Nagwa Sultan: Cairo Soul
dancer in Egypt from the age of eight and lead dancer in numerous
films, she has become a teacher with a method, and a mission: to pass
on the real Cairo belly dance
When Nagwa Sultan
was eight years old, she performed in an Egyptian state-sponsored celebration
with Nagwa Fu'ad and other top entertainers, billed as "The Littlest
Dancer in Egypt." By the age of 14, the little Egyptian dancer
was receiving contracts to perform in Jordan and Syria. By the age of
20, she had appeared with dance legend Tahia Carioca
in the hit film "Khalli Balak min
Zuzu". She was frequently asked to dance
for such political luminaries as Egyptian president Anwar
al-Sadat. The unusual and difficult stick repertoire that often
highlighted her shows earned her the title "The Cane Dancer"
in Cairo's showbiz world.
at major state, wedding, casino and hotel venues all over the Middle
East, what was left for a highly talented young dancer to do?
Over a hundred
the support of directors such as Hassan
al-Imam and Salah
Abu Sayf, as well as a reputation
for consistently fine performances and adaptability -- she once did
a whole show accompanied by the kaf, or rhythmic clapping of the audience, and her
own finger cymbals when her orchestra was delayed in a traffic accident
-- Nagwa Sultan never lacked for contracts, never needed to fabricate
photo ops or buy press coverage in order to generate publicity. She
had single-mindedly pursued a career as an artist since early childhood,
when she taught herself to dance by trying out movements in front of
her mother's bedroom mirror and saving her money to tip at neighborhood
weddings so that she could get up on stage to dance to live music in
public. She studied percussion, not only to be able to identify the
various rhythms such as mahsum, malfuf and masmudah, and dance them on stage but also play
them with her cymbals while dancing. Like Tahia Carioca
and Samia Gamal before her,
she cultivated a talent for acting as well as dance, so that she was
in demand in the '70s and '80s by virtually every movie director in Egypt.
Then came the Crash of '91. The invasion of Kuwait, the Gulf War and
the subsequent drop in tourism dealt a heavy blow to danse orientale in Egypt,
as audiences deserted casinos, hotel nightclubs and other dance venues
in droves. Clubs responded by cutting back on the number of shows and
sacking highly paid entertainers, some closing their doors permanently.
Declining film production standards and increasing religion-motivated
censorship had already taken their toll on "belly dance scenes"
in Egyptian movies, and the dance had also been banned from television
productions. Nagwa Sultan made her last film around 1991, and retired
comfortably on the earnings of a long, successful career.
comfortable retirement, but boring, and ultimately frustrating . . .
Like a number of
other Egyptian dancers who retired in the early '90s, Nagwa couldn't turn her back on the dance world entirely,
however tarnished the glitter had become.
But unlike most Egyptian
dancers, Nagwa was accustomed to observe analytically, to think about
the dance. What, for example, were the distinguishing characteristics
of old-style Muhammad 'Ali Street dance? How did Zaynat
Alwi do her signature walking shimmy? Nagwa would
analyze it and learn it. What styles of dance were appropriate for what
occasions? What were the new trends?
trend, Nagwa especially noted, was the proliferation of "belly
dance trainers" and choreographers who had never actually worked
as belly dancers but had learned their craft as members of Moisheyev-inspired,
by-the-numbers fake-folklore troupes.
This finally motivated
Nagwa to become active again in the art that had
been her life. Was there not a place among all these "teachers"
for a real belly dancer, she asked herself; someone who could teach
the traditional Cairo belly dance style, and teach it with the same
analytical approach with which she had taught herself?
years ago, a word in sympathetic ears, such as those of
her former costumer Mme. 'Abla,
saw Nagwa begin to receive students from all over the world. Foreigners
who had come to Egypt to study belly dancing and become dissatisfied
with the complicated traveling steps and boring choreographies of former
folklore-troupe teachers would find their way to Nagwa for lessons in
straight, no-nonsense Cairene belly dance. A group that contacted
her for a workshop in cane dancing gave her a fat envelope of tips afterwards;
Nagwa had arranged a convenient downtown studio for the workshop, showed
up early, provided canes for all the participants, urged them to ask
questions, stayed late to answer more questions, and requested the students
to keep the canes and take them home to continue practicing. More workshops
were arranged: a group from Brazil contracted for a day of belly dancing
with Nagwa and a day of "folklore" with Farida
Fahmi, and Paola of Italy requested
her to come to that country to teach for a week.
Nagwa's most satisfying experiences as a teacher
have been with the dancers she instructs privately in her spacious flat
in Heliopolis. She speaks with pride and fondness
of Yuko Matuwara of Japan,
who studied with her in 2002. Yuko, says Nagwa, was a "natural,"
and in a more favorable socioeconomic climate would have become a star
in Egypt. Well aware that successful students enhance her own reputation
as a teacher, Nagwa gave Yuko a special gift to celebrate her "graduation"
as a dancer at the end of her course of instruction: an evening as the
featured dancer on the Scarabee Boat. In Yuko's
honor, Nagwa herself donned a badlah and
performed in the same show.
also speaks with respect of Amoura, a professional
dancer and teacher in Aventura, Florida, who studied with her for several
months in Cairo. During this period Amoura acquired a number of complete
routines and performed in a show organized by Nagwa. Although Amoura
also studied with other Egyptian dance trainers, she says, "Nagwa
is my favorite teacher. The way she teaches is so dynamic and intense!
It looked like she never got tired in class. She will make the class
work very hard and repeat and repeat the steps; she is very particular
with her style. As a dancer I can tell you that she is a teacher."
Recognizing that those who come to learn from her have different goals
in studying dance, as well as different levels of skill, Nagwa first
sends a car to bring the prospective student to her flat, where she
conducts an interview over a glass of tea or soda: Is her visitor a
beginner who wants to learn the basics of belly dance? A professional
who wants to learn a specific style of dance -- zaffa,
cane dancing, Al-Haram Street style, or dancing
with varied cymbal rhythms and dynamics? Does she want to dance extempore
at parties for friends and family, or present highly polished routines
with a live orchestra on the big stage, or become a teacher herself?
Finally, Nagwa asks her visitor to put on a piece of music and dance
a bit in order to assess level of proficiency, strengths and weaknesses,
and feeling for the music. Based on all this, she gives an estimate
of the time and number of lessons necessary to achieve the desired goals.
Lessons are approximately two and a half hours long and include an hour
of training, then a half-hour recess for the student to ask questions
on the material, take notes, or just relax and have a drink, and then
another hour of training. Nagwa charges LE 200 (approximately US$31
at '03 rates of exchange) for individual lessons; price adjustments
are often made for lengthy courses, which include not only training
but also access to Nagwa's wide network of contacts.
Nagwa does not accept Egyptian students. "They have a tendency
to come to lessons late or not show up at the last minute, and often
don't have the dedication of foreign students," and, she adds
with frankness unusual among Egyptian dance teachers, "if one
of them is picked up by the vice squad and they found my name or telephone
number on her, it could cause trouble for me."
Nor does she have
a desire to teach in any dance festivals organized by other Egyptian
dancers or teachers. "I have my own name and reputation. I do not
think it would be suitable to appear under the sponsorship of another
Egyptian dancer or teacher, especially those claiming to teach Oriental dance who don't even come from an Oriental dance background."
teachers, she believes, are a symptom -- one among many -- of the decline
of belly dance in Egypt. Nagwa
is not hopeful about the future of traditional danse
orientale in her homeland, under siege as it is by the government,
organized religion, the lure of Western pop art, and an anemic economy.
But in passing on what she has learned from the films of Na'ima 'Akif
and Zaynat Alwi,
among others, and from her contemporaries, especially favorites Suzy
Khairy and Fifi
'Abdu ("the old Fifi
'Abdu," she clarifies), Nagwa Sultan
is helping to keep alive the traditional Cairo belly dance,
and while there's life, there's hope!
Nagwa's mobile numbers: 0123381295 and 0123353732;
home telephone number: 02-4935519.
She may also be contacted via her son's e-mail address: email@example.com.
Perhaps most easily, she may be contacted and a meeting arranged through
owner of Cairo's largest Oriental-dance atelier, Al-Wikalah, at
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Sirat Al-Ghawazi, Part 2
by Edwina Nearing
in the mid-1970's , the early sections of "Sirat Al-Ghawazi"
were first published under the title "The Mystery of the Ghawazi."
We are happy to be able to respond to the continued demand for these
articles by making them available to our readers worldwide.
Sirat Al-Ghawazi, Part 1
by Edwina Nearing
Begun in the mid-1970's , the early sections of "Sirat
Al-Ghawazi" were first published under the title "The Mystery
of the Ghawazi." We are happy to be able to respond to the continued
demand for these articles by making them available to our readers worldwide.
At last! The Sunday Photos from Rakkasah West 2004- Page
1, Page 2
to all the photographers and volunteers whol help make this happen.
We still need a few names to go with faces!
Dance Contests by Yasmela
being who they are, and dance and art and America being what they are,
there will always be the competitive urge, the attitude that success
is defined by the amount of your income, the number of your trophies.
Dance Festival or Shop-a-thon? by Nisima
can you hear me now?