Monday, June 12, 2023

Remembering Magda Saleh : Egypt bids Farewell to its first Prima Ballerina

Egypt lost on Sunday its first-ever prima ballerina, Magda Saleh.

Many people outside Egypt may be surprised to learn that Egypt has an active national ballet scene that dates back to the 1960s, and at its heart was Magda Saleh.

Born to an Egyptian academic father and a Scottish mother, Saleh enrolled in ballet academies in Cairo and Alexandria from a young age, attending schools operated by foreigners in the 1950s.

Egypt's First Prima Ballerina Magda Saleh in 1960s
Egypt's First Prima Ballerina Magda Saleh in the 1960s 

In the early 1960s, she was among the first students to enrol in the newly established ballet academy, which was part of the Academy of Arts.

Saleh was chosen among five other girls to be sent to study ballet professionally at the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow for two years.

When they returned, they made history, establishing the first generations of Egyptian dancers in the Cairo Opera Ballet Company.

For two decades, Saleh was Egypt's prima ballerina. In 1979, she completed her PhD at New York University, with a dissertation entitled "A Documentation of the Ethnic Dance Traditions of the Arab Republic of Egypt."

In the 1980s, Saleh continued her career at the National Ballet Institute, where she served as a professor and dean from 1984 to 1986.

In 1987, Magda Saleh assumed the role of founding director for the Cairo Opera House, actively involved in preparing for the institution's grand opening in 1988.

   She could not continue, however, due to the Ministry of Culture officials, including then-Minister Farouk Hosny, who served under the late Hosni Mubarak for a long time. It is possible that Hosny feared that she would take his position. “It is that case most of the time”

Later Magda Saleh moved to New York and married Egyptologist Jack Josephson in 1992 but despite leaving the country, Egypt was still at the centre of her interests.

Magda Saleh for Vogue
 Magda Saleh standing beside a granite sarcophagus at the Met in New York
Vogue Arabia 2018  

There is a 2016 documentary called Footnote in Ballet History which you must watch if you want to know more about Magda Saleh and Ballet in Egypt. The documentary tells the story of the establishment of Egypt's national ballet school through its first pioneer dancers led by prima ballerina Magda Saleh during the Cold War. 

It is available to watch on Amazon Prime and Tubi in the United States. The documentary in English was directed by filmmaker Hisham Abdel Khalek. 

Here are parts of it from BBC Arabic where it was once shown.

Here is another part when Magda Saleh reflects on the time when she danced ballet for the construction workers at the Aswan High Dam construction site.


Here is another part when she was stunned at how she was required to get a travel permit from the Moral Police aka Vice when she wanted to travel because her official profession in the passport was "dancer". 

 She remembered how her father who was American University in Cairo Vice President Ahmed Abdel Ghaffar Saleh reacted to seeing his daughter humiliated like that.

Honestly, I do not know how no one at the Ministry of Culture even thought about that.  Despite ballet dancers being much more respected as it is the art of upper-class girls but the word "dancer" alone got its bad reputation. A dancer in Egypt generally means a belly dancer who is not highly respected.

Needless to say, I feel that in the 1960s there was more respect for trailblazer folklore dancers like Farida Fahmy and ballerinas like Magda Saleh who came from the Upper Middle classes but Egyptian bureaucracy had another opinion. 

Now in Arabic only, here we find how Magda Saleh put Egyptian folklore dances in the heart of the 1976 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

That experience resulted in an unlike friendship between Egypt’s first Prima Ballerina and an Upper Egyptian Master of Tahtib.

Magda Saleh once tried her hand at acting in an Egyptian film called "My Dear Daughter" in 1971.

The movie starred legendary actor Rushdy Abaza, Singer Nagat El-Saghira, and Omar Khorsheid. Although the film was well-known during the 1970s, Saleh did not pursue acting further and this remains her sole experience in the realm of cinema. You can watch it here if you are interested and know Arabic.

Although it was well known 1970s film, she did not repeat the experience.

Magda Saleh for Vogue
Magda Saleh standing beside a granite sarcophagus at the Met in New York
Vogue Arabia 2018  

Saleh also crafted her own documentary titled "Egypt Dances," serving as an audio-visual supplement to her PhD dissertation.

While it is currently accessible for on-site viewing exclusively at New York Public Library, I hope for its online release to reach a wider audience.

Particularly for Egyptians, this documentary holds great significance as it captures the essence of an older Egypt and its ethnic dance traditions, which may have since vanished or evolved.

Despite her relocation to New York, where she continued to contribute to Egyptian arts in her unique manner, Magda Saleh consistently exuded an unwavering love and genuine pride in her Egyptian heritage and culture.

Her spirit embodied an indomitable devotion. 

Following the death of her husband seven months ago, Magda Saleh returned to Egypt where she was staying with her family till her death on Sunday. 

May Allah bless her soul and grant patience to her family, friends, and fans. May her works and art serve as an eternal wellspring of blessings in her legacy.

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