Dancing against taboos: Egyptian women liberate their minds and bodies

May Sélim, Saturday 19 Mar 2022

Three Egyptian troupes — Echo for Art, Nut Dance Company, and Awalem Khafeya — have been helping women to free their bodies and appreciate them more by practicing different forms of dance, mixing contemporary movements with more traditional ones.

Dance

Some of their shows are scheduled to be held this month.

“Last August, we launched a call to women between the ages of 18 and 40 in the towns of Ismailia (Suez Canal) and Armante (near Luxor). We invited them to take part in our project that introduces them to contemporary dance. 22 women were selected in Ismailia, all seeking to express themselves through dance, to move their bodies and to achieve neuromuscular balance. We started with some physical exercises, then we worked on the basic techniques of contemporary dance,” says Nermine Habib, choreographer, dancer, and founder of the Echo for Art troupe.

Created in 2019 with the support of the network of national cultural institutes of the European Union, Echo for Art focuses on the Egyptian governorates which lack artistic activities. The troupe organises workshops in theatre, contemporary dance, oriental dance, and music.

“Despite the societal taboos, these women are open to dancing. Little by little, they overcome the traditional convictions and seek to give shows in public, where they talk about their experience,” adds Nermine Habib.

At the end of a five-month training workshop that is held in Ismailia, the show ‘Time Out’ was staged last December. Each participant had to evoke her personal experience through dance in a few minutes.

In January, the same workshop was held in Armante, an Upper Egyptian city embedded in conservative ideologies. Few women had the courage to participate in the workshop and perform in front of their friends and families.

“Echo will continue its training workshops in the various governorates of Egypt. It will certainly change ideas about art and dance.”

Time Out performance by Echo for Art. (Photo: Bassam El-Zoghby)

Against the clichés

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, on 7 March, the contemporary dance performance ‘Once Upon a Time I Entered a Garden’ was staged in Downtown’s Cairo Start-up Haus.

A production by the Nut Dance Company, staged and choreographed by Hazem Header, was also the result of a contemporary dance workshop, bringing together professional dancers and victims of sexual harassment.

“The show was prepared for the annual Breaking Walls Festival, which aims to integrate performance arts into public spaces. Held last December, the festival coincided with the dates of the international campaign on violence against women (25 November to 10 December).

The company launched a call for applications, and those selected participated in a two-week workshop, followed by a show featuring their testimonies on harassment of all kinds.

“The title of the show alludes to the eponymous song by Asmahan and to the dream of all women to stay quietly in a garden, undisturbed,” explains Header, choreographer and founder of the Nut Dance Company and the Breaking Walls Festival.

The show, currently performed in different places around Cairo, attacks clichés and the fact that women are locked up in the name of habits and customs.

“You must not travel alone,” “You must get married now,” “You are a divorced woman,” “You must not come home late,” “You must hide your body,” are some of the random sentences that are fused into the performance and hammered out in the dark, as women appear on stage, wearing long veils, covering their heads, faces, and two-thirds of their bodies. They are prisoners of the veils.

They mechanically move their bodies to the rhythms of a folk song. Little by little, the movement intensifies, and their bodies reflect their daily struggle to break taboos.

“Thanks to the workshop, I discovered thousands of stories that can create many other shows,” adds Header.

‘Once Upon a Time’ by Nut Dance Company 

Dancers like no other

Another troupe challenging societal taboos is ‘Awalem Khafeya’ (‘Secret Worlds’), an independent contemporary oriental dance troupe created by choreographer Sherin Hegazy.

“I have always wanted to combine oriental dance with other forms of dance. When I started, I was very impressed by Reda’s Troupe — a pioneering group in the field of Egyptian folk-dance — especially its experience with the Canadian ballerina Diana Calenti. The latter has succeeded in combining oriental dance with classical ballet, giving rise to beautiful choreography to Andalusian music and its Moashahat. I also studied modern dance and contemporary dance. I find that contemporary dance can encompass several other forms of dance by making the necessary dramatic and choreographic arrangements,” Hegazy clarifies.

Thus, Hegazy’s choreography adds an innovative spirit to oriental dance.

“Contemporary dance allows me to analyse and disassemble the movements of oriental dance. This allows me to develop my own choreography, add other necessary movements, and present a different vision of this art,” she underlined, adding that “due to the pandemic and confinement, our work has been suspended for a year and a half. And we only resumed our activities a few months ago, posting a few videos on social networks to reintroduce our idea to the public. The videos are not really representative of the objective of the troupe.”

Hegazy relies on social media as a means of communication. Together with her troupe, she is currently working on a show that will encapsulate her vision of oriental dance and follow a fairly clear dramatic line.

“The challenge faced by women who want to join the troupe and dance freely is based on a struggle against the prejudices of society and those around them. They live this struggle on a daily basis, and I want to show it on stage.”

However, the activities of Awalem Khafeya are not limited to shows and videos. They also try to forge a direct link with women through online workshops, which are a perfect opportunity to exchange ideas.

“Dance is an artistic discipline, but also a need and a way to let off steam. There is nothing shameful in that. Anybody can dance. For this, I give a one-and-a-half-hour dance lesson once a week to encourage women to appreciate their bodies and the art of dance,” she concludes.

Awalem Khafeya Troupe

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