Egyptian films have presented us with many portrayals of the dancer, but what role did she play in our collective consciousness? And how did audiences perceive her?
A stereotype of the Egyptian film produced during the ‘golden age’ of the 1940s and 1950s is that it has a singer, a dancer, and not much plot. Another cliché is that dancers are only there either to provide a frisson of sexual titillation or to portray society’s corruption. Examined closely, however, the professional female solo dancer as a main character in Egyptian film is more complex. While many films reflect society’s negative attitudes towards the profession, others present a more nuanced and positive picture. Female dance stars from the 1930s onwards have certainly played dancers who were homewreckers, gold-diggers, and gangsters’ molls. But they have also portrayed dancers as loving daughters, faithful partners, good mothers, and successful artists making positive contributions to the cultural development of Egypt.
A Dubious Occupation
Egyptian society has historically regarded public performers, particularly females, with suspicion. It was not until 1915 that an Egyptian Muslim woman—the singer Munira al-Mahdiya, whose nickname was ‘Sultanat al-Tarab’ (the Sultana of Enchantment)—trod the boards of a stage and became a star. Before then, only foreign female actresses had performed on the Egyptian stage. Despite al-Mahdiya’s achievement, women of partly foreign descent and non-Muslims continued to make up a sizeable portion of the casts of most theatrical entertainment in the early decades of the twentieth century. In the later cinema industry, many of Egypt’s beloved stars also came from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds.
In the early years, portrayals of professional entertainers drew a distinction between independent women who remained ‘honest’ amidst a degenerate society and entertainers who actively cultivated male admirers and led seedy lives of crime and deception. Depending on context, films sometimes even equated entertainers with sex workers. The notorious almah portrayed in Orientalist literature, who entertains men by singing and dancing at rowdy parties in her home, appears in the magnificent trilogy of films directed by Hassan al-Imam and based on Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy: Bayn al-Qasrayn (Palace Walk, 1964), Qasr al-Shawq (Palace of Desire, 1967), and al-Sukkariyah (Sugar Street, 1973). In the first two of these films, the stern father who rules his own family with an iron fist and refuses to let his wife leave her house—even to visit the shrine of her favourite saint—is shown enjoying visits to entertainers/prostitutes who run their business from houseboats on the Nile.
This portrayal of the life of ‘women without men’ influenced later film portrayals of female entertainers. But the lifestyle of professional female entertainers (mostly located on Mohamed Ali Street and not in Nile houseboats), who made their living from singing and dancing and not from having sex with clients, has rarely been portrayed in Egyptian film since. For example, in the 1958 film Ahibbak ya Hassan (I Love You, Hassan), the main female character (played by the incomparable dancer Naima Akef) leaves her rural home to work in the big city among the entertainers of Mohamed Ali Street. She successfully fights off the unwelcome advances of men, remains true to her professional aspirations and becomes a success by working hard and proving herself as an artist. Another example is the extremely popular film, Khali Ballak Min Zuzu (Watch Out for Zuzu, 1972), also by Hassan al-Imam, although it presents the Mohamed Ali Street lifestyle as a vestige of a backward time that must be rejected for modern progress.
The Backstage Musical
Some critics place the dance film squarely within the development of the Egyptian comedy film, although many comedies are not about entertainment in any way and there are also many films featuring dancer characters that are melodramas. Early Egyptian films about dancers are inevitably musical films, however, most probably influenced by the popular Hollywood ‘backstage musical’ available to the Egyptian public at the time. The storyline usually centres around the trials and tribulations of putting on a show and were frequently also star narratives, describing the characters’ rise to fame. This provided a handy way to insert songs and dances, in some cases advancing the narrative thread, in others running parallel to it or merely showing the stars ‘at work’. Dance numbers often took place within the frame of a proscenium arch and other specific conventions of stage performance, beginning with a curtain going up and ending with stars emerging onto the apron of the stage to accept audience adulation. The context included not only theatrical and nightclub performances, but also radio broadcasts.
Because they were about the world of entertainment, ‘backstage musicals’ reflexively present their main characters—whether dancers or singers–in a positive light, though sometimes subjected to family disapproval. The performer also invariably gets to enjoy the inevitable happy ending, or what is also known as the ‘marriage plot’. An early film that engages with the problem of the social respectability of the performer is al-Wardah al-Bayda (The White Rose, 1934), where the musical ambitions of the main character—played by the immortal Mohamed Abdel Wahab—have been rejected by his own family. The ensuing successful performance leads to acceptance by all. The arc is similar in most ‘backstage musicals’: not only does the artist have to prove that his/her work has artistic merit, but also that it can pay the bills.
A Dancer … or an Actress?
There is a dearth of thoughtful analysis of the role of dance in Egyptian film, particularly the portrayal of the character of the dancer and her role in film. Often, a positive portrayal of the professional dancer as the star of a film has more to do with whether the actress portraying her is herself a dancer. In the first three decades of Egyptian cinema, dancers were portrayed by women who were professional dancers offscreen. In the 1960s, these roles were played by women who were (with some exceptions) actresses and not dancers. This development deemphasized the performance aspect and brought the melodramatic narrative of the plot into the foreground.
In many cases, films about dancers often star actresses who are quite deficient as dancers often making it difficult to understand the appeal of a performer from the past when she is being so ineptly portrayed. Most of the biographical films about famous dancers made by director Hassan al-Imam in the 1960s and 1970s—such as Shafiqa al-Qibtiya (Shafiqa, the Copt, 1963)—fall squarely into this category. Hend Rustum, the actress portraying Shafiqa , was chosen not for her dance talents (which were minimal) but rather for her reputation as ‘the star of seduction’ and ‘Egypt’s answer to Marilyn Monroe’. But who better to portray the infamous nineteenth-century dancer who seemingly held Egypt’s aristocracy in thrall with her fascinating candelabra dance? The film Bamba Kashshar (1974), about the notorious dancer of the 1920s, features painfully overlong song-and-dance numbers performed by its star, Nadia al-Gindi, who although a popular actress specializing in transgressive roles, was no dancer.
The inverse is also true: films that starred women whose claim to fame arose first from their success as dancers are not all films about dancers. Samia Gamal, a fine actor and a marvellous dancer, made films of this type at all periods of her career. One of her earliest films, Ahmar Shafayif (Lipstick, 1946), places her in a supporting role with Naguib al-Rihani in a story reminiscent of the Marlene Dietrich vehicle The Blue Angel (1930), in which a heartless young woman tries to destroy a decent man. Samia, playing a home-wrecking housemaid, dances twice in the film, but in the context of dance that any young woman might perform who is not a professional entertainer: once at a family party, the second time at her own engagement party, and both times she is wearing an ordinary dress. Gamal’s film Sukkar Hanim (Miss Sugar, 1960), a remake of the Victorian farce Charlie’s Aunt, is another example.
When non-dancers portray professional dancers, the storyline of the film is more likely to present a negative image of the profession. Perhaps professional dancers exercised some choice over how they were portrayed in films—after all, their success as public entertainers bankrolled their cinematic success. An interesting exception is Taheya Carioca, an outstanding and beloved dancer whose cinematic roles—whether dancers or not—were not always positive.
Egyptian dancers of decades ago have left us few texts in their own words. Perhaps the performances recorded on film and the roles that Egyptian dancers and actors consented to play represent, however imperfectly, not only existing attitudes about their work, but also alternatives they wished to offer.
Roberta L. Dougherty , librarian for Middle East Studies at Yale, holds a master’s degree in Arab studies and librarianship. A professional librarian for 25 years, her recent research ranges from nineteenth-century American Orientalism and the history of Middle Eastern printing to the social construction of performance in Egypt and the Arab Spring’s culture of expressiveness. Twice elected president of the Middle East Librarians Association, in 2016 she received its Partington Award for her contributions to Middle East librarianship.