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A Friendship Based on the Love of Egyptian Dance

By (Amara) Laura Osweiler

2003 Dance Under Construction,
UC Graduate Cultural Dance Studies Conference, UC
LA

Sahra Kent, an American, and Farida Fahmy and Mahmoud Reda, both Egyptians and co-founders of the Reda Troupe, have known each other since the early 1980s. Their mutual love of raks al-Misr (Egyptian dance), which has brought them together, allows for a cultural transfer of ideas. I am interested in exploring their personal friendship because this connection, a linkage between cultures, destabilizes colonialist hierarchies on both national and global stages.

I will use Marshal Sahlins’ theory of cultural continuity as a means to situate their work and relationship within a postcolonial perspective. I use the term postcolonial not to mean that colonialism has ended but only that its discourse is shifting hegemonic placement. Cultural continuity helps to disrupt colonialism’s monolithic version of itself, not by denying that colonialism has power, but by demonstrating how those colonized maintain and perform their own agency in spite of colonialist and capitalist legacies and structures.

According to Sahlins, colonialism dictates indigenous cultures to take one of two actions: either to employ the images and stereotypes of themselves constructed by colonialists or to react against colonialist powers by distancing themselves which results in “evolving complementary or inverted forms of the colonial order.” But Sahlins contends, these types of analysis place too much weight on colonialism, making it “the only game in town.” Instead, a culture’s idea of itself is not born out of a relationship with colonialism, exclusively, but neither is it isolated from the impact of colonialism or the world-capitalist system. When people are faced with imposing forces, the choices and decisions they make are not disruptions of their culture but continuations of it. An amount of syncretism, accommodation, and differentiation occurs within local cosmology.

As individuals, Reda, Fahmy, and Kent are already in the process of cultural continuity. They bring to the relationship their own interactions with postcolonialism, which can be seen in their upbringings and dance performances.

Reda and Fahmy come from the upper-middle, urban class, which generally holds secular notions of Egyptian nationalism and is positively influenced by westernism. In fact, Fahmy herself came from a bi-cultural family: an Egyptian father and a British mother. Both Reda and Fahmy were encouraged by their families to pursue athletics and dances, both foreign and Egyptian. And as a result, their new form of dance, which I call Staged folklore, draws on these elements. Therefore, their company the Reda Troupe, started in 1959, combines western dance motifs with their own creativity and impressions of traditional Egyptian dance.

Sahlins and Lila Abu-Lughod content that certain western influences are no longer seen as such because they become a part of tradition. And also, these contemporary traditional views are not really traditional because outside influences have altered the perception of what is and is not tradition. It is in these distinctions and questions of why certain aspects of cultures are used and others vilified that cultural hybridity can be explored. Fahmy writes in her thesis The Creative Development of Mahmoud Reda about different elements Reda introduced to raks al-Misr. And though she discusses Reda’s and her own western influenced upbringing, she never refers to the troupe’s dances as “influenced by ballet or any other western dance form.” The western elements of the Reda Troupe’s dances become obscured as they were incorporated into a continued sense of Egyptian culture. And as a political nationalist statement, Fahmy instead emphasized the Egyptian influences on their dances. She was also aware that Reda made decisions regarding how the troupe should depict its relationship with western influences. She writes, “In his formative years as a choreographer, Mahmoud Reda understood the dangers of allowing himself to succumb to Western influences, especially in the content of his art medium. He realized that the abundance of music and dance that were rooted in Egypt was to be the basis for his choreography, and the starting point for his creations.” Through this process, the Reda Troupe was able to continue while simultaneously creating new ideas of Egyptian culture. They were able to pull not only from past ideas of what Egyptian culture was but also from contemporary ideas and placed them into movement and the body.

By using western elements, the Reda Troupe was able to impact their own class by opening up within it a space for dance to become a legitimate occupation. Up until this point, the upper class’s idea of public dancers came from a colonialist legacy. Fahmy writes, “The elite and upper classes of Egypt typically expressed embarrassment toward their native dances in general and towards belly dancing in particular. One of the causes of this embarrassment is the impact the West has had on Egyptian culture.” Female professional dancers, generally raks al-sharki (Dance of the East/Orient) dancers, were and to the most part still are, looked down upon by the middle and upper classes of Egypt, whereas among the working class, of which many dancers come from, they are seen as making a living like everyone else. I would content that the Reda Troupe may not have been so much about helping these dancers’ status as separating themselves from “raks Sharqi with its derogatory cultural connotations.” By separating the two dance forms, Fahmy was able to renegotiate women’s position in upper-society by bring a cultural “backward” art into modernity as a symbol of national identity.

Reda and Fahmy were working to create a bridge between the lower and upper classes in order to unite Egypt in a collective whole. This position led the Egyptian government to employ the Reda Troupe as a cultural representation of Egyptian nationalism. Nina Costanza writes, “The Reda Troupe was engaged for every summit meeting that Nasser organized; for numerous kings and presidents of countries all over the world; for every guest to Egypt.” By employing the Reda Troupe, the newly formed Egyptian nation-state helped with its own construction and performance of nationalism in the face of colonialism and globalization. Though the Reda Troupe became a national symbol of Egypt, they were originally not interested in becoming a state sponsored group because of problem with artistic control. But the troupe eventually succumbed to the government’s desire because of their financial problems.

The disagreements between the Reda Troupe and the Egyptian government over nationalization is an example of a weak point in Sahlin’s idea of culture continuity: he does not take into account a culture’s internal disagreements about how it should be modernized. Egypt, along with many former colonies, is dealing with multiple points of view about how they should decolonize. Leila Ahmed contends that many issues are still being dealt with today between those who want: one, a secular, pro-western government; two, a secular, anti-western government; or three, a sacred, anti-western government.

Another problem with Sahlins’ idea of cultural continuity is that he looks at the relationship of dominant cultures on indigenous ones. But he does not take into account the reverse. Egyptian culture influences Americans, both indirectly and directly. Because Kent is an American trained in an Egyptian dance style, she is a good example of this “reverse” cultural continuity. Kent began dancing in the United States during the height of the belly dancing fad in the 1970s and as such she syncrentizes many diverse historical and cultural trajectories.

The Unites States has a history of Middle Eastern dance going as far back as at least The Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia in 1876. During this time, Egyptian and Arabic dancers in the United States were brought over as part of colonialist, anthropological, and scientific racist projects. As an American Kent inherited the Orientalists’ and Colonialists’ ideas of Egyptians, which still construct a mysterious, dangerous, exotic area in need of unveiling, domination, and placement under “democratic” control. Kent also continues an Orientalist feminist tradition in which middle, upper class Caucasian women gaze "towards the Orient," its spiritual teachings, and its women dances as a source of inspiration for breaking from America’s own social constraints.

Kent is also an inheritor of Arab-American culture. Middle Eastern immigrants have syncretized traditional ideas of themselves as Middle Easterners and Western concepts of themselves. For example, the Middle Eastern nightclub scene, which is the main source of income for Middle Eastern dancers in the United States, grew out of local Arab gatherings. Many of the clubs, first established by local Arabs, were later patronized by non-Arabs. As the scene grew, it became harder for owners to find dancers from the Arab community (for various reasons), so they looked towards American dancers. These dancers, often trained in dance forms other than Middle Eastern dance, brought new movement mixed with Orientalism and created American-Middle Eastern dance.

Kent also comes out of a highly educated system, which creates structures of knowledge about the Middle East. With a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and a Master’s degree in Dance Ethnology, Kent is trained in western means of knowledge production. This can be seen in her Master’s thesis, Firqat al-Zaffah. Egyptian Dance and Music in the Cairo Wedding Procession, a traditional dance ethnographic work. As academia shifts into postcolonial positions and deals with increase immigration of various Arabs to the United States, non-Arab Middle Eastern dancers have also become culturally sensitive and aware of difference. With these changes new forms of knowledge making acknowledge that western, masculine, white, middle class ways are not the only or correct ways to view a culture. As a result, the West’s epistemology is being infiltrated by previously unheard voices, such as Fahmy’s, forcing open new spaces in postcolonialism.

Reda, Fahmy, and Kent’s interaction is an example of this direction as it is based on admiration and learning. Fahmy and Kent’s relationship began as one of teacher-student while both were working on their Masters in Dance Ethnology at UCLA. Their relationship intensified when Kent stayed with Fahmy and her family in Cairo and was helped by Fahmy and Reda prepare for a performance job at the Le Meridien - Heliopolis Hotel. As time went on, their relationship began to take on that of peers and Kent took on a more professional role in regards to performing raks al-sharki. Since returning to the United States, Kent has promoted them through workshops opportunities in the United States. Kent’s interactions with Reda and Fahmy are vital because through their dialogues the colonialist sense of power can be diffused and decentered. Their relationship shifts colonialist structure, which does not so much as silence Egyptians, as ignores their voices.

But just because their relationship destabilizes colonialism, does not means the system is destroyed. As previously mentioned, Sahlins and others writers contend that a result of cultural continuity is the covering up of foreign influences. What is often covered up is the influence of colonialism. Cultures form a new sense of tradition, which is then used as defense mechanisms against colonialism. As a result, it is difficult to assert what is colonialist attitude and what is indigenous as often there is no longer a split.

Though their friendship destabilizes the Westerner’s holding power over the Easterner, Kent still maintains a powerful position. She is not only able to study another culture but can also take on some of its characteristics. Kent identifies with Egyptian culture and promotes herself as an Egyptian style dancer. As a foreigner, Kent is successfully able to embody an Egyptian style of dance and can present Egyptian culture to Egyptians. Through her actions, Kent demonstrates that the Egyptian identity is not only transmittable and adoptable by non-Egyptians but that it is also teachable. Kent makes choices about which types of pieces she wants to continually perform and about what kind of dancer she wishes to present herself as. By making these types of decisions, Kent demonstrates the construction of a national identity made up of layers. She is an American who through years of studying has embodied the style and mannerisms of the dance form. And as a result, Kent is able to be creative with in the style. Kent’s knowledge of Egyptian dance places her in a special, master-performing category, which she uses to gain respect, fame, and employment.

By acting Egyptian, Kent covers up her identification as a westerner. Though she does not necessarily use Egyptian culture to maintain her sense of Americanisms, Kent of course, can never be completely be identified as an Egyptian. It is in this foreigner’s position, which allows her to hold positions other Egyptians do not have. As someone outside the Egyptian class structure, her sense of respectability is not based on one of class but on western identification. She is an outsider and therefore outside to an extent of Egyptian class system and religious morality. Though Kent is not completely bound to Egyptian expectations, she has to conform to some in order to perform.

It is through Reda and Fahmy’s help that Kent can be accepted into Egyptian culture and society and is able to incorporate Egyptian culture into her sense of self-identification. And though Kent does continue aspects of colonialism, which are now a part of postcolonialism, she also humbly listens, which is not a colonialist trait. She openly acknowledges their help with her career and is in awe of their talents.

The Reda Troupe shows that by creating a national dance form, though a new standardized and codified dance form, they are not completely dominated by the West. The Reda Troupe is doing this in the face of colonization and on a postcolonialist stage. Reda and Fahmy demonstrate an ability to construct a national identity. They pick and choose to present different aspects of Egyptian culture while negotiating amongst many different ideas about Egyptian nationalism.

What often is covered up in the rhetoric of the Reda Troupe is the western influence. Though Reda and Fahmy do study other cultures, they integrate that knowledge into promoting their own. But they are selective about which western elements they employ. For example, they do not use stereotypical colonialist representation of the belly dancer, but instead create a new representation based upon Egyptian nationalism. Reda and Fahmy also cover up their discussions and negotiations with class and religious structures as they situate themselves in secular, upper class ideals of respectability and education.

For Reda and Fahmy their relationship with Kent allows them to share Egyptian culture with others who are interested in maintaining their sense of respectability. During their career with the Reda Troupe, Reda and Fahmy were able to bring this type of Egyptian dance to over 58 counties, through western dancers such as Kent, they can also continue reaching a larger market in which to capitalize their style of dance.

Reda, Fahmy, and Kent are able to destabilize western colonialism through cultural continuity on personal, national, and global stages. And even though cultural continuity shows blending and layering of cultures, it also accounts for differences. The Reda Troupe is able to maintain Egyptian differences in the global market while attempting to unite the Egyptian people. Kent on the other hand is able to acknowledge the influence Reda and Fahmy have had on her sense of identification and dance style. She also demonstrates the impact Egyptian culture has had on America. Each in their own way continues to show the integration of cultures while also stressing difference.

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