Interview with Raqia Hassan:
The Mother of Invention
Rounding the corner where the flower shop and police station sit across from the Cairo Sheraton in the Dokki section of Cairo, Madame Raqia Hassan’s flat is easily located nearby. Today my dance/study tour group has arrived to take class in her home. Once inside the door we are greeted by a small white and a large black dog, barking our welcome. The phone rings “off the hook” while introductions to the various guests (there are always at least several visitors present in the reception room) are made. Barefoot and dressed in a white cotton tee and shiny pink leggings, Raqia smiles warmly and speaks to the group in her bright, strong voice. She is just finishing up a private session with an Oriental dancer from Spain, who is learning a personalized version of her latest choreography to Warda’s “Nar el Ghera.”
In her home studio, with parquet floor, wall mirror and plastic laundry basket overflowing with audio cassettes in the corner, one senses the vitality of a productive, evolving artist. Even though she is choreographer to the top stars, Raqia welcomes the student dancer. Her ability to verbalize her technique in English as well as her graphic, detailed demonstration of the movements, makes her an ideal teacher for the foreign dancer. Fortunately for us students, Raqia not only teaches, she dances. That she truly loves the dance becomes evident as she moves to the music with characteristic self-confidence and delight. Her emotional responses are fresh and readily available with each new quality and differentiation in the music. Have you ever wondered, as I have, where and how the emotional component of the music is conveyed in Oriental dance? Raqia deftly and succinctly places “feeling” within the context of the dance and the music with her straightforward, easily “read” interpretations.
Raqia’s temperament qualifies her as a valuable teacher, and her dance background substantiates those qualifications. At sixteen Raqia became a member of the famous Reda National Folklore Troupe of Cairo, training with Ali and Mahmoud Reda (primarily the latter). She later assumed the role of trainer to the new dancers coming into the troupe. Raqia’s first love was Oriental dance, but not having an opportunity to pursue this form, she joined the troupe because folkloric dance was “better than nothing.” She has been training dancers for over twenty years.
In 1984 she coached her first Oriental dancer. Aza Sherif came to the theatre where the troupe was performing and said to Raqia, “Come teach me.” Raqia responded, “I am a dancer not a teacher.” “No”, replied Aza, “you dance very well. You will become a big teacher of dance.”
“When I left the Reda Troupe, I forgot folklore. My way changed completely,” explained Raqia in our interview session in September. “If anyone comes to me now for folkloric choreography I say ‘No.’ I take one way, and I want to be stronger in this way. I love it!”
Raqia helps each dancer develop her own style. “Aza Sherif has a different style than (say) Fifi Abdou…Each one has something special for her.” The famous Mona Said has also been coached by Raqia, and Dina, formerly a folkloric dancer, began her Oriental training with Raqia. Other top Egyptian stars who have commissioned Raqia for choreography and received her coaching include Fifi Abdou, Nelly Fouad, Aida Nour, Sahar Hamdi, and the newer stars Nani and Hendaiya.
Raqia Hassan has made an indelible imprint on Oriental dance as it exists on Cairo’s stages today. There are certain movements which Raqia has created or embellished that have helped shape what is considered the modern Egyptian style. Easily recognized movements such as Mona Said’s powerful pelvic drops, Dina’s large, halting hip circles and shimmy overlays with sharp knee accents, and other popular favorites like the large stance shimmy, strong frontal and diagonal pelvic projections , and internal abdominal work are all key elements of Raqia’s stylistic influence. “You use a lot of pelvic movement, more than most dancers,” I stated. “Of course”, she replied with animation.
The dance is always changing. I like that. The dance is like the fashion, exactly. I can’t see something that works well and not choose it. I am a student. I must use everything new…If I see something from the old films that I like, I can put it in a new framework… When you make a change and make new choreography, new steps, it’s good for the eyes, good for the guests, for everything…Nagwa (Fouad) was the first dancer to make a good way for this dance. She was the first dancer to come after Samia and Tahia to make a show. She made a one hour show. She uses shimmies more. She made many things for this dance.
“How has the Oriental dance changed most recently?” I asked. “Now the dancers are going back to the ‘Belly Dance,’” she explained. “Three or four years ago we made only Oriental, with some steps and some movements, but now for every step, we put it inside the belly. We go back to the belly.” This statement describes an “internalizing” of movement (which creates a deep inner sensation), a discovery I made while watching many of the Egyptian dancers. Raqia demonstrates a signature Fifi Abdou movement with a forward vertical abdominal circle alternating with a side vertical hip circle, originating from inside the body and looking distinctly like a belly roll. “Did you start this?” I asked Raqia. “No”, she answered. “I have used this, but I think Fifi Abdou started it, not me. She makes one step, but I make many. This is my job.”
Raqia’s movements are powerful and substantive. Her facial expressions have depth, as if she’s savoring the changes each movement produces in her body. When I asked which comes first, the movement or the feeling, she responded matter-of-factly: “Together. You can’t say this is coming from the movement, but I think the feeling comes first from the music. The music gives everything —feeling, movement, everything.”
Pursuing the topic of the political climate, I asked Raqia how the fundamentalists are affecting the dance:
The radical Moslem people make problems. What is the difference between Oriental and Classical? Inside Ballet there is sex: inside movies there is sex. Tell me what is without sex? They think only Oriental has sex. Sex is inside everything! But we have what we call “Fanaan,” or “Artist”…What am I feeling when I dance? Is this sex? No, it’s feeling.
We don’t care about the individual. If you want to make the hegab (head covering), that is your choice. We have a problem from these people. I want to open a big school, but I can’t. I am afraid. These people are crazy. When they stop, maybe then I will open a big school. Mona Said has a school now, but she can’t say it’s for Oriental dance; she says it’s a health club. She wants to tell the people she has a school, but she can’t…The work here is down now. Not only dance, there is not much work for anything — theatre, cinema. Before we had problems, anyone could go to a nightclub. For a while now, everyone’s afraid to go to the nightclubs after this problem…This year’s not good. Maybe next year it will be better. I always have a good feeling for the future. I feel every year there’s something new. I have hope for this dance.
I like it when the foreigners come here to dance. First, she comes here because she loves this dance, and not for the money. If she loves this dance, she will make a good show. The famous Egyptian dancer knows what she is doing, but the small Egyptian dancers don’t know how to dance. They come to the dance only for the money. And they don’t get better. But, when the foreigners come and take good jobs at the five star clubs, they push the Egyptian dancer — competition.
I started with Marita here (the Swedish dancer, Samesen). I thought the Egyptian dancers needed a push. Now the foreigners know this dance; they have a very good feeling for the dance. They dance very well now. For example, many people like them for their weddings, and they are well paid. They prefer the foreigner at weddings because she makes her show. They are better dancers. I welcome the foreigner.
Good news for those interested in training with her: she will be touring the U.S. this Spring, 1995!
Shareen El Safy is an award-winning instructor and choreographer who has performed and taught Egyptian dance in sixty major cities on five continents, including many states throughout America. She has made numerous trips to Egypt, researching dance, studying with renowned artists there, and leading her Dance Study Tours. As one of few westerners, Shareen performed raks sharqi in Cairo nightclubs during the 1988 to 1992 summer seasons. She has released a number of instructional DVD’s focusing on Oriental dance technique. Shareen presented at the 1999 World Congress of Sports and Dance, and taught and performed at the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival (2001), and the Nile Group Festivals (2009 and 2010) in Cairo. Shareen co-produced the First and Second International Conferences on Middle Eastern Dance in 1997 and 2001. She was Publisher and Editor of Habibi from 1992-2002 and Editor-in-Chief in 1993. www.shareenelsafy.com.