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(Raqs sharqi stars from the 1990s and 2000s)
Raqia Hassan Background
According to online sources (Sharif, no date; El Safy, 1995), Raqia was born in Cairo and started dancing in the Reda troupe as a folkloric dancer at the age of 14.
However, Raqia felt that folklore was not really for her and her real love was instead raqs sharqi. She said ‘I learned folklore — but I didn’t like it, this is not my feeling.
When I started teaching [Oriental dance] I felt, ‘this is my way’ (Luciano-Adams, no date, para. 16). Raqia never had the opportunity to pursue oriental dance as a performer, though.
According to the American dancer Morocco, based on a comment she wrote under a Youtube video of Raqia (Marhaba Belly Dance Festival Rome, 2011) it was because of her family: ‘What a fabulous Oriental dancer Raqia would have been, if her family had allowed it’ (comment written as MoroccoCasbah).
Raqia became a trainer in the Reda Troupe and, after 20 years teaching, ‘in 1984 she coached her first Oriental dancer’ (El Safy, 1995, para. 4) who was Azza Sherif.
Since then, Raqia Hassan has been coaching several famous raqs sharqi dancers, including Aida Nour, Fifi Abdou, Dina, Mona el Said, Nelly Fouad, Dandesha and many more.
Raqia’s Career Development,
Phenomenology and Agency
Raqia’s career development is an example of the interaction between agency and structures.
Raqia states that her folklore was not her ‘feeling’. Her perception (from a phenomenological point of view) was that she felt more at ease dancing raqs sharqi instead.
However, presumably because of societal pressure (the structural rules of society), she was not allowed to follow her passion, at first.
Nevertheless, she asserted her agency by becoming a choreographer and trainer of raqs sharqi, turning the limitations imposed on her by society into resources to tap into as she tied her self-identity to raqs sharqi.
Moreover, as I will explain in the following paragraph, she used these resources not only to innovate artistically but also to increase her economic and social capital (and prestige) in the field of Egyptian raqs sharqi internationally.
Her Influence and Transmission of Raqs Sharqi
Raqia Hassan has been and still is hugely influential in the development and transmission of raqs sharqi worldwide, not only because she has trained many famous dancers, but also because she has built an international brand.
She has travelled and still does so extensively across the world to teach at festivals, and she is greatly respected.
I attended one of her workshops at the International Bellydance Festival in Bognor Regis, UK, in 2007 (Lo Iacono, 2013b) and two of my participants still remember going to Raqia Hassan’s workshops in their countries:
I went to a class with Raqia Hassan and I bought a tape, it was a cassette tape back then and I really liked that music because the music had a lot more changes and it had a lot of stuff going on. (Abila)Dr Valeria Lo Iacono (2013)
Before Raqia-style came to Finland we used to dance really low, with our knees bent. She made me see that it would be possible to be grounded and elegantly elevated at the same time . . . Raqia’s innovative technique is priceless. (Leena)Leena, Researech volunteer for the PhD of Dr Valeria Lo Iacono (2019)
Raqia, however, does not just travel abroad to teach, but she also teaches in Egypt to people who travel there to learn raqs sharqi in its place of origin.
Joana recalls how she approached teachers and arranged her first private lessons in Egypt ‘through the first festivals Raqia Hassan organised in Cairo’.
Francesca told me: ‘I’ve been to Egypt twice to study. I have followed the Raqia Hassan intensive winter course for teachers’.
Ahlan wa Sahlan Festival
Raqia Hassan’s main event is the Ahlan wa Sahlan (‘Hello and Welcome’) Festival (Hassan, no date), which started in 2000 and is held in Cairo every year.
Ahlan Wa Sahlan, from its first edition, had a great line-up of teachers from Egypt and outside, including Soheir Zaki, and it had about 170 dancers attending from all over the world (Wilkinson, no date).
In the years that followed, the number of people attending has increased to the point of becoming (Luciano-Adams, no date, para. 21) ‘a perfectly globalized village, which has grown to 1,200 participants from 55 countries’.
Raqia Hassan is a businesswoman who has also her own costume designing brand and has produced a series of instructional DVDs (at least 12), plus CDs and DVDs from the festival.
Her instructional DVDs are the first systematic explanation, codification and listing of Egyptian raqs sharqi movements recorded on video.
For example, in volume VIII (El Nouran Company, 2005), she goes through a series of movements explaining how each movement can become sharqi or folkloric, depending on certain ways of performing it (for example on flat feet or relevé; with bent or straight knees).
So, the DVDs are artefacts that Raqia has used as authoritative resources to influence the way in which practitioners dance, thus shaping the direction of Egyptian raqs sharqi in the 21st century.
Raqia is also famous as a raqs sharqi choreographer. She is a supporter of choreography, but she stated that ‘when a dancer has a good ear for the music, the choreography will come automatically. . . . Choreography should flow from the dancer and look natural’ (Taj, 2008, paras 22, 25).
So, even for a supporter of choreography, in raqs sharqi, musicality and spontaneity are necessary qualities of a good performance.
It seems that the phenomenological, lived experience of the performer and the audience is still very relevant in the Egyptian raqs sharqi aesthetic discourse; something that is supported by the framework of living cultural heritage.
Her Dance Movements Style
Table 34 illustrates Raqia Hassan’s style. As highlighted earlier, in the excerpt of the interview with Leena, she achieves a grounded and lifted feeling at the same time, by keeping her legs straight.
Her style is, overall, soft and relaxed, apart from occasional sharp hip accents.
An innovation consists in her hips and lower torso movements being quite internal, which gives an intense inner feeling.
She explains this by stating that now ‘for every step, we put it inside the belly. We go back to the belly’ (El Safy, 1995, paras 7, 9).
Badia Masabni, regarding the changes she made to local Egyptian dance back in the 1920s, said that ‘in the past, the dance was all in the abdomen’ (Adum, no date, pt. Second Segment-Family), and she added new elements.
Now, Raqia is building on the heritage of movements of this genre, keeping all the innovations achieved thus far, but focusing more on the belly, once again.
Dancers Influenced by Raqia Hassan
The dancers who have been influenced by Raqia Hassan, retain many of Raqia’s style characteristics.
These characteristics include: internal small hip circles (already noted for the first time in Mona al Said); sharp hip isolations (which can be seen in Dina and Randa) and attention to the lyrics (which are mimicked using gestures; a habit, I noticed, that was first started by Fifi Abdou). Indeed, El Safy (1995, para. 7) comments:
Mona Said’s powerful pelvic drops, Dina’s large, halting hip circles and shimmy overlays with sharp knee accents, and other popular favorites like the large stance shimmy, strong frontal and diagonal pelvic projections, and internal abdominal work are all key elements of Raqia’s stylistic influence.l Safy (1995)
Raqia stresses these stylistic elements during her workshops, as Habiba (no date, paras 8, 9) comments:
She taught us to intensify hip movements with the leg and knee. She insisted the lyrics be interpreted in dance. She used the compressed internal emotion of the core . . . be yourself. The dancer must adapt what she learns to her own style and personality.Habiba
This last quotation highlights that, whilst Raqia codified raqs sharqi, she also values dancers’ individual and emotional contributions to the dance.
Hence, the terms spontaneity, emotion, self-expression return once again in the raqs sharqi discourse.