Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal

Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal

Reflections from the Stars of the Forties

By Horacio Cifuentes

During the summer of 1993, when Beata and I were laying out the plans for this year’s “Oriental Fantasy” performance in Berlin, we decided to do something in the 1940’s style. The costumes of that period were divine, and the music…AHH! There are some fantastic pieces by Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Farid El Atrache which would be perfect, and we decided to show some short film clips of the dancers of that time to give the audience a better understanding of the style of the period.

Samia Gamal

“It sounds great!” exclaimed an Egyptian friend. “Why don’t you bring Samia Gamal, or Tahia Carioca…or both.!” Beata and I looked at each other, and with one glance we knew our mutual thoughts. We had never considered such an undertaking before, because it seemed so out of reach. But the way our friend said it, it all appeared so uncomplicated.

We went to Cairo for seven days in September with the intention of approaching the stars as well as getting costumes for the performance. At Madame Abla’s, we placed an order for twenty-two costumes for the ensemble and one for Beata, all in the style of the 1940’s. (We did not know then that an exasperating costume saga was unfolding. It would take three more trips, last minute fittings, and endless promises before we received the costumes ready for the show.) Unfortunately, it was not easy to get in touch with Samia and Tahia, and we had not spoken to either of them by the time we had to return to Berlin. “Maalesh (never mind),” we thought, “better luck next time.”

In Berlin, we worked heavily on researching the style of the 40’s, looking at every video we could find, watching for many hours with great attention to details, and doing our best to capture the style and feeling of the period. I was relieved when Beata and I decided it was best if I did not dance in the 1940’s suite; since the style is so soft and gentle, there really is no room for a big man in it.

In November, we returned to Cairo. After phoning Samia morning, noon and night, with much difficulty, we were finally able to meet with her on our last evening in Cairo. She arrived at the hotel lobby wearing green leather pants and jacket, and pistachio green seven centimeter heels. We were delighted to meet her, and found atunement right away. She was pleased with our plans to honor her, show her videos, and present a dance in the 40’s style.

Samia told us about her dance beginnings. “I started with Badia Masabni. We all did. I had a terrible time with turns. We had teachers who helped us, and many hours of rehearsals. I had such difficulties with turns, so I just had to take ballet. It helped my turns a lot, and my arms were a lot better from the classes.” How did her family react to her interest in dance? “Well, my brother was in the army and far away. My sister and I were always very close and she was always with me. My parents passed away when I was little,so actually I never had any problems.

When Beata described the costume Mdme. Abla was making for her, Samia said, “It sounds beautiful. I always preferred the opening of the skirt in front of the thighs. This way I could grab the skirt and find it easily. I loved to work with soft fabric, which gave an ethereal illusion. But those darn turns, I never knew where I was when I finished. I was grateful to be able to find the front again.”

We asked her what she thought about the changes in the dance. “Well, it is very different now. The music is so loud! During my time the musicians played softer music, and the audiences had better manners. They respected our performances more. These days the dancers are vulgar. They wear mini-skirts…that does not look Oriental!…You know, I hardly ever go out of my apartment any more. I stay home. I like to watch episodes of ‘The Bold and the Beautiful.’” Beata and I exploded in hysterical laughter. It is true that these episodes are shown in Cairo, but somehow we just could not imagine the ethereal Samia Gamal watching them. (Editor’s note: Samia was married to a Texas businessman, and lived for a number of years in the U.S.)

Tahia Carioca

When we asked if she would teach a workshop, she responded, “Sorry, I can’t. I could dance, but I could not teach…I don’t even know how I danced!”

We were experiencing a mixture of awe towards the Grand Diva, and frustration for not being able to be truly matter of fact and to the point. When asked if she would come, she said, “I cannot promise I can come, but April is far.”

“Yes, Madam,” I answered, “but the publicity campaign starts soon. We must advise the magazines, print posters, etc. We must know soon.”

“Well, En sha Allah, I will come. If I am alive, I will come.”

We felt it was pointless to push the issue. We escorted Samia to a limousine, and she went on her way. Unfortunately, that was the last we saw of her. When we spoke to her on the phone, she would decline to meet with us, or sometimes scheduled appointments, but did not keep them. She never said no. She always said yes, but then did not come through.

Four months until the show! Samia Gamal was very tentative, we had not even met Tahia, and Madame Abla’s costumes were only partially finished!! That’s Egypt, the land of maalesh. In January, the rehearsals began, and we were starting to panic about publicity deadlines. We decided to go ahead with the announcement that the two big stars were coming…and pray!

In February, we returned to Cairo for the third time. We telephoned Tahia and Samia constantly. It was Ramadan, and they were all fasting. There were no night clubs open…only irritable people in the streets. No one seemed normal to us. Samia kept saying she could not see us because she was too weak from fasting.

Tahia scheduled a meeting with us at 3:00 p.m., and after sitting in traffic for over an hour, we found that she had left at 1:00. After the third time in Cairo, we still did not get a chance to meet her. We had been planning to have Tahia teach the workshop series during the “Oriental Fantasy” festival, but we heard that she was not able to teach due to foot and weight problems. We decided to ask Daulat Ibrahim to be our guest teacher (editor’s note: researcher and choreographer for National Folkloric Troupe of Egypt, and wife of Mohammed Khalil), since she had been in Berlin in October to choreograph a piece for us: we knew her work was good, and she was reliable. She had been a choreographer for Nagwa Fouad for about twenty years. She would be coming with her daughter, Shahinda, and she told us that she would help get visas for Tahia when she got her own.

In March we were off to Cairo for the fourth time! “This time,” we thought with determination, “we will plant ourselves by Tahia’s door until she sees us.” After four trips, we finally got to meet her. When Daulat, Shahinda, Beata and I arrived at 10:00 p.m., the appointed time, the Grand Dame of Egyptian dance was seated at the dinner table eating “foul” (bean salad), a traditional dish, wearing a red jogging suit and flip-flops. We waited in the living room for about a half hour for her to finish her meal, as several little servant-girls ran back and forth from the kitchen bringing more dishes. After Madame was helped from her chair and went to her room to get a scarf to cover her head in accordance with Muslim tradition, Daulat introduced us and we proceeded to present our plans. By this time our posters had already been printed, with a photo of Samia in one corner and a photo of Tahia in the opposite corner. I was wondering if I should show her one, but Daulat made secret eye gestures not to. It was starting to look like Berlin was not big enough for the two stars together. Tahia was suffering from a recent injury to her foot, as well as a recent eye operation. She was not able to walk well, and had to be careful with her movements. She seemed pleased with the idea of coming to Germany to be honored.

Tahia spoke of her early days in dance. What was the reaction of her parents when she decided to dance? “Oh, my father was very happy. I started taking ballet classes when I was a little girl. At the age of fourteen, I decided to switch to Oriental and went to work with Badia Masabni…We all did! I remember that about the same time I started there were a couple of Italian girls who came to the troupe, and also a Lebanese one, and one of them got the crazy idea to go to a fortune teller. I went along, although with some reservations. The fortune teller told the Lebanese girl that she would get married, and the Italian something or other, and to me she said that I would become a big star and would have a brilliant career. I thought she was out of her mind. I didn’t believe a word of it. But, then it came true!

“I always kept to myself, and was totally absorbed in my work. My work always came before everything else! I was quite shy and frightened. When I was 16, I was offered my first role in a film starring next to Nagib El Rehany. He was a very famous comic, sort of like an Egyptian Charlie Chaplin. When it came time for the interview, I was simply terrified…so much so, that I was not able to speak. As I remained silent, the producer offered me more money, which made me feel even more tense and more quiet, and he offered me yet more money. They thought I was holding out for higher fees, which was not the case at all. In any case, the fees went up and up, until I just said yes to put an end to the situation. The next day I had to go to the first shooting, and I was so intimidated by the whole thing that I just froze. I stood there unable to speak or move until Nagib El Rehany said to me, ‘What is the matter? Have you swallowed your tongue?’ I must have looked quite miserable…He took me by the hand and asked me if I had had breakfast, which I had not, and then we went to eat and he was very friendly to me. From then on I was able to relax and the film turned out to be a success. After that I went on to shoot 120 films.”

We asked her who was her favorite among the current dancers. “Sohair is the best. She is truly Oriental. But I hear that she is not working anymore. That is a shame!..Things are surely a lot different these days. When I danced, nobody talked, and no waiters served food. I just did not allow it. Once a man was talking during my show in Beirut and I hit him with my cane until he shut up! These days the night clubs are very loud, and the dancers are quite vulgar. I don’t approve…I don’t like it when the girls shimmy in deuxieme position.”

At this point, Daulat and Shehenda looked puzzled. Madame was speaking in balletic terms, as many Egyptian dancers and dance masters do. She meant second position of the feet, referring to the feet being about thirty centimeters apart. I got up and demonstrated the shimmy, which amazed Tahia and clarified Daulat’s uncertainty.

At one point, she ordered one of her servants to bring her a plastic bag with finger cymbals, and she proceeded to play one of the most fascinating rhythms I have yet heard. It was fabulous, and she also moved her arms beautifully. I was seeing a reflection of the vision of beauty I had been studying on video for so many months.

Three weeks later, on April 28, “Oriental Fantasy” premiered in Berlin at Max Beckmann Saal. Tahia was presented in a special 3 1/2 hour workshop, during which participants had a chance to meet the legendary star, watch videos from her personal collection, and ask questions. Later, I nervously proceeded to break down a choreography in the Tahia Carioca style as Tahia herself watched. At first she looked puzzled and suspicious, but as the workshop progressed, she seemed to approve more and more.

The workshop participants were fascinated by the striking presence of this lady. Dancers and members of the press asked questions, to which Madame answered eloquently. “I had ten years of ballet before I decided to become an Arabic dancer. I started with the group; at first I never danced solos. We were an ensemble of about 25 girls. I only made about 20 Egyptian pounds per month, later it came up to 40 pounds. Every day we had three performances, two for the ladies, and one for mixed families. Everybody worked with Badia: Samia, Farid, all the great singers of that time. Every fifteen days we had a new show. We started rehearsals at 9 a.m., and were finished by 4 p.m. Afterwards, we walked over to the club and started performing.

“Badia also had many film stars. Then came the movie offers, and the producer kept asking me when I was going to come sign the contract, after which I replied that I did not have time. After I worked with Nagib El Rahany, I got a big name. I went to the USA and worked with Twentieth Century. They wanted me for a five year contract, but I stayed for two. I returned to Egypt and started doing a lot of films, sometimes two films at a time.

“I never danced at a place where they served alcohol, only in theaters. Sometimes I worked on a stage in Alexandria and was making a film in Cairo at the same time. I went by car everyday (about a three hour drive), and in the evening I returned to Alexandria. I was married to Rusty Abasa. He is a star, too. He said to me, ‘Will you please tell me when I can meet you?’ You have to love your work first; all else comes after.

“I loved the King Farouk, because I love the Queen Farida…She was a friend of mine. When he divorced her, I didn’t like him anymore. I hated him, and he knew it. When they asked me to dance for the second queen, I refused! King Farouk sent the police to get me to dance by force…I flew to Beirut! I hated her, and she knew it. When he died about twenty years ago, I met her and she told me, ‘I know you hate me.’ I said, “YES! Because you bring bad luck for the country when you married the king!’

“Farida, she was really a queen. She came to the theatre when I worked, and I said, ‘Your Majesty.’

“She said, ‘No, I am finished, I am not ‘majesty’ anymore.’

“‘To me you are the only queen for Egypt!’

“Even when she was sick before she died, I went there. I loved her. I knew her when she was young and she married. I never danced at weddings, NEVER! Only for hers, I danced. The only one ever was for the Queen Farida.

“I was always very direct. I told it like it is. I told Nasser to his face I hated him, so he put me in jail for 110 days, in a very small cell…So small! He asked me to say anything about the King Farouk and the Queen Farida, and I said, ‘NO, they are the best and you are dirt!’ So he put me in jail.

“I grew up with my grandmother. She was very strict. When I had any fights with girls or boys, and I went to her crying, she said to me: “Go clean your face. When you hit them, then come back. I’ll give you money. If you respect yourself in Egypt, you can go anywhere. You must hold your head up high.”

Some members of the press had interesting questions:

“How many husbands?”

“Five right ones. I never was happy. My work always came first. For this, they run away. I took two months vacation every year, the rest I worked.”

“How do you live today?”

“My cinema work requires that I rehearse a lot. Sometimes I get five scenarios. I must read them. I don’t want someone else to read them. I want to have my own opinion. But I am glad to be busy. When you are busy, it makes you forget your troubles. I love my work more than anything else in life.”

“At which age did you stop dancing?”

“At 32. After, I only acted.”

“Was it for a special reason?”

“I wanted to leave when I was at the top. When Samia went back to work, I said to her, ‘Don’t work, don’t do it. You will regret it.’ And she did. She said, ‘They offerred me so much money!’ S…! What, the money? Don’t do it. It is better that people always know you as being beautiful. She worked and she was sorry. If I dance at my age, and maybe there is a young girl who dances at the same place, I would be compared, and the young one preferred.”

After this meeting, Madam Carioca was escorted to her hotel room in order for her to rest before the premiere. Beata and I went to the theater to get ready. We had instructed an English gentleman to pick up Tahia, Daulat, and Shahinda and have them at the theater by 7:30 p.m. It was 8:00 p.m. and they were not there. My nerves were raw! So many months of preparation and the star is absent! At 8:05, the curtain was about to open. The dancers are all ready, the technicians are looking at me waiting for instructions. Tahia Carioca is still not in the theater. Finally, at 8:10, I say to the stage manager: “Tahia or no Tahia, we must start!” The house was full of a very enthusiastic audience. Beata and I introduced the theme for the evening, and then came the presentation of videos of Nahema Akef, Samia Gamal, and Tahia Carioca. Afterwards, I quickly asked if Tahia had arrived.

It was now 8:25 p.m., and she still wasn’t there. I stepped into the technicians booth to watch the 1940’s suite which we had all worked so hard on for so many months. It was a series of four dances performed by Beata framed by twenty-two women dressed in costumes of the period. About two minutes before the curtain was to be closed, our secretary came running to tell me Tahia had just arrived at the front door. Because of her foot condition, she had to walk very slowly. I ran backstage and picked up the microphone, while Beata and the women took their bow. As I stepped onto the stage to announce Tahia, she was barely walking into the backstage area. She was about five seconds late, but she was there. The audience received her with an incredible ovation, which lasted a long time, and which she accepted humbly. We presented her with lovely flowers and an award which read “To Madame Tahia Carioca, for making history in dance.” She was happy, and the Arabs in the audience had tears in their eyes. It was a touching moment. I was grateful for the experience, and relieved that it had actually happened.

Those are the facts, at least the ones that can be told. Dealing with the entire ordeal was not easy, and did not happen without major aggravation and controversy. To the audience and the workshop participants, it was totally harmonious, but no, it was not all wonderful. Part of being in show biz is not letting negative impressions reach the audience. Let us just say that after our legendary guest star returned to Cairo, Beata and I needed 48 hours of sleep, and weeks to recover!

Horacio Cifuentes’ early dance training included the Folkloric Troupe of Columbia, the American Ballet Theater in New York and the school of the San Francisco Ballet. By the age of 21 he was dancing major solos with the San Francisco Ballet. He later studied Oriental dance with Magaña Baptiste, Suhaila Salimpour, Bert Balladine, Ibrahim Farrah, and Shareen el Safy, among others. He has taught and performed extensively in the U.S., Canada and Europe, and is co-owner of Tanzstudio Halensee with his wife, Beata, in Berlin, Germany, where they produce “Oriental Fantasy” each Spring. www.oriental-fantasy.com

Photos from Alkawakeb Magazine, Cairo, 10.8.1993. Courtesy Shakti Rinek.

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