One Flower in a Bouquet
Folkloric Pioneer Farida Fahmy
by Sahra C. Kent
This interview literally began February 15, 1984 for an in-depth UCLA class project. That report was given in March 1984. New in-depth interviews were done from October to December, 1994. Much has changed, but Mme. Farida Fahmy’s place in history remains secure.
I first saw Farida Fahmy on a video tape labeled “Najua Fuad.”
Having been a student of Cultural Anthropology, I felt it important in learning Egyptian Dance to study Egyptian dancers, obviously only readily available on video. I accidentally discovered the Reda Troupe on a “Nagua Fuad” video; a perfectly trained and rehearsed troupe was doing a beautiful choreography, then out came the most beautiful dancer I had ever seen! After much misinformation, finally I discovered who she was; Madame Farida Fahmy. With my American mentality I assumed that she taught, and decided immediately that I had to study with her. I started saving money to travel to Egypt to meet and study with her. After some time I was rudely enlightened by an Egyptian friend: she is “a star – of course she doesn’t teach – you will be lucky to shake her hand.”
So, I went back to my first plan: to continue my postgraduate studies. I had tried before to interest two Universities in a multi-disciplinary program that combined Cultural Anthropology, Dance, and Middle Eastern Studies. They told me that this combination did not go together. I knew that it did – I was living it! Putting these subjects together was not just a whim, it was an honest striving for academic understanding of things already occurring in my life.
One night, while dancing at Cascades in Los Angeles, I met Barbara Racy, who was to facilitate much change in my life on many levels. She told me about the UCLA graduate program from which she had just graduated: Dance Ethnology. I applied and was accepted.
September 1983: I ran in a bit late for my first class, after battling LA traffic and parking. The students were well into introducing themselves one by one. I was desperately trying to collect my thoughts and my biographical information as the woman to my right was speaking. She had a soft voice with a beautiful British accent, short red hair and a delicate face with freckles and no make-up. She introduced herself as Melda. I continued dwelling on my own intro. I was brought out of my thoughts when she said “Yoni…” (so she speaks Egyptian Arabic!), then mentioned that she had danced in Egypt for 25 years. The teacher asked for her stage name and the troupe with which she had danced. I nearly fell out of my chair when she said; “Farida Fahmy of the Reda Troupe.”
Now it is 11 years later – I cannot believe it has been that long. Even as I write, I relive that moment like it was yesterday. The nostalgia, but more than that, that overwhelming feeling of destiny, knowing that I had to meet her, and then, after releasing the idea, life bringing her to me – I am moved to tears whenever I think of it, even now.
UCLA Dance Ethnology – Meeting Farida
We went through our two-year UCLA Master’s program together, taking almost exactly the same classes, doing homework and projects together. What seems strange is that our first project was to interview each other. I was mesmerized already by her experiences, but in the interviewing process she became real. She became more than the ethereal star who can move and interpret Egyptian music better than I can ever dream to; she unfolded, revealing a very real, very intelligent woman, who is very sensitive and emotional as well. She was and is very committed and close to her family. Taught by her father, and reaffirmed by her husband, Ali Reda, and her dance partner Mahmoud Reda, she knows well her responsibilities. And she is aware of her place in history. As co-pioneer, she helped shape the art of dance in Egypt. As the only female Reda Troupe co-pioneer, she carried the personal weight of well-entrenched cultural assumptions about the type of woman who dances. She has carried it well, often having to over compensate, with pride in her art and, unbelievable in such a singular star, a humility nurtured by her parents. She has carried it well, and the Egyptian people love her for it.
While I was interviewing her in 1984 for a UCLA assignment to practice fieldwork interviewing techniques in order to form an ethnography of a culture, I became frustrated with the assignment of understanding a culture by interviewing one person, because she was such a unique person. I wrote in my journal:
If I interviewed Melda, she would give me the culture of the daughter of a broadminded patriotic Egyptian man and his British wife, who had left the land of her birth; a woman who was encouraged to dance by her parents, sister, and husband, which is not common in Egyptian culture; the wife of an Egyptian man, Ali Reda, who at one time had been kicked out of his house by his father because he had insisted on dancing. Ali Reda was the first man ever to insist on having the occupation “dancer” listed on his Egyptian passport and who was the business director of the Reda Troupe as well as a film director. She was the sister-in-law (both through her husband and her sister)of the choreographer and artistic director of the Reda Troupe, Mahmoud Reda. If this isn’t enough…she is the only female star of the Reda Troupe, which is a unique position in this National Dance Troupe of Egypt. To write about Melda Fahmy, Farida Fahmy or Mrs. Ali Reda is not to write about an extended culture. She is cross-cultural, a pioneer, and in some respects liminal.” (1984)
Although initially shy about speaking when she came to UCLA , she developed into an articulate woman with an identity of her own. She taught Egyptian Dance classes there, so I did get to take classes from her! On a solid Reda technique base, she began building on her own ideas, producing some beautiful choreographies – some folklorically based, some Oriental.
One of my deepest regrets to this day is when she volunteered to make a dance show in the Dance Department where our major was located. Unfortunately they did not appreciate what had been offered them. Here was a woman that, had she only recreated what she knew already, would have produced a work of art. But in addition to this base, Farida’s creativity was blossoming and flourishing in her classes, she had a score of trained dancers in perfect physical shape, and UCLA had a beautiful stage. I do wish that UCLA had given her the chance to stage a production on the large stage – an opportunity given to each Modern Dance Master’s graduate. I would love to have seen what she would have done with movement, staging, and costumes. These conditions will never again be the same and it is sad that the opportunity was not given.
However, she did choreographies in a concert in the Ethnomusicology Department, as well as two departmental concerts. Early in her teaching she was asked to present one dance for our department’s international dance show. She chose to have me dance her own dance, “Farida”. I wore her personal Assuit dress and tarha as she nervously watched. In nineteen years of Oriental dancing, I don’t think there was a performance experience more vivid in my mind.
Our Interview, 1994
So now I am interviewing her again; after all our years at UCLA, her years in the States, then my years here in Cairo, this is only our second interview.
Earlier this year I felt that now, as I leave the Meridien-Heliopolis, it is time to pull together my Egypt experiences, time to integrate somehow, getting ready to step into the next unknown. Now as I have decided to move on from a wonderful 5½ years continuous position, I find I have been asked by Habibi to interview Farida Fahmy again. The chapter she was painfully closing in those first days at UCLA, (the death of her father and the finishing of her performing days well before she physically had to) is well closed. Other chapters have been written, some full of hope and fulfillment, others difficult. The last chapters have not been easy.
The Fahmy Family
Melda “Farida” Fahmy was born in the very room we are interviewing in. Her mother sits with us too. Melda was born into a respected, well-educated family. Her Egyptian father, Hassan Fahmy, was something unique. I truly wish that I could have met him. Whether one is listening to intellectuals expand on his progressive and innovative thinking, or happening on one of his two generations of hundreds of impressed students working all over the world, you will hear of their respect for him and they will tell you about his funny stories. He was a good leader and a coalescing force for a group of young, talented pioneers soon to change dance history and philosophy in Egypt.
Melda’s mother, who was British, married Hassan and moved to Egypt, changing her name from Maye to Khadija as part of becoming Moslem. There is no end to her interesting stories, observations, and recollections. I was privileged to live in their home in LA during the school week for two years, and I rarely heard the same story twice – unless I asked. Her mother encouraged her daughters’ sports and Melda’s dancing, even teaching Melda and her young friends a few dances, instilling in young Melda no shame in dance. Everyone in the troupe calls Melda’s mother “Mommy,” and by this time I find it difficult to call her anything else. “Mommy” accompanied the troupe in almost all of their travels, being a respectable chaperone, and instrumental with costumes. She even had a role in the Reda Troupe’s classic film “Love in Karnak.” You can see her in several “walk-ons”, walking the Fahmy family’s two white poodles; in another scene she’s dancing at a patio party.
In their childhood, Melda and her older, and only sister, Nadeeda, were very active in swimming in their Sporting Club. Melda was the champion swimmer in Egypt for her age. She was also active in the talent shows staged at the Sporting Club, sometimes doing the foreign dances that were popular such as “a Spanish dance, sometimes; but I always finished with Oriental, and I liked that the best.” (1994)
Two Brothers Marry Two Sisters
When Farida was fifteen, Nadeeda married Mahmoud Reda. Mahmoud had been an Olympic gymnast. He had traveled the world as a dancer in folkloric dance, “modern – anything but Egyptian. There was no Egyptian Dance Troupe at this time.” (1984)
Within three years of Nadeeda and Mahmoud’s wedding, Ali Reda (Mahmoud’s older brother) and Melda fell in love and, with her father’s permission, married. She was 18 and he was 32. Soon after their marriage, all consolidated their efforts and talent into the Reda Troupe.
“Again, I think it was my father’s influence, or my father’s backing to us that we suddenly said, ‘What are we doing, all sorts of other dancing! Mahmoud doing Argentinian dancing, when Egypt is so full of rich dances and rich folklore everywhere.’ And so we decided to do this troupe, backed by my father’s moral support, and then collected our monies and incomes from here and there.” (1984)
Melda recalls many family discussions about how Egypt should be proud of its folkloric dance. They agreed how exciting and beautiful it was in its natural state, and how wonderful it would be if brought to the stage. Hassan Fahmy and Mahmoud Reda both shared a deep love of the Egyptian people and their culture, as well as an extended world view that encouraged promotion of their Egyptian indigenous arts, rather than the prevailing view of keeping them hidden as an embarrassment while calling the foreign colonizing culture’s arts as respectable “culture.” Also, popular thought in Egypt held that dancing as a quiet, small part in one’s personal life was acceptable, but professional, public dancing was risque, low class, and done by uneducated people.
“I Am Just One Flower in a Bouquet”
Ali Reda was the business, promotion, and planning director. Ali’s international business sense was instrumental in keeping the Reda Troupe working and traveling. He also directed the two classic Reda Troupe films: “Mid-Year Holiday” and “Love in Karnak.”
Mahmoud Reda was the choreographer, teacher, and artistic director, as well as the very talented male “first dancer.”
Melda, now named Farida so as to have an Egyptian name while representing Egypt, was the female “first dancer.”
Nadeeda designed costumes. Melda’s and Nadeeda’s mother helped all around, chaperoned, and sewed costumes. Their father gave moral support and assisted in breaking social barriers.
Farida said that “Meeting the Reda family was, you can say, a stroke of luck. It is something unusual to find, whether through marital ties or by friendship, so many talents in one group…The elements of this (Reda and Fahmy family) group were closely knit. We complimented each other, so the whole circle was complete. The nucleus of the circle is Mahmoud Reda. All of us together had one thing in mind; to have a dance troupe and to be able to tell people that dancing can be a fine art.” (1994)
The Formation of the Reda Troupe
By group consensus a troupe was decided on. The room we are sitting in now, Farida’s birth room, became a practice room at this time, the birthing room for the infant Reda Troupe. With Mahmoud and Farida as the male and female leads, students from the University, extended family, and gymnast friends made up the members of the new troupe and were rehearsed.
A decision was made early on that they were not performing in night clubs and the usual dance locations. They were turned down by the theaters in town because the show included dance. Her father, Hassan Fahmy, saved the day. He secured the Engineering Theater. There was a big problem about using this theater, but Hassan was a fighter for what he believed in. The University had already tried to force him to quit teaching because he was allowing his daughter to dance. He had fought and kept teaching. He got his way with the theater also. The first night there were only men in attendance, which was culturally accepted as the proper audience to view dancing. The next night women started appearing in the audience. Journalists loved the idea and promoted the concept and the troupe. Farida has no idea about how many hundreds of articles were printed about the Reda Troupe and it’s principal dancers.
The mid-60’s were historically right for the Reda Troupe concept like no time before or after. Egypt was newly independent (1952), and it’s charismatic nationalist president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was strong in nurturing pride in being Egyptian. Also, he was promoting youth and vigor along with new ways of thinking. The Reda Troupe fit the bill. Their films and performances were sell-outs and they became national stars. As Farida said, “When the idea of the Reda Troupe came about, we have to remember that at this time there was a change in the whole environment of Egypt as far as politics, social change, the whole idea of being Egyptian. The idea of loving your roots and your culture and understanding everything about it was, at this time, being encouraged.” (1994)
In the American magazine, Ballet Today, (Vol. 13, No. 2, March 1961), John Haylock wrote:
The famous Opera House in Cairo…has been filled these last two months (November, December) by audiences who have come to see the Reda Troupe…Professor (Hassan) Fahmy explained to me that until the troupe was founded in August, 1959, the profession of dancer was despised. “Male dancers were considered effeminate and women dancers vulgar,” he told me. “Our task has been to convince the public that dancing is an art which people of good family can take up without shame. My family and friends were shocked when they learned that I was going to allow my daughter to dance on the stage. I must confess that I was shocked when my daughter, Nadeeda, said she wanted to marry Mahmoud, but they convinced me, and now we have been convincing the public that dancing is an art.”
Writing on the occasion of the same engagement at the Opera House, Jay Walz reported in an article in the New York Times (Nov. 19) entitled “New Dance Troupe in Cairo Shows Form Instead of Figure:”
When the United Arab Republic announces that President Gamal Abdel Nasser is entertaining a state visitor with Egyptian dancers, it may sound as if he is reviving the decadent days of King Farouk. But he is not.
The Egyptian dance has undergone a revolutionary change. First, the Cairo belly dancer was ordered to cover her midriff. Now, what Mr. Nasser offers his guests on state occasions – sometimes to their surprise – is not belly dancers at all.
Cairo’s most recent distinguished visitors were treated to a new troupe of Egyptian folklorists. All of the entertainers were fully clad in native costume.
They were members of the Reda Dance Troupe. Although it is hardly more than one year old, the troupe has gained so much popular and official recognition that it opened its season this week in Cairo’s historic Opera House.
…The Organization is the private enterprise of two brothers, Ali and Mahmoud Reda, whose father was a historian and at one time head librarian at the University. The leading dancer, Farida Fahmy, now Ali’s wife, is the daughter of a professor of engineering in the university.
…The troupe trains in a studio in Heliopolis. Ali Reda, who manages the troupe, was a professional dancer who appeared on the stage and in a number of motion pictures made in Egypt. But at 35, he considers himself “too old” to dance.
Although they turned down offers to become nationalized by the government for a couple of years, they were still Nasser’s pride and joy. Visiting heads of state were treated to Reda concerts. Both Farida and Mahmoud Reda were decorated by Nasser twice for services rendered to the State through art. They were also decorated in 1965 by King Hussein of Jordan, and in 1973 by President Borkeba of Tunisia. They were sent to countries all over the world as goodwill ambassadors and for cultural exchange programs.
Eventually, though, they became too large to privately support: fourteen dancers, fifteen musicians, plus stagehands, and others needed for organization, chaperones, etc. It was difficult to support, supply enough continuous work, and make travel arrangements for this number. They accepted the offer to be government funded. As a government troupe they were able to grow several times over.
The Reda Troupe Repertoire
Mahmoud’s first choreographies were set in stories because dance as the major art form was a new concept. Quickly the audiences accepted a series of dances for dance’s sake, although a story within a dance was still popular.
They promoted current events and policies such as the building of the High Dam in Aswan through dance. In this case they illustrated the problems of flooding and drought, then showed water (women in blue/green outfits flowing in organized currents) directed by men in engineering suits. Then they showed happy falaheen (farmers), their water problems solved.
Some sensitive subjects, even though they might lend themselves visually to dance, were avoided or treated very carefully. In Egypt they celebrate the holy days of a prophet’s birthday with a celebration called a Moulid. For the dance of the Moulid nights they focused on the social celebration rather than the religious aspects. For instance, instead of showing the Dervishes religious movement of the zikr, Mahmoud highlighted the folkloric, such as telling the story of a poor girl who couldn’t afford a “fanoos,” a lantern that children carry at this time, and is then given one by a kind man. He also personified another popular child’s toy, the sugar doll. These sugar dolls, with full dresses and bright colored foil fans behind their heads, are popular at Moulids. Mahmoud and the costumers created these dolls life size and were a big hit with audiences.
Sensitive activities such as the Zar spirit possession rite, although dramatic theater and interesting movement, were never brought to the stage by the Reda Troupe. The zars are a very sensitive subject to many Egyptians – some object religiously and with others it hits too close to home. Zars have now been banned in Cairo for the last three years. Even the Ghawazee dance, an already formed indigenous dance, was not selected as subject matter, as it reinforced old dance/dancer cultural categories.
The reasons for their selectiveness were obvious when one considers the time. They were fighting for respect for their dance as an art. They were fighting for Egyptians to take pride in who they are and their beautiful heritage. The audience would have been lost, the point would not have been made, if the Reda Troupe had been confrontational by pushing subjects of embarrassment in the faces of newly hopeful people. The Reda Troupe also wanted to make the point of dance being different, or at least more, than what was already culturally accepted as dance, which was associated with uneducated people of a disreputable low class. This is also the reason they chose not to dance on the night club stage, but in the theater.
Both Mahmoud and Farida have continually asserted that the dances were not put on to be ethnographic documents: they are the creative works of Mahmoud Reda. Although much field work was done — Mahmoud and other troupe members made many trips into villages to record songs, sketch costumes, and watch movement and dance — all was done as a strong base for Mahmoud’s creative process. Farida couldn’t attend many of these trips as she was finishing the University at this time. Of course, women were taken on these trips because village women would only dance without men present. In Siwa, the women would not dance at all nor be photographed, so this is why you only see children wearing over-sized jewelry and clothing in the early Siwa photos. Although these dances were not ethnographic documentation of specific village dances, the mind that created them and the dancers who brought them to life were Egyptians who loved and respected their country, and who were, of course, well-versed in the indigenous movement naturally, by birth.
The dance communicates itself from one Egyptian to another, who know immediately the geographical or social connection. One has to remember that Mahmoud did not stage these dances for foreigners to learn and document indigenous dances. He selected his subject matter, movement, and costume for an Egyptian audience to empower them to have respect for themselves and all the various groups that are also Egyptian. If foreigners are to learn from the Reda Troupe, let us learn of the beautiful dancing of Farida Fahmy, Mahmoud’s fantastic movement and staging. Let us try to understand through his choreographies the cultural signals that make each particular subculture unique, as well as gain insight into Egyptian public/private categories by what they do and do not bring to the stage.
There are still so many chapters here to write — about their specific dances, choreography, and movement; about the travels all over the world (ie., to China before it was open; at the 1963 Olympics when a situation flared and every Arabic speaking person was removed from the area, etc.); about Mahmoud’s creative process so ably discussed by Farida in her master’s thesis; about Farida herself over these 25 years of dance in Egypt. Much is still to be written, and even more is still to be published.
Beyond the Reda Troupe
When I met Farida she was new in the US and very quiet. I found out, basically through the first interview, that she had never lived alone before, always within an extended family with plenty of others coming and going. She had never carried house keys before: “For me, a latchkey kid…that was a new concept.” I also found that she had just recently given up performing. It was very painful when she was talking about sitting in the dressing room just months before wondering how she could possibly give all this up. She was under pressure to finish at the age of 40. In addition to this, the musical strength of the Reda Troupe had been diminishing since the death of composer/director Ali Ismail, and it was deemed best that she leave while everything still seemed strong. The final decision was made with the sudden death of her father. Staying in Cairo, where the memories of him were so vivid, was very difficult. On a trip to get away for a little while, she went to Canada, where she learned about the UCLA Master’s program. She had always promised her father that she would go back to school for graduate work, so now she did. As a lighter strange quirk of fate, her Canadian cousins contacted an LA friend who contacted Barbara Racy to help with the paperwork and admissions. Thank goodness for Barbara.
“When I stopped dancing I was physically A-1. I was even maybe better than the younger people as far as physical condition. But there came a time when I decided, “That’s it. I have to stop.” It wasn’t easy. But it had to be cold-turkey. I knew if I hung around (Egypt) it’s going to be worse. So we (Farida and her mother) decided to come to the States to do my M.A. and be an ocean away. I would have to cross the Atlantic Ocean to go home. And that was cold-turkey. And I think it was the best way.” (1994)
I asked Farida how it was to give up dancing before you want to. I remembered her pain from 1983. It was reassuring to hear her answer: she got through it, and is on the other side.
Well, as you grow in age you become more mature. My father told me, “Melda, you must realize that your body is not going to last forever.” Youth ends and the mind is more important in the long-run. That was one thing that kept me ready for this. Actually I enjoyed the last 10 years more than the beginning. In the beginning I was young – I was happy dancing, it was an enjoyment. But then as you mature, your awareness develops. When I would dance on the stage, I could at this point tell if any of the lights went out. I could tell if anyone in the wings were moving when they shouldn’t. I could tell, even in the mostly black auditorium, a change of hum, of movement, a rustle. I could sense everything. I discovered my antennae were so well adjusted. I enjoyed the stage, not only inside me but around me… I told myself, “You better enjoy this, its going to end.” My senses got more and more aware of what was going on. I even started to savor the whole smell of the place, the ritual of going into my room, and hanging my clothes and doing make-up, the whole ritual that starts before the stage.” (1995)
Tribute to Ali Reda
Ali Reda was a dashing man! He had danced ballroom style on the best stages. He even danced in Casino Badia until Badia Masabni fired him for flirting with the Oriental dancers. He first danced in the new cinema films, then saw that choreography and eventually film direction were where his future in films lay. He was very proud of being the first man in Egypt to have “dancer” on his passport. One of Ali’s strengths throughout his full life was his ability to assess people’s strengths. He could see the right opportunity for a person, what person he should introduce to whom for their mutual benefit, what opportunities to select and which to pass. I loved his stories about the entertainment world over the course of decades, he worked with all the major Oriental dancers. I always told myself that I would sit down with a tape recorder and get down these stories. He would not have passed up the opportunity like I did. In 1993, one day before I left Cairo for my Ramadan vacation, he entered the hospital to remove a cancer. By the time I returned he was in France receiving therapy. He never returned. This has been so difficult for Melda, to lose the love of her life, her husband, and the one person she trusted completely.
Place in History
Farida down plays her own stardom. I know that her charisma, talent and star quality play a big part in this whole picture. “I was all of what I was doing. I loved standing on the stage. I adored the stage. I had a feeling for the stage that very rare people have. I knew that people loved me, I could reach out to them. There was an energy that I felt always from my people, my audiences and from life…from my everyday life, from the taxi driver, to the butcher to the (government) minister.”
“I’ve seen it!” I exclaimed.
“Yes, ten years later, and you have watched it. So you can imagine how it was.” But she goes on to say, “My upbringing taught me, from my mother and father, that it was to be enjoyed, but being famous wasn’t the thing. It was important, but it wasn’t affecting my sense of direction.”
Whether “one flower in a bouquet,” as she says, or a singular national treasure and international star, Farida Fahmy has her place in history.
She also still has her talent. Although we can’t see her perform, except by video, I know well that when she is teaching, every now and then the music will engulf her, a hush will fall over her students, and she will be swept away into a world we can only hope to glimpse. We see what held worldwide audiences in awe, what was presented to kings, presidents, and heads of state as Egypt’s best. And so very important, the woman from a good family that enabled Egypt to respect its own art.
Sahra had been dancing in the Los Angeles, California area eight years when she met Mme. Farida Fahmy while they were both taking Master’s level classes in Dance Ethnology at UCLA. After receiving her Master’s degree, Farida continued Doctorate level work in Theatre Arts. She then returned home to Cairo, Egypt, in 1988, and in January, 1989, invited Sahra to visit her for 1½ months. Sahra arrived in May, and in June auditioned for Meridien Heliopolis Hotel. She performed there for 5½ years. www.sahrasaeeda.com