1950s in Egypt and Egyptian Culture
In the 1950s in Egypt, after the 1952 revolution, the government encouraged a renewed interest in Egyptian culture, particularly in the late 1950s.
It was in this political and cultural environment that the Ministry of Culture established The Folkloric Arts Center in 1957, with the aim to maintain and revive Egypt’s folkloric dance and music traditions (Fahmy, 1987, p. 4; Zaki Osman, 2011).
According to Van Nieuwkerk (1995, p. 48), ‘Nasser’s postrevolutionary Arab nationalism and Islamic socialism prompted a reappraisal of Arabic culture’.
This is an example of the impact that society, as a bigger field (with taste and capital), has on individual fields of cultural production.
Renewed Interest in Folkloric Music and Dance
The renewed interest in folkloric music and dance had an impact on the development of raqs sharqi, a legacy that had long-lasting effects starting from the 1950s until today.
Already, in some 1940s movies, there were some folkloric dance scenes. With the folkloric revival in the 1950s further research was done into traditional Egyptian dances, folkloric troupes were created. These included the:
- Leil Ya Ain, which Naima Akef joined (Artemis, no date).
- Nelly Mazloum’s  group, funded in 1956 (Nelly Mazloum, no date).
- and the Reda Troupe, funded by Mahmoud Reda, who ‘first choreographed a work commissioned by the Egyptian government in 1954 and went to Moscow with the group who performed his work’ (Shay, 2006, p. 154).
Mahmoud Reda (see footnotes) (a dancer, researcher, and choreographer), the most influential figure in the field of Egyptian folkloric dance, ‘emerged within the contexts of newly emerging nationalism, postcolonial euphoria, and modernity’ (Shay, 2006, p. 153).
He created a new theatrical and polished genre, as a result of his research on folkloric dances.
Shay argues that (2006, p. 155) ‘Reda created an “Egyptian heritage” through his new genre of dance’, a heritage that may have started as an invented tradition, in the sense used by Hobsbawn and Ranger (1992), but which has now become established and influential in the history of raqs sharqi as well as of Egyptian folkloric dance.
According to Farida Fahmy (1987, p. 23), Reda never pretended that his choreographies were exact reproductions of folkloric dances:
Mahmoud Reda’s goal was creating a new theater dance form. . . . His works were never direct imitations or accurate reconstructions. They were his own vision of the movement qualities of the Egyptians . . . the posture, carriage, and gesture of his country’s men and women, whether it be in dance or in everyday activities.Farida Fahmy (1987 )
In an interview with Morocco, Mahmoud Reda explained the reasons why he could not just reproduce folkloric dance on stage (Varga Dinicu, 2013, pp. 35, 36):
The folklore of Egypt . . . is like a treasure that nobody discovered. . . . However, there is lots of repetition, whether in the steps or in the melody. . . . When you watch the real thing, you will be happy because you can join. . . . But if you buy a ticket at the opera house and sit, you don’t expect to see this. . . . So what I call my choreography is not folkloric. It’s inspired by the folkloric.Varga Dinicu (2013)
Another aim of Mahmoud Reda, in addition to creating a new form of theatrical dance which was typically Egyptian, was to legitimise dance as a form of art, rather than an activity that was considered disreputable.
Thus, he used Egyptian folkloric traditions as resources to help him create his own innovative artistic visions, rather than as rules that would have limited his creativity.
At the same time though, society’s structures constricted his art as he felt that he had to legitimise dance somehow, as it was an art form considered disreputable in the socio-cultural environment in which he lived.
Background of Mahmoud Reda
Mahmoud Reda was born in Cairo in 1930 and came from a middle-class family, which was very interested in the arts and music (thus, he had a relatively high social and cultural capital).
Besides being a professional dancer from the age of 18, Mahmoud Reda was a gymnast in the Egyptian Olympic team.
His vision was heavily influenced by Western ideas of dance and choreography, not only because of his class background but also because, in 1954, ‘he joined an Argentinian dance company and traveled with them on their tour of Europe.
While performing with them in Paris, he attended ballet and choreography classes’ (Fahmy, 1987, p. 17).
Moreover, he had a passion for American musicals starring Fred Astaire and he learned how to dance by watching these movies.
Mahmoud remembers in an interview with Morocco (Varga Dinicu, 2013, p. 33): ‘The time of the American musicals; that was the 50’s: Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly starred in these movies. I used to see the same movie, maybe 30 times’.
Mahmoud and the Cinematic Age
Fahmy (1987, p. 17) recalls that Mahmoud Reda, ‘became a choreographer for Egyptian films, then pursued a career in cinematography and became a film director’. Somebody, in a Raqs sharqi web forum mentioned (Golden Age Choreographies, no date):
I have close to a hundred of these old black and white films . . . and almost all of them name the choreographer in the credits at the beginning of the film. These group dances were definitely choreographed. Names that come up time and time again in the credits of these golden era films are Isaac Dickson and Khristo Kladaax. . . . Occasionally Mahmoud Reda’s name shows up as the choreographer on some of these old films, as well as his brother Ali Reda.(Golden Age Choreographies, no date)
Formation of the Red Troupe
Mahmoud and Ali Reda and Farida Fahmy founded the Reda Troupe in 1959, which went from a small group of 12 dancers and 12 musicians to counting 150 artists (between dancers and musicians) in the 1970s.
By then, the troupe had performed all over the world and won awards. The troupe started as a self-funded project, but in 1961 it was nationalised and subsidized by the government.
Raqs sharqi was also one of Mahmoud Reda’s inspirations for his choreographies.
In adapting raqs sharqi for his stage productions, according to Fahmy (1987, p. 66):
Mahmoud Reda did not change the quality of the movement . . . but . . . he altered the movements he found sexually suggestive, by changing the way that they had been executed originally.Fahmy (1987)
This was done by altering the angles of the body during execution, or through changing points of emphasis.
Thus, the structural rules of the society in which Reda lived had an impact on the physical manifestation of his art and, therefore, on the physical dispositions and perceptual kapiert and lived experiences of the dancers.
Dance Codification and Refinements
Farida Fahmy lists five things as an example of movements that Mahmoud Reda codified and refined (1987, pp. 66–68):
1. Hip Oscillations (commonly called hip shimmies)
Mahmoud broke down the mechanics of this movement, isolating where the movement was originated from (the pelvis, the knees or both), what direction it took and how the weight shifted.
This allowed the movement to be taught and also, he introduced many variations of this movement and he layered it with other hip movements.
2. Arm and Body Movements
He identified different reaches of the arms (medium and near) and how the arms moved in relation to other parts of the body, to develop a flowing style.
3. Travelling Turns
Mahmoud polished turns on the spot and introduced new travelling turns.
Previously, movements were performed with flat feet.
Since Mahmoud Reda, performing movements on relevé (on the balls of the feet) has become a distinguishing feature of raqs sharqi as opposed to baladi style, giving raqs sharqi a more vertical dimension.
In particular, he introduced relevé to some turns, to the arabesque and to some hip movements.
5. Spatial Design
Mahmoud introduced transitional steps and group choreographies, to accompany the soloist in the background, that used set floor patterns and spatial formations. The soloist was emphasized through her relation to the other dancers in space.
The Heritage of Mahmoud Reda
In spite of the changes and innovations that Mahmoud Reda introduced to raqs sharqi to make it more refined, Fahmy (1987, p. 67) stresses that ‘the relaxed attitude that is particular to this genre’ was maintained.
Reda has been one of the creators of raqs sharqi as we know it today: a specific genre, distinct from baladi or folkloric genres, which has become heritage in its own right.
Reda has been very influential for raqs sharqi practitioners all over the world.
For example, Randa Kamel, who started her career as a folkloric dancer in the Reda Troupe, declared that ‘Being in the Reda Troupe also taught me to always know how to use my arms and hands in relation to steps; basic rules about movement, and balance’ (Sullivan, no date, para. 9).
Mahmoud Reda was mentioned to me several times during the research interviews.
For instance, Leena, from Finland, admits she was heavily influenced by Mahmoud Reda as she said: ‘I’ve practically grown up as a dancer with Reda-style, as it was a central part of the Masrah doctrine’.
More recently in their careers, Mahmoud Reda and Farida Fahmy, as well as traveling the world to teach, have also been involved in organizing dance training and seminars for dancers visiting Egypt from abroad. Two of my interview participants said:
Farida Fahmy and Mahmoud Reda were putting together . . . two weeks, week and a half long seminars in the mid-2000s . . . I attended the very first one those in 2006 (Angela Moe).My research participant 1
I’ve been to Cairo and Alexandria in connection with a dance project (The World Dances with Mahmoud Reda) that Mahmoud Reda organized to celebrate Egyptian dance (Leena).My research participant 2
1 – Dancer, actress, choreographer, teacher and company director who started her career with Badia Masabni.
 Mahmoud Reda’s influence extends to much later than the 1950s; indeed, he is still active and influential today. However, I have decided to write about him in this section, because his activity first started in the 1950s, when he choreographed dance scenes for Egyptian movies and started his folkloric troupe.
Hi – I’m Dr Valeria Lo Iacono and I am a dance researcher with a PhD in dance as a form of living heritage. I also teach belly dance and love to travel to discover new dances around the world. I have worked also as an academic and in the UK and in Korea. Thank you for visiting my site.
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