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A Celebration of Egyptian Dance Straight From the Horse’s Mouth

by Bonnie Rosenstock
March 18, 2018
14th Street Y
344 East 14th Street
New York, NY 10003
(212) 780-0800
When most people think of Egyptian dance, what immediately comes to mind is the exotic pelvic and hip-swiveling belly dance, which indeed originated in Egypt. However, Egyptian-born Magda Saleh has made it her mission to broaden our knowledge of Egyptian dance and the rich tapestry of arts that Egypt has realized, in addition to fostering cultural exchange and mutual understanding. To promote these objectives, the New York-based From the Horse’s Mouth, celebrating its 20th anniversary season, presented “A Celebration of Egyptian Dance in all its Forms and Traditions,” honoring Saleh, former prima ballerina of the Cairo Ballet Company and founding director of the New Cairo Opera House – National Cultural Center.

The program consisted of two film screenings and four dance-lectures on March 13, 15-18. March 13 featured the New York premiere of “A Footnote in Ballet History” (2017), narrated by Saleh, 73, and her fellow dancers, who recalled the founding of the first national ballet school, staffed with Soviet teachers, and the establishment of classical dance in Egypt. It was followed by a panel discussion, which included Saleh and two other performers from the short-lived heyday of the Cairo Ballet Company. On March 17, there was a screening of “Egypt Dances” (1977), narrated by Saleh, who traveled her country to create a visual record of 17 indigenous folk dances, some of which have since disappeared. The film was part of her Ph.D. thesis entitled “A Documentation of the Ethnic Dance Traditions of the Arab Republic of Egypt,” which she obtained from New York University in 1979. (While her ballet career was very brief due to a confluence of circumstances, her academic life has flourished.)

Unfortunately, I wasn’t available to see either of these two documentaries. However, I did catch one of the other shows, on Sunday, March 18, which followed the From the Horse’s Mouth format, which at 90 minutes I found overlong and seemingly interminable. Performers of all ages and dance traditions, as well as from other arts, some with connections to Egypt, in turn, sat on a chair center stage and recounted a personal story from their own lives, careers, awkward moments and/or memories of Saleh as a prima ballerina, student of modern dance in the States, role model and friend. One of the more interesting narratives was by an opera singer, who talked about the Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh, who was best known for his four ballet scores for Martha Graham, including her masterpiece Clytemnestra (1958). Halim, who resided in the U.S. and died in 2017, was an early pioneer of electronic music.

While an artist was speaking, some of those who had previously spoken (as well as those who had never spoken) improvised their own movement on either side of the speaker. An ever-changing three or four improvisers were onstage at a time, mostly doing solos, but occasionally connecting with another dancer. They were wonderful to watch, not only for their artistry, but also as a respite from the bombardment of information from the parade of speakers, not only those onstage, but also in videos of Egyptians talking about their particular art form – dancers, graphic and visual artists, musicians, film stars, filmmakers and journalists.

At times the narratives gave way to a specialty dancer, who occupied the entire stage. One man, dressed in two separate folds of colorful billowing material, spun like a top, his ever-expanding fabric literally lighting up like a Christmas tree display. He later returned in a bright red dress to whirl again. A woman in a blue dress also whirled as if in trance. They were dramatic examples of the intense physical meditation that Sufi Dervishes practice to attain perfection. Two men performed a traditional stick-fighting dance. The original martial art of “tahtib” evolved into the present-day folk dance with wooden sticks. One man performed a skillful two-stick dance. Two women, in glittery dresses, did an impressive dance with canes. Later, a group of belly dancers danced across the stage. Many of these dances were accompanied by ululations (high-pitched tongue trill), which are traditional in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere.

The dances were often accompanied by two musicians deftly playing tabla and mizmar, a long wooden flute (reed instrument) with a conical shape at the end, which has the most enchanting, soulful sound. Most of the time, the dance and music complemented each other, but sometimes they were discordant, like for the couple doing tango and a modern dance duet.

Even though Saleh left Egypt years ago, resides in New York, is married to an American Egyptologist and has had a long, rich career here, she still has a great love for her native country. As she has said, “Maybe it is a romantic way of looking at things. But it keeps me going. Egypt is within me.”

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown

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