Dr. Mo Geddawi: Renaissance Man In Transition
Dr. Mo Geddawi has always juggled a head-spinning array of jobs, but he has reached a turning point in his life. In the last year he quit medicine despite attractive offers to stay on. He did it all for love, to paraphrase the song from “A Chorus Line”— love of dance, that is. Mo started a new phase in his life. He has chosen to retire from medicine and is devoting all of his time to dance, his first love. He says, “I am retiring [from medicine] now because I am convinced that dance needs … my contribution to help its progress, and in order to pass my knowledge to colleagues and young dancers and teachers.” It is a perfect time to look back on the amazing path that led him to this place. In thinking about the twists and turns of his life, it is clear that everything he did, even though it seemed a digression, brought him to this point. Mo, the doctor, made Mo, the dancer, possible.
The Early Days
Mo grew up in Cairo, the son of a Saidi family. It was a very different Cairo in those days. Life was more slow-paced and gracious. He had a childhood filled with stimulation of every sort: artistic, intellectual and athletic. He was exposed to music and dance since his early childhood. His family loved music. The radio and the gramophone were always in use at home. His family owned a large collection of records, Egyptian as well as western ones, including classical music. It was his father, an executive with the Anglo-French railway company, Wagon-Lit, who inspired his love of classical music.
His family used to have a gathering every Tuesday at their home, where food, music, dancing and singing were the main activities. Mo was the middle child of seven. All the relatives used to encourage him to dance and sing. He was the little star of the family.
The Geddawis were members of the Cairo Club, where a ballroom dance party was held every Friday evening. He never missed one. He says, “ Members of the club, like all Egyptians, were always kind to the kids and encouraged them to show their talents. At the those dance parties I danced without a break no matter if it was a tango, rumba, samba or waltz.” In addition, his family went to the theater and, more often, movies. Children were always included in these events.
Even in elementary school he was on the music and dance team. The school organized theater visits for the children. His budding interest received a major boost when he was chosen by Mme. Saida Sutaire to study ballet at her palace in Cairo. Mme. Sutaire was the cousin of the late King Farouk of Egypt and a very good ballerina. She had studied ballet in Paris but could not perform because she was a member of the royal family. So she taught selected children free of charge to feed her passion for the dance. At the time it was customary for children to begin studying ballet between the ages of seven and eight.
Another major factor in Mo’s development was that the quality of life in Cairo was far superior in the 1950’s to that of today. Egypt in the fifties had a population of only 26 million as opposed to 70 to 80 million now. The population boom had a negative impact on the economy, social life and quality of education. Life in the fifties was more comfortable—people had the time to appreciate art, dance, theater and good food, and to enjoy gathering with friends. Today, Mo feels, people are in a continuous struggle to survive and have very little, if any, time to appreciate the beautiful things in life. The Geddawi children went on to serious careers. Mo’s older brother is a retired general, his younger brother and sister are both bank managers, and his two older sisters are active in the feminist movement and country club activities. They all married and had large families and continue the family tradition of instilling in the children a love of music and dance.
Exposure to the arts made Mo long for contact with other artists. He was not content to be a mere spectator. He had a natural curiosity and an outgoing nature. His contact with artists began at age eleven, in 1950. His family lived near Ataba Square, a short walk from Mohammed Ali Street, the Old Opera House, The Casino Opera of Mme. Badia Masabni and the Ezbekeiya Theater. In 1950 he snuck into the Old Opera House and formed a friendship with the stage door keeper, Mr. Fetaeha. For four years, until his friend passed away, he had access to the Opera House and met the classical music and dance artists who were visiting from Europe. He practiced his English and kept them amused with dance steps. Little did he know that just eleven years later, in 1961, he would perform there with the Reda Troupe in a show with Um Kulthum for President Nasser and President Bourgiba of Tunisia.
Meeting “The Star of Stars”
In 1950, emboldened by his success at the Opera House, he dreamed about meeting Tahia Carioca. He knew about her through films and stories of his parents and older school friends. It was difficult because children were not allowed in nightclubs, as they are today. His family belonged to a sports club called the National Committee Club, now called the Cairo Club. Badia Masabni’s Casino was right across a bridge, which was even known as Koubry Badia(Badia Bridge). He used to cross the bridge from the Cairo Club and look at the pictures of the stars. One day he saw a display announcing a show starring Tahia Carioca and Abdel Aziz Mahmoud, plus other Egyptian artists and a dance troupe from France. There was a matinee show on Friday at 6 PM. He tried to sneak into the Casino through the stage door, a well-honed ploy from the Opera House. Unfortunately he was caught immediately by the doorkeeper. As he was being escorted roughly to the door, crying and pleading, a lady suddenly appeared and shouted at the doorman, “What’s the matter? Take your hands off that kid!” The doorkeeper obeyed and she called Mo over to her and asked why he was in the theater, since he was too young. He told her that he wanted to see Tahia Carioca dance. The lady said, “If I let you see her, do you promise not to come back?” He agreed and she told the doorman to seat Mo at a table in the back. He saw the whole show leading up to the appearance of Tahia Carioca. When Tahia appeared it was clear that she was the same lady that allowed him to see the show. She had a major influence on him. To him she is still the “star of stars.” This was a pivotal experience for him; it strengthened his desire to be a dancer.
He met Mme. Carioca again later in his life. In 1960 he met Ragaa Elgeddawi, Mme. Carioca’s niece, who was Egypt’s top model at the time. Through Ragaa he met Tahia again and formed a long friendship. Tahia remembered the incident at the Casino. While visiting Berlin in 1994, she observed his dance troupe, Hathor, in training.
The Reda Troupe
In 1957, Mo was also a champion diver. He trained at the same sports club where, coincidentally, Mahmoud Reda was training in gymnastics. Mahmoud was also very interested in dance. Mahmoud Reda approached Mo with the idea of forming an Egyptian dancing troupe. The spur for this idea came about after Mr. Reda had graduated from Cairo University with a business degree, and went on tour with a Brazilian troupe, Alfredo Alaria. After returning to Cairo he became the choreographer and solo dancer of the Egyptian musical “Ya Lil Ya Ain” under the direction of Zaki Tolimaht, the Egyptian theater director. Inspired by winning third place in a folkloric dancing contest at the Russian youth festival in 1957, Mahmoud conceived of the idea for the Reda troupe, and Mo was interested. They started with six boys and six girls, and trained for two years before they had their first performance in 1959. Nothing like it had been seen before in Egypt. Mo attributes their subsequent international success to two things: Reda was able to adapt Egyptian dance for the stage, retaining its Egyptian flavor without being totally authentic. Also, the music by Ali Ismael was written without the quartertones, giving it a wider appeal beyond Middle Eastern borders. Reda was able to adapt story telling in dance for the stage.
It was in 1959 that Mo met Samia Gamal for the first time. He was scheduled to perform with the Reda Troupe for Prince Siahnouk of Cambodia and President Nasser. Also on the program were Samia Gamal and Negwa Fouad. All of the Reda dancers were excited to meet Samia Gamal. Mo says that she had a “dominant and charismatic” personality even though she never raised her voice. “When she danced she had a style of her own and a sweet sexy appeal … It was a pioneering style: perfect use of the dance area, more aerial movements including beautiful Arabesques and very well controlled hand and arm movements. She added a lot of modern dance movements to traditional belly dancing.” They worked together several more times, once when he was in the feature film, “The other man,” with Samia, Sabah, and Rushdi Abaza. In the film he was in a big mambo production number. He saw Mme. Gamal again when she was persuaded to come out of retirement by Samir Sabri. He saw her at the 1984 wedding celebration of his niece at the El-Salam Hotel in Cairo. Mo considers her, along with Tahia Carioca and Naima Akif, to be the dancers that most positively influenced his career.
During this period, in 1960, Mo was studying pharmacy at Cairo University and working with the Reda Troupe. Even at the young age of twenty-one, he was simultaneously involved in science, sports and dance. When asked what attracted him to science, sport and medicine in addition to dance, he says the common thread that tied it together for him was his interest in the human body and his fascination with its movement capabilities. When asked what benefit the pursuit of science has given to his dancing, he has no trouble pointing to a whole host of life-enhancing factors: “the ability to balance fantasy with reality in his thought, self-discipline, curiosity, ability to do research, to understand well the anatomy of the body and the basic laws of movement as well as the psychology behind creative art.”
As originally conceived, the Reda troupe was a private organization. A short time later it was called into service to represent the government. The troupe was discovered almost by accident. The Egyptian ambassador to Germany happened to see them performing in Germany, billed as a student performing group. He recommended them highly to President Nasser. Their usefulness as cultural ambassadors became immediately obvious. Soon after this, the Reda Troupe was kept busy representing the government abroad and in Egypt. They performed for foreign dignitaries like President Bourgiba of Tunisia, King Hussein of Jordan and the Queen of the Netherlands, with the likes of Samia Gamal, Um Kulthoum and Negwa Fouad.
Certain segments of the government, however, resented the rise of the Reda Troupe. The Ministry of Culture was against the group because it didn’t originate within the auspices of the Ministry. It was a privately organized group. Jealousy led to the formation of another troupe within the Ministry of Culture, the Kowmeya Group, instead of supporting the very successful troupe that existed. The Reda Troupe literally supported itself on its performances. The Russian choreographer Ramazin was hired to form the new group, giving the Kowmeya Group its Russian Theater dance influence. Mo feels the main difference between the two groups is the Egyptian flavor of the Reda Troupe as opposed to the Russian flavor of the Kowmeya Troupe. Early on, politics reared its ugly head. In 1964 the Reda Troupe was nationalized. Mo feels that despite Mr. Reda’s best efforts to work unfettered, politics and bureaucracy overshadowed art and independence. Standards slipped, and expenses rose. Mo feels that the group declined due to a top-heavy administration. Expenses climbed as useless people clogged the payroll and dancers who didn’t show up were still paid.
In the same year that it was nationalized, Mo left the Reda Troupe, disappointed in its direction. About the same time, he also tangled with government rules that bound him in a Catch-22 situation. There was a law enacted in Egypt that no one could have two jobs. Mo, being the achiever that he was, had more than two jobs. In that year he was an instructor in pharmacy at his University, a dancer with Reda Troupe, a dance teacher and director of a university folklore troupe, president of the student union, and the only elected member of the Supreme Council of Youth Welfare. He not only had two jobs, but two full-time careers—dance and pharmacy. When approached by his Dean of Faculty and asked to choose, he opted to resign from the university. When forced to choose, dance won out. Because of the restriction prohibiting him from working in two fields he made a life-altering decision: he decided to leave Egypt. Then he encountered another problem. Pharmacists and other medical personnel, along with scientists and engineers were not allowed to emigrate. It was his career as a dancer that came to his rescue. He says, “Dancing saved my life.” In order to leave Egypt he took a dance job with the Fernando Rego group from the Casino de Paris and joined the troupe in Greece.
Shortly after leaving Egypt, he found himself living in Beirut, Lebanon, waiting for the troupe because he couldn’t get a visa to accompany them to Iran. Not being one to sit around, he joined the Ballet School of Mme. Georgette Jabara and got a job choreographing for a TV program called “Beirut By Night.” Musician George Yazbek was also working on the show. Through Yazbek he met the legendary Badia Masabni. Using the pretense of taking Mo to the village Shattura to treat him to the best homemade labne, he introduced him to an elderly woman who turned out to be Badia Masabni. He talked with Badia about the old days, but she was very reserved and refused to touch on certain matters. Mo feels that she did not want to talk in depth about the old days because of her bad experiences at the end of her career. She lost her casino to a rival, Beba Ezzeldin, a Lebanese dancer who was discovered and promoted by Badia. Beba was ungrateful to Badia and tried to destroy Badia’s business and family life. Impoverished, Badia left for Beirut to escape the tax authorities.
Settling in Germany
Mo Geddawi was based in Beirut for five years, and entered medical school there in 1965, specializing in tropical medicine. After receiving his M.D., a friend dared him to fill out an application form (in jest) for further study in Germany. As a result, he was invited to apply for a Ph.D. program in tropical medicine in Germany, and was immediately accepted. After moving to Germany and completing the program, armed with an M.D./Ph.D., he reluctantly accepted a position there with a pharmaceutical company as a clinical researcher, but he had really wanted to travel a bit more.
The fact that he began his medical career in 1973 did not prevent him from continuing to dance, however. At that time Americans were introducing belly dance to Germany. Wives of soldiers and female army employees stationed there were bringing the dance with them, and Mo was a great resource and in immediate demand as a teacher. He began teaching in the U.S. after meeting Magaña Baptiste and her daughter Devi while on a business trip to San Francisco. This meeting led to a long professional association and friendship. For the last sixteen years Mo has taught a workshop in August for Magaña and has been a judge, along with the late Ibrahim Farrah, in her Miss America of the Belly Dance contest.
Throughout this period of Mo’s life he continued to perform other types of dance besides Middle Eastern, and also had time to act in movies and television both in Europe and the Middle East. His films include: Summer Vacation, (Egypt, 1963) with the Reda Troupe; The Other Man (Egypt, 1962) with Sabah and Samia Gamal; A Man from Alaska (Austria, 1972); Divorce His, Her Divorce Hers, (TV series, England, 1972) with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; and The Lawyer, (TV series, Germany, 1973).
Mo chose not to have a studio of his own. He teaches privately and in workshops. In 1985 he founded The Hathor Dance Troupe. Beata Zadou (Cifuentes), already well-known, was one of the original members, along with three Americans, Jalila, Donna, and Feiruz. The goals of the troupe are to internationalize Egyptian and Oriental dances, train German dancers, and present dances to Germans and Arabs abroad. Their many credits include a show with the Reda Troupe in 1990 in Berlin. When asked about the initial reaction of German audiences to the Hathor Troupe, since Egyptian dance was new to them, Mo proudly recalls their immediate positive and enthusiastic reaction, adding that their shows are always sold out.
No Longer a West Coast Secret
In 1994 Mo was inducted into the AAMED Hall of Fame, the year that I met Mo. I received a flyer announcing that Ibrahim Farrah and AAMED were sponsoring Dr. Mo Geddawi in New York. While I had heard of him, I had not had an opportunity to meet him, as he had never been to the East Coast of the U.S. before. I knew that he taught every year at Magaña Baptiste’s annual festival in San Francisco, and also was a judge for their contest, and that he had a large following on the West Coast. I was also aware of the growing popularity of Oriental dance in Germany, and that Mo was at the forefront of that interest.
The workshop was great fun, and the time flew by while we enjoyed the learning experience. At one point I noticed that everyone was smiling, including Mo, a beatific smile that said “Egypt.” The choreographies were lovely and expressive with interesting combinations that were very polished with that Egyptian styling and flair. It was only after the workshop that I learned the other amazing things about Mo, one of the most extraordinary people that I have met in the dance world.
After that first workshop in New York, he was back in town several months later for the AAMED awards gala and gave another workshop. Those who had attended the first workshop were thrilled to see him again and brought their friends and students. His teaching style is charming, unpretentious, encouraging and patient with all levels of student. He clearly communicates his love and respect for the dance.
Mo has clarified for me one of the most interesting features of Egyptian dance. In my studies of dance it has been clear that there are two distinct types of dance in the Middle East. The first type enforces group solidarity and tribal identity like the debke of Lebanon, a line dance, and the bara’ of Yemen, a men’s sword dance. Mo made an intriguing point—Egypt is the only country that does not have a dance of group solidarity; rather, the national dance is one of personal expression. Even when compared to other ethnic groups within Egypt, like the Nubians, who have a dance of village solidarity called Kumba Gash, it stands out as an anomaly in the Middle East, an area that defines itself as largely tribal. He has also said that for the stage one must create the feeling of spontaneity and individual expression in group performance, which was one of the major contributions of the Reda Troupe.
Launching A New Adventure
Having reached a milestone by leaving medicine, his future plans are based on the wish to pass his knowledge on to others. Therefore, he will concentrate on teaching through workshops, instructional videos, and to co-writing a comprehensive book on Middle Eastern dances. He will continue to direct the Hathor Dance Troupe in Germany, enlarging the group and performing more frequently in Berlin and other cities in Europe.
When asked about whether the globalization of music has helped or hurt Egyptian music, he responded that it has definitely helped to gain more non-Arabic audiences. Needless to say, without the globalization of Arabic music we would not have experienced the globalization of the Middle Eastern dance.
When asked what is the biggest mistake that today’s dancers make in performance of Egyptian dance, he says that it is dancing Turkish style and claiming that it is Egyptian.
He has an accepting attitude, however, about reasons for pursuing the dance. He does not criticize people who dance simply for the exercise. Mo is also not proprietary about the dance. He does not feel that you need to be Egyptian to dance well. Both he and Ibrahim Farrah disagreed with the notion that it came with the genes; it takes a lot more than birth to make a great dancer. Mo feels that with training and exposure to music anyone can experience this dance.
In teaching Mo has five goals for the student to master: fast movements of the feet and the quick shift in weight, correct turn technique, correct distribution of energy throughout the body and getting it to the body parts where it is needed most, full control of hands and arms and, finally, appreciation and interpretation of the music. For the truly Egyptian style he also stresses simplicity of hands and arms and small steps.
As Mo comes full circle and turns his energies to his first love, he will be a more visible person on the dance scene. He already has a hefty workshop schedule, traveling around Europe, Australia, and the United States. In spite of his enormous achievement in so many areas, he doesn’t take his success for granted. He still rejoices in the opportunity to perform and pass on his knowledge. Sharing his love of the dance is what Mo Geddawi is all about.
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 Phila-delphia’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