have the base trunk and then some weeds."

Fahmy also puts the fact that there has been no successor to Mahmoud Reda down to economic issues. After the Open Door economic policy of Sadat saw the opening of new hotels, dancers were tempted to go after the quick money and took what they learned and performed there. "In 1961 a starting salary of LE30 was good but they froze and no one ever got over LE400. We never did it for the money but you can’t blame other people for wanting to travel a lot and to earn dollars."

Even in the early days, Fahmy recalls how some of the dancers were graduates and even though they were heartbroken to leave the troupe, they ended up going to Kuwait and Australia because they had to be practical about their futures.

But Fahmy stayed with the troupe and saw it develop in four different modes. First, Reda choreographed dances inspired by the environment around him such as the zikr at Sayyeda Zeinab and the dancers were given small dramas to perform.

"Then in 1964 he went on field research and produced dance inspired by his trips around the country–the second mode," recalls Fahmy, "He never claimed what he was doing was pure folklore. The fellah never danced like that. Mahmoud would see maybe a common gesture and develop that into a movement. But what is strange is that now when you go to a school and they perform a fellaheen dance what they are actually performing is a Reda dance."

Despite Reda’s and Fahmy’s statements, there is still a lot of controversy of the issue about what is pure Egyptian dance and it clearly irritates Fahmy. "When you put a dance on to a stage, it has changed its nature. For example, one of the dances is called the Moonlight Dance. When it was performed in the countryside, it was just one or two moves but you can’t just do that or stage as when you sit down to watch a dance you expect more than that. Also when you remove the dance from its original context, it is a very different thing entirely. No one who performs dance professionally can claim to be performing genuine Egyptian dance."

The third mode of the Reda Troupe saw it take its inspiration from events like the building of the Aswan High Dam. Then finally Reda produced more abstract forms of oriental dance with eight female dancers. "There was no time or place for these dances but they featured images such as the moulid sugar dolls. They were very sophisticated in terms of color and movement," remembers Fahmy, thinking back to the muwashahat dances.

Now looking back on her time dancing, Fahmy is able to think happily about her past, but for a while after leaving the Reda Troupe it was very traumatic. "I really think I am blessed when people stop me in the supermarket and say ‘Thank you for giving us pleasure,’" she says now.

Fahmy with husband Ali Reda

In the 1980s though it was a hard transition. Not only did she retire from dancing, but her inspirational father passed away. He had ensured that Fahmy (who was really called Melda–Farida was used as a stage name), was brought up to understand her Egyptian roots, including making sure she learned Arabic properly. He was also there behind her in the various steps of her career.

"My father had always told me ‘Youth is limited, your body is limited but your brain can go on for ever. You have to prepare yourself for not dancing,’" she recalls. "I stopped when I was on top and went to UCLA and stayed there in the States. I had to be distanced from the dancing so I thought it was better to have an ocean between us. I went into a bad period of melancholia. I got very depressed at the time and I realized that the depression was an emotional and physical thing. Theater was like a physical high for me with all the endorphins in my body. So when I stopped the depression was also a physical reaction."

But it wasn’t all bad news. She made friends with fellow students including Carolee Kent, (also known as the dancer Sah’ra), who has done much to promote Fahmy’s legacy. "Also my husband encouraged me and he came out to visit," Fahmy explains, "At the time I was also in awe of the university and their approach to learning. And I often thought to myself ‘Oh Daddy I wish you were alive to see all of this.’"

Sadly, Ali Reda was to die soon after and Fahmy went into a period of mourning that lasted seven years. "The nineties were a bad time for me," she says pointing out that it wasn’t much later that she would also lose her English mother too.

The new millennium, though, has seen a new beginning for Fahmy as she takes up offers to teach dance abroad. She is enthusiastic about the current enthusiasm for belly dancing, though she doesn’t really like the term. The interest in belly dancing is leading to people wanting to know more about Oriental dance in general. "I think it is very complimentary to us," she explains, "It makes women feel like they are women and very female. It is all to do with how you react to the music and how you are related to your body–it is very therapeutic."

Using some of the experience she gained at UCLA in regard to teaching, Fahmy tries to help non-Egyptians feel the rhythm of Oriental music and understand the art that lies in the movement from one part of the dance to the other. "I am doing much better now and I am starting to travel a lot and I’d like to write books about dance," she concludes.

letters to the editor

Volume 7, Issue 37
20 - 26 NOVEMBER 2003

Photographs by MAHMOUD HAMDY and courtesy FARIDA FAHMY


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