Dancing in the Rain

Dancing in the Rain

Cultural Identity and Dance in Egyptian Film

by Habiba

When the Arabic arts are represented in scholarly circles, dance is often conspicuously absent. In a paper I wrote several years ago, “Belly dance: the enduring embarrassment,”1 I argued to place dance squarely among the other Arabic arts by demonstrating how the aesthetic principles and structure of Egyptian dance followed that of music and the decorative arts. As a departure point I used Lois al Faruqi’s five qualities that Oriental dance has in common with the other Islamic arts: abstraction, improvisation, small intricate detail, serial structure and a series of mini-climaxes.2 After a description of spatial and floor design factors and descriptions of the geometric isolation movements in circles, semicircles and figure eights framed by arms, I concluded that while the context and affect of the dance performance might vary, the enduring quality of the dance is due to the geometric aesthetic principles commonly found in Islamic art.

Keep in mind that the audience I was writing for had no predisposed favorable opinion of the dance, not to mention respect for it as an art. An interesting thing happens, however, once you place dance among the other arts: it becomes vulnerable to political debates that surround the other arts and the particular society’s attitude to dance is seen as a gauge of social issues. The more it becomes a subject of this kind of general scholarly discourse the less it will be seen as an isolated anomaly. In my opinion, this is a good thing.

Naima Akef in Ahibbak ya Hassan, 1958

Thanks to people like Roberta Dougherty, scholars of popular culture are looking at Egyptian dance as a part of the cultural landscape. They are starting to get interested in issues that we dancers have been talking about for years, such as the source of the dance traditions found in films from the Golden Age of Egyptian musicals, the blend of theater dance and Egyptian elements in these performances, and also the image of the dancer in society.

A problem common to countries that have been colonized by western powers is that of forging a vital post-colonial identity. A good way of gauging their success is by looking at the popular culture that the people embrace. While there is no doubt that Egyptian culture is greatly influenced by the West, it would be ridiculous to write off their popular culture as merely a carbon copy. The composer Abdel Wahab used elements of western music, but was a revered truly Egyptian composer. In the 1980’s there was a lot of controversy in Egypt itself concerning the presence of elements of western theater dance in the Egyptian national troupes. Since their inception, the two government sponsored troupes, the Kowmeyya troupe and the Reda troupe, have always had a blend of western theater dance and traditional material. In the 1950’s, there were Russian cultural advisors in Egypt who shared their approach to the staging of ethnic dance. Also, stars like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were much admired. Artists who had a very personal approach looked to this western theatrical technique as a vehicle for personal expression. In response to criticism of use of western theater dance, Mr. Reda quite rightly reserved his right to be an artist. Although he made the first survey of traditional dances of the various regions of Egypt, he refused to be restricted to an anthropological approach in creating his dances.

These very same issues come up again and again in the other arts. At a conference I attended recently, film was the battleground for this same debate. In conjunction with a film festival featuring Egyptian and Indian musicals on January 28-30, 1999, New York University held a conference highlighting the history of the musical film in both countries. The title of the conference, “Dancing in the Rain,” was derived from a scene in one of the Indian films inspired by the famous Gene Kelly sequence. Attending were many of the leading experts in Egyptian popular culture: Dr. Lila Abu-Lughod (Panel Chair), Dr. Walter Armbrust, Dr. Virginia Danielson and doctoral candidate Roberta L. Dougherty, who is also the Middle East Bibliographer at the University of Pennsylvania. Also participating in the conference was Livia Alexander, a doctoral student at NYU jointly in film and Middle Eastern Studies who has been the driving force behind the Egyptian Film Festival for the last three years. The Egyptian Film Festival is sponsored by ARCE (American Research Center in Cairo) and has toured many American cities like New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. Roberta Dougherty and Walter Armbrust have served as consultants for the film festival. The theme of this year’s Egyptian Film Festival was the musical film, and that is how the idea for the NYU conference was born.

Tahia Carioca in Alil al-Hawa, 1955

The specific aim of the conference was to examine the role of the filmmaker in post-colonial national cultures. Since Egypt and India are former British colonies certain questions have arisen over the source of their modern national culture. Participants in the conference challenged the classic stereotype of the “modern” West and the culturally backward “East” by asking the question whether societies that were formerly colonial are culturally merely empty vessels, receiving “modernity” in all its ramifications from the West thereby creating inferior and imitative cultural production. Both countries have had a prolific film industry. Therefore a cross-cultural study of one genre of the films of both countries is a very interesting way to look at the larger question. Also, the musical film blends different art forms— dance, theater, music, cinematography, and poetry—so there is a lot to examine.

The question of originality is important for us as we look at the golden age of Egyptian Oriental dance. One could dismiss this great period as an imitation of American musicals and/or the result of having Russian ballet masters as cultural advisors in 1950’s Egypt. But there has not been a serious treatment of the Egyptian elements of the dance in film, partly because the Egyptians, like the Indians, do not consider these movies (or dance in general) worthy of serious attention. Things might be changing, though, as western scholars look to these films as a gauge of the vitality of popular culture.

Of special interest to those in Middle Eastern dance were the papers by Virginia Danielson, Walter Armbrust and Roberta Dougherty. Dr. Virginia Danielson, author of the definitive book on Om Kalsoum The Voice of Egypt (1997), dealt with the origin of the Egyptian musical film, often assumed to be derived from western musical film. Dr. Danielson made the case that the Egyptian musical theater, which flourished long before the advent of films, was the real ancestor of the Egyptian musical film.

Dr. Walter Armbrust, author of an extremely well-received book on Egyptian popular culture, Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 1996), examined overlapping features in Egyptian and Indian musicals in his paper, “The Ubiquitous Non-presence of India in the Egyptian Cinema.” As early as the 1930’s there were Indian themes in Egyptian movies. Later on, commonality of plot was even more apparent. In the 1950’s post-colonial themes were common to both film industries. This was not surprising since they had something in common, struggling to project the image of a modern country.

Roberta L. Dougherty’s paper was entitled, “Dance and the Dancer in Egyptian Film.” She set out to examine the image of dance and the dancer in Egyptian film by looking at three categories of film genres: the gangster musical, the backstage drama and the youth movie. She included in her study films in which singers or dancers were the star, and the story line supported the appearance of music and dance. She eliminated from consideration those that had merely one gratuitous dance sequence.

She dispelled some common myths about how professional dancers were portrayed in films. The first often-repeated myth is that Egypt has produced nothing but musical films. There have been 3,000 Egyptian films since 1927 and only about 100 of them are about dancers. It is true, however that from the period 1950-1955, 40% of all films were musicals. Musical film production declined after the late 1950’s, as it also did in the United States. The case is different in India, which experienced no such decline.

She next dealt with characters of the dancer and how they were portrayed and whether dance itself was seen as a good or a bad thing. Other common assumptions were “dancers all die in the end,” they are “always punished,” and they “are all prostitutes.”

When looking at the first category, the gangster movie, Ms. Dougherty pointed out that Tahiya Carioca played bad girls quite often, but also played good girl parts. The truth is that the portrayals widely vary from good girls to bad, and the view of the dance itself runs the gamut from acceptable to not acceptable.

In the second category, the backstage musical, the main thrust of the plots and central characters have changed over the years. In the early years of Egyptian film it was most often that dancers were portrayed in the backstage musical. The theme of these musicals was the creation of the ideal couple, thereby insuring a wedding at the end.

Livia Alexander pointed out in her paper that in the 1990’s, however, the themes and central characters are quite different. The central characters are often poor aspiring singers and typical themes are frustrated aspirations, poverty and national sacrifice. Two films “Ice Cream in Gleam,” with Amr Diab, and “To Ismailia and Back,” with Mohammed Fouad, are examples of this genre. In the later backstage genre films such as the 1963 “Shafiqah al-Qibtiyah” (Shafiqah the Copt), the 1975 film biography of Badia Masabni, the message is that becoming a dancer is the road to unhappiness. In both of these films non-dancers played the title roles.

On the other hand, when you look at the third category, the youth movie, the message seems to be, “Dance is just good clean fun.” The quintessential examples of this are the movies starring the Reda Troupe. Ms. Dougherty concluded that positive portrayals were more common in earlier films, when dancers played dancers. In later decades actresses would play dancers and they weren’t as careful about their portrayals. Ms. Dougherty also said that dancers are returning to cinema to play dancers and she looks forward to a renaissance of dance in films.

The Indian component of the conference came about with the assistance of Lalitha Gopalan of Georgetown University who began the conference with a talk about “filmophilia,” which set the musical film-friendly tone. A very good sign at the conference was that all of the presenters on subjects both Indian and Egyptian admitted to being avid fans of the musical film genre.


1. Barbara F. Siegel (Habiba), “Belly Dance: the Enduring Embarrassment,” originally presented at the Middle East Studies Association, 1995, reprinted in Arabesque, Nov/Dec, 1995, Vol. 21, No. 4, Pgs. 11-13.

2. Lois al Fauqi, “Dance as an Expression of Islamic Culture,” Dance Research Journal, 10/2, Spring/Summer 1978, pgs. 6-13.

Habiba has been a performer and teacher of Oriental dance for over twenty years. She has made numerous trips to Tunisia and Egypt to document traditional dance styles and to perform. She teaches at her own studio in Philadelphia, The Habiba Studio. A well-known scholar and author on the subject of Middle Eastern dance, she is an outreach lecturer of the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University of Pennsylvania. She has been a guest lecturer at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and the Middle East Institute, Washington, DC. In 1997 she was inducted into the American Academy of Middle Eastern Dance Hall of Fame in New York and is on the Board of ASAMED a national professional organization of Middle Eastern dance. www.habibastudio.com

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