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Gilded Serpent presents...
Nagwa Sultan: Cairo Soul
by Edwina Nearing

June 2004

A professional 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.

After starring 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 more films.

With 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.

A 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?

One recent 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?

Three 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.

Perhaps 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.

Nagwa 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.

Interestingly, 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."

Such 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!

Contact information:
mobile numbers: 0123381295 and 0123353732;
home telephone number: 02-4935519.
She may also be contacted via her son's e-mail address:
Perhaps most easily, she may be contacted and a meeting arranged through Mahmud Abdel-Ghaffar, owner of Cairo's largest Oriental-dance atelier, Al-Wikalah, at 5897443.

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