Nelly Mazloum

Quicksilver Messenger

Impressions of Nelly Mazloum

By Rhea

I arrived en bicycle at the abode and school of Nelly Mazloum with hopes of fulfilling my expectations of her, which had developed from brief glimpses during telephone conversations.

Nelly Mazloum, "Ayoub al Masri," 1962, Cairo

Due to the spirit I felt reach out from her person, I impulsively asked her astrological star sign. Normally that question would be reserved for later, after knowing a person for a while and coming to the point of wanting to know more about them in a spiritual sense. But with Nelly, even on the telephone, I felt an immediacy about her that made me react instinctively to her aura, and the question popped out. “Gemini,” she replied, “and you?”

“Sagittarius,” I affirmed. Nelly broke into a merry laugh, and made a playful reference or two to the potential natural forces wind/air and fire might distill into. I remember feeling that beyond her frankness there seemed to be a dual nature not easily plumbed. Our meeting reaffirmed and satiated my previous curiosity about her duality.

Wearing a fashionable leather jacket with a billowy colorful scarf and pearls, her readily visible aristocratic demeanor was quickly broken by her down-to-earth warmth. “Look,” she said to her daughter, “it’s her on the bicycle. It has to be.” She laughed easily and made me feel like I wasn’t the first person who had entered her life on a conveyance found by others to be unusual, but it was just fine with her.

She introduced me to her daughter who is her staunch supporter and helper in many ways, and together the three of us entered the house that has been hers for 25 years. Studio, office…nothing panders to the sensation-seeking harem mentality here. No beaded curtains, no display of costumes, no hanging rugs that go to make up the trappings of Oriental dance studios in the west. Only a wall filled with diplomas, certificates, and letters of appreciation, honors for some production, event, accomplishment, and artistic merit awards.

Nelly sat regally behind her desk as she received me, and beckoned me with a bejeweled and well-manicured hand to sit in one of the two chairs opposite her desk. Her daughter sat a little in the background. I chose the chair directly opposite her just in case her predictions of a runaway fire or an explosion resulting from this meeting of diametrically opposite Zodiac signs were to come true. What I actually felt was a powerful, magnetic attraction to her, and I especially wanted to see this fascinating creature close up.

I asked what one might be expected to ask in an interview, where, when, who, etc., and she answered: of Greek parentage, but born in Egypt, she speaks four languages with proficiency — French, English, Arabic, Greek. Her English is both as classically correct as any you might find in the Saturday Review of Literature, yet as familiar as the language of the American T.V. commercial. It’s obvious that she‘s travelled a lot and has experienced life in quite a few different avenues. She exudes the urban, semi-blasé facade of one who has seen much, is shocked by little, knows how to have a delighted time, but feels there’s a time and a place for everything, and that she, personally is in on the secrets of how to handle any situation in life with grace and aplomb.

I also realized, as the interview continued, that I was lucky to be in the same room with her at all. Like any true star, Nelly Mazloum is not accessible to just anyone. Her reputation is one of a serious artist, but one who you must be very dedicated to finding. One has the impression that it would help to have some higher purpose to entice her with. She seems tolerant as a human being, but you can see that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

She answered my every question artfully and completely. I was beginning to feel a profound respect and humble admiration for the many situations Nelly had confronted in her life, and the challenges and changes that were both chosen by her and thrust on her by life and fate. Many of our conversational gambits led us on paths that were “off the record,” such diplomatic immunity asked for and granted in order to not harm those present, or departed.

I sat attentively, listening voraciously as her story unfolded. I studied her manner, the little gestures and facial expressions, as she related an incident, her body language. (After all, she was not a star for nothing, and I am a dancer. Maybe I can learn something about presentation and emotional interpretation.) Sitting across from her, absorbing her aura, I see further into the enigma of this woman. Her duality, her ability to appear calm but to convey excitement, to go from gaily mocking in one second, to offendedly serious in the next, was a magical thing to behold. True to her sign’s metal, Gemini moved like quicksilver through her moods, just as light, and just as smooth.

Nelly Masloum in Malasse Assiouti, costume of hand woven material embroidered with silver chips, worn with Kerdane (gold neklace) typical of upper Egypt.

The way she was telling her story became just as compelling as the story itself. I felt myself being magnetized, pulled into the story, living it. “Of course,” I thought. “She’s a Gemini, an actress.” She can make even the most mundane seem elevated into something far more meaningful. What makes some portraits live and breathe and not look like some dull photographic copy? The artist. What makes some voices memorable, taking you out of the realm of mere sound? The artist. And some really great artists can transcend their own cultural base to appeal to those of another culture. A really accomplished artist can tap into the great human psyche and the depths of mankind’s heart, expressing with skill and art universal themes that even a child could recognize, so skillfully does she use her face and hands.

When all these skills are brought to the Oriental dance, the artist expresses some deeper themes. It is not a dance debased by falling to the lowest element of attraction between the sexes. Rather it seeks a higher level, the recognition of seduction, the chase, the disappointment, the rebuke, the pout, the proud and haughty look. All these feelings are conveyed in conjunction with the music. The music itself calls for a certain emotional translation not often aspired to nor accomplished by feebler talents. A gifted artist can change the dance from a mechanical offering to a thing inspired by the gods, expressing both her inner and outer world.

Warming to her subject, Nelly recounted events during the years she spent pursuing her career in Egypt. She did not begin her life with aspirations to be an Oriental dancer, but she did begin well. As she says, “I can’t remember when I wasn’t dancing…It all started very early in my life.” Classically trained, with primarily stage and theatre experience, she has staged whole productions, both for live audiences and for television and the movies. “I had the opportunity to choreograph more than 200 shows, half a dozen operettas, as well as endless programs for schools, festivals, and music halls. In 1948, I became Premiere Danseuse at the Cairo Opera (not to be confused with the Casino el Opera). Later I was chosen to assist Mr. Alexei Jukoff, professor of the Bolshoi School of the U.S.S.R., to establish the first governmental ballet school near the pyramids.”

But the flowering and unfolding of her Oriental sentiments came only after she was an established star, although she had always had the Danse Orientale in her soul. Having appeared in a number of Egyptian films, she was led to begin her research in Egyptian folklore and Oriental dance in 1950. She started the first Folkloric Dance school in 1956 in her studio in Kasr el Doubara, Cairo, where she had had a ballet school since 1948.

Meanwhile she continued her research into the life and mores, the rhythms and music, the costumes, the styles, the steps and manner of movement in Egypt’s traditional way of dancing. In the late 60’s, Ms. Mazloum was chosen by the Ministry of Culture to become the first collaborator of Mr. Ramazine (main assistant and dancer of the Moyssiev Company of the U.S.S.R.) to found the National Egyptian Folkloric Dance Academy in Cairo. The very first recruits were gleaned from her own folkloric school of dancing. Having uncovered many costumes and native instruments in her tireless search for authentic truth, she generously donated them to museums for greater display. She also founded the Nelly Mazloum Arabic Troupe of Dancers. Many of her pupils are now teachers and preside in the National Academy of Egypt, while others have set up their own private schools abroad.

The Arabic Troupe of Dancers maintained a very busy performance schedule for many years, including extensive TV appearances, and tours throughout Egypt. In 1962, they performed for a two-hour live T.V. show at Ezbekieh Garden Theater. In the same year, they did a live, two-act, two-hour show at Mohamed Farid Theatre, which aired for many consecutive years during Ramadan, even after Ms. Mazloum’s departure from Egypt. Also in 1962, they performed “Saken Ossadi,” “Kolli Haba,” and “Aie Haga” with songs sung by Abd el Halim Hafez and music composed by Mohamed Abd el Wahab. Also performed on T.V. in 1962 and 1963 were “Tamr Henna” and “Hob Wa Sehr.”

Some of the films which Nelly starred in included “Enseignez-Moi l’amour,” “Fatma, Marika, Rachel,” “Le Vaniteux,” “La Fille du chef,” “La naiade,” “Kilo 99,” “La fer à cheval,” “Entre deux femmes,” “Mille et une nuit,” “La Clef des songes,” “Les Contrebandiers,” “L’homme sons sommeil,” and “Entre deux Feux.”

Nelly speaks fondly of “Egypt’s booming Renaissance period of the arts” during the forties, fifties and sixties:

All domains were touched: films, theatre, music, song, literature, poetry, painting and dance, crowned by a fabulous array of talents, scholars, archeologists, renovators and passionate artists, never before gathered so densely in a single city, Cairo! In such an incomparably rich period, I had the great good fortune to live and to absorb the exciting atmosphere of knowledge and creativity that surrounded me, formed me, and kept my memory vibrating with experiences that are nurturing my artistic life to this day. It all remains indelibly rooted in my heart and I thank Allah that I was graced to be part of it. It was indeed a great baracah for me to give and receive, offer and share my work and be of service during this exceptional period of Egypt’s contemporary history.

As Nelly continued to recount her history, I saw a story unfold of suspense and intrigue which would be climaxed by Nelly’s decision, made 25 years ago in Egypt, that she could no longer remain there and be true to the dictates of her artist’s heart. How did Nelly Mazloum choose to leave her beloved Egypt and come to Athens 25 years ago? Artistic decisions brought about by societal changes left her unable to live in the country she was born in, loved and became a star in. As she spoke of the homesickness that overwhelmed her during her earlier years here, I could see a pain ameliorated by time but never exorcised.

Nelly Mazloum projects credibility. Because she does not indulge in the histrionics concerning events in her life that would have shaken a lesser spirit, Nelly imparts the wisdom of a soul who has known trial and denial but never blames others. You can believe her, because she’s kept her principles through all these years even when they led her to exodus. And this credibility is needed in Oriental dance today.

Leaving behind the country of her birth, her half-Greek, half Egyptian daughter with her, she moved into the at-that-time highly fashionable area around the Green Park in Athens. The school she opened reflected all her classical training, and was one of three prototype schools where you could receive a solid dance education from teachers who had been reputable and much-admired performers.

Her love of Oriental dance had led her to develop a way of systematizing a technique which “enables her students to understand the spirit of Oriental dance, and to follow the style and the practice of the folk dances of Egypt easily, simply, and in a relatively short time.”

Nelly is generous when teaching her students what she knows, and her aim is indeed far above the teaching of just steps. She believes that it is never enough to teach just steps or only a technique. It is imperative to inspire the student and give her the material necessary “to enlarge her capacities as a performer, to develop her possibility as an artist and to incite her to flower as a human being.”

Nelly has come to have the capacity to effectively transmit her accrued knowledge to others. Her fame has spread well beyond her native country. She is much sought after in Europe where she began in 1988 to travel and give seminars on Oriental dance technique. Her classes are attended by professionals as well as relative amateurs, and she is completely booked from April to November.

Her work has also spread in Greece, a country with a great love of Oriental dance. She has another studio in the Peloponese, where specialized courses, workshops and seminars are being held during the holidays and the summer season. She has also written a book entitled “Nelly Mazloum Oriental Dance Technique,” which will be of help to teachers and the younger generation of dancers who care to learn and wish to gain a strong foundation as well as acquire a clear insight into the Oriental lore and its fascinating magic.

She has a last admonition for the aspiring dancer: “Students must learn to love what they do, and do it with their whole heart, their whole mind and their whole body.”

Rhea (Deanna Rose Likouri), a former member of Jamila Salimpour’s Bal-Anat Troupe, began dancing in nightclubs in San Francisco and the Bay area in the late sixties. She has taught and performed in the U.S. and Canada, directed several troupes and organized festivals. In 1976 she moved to Athens, Greece, raising two daughters in the shadows of the Acropolis. She has taught in studio classes and seminars and performed throughout the Greek Islands and Turkey. Her on going career includes appearances at the Plaka’s many tavernas, and other discos and nightclubs. She has been featured on television and in magazine and newspaper articles. Rhea is continuing her research into the history of the dance, and related archaeology and mythology of past cultures from the area. (Rhea has unknowingly lived within three miles of Ms. Mazloum for the past seventeen years. They met for the first time during this exclusive interview for HABIBI.)

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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