“The only way to achieve immortality is to share everything you know.''
A Man of Coincidences
“People were always fascinated by the Orient. The oriental people like to enjoy life; to have good food; to dance. This is a natural thing for human beings.” The first thing that strikes one about Dr.Geddawi in talking with him is that he is soft-spoken and unassuming.
A teacher, dancer, and choreographer of oriental dance, Dr.Geddawi is a native of Cairo who has made his home in Berlin, Germany for the past twenty years. He is also a doctor of tropical medicine and is openly appreciative to have this mentioned second to his “first love.” Having the pleasure of making his acquaintance this past summer, 1994, in San Francisco at Magana Baptiste’s international oriental festival, we again had the pleasure of his company in New York City when he came to accept his induction to American Academy of Middle Eastern Dance Hall of Fame this November. We took the opportunity to interview him, a man who has made many contributions to Middle Eastern dance on an international level.
Characteristically self-effacing, Dr.Geddawi refers to many of his talents as luck; his opportunities as coincidences; and his accomplishments as blessings.
Through his eloquent and introspective intelligence is conspicuous regarding the dance and his career, he is not immediately candid. There is a reserve, an air of mystery, in Dr.Geddawi’s gentlemanliness. In class, it is a different matter: He is energetic, enthusiastic, encouraging, and obviously in love with what he is doing, and without question, in his element.
Though certainly in command of his material, he is still humble and respectful before his art-and his students, whether they are hobbyists or professionals. Whatever his teaching or aesthetic philosophy maybe, he dances for anyone who wants it…”A lot of people shifted from aerobics to belly dancing. Why? Because belly dancing is not the soul. It’s living in harmony with your body. It’s music. It’s so many things. It’s your attitude to life…My experience in belly dancing, with a lot of women, their personality changed completely…They became more feminine, sexier. They enjoyed themselves more. This is what this dance does to people. It is amazing.”
Movies and Nightclubs: Early Influences
Of course, being Egyptian, song, and dance was a natural part of Dr. Geddawi’s life, but it was apparent that he had an uncommon talent and fascination for dance from a young age. He would go to the movies of Fred Astaire, come home, and imitate the steps he had observed. Two or three times a week, when friends and family would customarily get together in his home for dinner or for some other celebration, Mo, the young star of the family, was usually coerced to sing and dance.
Most popular Egyptian movies, during this era in which Mo was growing up, were musicals, mirroring the Hollywood trend and structured on the same format as the American musical. Typically a film would be made specifically as a vehicle for a famous singer or dancer. Amongst the top box office draws were Tahia Carioca, Samia Gamal, and Naima Akif. “These three really got to make many movies.
There were other good dancers but these three were pretty women aside from being good dancers. Others were good, but were not as pretty, such as Hoda Shamsadeen, Nebawiya Mustafa, so they did not have the same chance…There were many good dancers at this time in the nightclubs and at weddings if a family could afford it. I had the chance to see these dancers and to see the entertainment in the movies.”
Concerning Middle Eastern dance education, there were no schools aside from the training a dancer might receive in rehearsal. “Oriental dancing in Egypt is like folklore dance. Anyone will stand up and do it at a family gathering. Parents gave children their experience. In Europe and America, there is more opportunity. In my time, we had to fight to learn. We learned by observation and practice.”
From Ballet to Ballroom to the Reda Troupe
In Egypt, prior to the revolution (1952) when King Farouk reigned (1936-52), schools were encouraged to emphasize arts and sports as much as academics. And there was a good reason for this. Interscholastic competitions in the arts and sports were prominent and prestigious for a school’s reputation. Pupils who had a distinctive talent in music or dance could expect special attention from teachers and would even “get better food than the others” (breakfast and lunch were served in the schools). Mo was one of those students.
According to Dr. Geddawi many of Egypt’s great artists and athletes come from this era in Egypt’s history. After the revolution, the system changed greatly. Whereas there was an interest in a variety of sports from fencing to swimming; after the revolution, the only sport that received government attention was football (soccer), and the arts were reduced to a much lesser status.
His beginnings in the formal study of dance began with “luck.” King Farouk’s cousin, Saida Sutaire, was an excellent dancer who has studied classic ballet in Paris. Egypt being a Moslem country and Saida being of the royal family, Ms.Sutaire was not allowed to perform in public.
Persistent in her interest and love of dance, she established a ballet school in her palace. She procured her students by handpicking talented children from the schools to study with her without cost. Visiting Mo Geddawi’s school simply as a member of the royal family, young Mo did not evade her observation. He was the only one in his school to have been selected by Ms.Sutaire to be her pupil. “It was just a coincidence…She was a tough lady. She was already over 60. We had to work every day from four to six hours [1952-57]. She did not want money. It was just to satisfy her. She worked very hard with us.”
Ballroom dancing was a part of most social and sporting events. Every Friday and Saturday evenings, there were parties at country clubs were live bands and dancing presented performing opportunities. Apart from ballet lessons, Mo became interested in ballroom dancing. “This was a time for me to practice performance. I was everywhere, wherever there was a party for dancing. I started to enter dance contests for rock-n-roll, the cha-cha-cha. I won many of these contests because, you know, it was just in my blood.”
Simultaneously, Mo Geddawi joined a sports club for diving and organization where “coin<cidentally” Mahmoud Reda was in training for gymnastics. Geddawi’s brother was on the same team as Mahmoud, and they all became friends. “On one of these evenings of ballroom dancing, my brother was there. Mahmoud Reda was there. I was dancing, doing the tango and this and that. At that moment Mahmoud Reda approached me seriously, and he said that he would like to start an Egyptian dancing group.”
When Mahmoud graduated from the Faculty of Commerce of Cairo University, he studied ballet and then worked with Alfredo Alaria [Argentine], a South American group performing jazz and South American dance. After touring with Alfredo Alaria, Reda continued as a solo dancer in what became the genesis of an Egyptian dancing group, initiated by the late renowned Egyptian theatre director, Zaki Tolimaht. With the consent of the government, Tolimaht decided to take a group to participate in one of the many youth festivals in Russia where “every country was represented.”
There were very few available dancers at this time, especially of the male gender. He chose two dancers only, Mahmoud Reda and Naima Akif. Performing the operetta, “Ya lil Ya Ein,” they won third prize in the folk dancing division. “This is the first thing that happened in Egypt in this direction.” On their return to Egypt, the idea of the Reda Troupe was born.
“We were only six boys and six girls which started to train. It took us two years of training, and our first performance was in 1959 [in Cairo]. The training was at Farida Fahmy’s father’s house, Professor Hassan Fahmy. He was the godfather, and of course, most of the ideas were his.” As a small and private group, just embarking on an unknown future and with no financial support, it was extremely difficult. The twelve who started the group “were talented people who loved the dance and just did it.”
These first members were all co-founders of the group with Reda at the head: Farida Fahmy, Elen Hajigeorgy, Beba Elsayed, Fahima Bakri, Hoda Abdel Aziz, Nawal Elsayed, Samira Ali (the women)* and Hamada Hussam Eldin, Mamdouh Osman, Nabil Mabrouk, Ahmed Osman, Mahmoud Hafez, and of course Dr. Mo Geddawi (the men). These dancers were not really professional yet, but they trained very arduously to learn Mahmoud’s choreography. Mahmoud’s wife, sister to Farida, Nadida, was a talented artist and designed and made the costumes for them. Sadly, Nadida also had a heart condition and died two years later.
“Mahmoud was the brains of the group. But others contributed a lot as well. Everyone involved brought his/her own unique talent, ideas, and experience to the group, but no doubt Mahmoud was the brain. He had the contacts. He knew some musicians who would make music for the group for little or no money…The important thing about this group was that this was the first time this was happening Egypt.
It was the first time that a group was preparing to qualify for dancing on stage. This was one of the reasons for Mahmoud’s great success.” There were entertainers who danced in groups-the Ghawazee, Saidi, and Awalem, for example-but they performed on the streets, not on stage.
“Egyptian folklore is very different from other folklore-different from the Mediterranean areas-Syrian, Turkish, Greek, or Lebanese. The boys and the girls do the same steps. Most of the dances in Egypt are individual dances, or two people together, such as the taktib. Even in the case were everyone is dancing together, invariably someone gets pushed to the middle to do a cane solo or oriental solo.”
Mahmoud had the two-sided problem of recreating a typically solo-oriented dance style for group performance and to make it different form the more spontaneous and improvisational style of the streets. Mahmoud was able to put together “original” movements for the group that, though not absolutely authentic, were also not foreign to the Egyptian audience. He succeeded in producing his own thematic choreography that still brought Egyptian feeling to the stage. Even the costumes, though not exact replication, reflected the genuine.
“You could not bring the Saidi as it was performed on the street to the stage, but at the same time you could take the same movements and modify them for the stage while keeping its ‘Egyptianity.’ It was a great thing that Reda was able to accomplish, without losing that this is still Egyptian dance. This made the Reda Troupe very famous and appreciated by the Egyptian audience.”
Interestingly, Reda designed his choreography first, and then original music was composed or arranged to fit the concept of the dance. The reason for this was that the choreography was a story, as in ballet. “Egyptian folkloric always tells a story…In every dance, there is a story. Either it is about a girl who flirts with a boy or the father is a powerful figure and his daughter is in love with a poor guy.
The father does not accept the poor guy, but in the end love wins, etc. These are international stories but also typically Egyptian. We know the Egyptian stories. We also know the Egyptian characters, like the man who sells licorice, or who sells the puppets, or sugar dolls on the street. These tales are very important. We make out of these things dances.”
Ali Ismael, was engaged to write music and conduct the accompanying orchestra. According to Geddawi, it was Ali Ismael’s music that brought the troupe’s popularity to an international level, as he was one of the first composers to be able to effectively “remove the actual quarter tone” form the oriental music making it more pleasing to the Western ear without losing the oriental sound.
The group’s first orchestra consisted of eight violins, a cello, harp, and percussion with principal singers Ms.Shahrzad, Karim Mahmoud, and the trio, Elsolacy Elmareh.
Revolution and Disillusion
Political upheavals, with Egypt, caught between revolution and nationalization, “kept people very busy.” While working with the Reda Troupe (about 1960) and simultaneously studying pharmacy at the university, another coincidence changed the course of Mo’s life. He met a young German student, Christoph Jaeger, who was studying for his Ph.D. in Egypt. Seeing the Reda Troupe in performance and liking what he saw, he organized a trip to Bonn, Germany for the troupe to tour as a “student-performing group, not a professional group.”
The Reda troupe danced at Beethoven Hall were, “by luck,” the Egyptian ambassador, and close friend to Nasser, saw their performance. Having never seen anything like this before, he was impressed. “He did not know Egypt had such a thing. He told Nasser about the group, and through this ambassador, the government of Egypt became aware of a troupe that could represent Egypt.
When we finished our tour in Germany, we were ‘ordered’ to go to Yugoslavia because there was already a solid relationship between Tito and Nasser. So we went to Yugoslavia, but this time through the Egyptian government. Maybe, without our trip to Germany, the Reda Troupe would never have been known. These were all coincidences! From this point, the Reda Troupe became known and well established.”
So, after this success, there were many subsequent “chores.”. 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; for concerts with Um Kulthoum, Nagwa Fouad, Samia Gamal, etc. “We were the only thing that the Egyptian government could offer.”
Still, a private enterprise, the Reda Troupe supported itself solely through its performances. The Ministry of Culture became agitated that a private group was so admired by Nasser. Instead of supporting the Reda Troupe, they decided to create an entirely new group to be supported by the government.
The Russians were in Egypt at this time, so a Russian choreographer, Ramazin, was commissioned to establish a national Egyptian dancing group, the Kowmeya Group. Since the pool of professional dancers at the time was rather small, Ramazin appropriated his dancers from the School of Sports. “Ramazin was a good dancer and a good teacher,” Mo murmured, “But he was Russian and did Russian movements. The attitude and movements of the group were Russian. The audiences realized right away that the group was Russian…Even today the Kowmeya Group has a Russian flavour.”
In 1964, the Reda Troupe was nationalized. “Before nationalization, the troupe was top notch.” But now with nationalization, the situation hade changed. “The Reda Troupe was not like it was…It was not art anymore. There were so many other factors that were more important than dance.” In the beginning, the Reda Troupe consisted of 12 dancers and one administrator.
As the Troupe grew in popularity, they expanded to 120 dancers and one administrator. But with nationalization, the government apparatus swelled into many departments with the administration becoming more important. There were now more than 100 administrators to few dancers, and the quality of the dancers diminished. The group started to get dancers who were really not dancers. “The first dancers loved the dance. They were devoted people. Now, the dancers were not as interested in the dance, but the money, to get the salary.
There were so many dancers. They did not even come to the training, but still, they got their salary. So the group could not make money. There was always a loss…The whole thing was a catastrophe.” Originally, the salaries were high, but not for long. As the salaries decreased, the dancers in the group looked the dance “outside” to increase income. The interest in the group, as a group, diminished. “The engagement and emotion in the group are not anymore.” Mo opined.
There are now many different folkloric troupes with almost every town being represented by a group. The Reda Troupe, though it has gone through many changes and, according to Dr.Geddawi, began its decline in the early 1970s, is still considered the leading dance group.
Dr.Mo Geddawi left the Reda Troupe in 1964. He was disappointed and disillusioned by the results of nationalization, and his sadness at the sequence of events is evident. He eventually chose to leave Egypt, but he did not abandon either his desire to dance or to transmit the essence of Middle Eastern culture with an untainted enthusiasm and passion.
Shortly after leaving the Reda Troupe in 1964, Dr.Mo Geddawi also left Egypt. In the last thirty years, he as only returned to his apartment in Cairo to visit. Though he chooses his words carefully in talking of his past, one can sense the disappointment and disquiet that accompanied his decision to leave Egypt. Nationalization, it seems, spoiled the imaginative spontaneity, the necessary autonomy, and the creative exuberance of the Reda Troupe, as bureaucracy had its day: Government picked away at a domain reserved for the anarchy of artists.
A new law, which ordained that “no one in Egypt could have two jobs,” capped Mo’s growing distress with the political system. He was developing two successful careers: Dance and pharmacy. After graduating from college, he was hired as an instructor in pharmacy at his university. Still working with the Reda Troupe, he was also engaged as a teacher and a director of a university folklore group. In addition, he was president of the student union and the only elected member of the Supreme Council of Youth Welfare. Needless to adjoin, Mo was a respected member of the staff and had the regard of the Dean of Faculty who had genuine affection for Mo and sincere appreciation for his artistic talent.
Delicately approached by the dean about this new situation, Mo had to choose: “Okay, I will resign from the university.” From the logical point of view, the dean could not believe this decision. “I was in a way politically active. I was very hurt by this [situation]. The system was not good, and I decided to leave Egypt.”
But there was another problem. As a pharmacist, Dr.Geddawi could not leave Egypt. Pharmacists and others in the medical, science and engineering professions were not allowed to leave Egypt. “How was I going to survive?”
Mo Geddawi modestly attributes his success, the natural coming-to-surface of his talents, and eventual public recognition to a collision of coincidences rather than the deserved convergence of talent, hard work, and dedication. He is not the kind of man who imposes himself on his own destiny but seems to carefully gauge a situation and his time in persisting in a personal vision. “I am grateful to the dance. At moments when I could not make money, I did it in dance. Dancing saved my life.
“As luck would have it, the Fernando Rego Group from the Casino de Paris were in Egypt at this time. [Fernando Rego used to be part of the Alfredo Alaria group, with whom Mahmoud Reda had previously toured.] I was invited to work with them and to join them in Greece. So I did not leave Egypt as a pharmacist. I left Egypt as a dancer and went to Greece.” In the same year that the Reda Troupe was nationalized (1964), Mo Geddawi found a way out of his native country.
On the Way to Germany: Chance Encounters, Incidental Gestures
As part of the Fernando Rego Group, Mo added Argentinean dances to his eclectic repertoire and toured Turkey with the troupe. The troupe was also slated for performances in Iran, but as an Egyptian, Mo could not get a visa to Iran. He decided to wait for the group in Beirut, Lebanon (and stayed for five years!). While “waiting,” he kept himself busy performing and choreographing for “Beirut by Night,” a weekly television program (1964-68), and teaching at Georgette Jabara’s ballet studio. He also was in the feature film, “The Traveler”(1966) with oriental dancer, Kawakib.
A chance encounter: Mo bumped into an old friend, a professor at the American University in Beirut, who introduced him to the dean of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. On the spot, the dean suggested that Mo continue his studies in the field of medicine. “He gave me a form…I filled it out and asked him when I would know if I was accepted. He said, ‘You are accepted.’” As a student of medicine, Mo continued teaching dance at the American University and the Beirut College for Women. Many of the American students were particularly interested in musicals, so while in attendance there, he choreographed “The Boyfriend” for the American Repertory Theatre and “Faust” for the Modern Theatre. “On the side,” Mo Geddawi also obtained his medical degree in tropical medicine in 1969.
An incidental gesture: He was only planning to have coffee. “My friend looked at me, smiled, and grabbed a form for me. We were joking around, so, in fun, I filled it out…Two weeks later, I got an invitation from the German embassy for an interview.” And two weeks after that, it was Mo who was offered a fellowship to pursue a Ph.D. in tropical medicine in Germany.
Following the whims and fortune of opportunities that seem to follow him, Mo went to Germany. Of course, as is Mo’s way, he spent as much time in dance as in his studies, teaching folkloric, oriental and interpretative dance at the university. “I planned to go back to the American University to teach after getting my Ph.D., but I also had the desire to travel around in Europe…
In the meantime, I also applied for a permanent job in Berlin, which I did not actually want. I wanted to travel! As luck would have it, I was offered the position. But not wanting it, I asked for more and more money, and each request was accepted. In fact, I was very honest in the interview, telling the interview about all my weaknesses.” Mo did accept the position and has been with the same company since; and with luck, his numerous business trips often coincide with teaching seminars outside of Germany.
Globetrotting on an Uphill Swing
In 1973, Berlin was a new frontier. Through his friends, Mo Geddawi already was able to make some helpful contacts and established himself rather easily as a teacher of oriental dance in Germany. “Linda,” an American working for the army in Berlin who started teaching oriental dance in 1970, was largely responsible for starting up the interest in belly dancing in Berlin, according to Mo. By 1973, there was already an established community and a rapidly intensifying attention to the dance in Berlin.
Mo stepped right in. Ironically this Egyptian transplanted to Germany seems to deal quite often with Americans both in Germany and of course during his periodic trips to the United States. He is a permanent member of the jury for Magana Baptiste’s annual San Francisco oriental festival, a situation that again came along by coincidence. While having dinner with a friend at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco, he was introduced to friends of his friend who happened to be dining there as well, Magana Baptiste and her daughter, Devi-Ananda. He did not know they were dancers, but of course, that fact eventually revealed itself, and a long friendship began.
Though he chose not to establish his own studio, he teaches regularly on a private basis and is director/choreographer of his own troupe, The Hathor Dance Troupe, of which he is very proud. Created in 1985, he started with dancers who were already well known including Beata Zadou and three Americans Jalila, Adona, and Feiruz. “It is amazing that most of the dancers that came to Germany were American.” Amongst troupe members today are principle dancers Gabi, Sabina, and Randa.
The goals of the Hathor Troupe, named for the Egyptian goddess of fertility, love, dance, and music, are the internationalization of Egyptian and oriental dances; to train Germans and people of other nationalities in Germany in the art of oriental dance; and to present these dances to the European public and to Arabs living abroad.
“These goals have been successfully accomplished through many performances since 1986; amongst them a show with the Reda Troupe at the Palast Hotel in Berlin in 1990. Judging from their concert programs, the Hathor Troupe’s repertoire demonstrates a versatility in styles and concept from the traditional as in the milaya and shamadan dances; to the contemporary such as “Hoss-Hoss, Bas-Bas” and “Kamanga”; to original, “fusion” works such as “Lambada Oriental” and “Di-Di”(rai). Their recent performance in Berlin incorporated the participation of 33 dancers, singers, and musicians!
How does he choose music for choreographing? Dr.Geddawi explains that a compose for original music is very expensive, so when “I hear a piece of music I like, I work with it.” He does much research for new music or new arrangements of traditional music. “Now, I can afford to take a piece of music I like and have musicians arrange it to my specification.”
He uses taped music for his group and a live orchestra only for solo performances. “In my experience, it is very difficult to have musicians rehearse< with you because you have to pay them. If you choose music that is known, they can do it; but it if you pick music that is not known to them, and you ask them to play it, it is very, very difficult. Sometimes, it is the quality of the musicians…With the tape, you can have 60 musicians and then you ask 3 or 4 musicians to play the music the same way-no way.”
According to Dr.Geddawi, belly dance came to the United States from Turkey, so the prominent style at first was the Turkish style.* “The Egyptian style came afterwards when videos were available, and people were able to observe this style, and belly dancing came to Europe not from the Middle East, but from America. There is a lot of influence [in Europe from] the American way of dancing. The European style began to change, as did the American when videos were available such as those of Nagwa Fouad.”
Germany today is in the same position as was the United States about ten years ago. The dance is on an uphill swing. “It is amazing. Even in little villages, one will find dancing, and Germany is a very conservative country. This is a credit to the dance. Students can do it for enjoyment or professionally. It’s okay to do it for fun.” And, according to Dr.Geddawi, the students/dancers are reaching that crucial stage in artistic development where they are becoming educated enough to distinguish between who is good and who is not. “What I admire most about the Germans, is that they want to learn about it, and they want to do it right…
“Not every Egyptian knows about Egyptian history or what’s happening in Egypt. But maybe a foreigner does or will, because of this interest in a foreign culture, [the foreigner] have more engagement, more devotion. Most Egyptologists are not Egyptian. This is true everywhere. You might find a Russian who is an expert in American history. So it is the interest here…Especially in this kind of dance, which is authentic or cultural sort of dance. It is not classical ballet, it is the interest, your engagement, your love of the dance that makes you a good dancer, an expert, or knowledgeable. In any art [this is true], no matter where you come from.
No Arab can come and tell me I am an expert in dance because I am Arab or an Egyptian. This is not true. There are Germans or Americans who are 100 times better than Egyptians in dance. I have experienced this myself. “In any country, you will find people, artists, real artists, who do the thing because they love it. And everywhere, you will find people who think it is a marketing niche, a way to make money. There are those who are honest about the art, and people who just use art.”
Dr.Geddawi himself, besides being a successful dermatologist, is multi-talented in the arts. During his busy dance career, he has worked in many feature films and TV series in Europe and the Middle East, if not as a dancer or choreographer, then as an actor. His most memorable experiences include: “The Second Man”(feature, Egypt, 1972) with Samia Gamal and Sabah; “Summer Vacation”(feature, Egypt, 1963) with the Reda Troupe; “A Man From Alaska”(feature, Austria, 1972 with Douglas Mclaire); “His Divorce, Her Divorce”(TV series, England, 1972) with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; and “The Lawyer”(TV series, Germany, 1973). “I am glad and presumed ‘lucky’ to have been given all these opportunities.”
But what Mo Geddawi is most ardent about is Middle Eastern dance: “I love the dance. I think I would like to contribute to the dance as much as I can. I would like to encourage as many people as possible to do belly dancing; to help dancers and teachers to do it the right way, according to my knowledge, to do what I can. When you have the knowledge you should not take it to the grave. You should communicate this knowledge to people, so it carries on…for continuation.”
Dr.Mo Geddawi : A Man of Coincidences
by Nina Costanza