by Jasmin Jahal, December 1999 (back)

This year, we celebrate a milestone in human history, the turn of a century and the turn of the new millennium. And as always during the holiday season, we review the past with hope and anticipation of the future. We see how time weaves an interesting trial that connects people and places and makes things happen. The past is important to the now and the present is important to the future. Let us take the time in this last month of 1999 to examine a piece of oriental dance history, including events and people with whom aficionados of Middle Eastern dance should be familiar.

Hitch a ride with me on my flying carpet and travel back in time for a brief visit to the early part of this century, particularly to the roots of the cabaret style of belly dance. It originated in the 1920's in the nightclubs of Cairo, Egypt, Beirut, Lebanon, and Algiers, Algeria. Egypt was the center of the Arab world's entertainment industry. Films were very popular, with a rags-to-riches story-line in which dancers were often heroines. Cabaret dancing was popularly featured in these films.

In 1926, the first Egyptian cabaret was opened in Cairo by a Syrian actress-dancer named Badia Masabni. The place was called the "Casino Opera". It offered a variety of entertainment and broadened the scope of the traditional belly dancer. For example, Badia Masabni's ideas influenced how dancers' carried their arms, not only holding them out to the sides, but lifting them higher and using flowing serpent-like movements. It was Badia's influence which caused dancers to use more space on the stage, rather than performing almost entirely in one spot, and also to increase the extent of performance with a veil. She also pioneered the use of choreography as opposed to strict improvisation. All of these influences have endured the test of time and remain in our dance form today.

The flying carpet not wakes us into the 1930's and 1940's. Two women, who were trained by Badia Masabni, became the most famous dancers of this time. There were Samia Gamal and Tahia Carioca.

Samia Gamal was the first dancer to wear high-heeled shoes on stage. Her reason primarily was to prove that she could afford them. Yet it created an impact on the way oriental dance movement is performed, in that it changes the earthy nature of the movement and lifts the low center of gravity. Samia Gamal was a favorite in the films of the 1930's. To this day, she is considered a star.

Also a star in these films was Tahia Carioca. Her style was known as sweet yet sensuous, retaining more of the traditional elements and earthiness. The great Tahia Carioca has only recently past away at the age of 78, a celebrity to the end.

The flying carpet once again flies forward in time, to the 1960's, 70's and 80's. Both Samia Gamal and Tahia Carioca inspired dancers of their next generation. The descendent of Samia Gamal is Nagua Fouad. The height of her popularity was in the 70's and 80's, yet even today she continues to perform, although she is well past 60 years old. Like Samia Gamal, Nagua's dance style is bold and flashy. She developed a show with grand stage productions that included singers and a group of male and female dancers to adorn her. Her programs are exciting and dazzling. I, myself, have had the honor of working on the same stage with Nagua Fouad and have experienced her awesome stage presence.

The direct descendent of Tahia Carioca is Suhair Zaki. During my travels to Egypt, I have witnessed Suhair Zaki several times in live performance, and I must admit she is my absolute favorite performer. Her style was not as razzle-dazzle as Nagua Fouad's. Her stage productions were simple as was her costuming. Suhair usually wore a baladi dress, rather than a two-piece costume. She was precise in her hip-work, very feminine, graceful, and rather reserved, but with an emotional impact that was breathtaking. No frills were necessary because her dance technique and artistry alone left her audiences awed. Suhair is now retired, after a very successful career.

Other great dancers emerged during the same era as Nagua Fouad and Suhair Zaki. These include Mona Said, Fifi Abdou, and Asa Sharif. All are beautiful women and wonderful artists. One of the best places we in the U.S. can go to research these artists is the Lincoln Center Library in New York, which has an extensive oriental dance collection due to the efforts and influence of the late Ibrahim Farrah and his publication, "Arabesque".

Now the flying carpet ride takes us to the recent past of the 1990's. In the last decade of this century, we have seen a few dancers of star quality emerge, but none have shown as brightly as Samia Gamal and Tahia Carioca, nor their descendents Nagua Fouad and Suhair Zaki. But there is nothing to worry about, as the art of oriental dance has become international in the last 40 years. Currently, there are many Western performers who have a real love of oriental dance and crusade for its art form. Exotic not erotic, sensual not sexual, evolving yet remaining firmly planted in the soil of the best of its history. There is a theater aspect of the dance which is now developing, elevating it from the dark and sometimes questionable venues of the current-day cabaret nightclubs. The next century should take the dance into many wonderful and interesting avenues of growth, and will create new and innovative artists both in the West and in the Middle East.

Stepping off our flying carpet, I invite you to look back on this century as I do, with some nostalgia, firmly grasping the lessons taught by inspirational artists. Oriental dance has had a grand 20th century, and we should remember it with honor and respect as we carry on our dance into the new millennium.



©1999 Jasmin Jahal