Lord of the belly dance still shaking it up at 80
Seen as a passing fad when it was introduced to Hong Kong in the 1990s, belly dancing remains a fun pursuit and alternative way to stay in shape. It no doubt helped that pop icons such as Britney Spears and Beyonce began slipping classic moves into their videos and live shows. Still, our images of belly dancing tend to be limited to variations on that theme, so veteran Egyptian choreographer Mahmoud Reda is out to show there's much more to Middle Eastern dance.
The 80-year-old, who was in town to give workshops at a recent belly dance festival, has promoted the dance form for the past five decades through his Reda Dance Troupe. Incorporating different indigenous styles, the troupe has shown Arabic dance to the world, from New York to Nairobi.
Reda says he got the idea for preserving Egyptian folk dance while touring Europe as a dancer with an Argentinian folk troupe during the 50s. 'I thought, 'why not take from my own culture?' People dance at parties in the home or in restaurants all the time, but not on the stage.'
So in 1959 he returned to Cairo to start his own dance company. They were an instant hit, and Reda wanted to delve deeper into traditional forms. He and a few dancers spent two years in the mid-60s travelling all over Egypt to learn local dance steps.
'Before we did that, I used to choreograph according to what I knew or from imagination. That wasn't enough. I don't want to lie to people. I want to give them something genuine - how people really dance in different parts of Egypt.'
Reda learned about local musical instruments, studied rhythmic patterns, dialects, lyrics and recorded details of costumes and jewellery that were typical to certain areas. Conservative traditions in some rural areas made it even more difficult to pick up the dance moves.
'In [parts of] Egypt, a woman can't dance for any man who isn't her husband, so to learn the moves and take photos of the costumes, we asked children to wear their mothers' costumes and dance like their mothers. In some cases, the husbands also came and helped,' recalls Reda.
His painstaking documentation and archival photos have been recorded in three books. Dancing is My Dream, published in March, is the latest and the only one available in English.
Adapting folk dances for the stage is important for preserving traditional forms, Reda says. 'Sometimes the moves may not be dynamic enough. You can't sashay the same way for half an hour.'
Reda and his troupe are careful to respect Egyptian customs.
'Men and women dance together on stage but they don't touch or hold each other. I add stuff but never change the spirit of the dances. I know it is successful if it's accepted by the people who inspired the dance,' he says.
'Everyone has their own reasons [for learning belly dancing]. I don't mind if they see it as a sport or they dance to please their husbands.
'These people are coming together to dance, and that's already so much better than political squabbling or war,' he says.
Reda has a busy schedule of workshops ahead in Europe and the US, so there's little time to spend at home in Cairo, but he doesn't mind.
'Belly dancing keeps me young. At least I get to do what I love. I don't believe I'm 80. It must be a mistake,' he says, laughing.
Get a wiggle on
First there's the sashay, then a shimmy followed by a hip snap. Whether it's the cabaret version or a more traditional belly dance, a number of dance studios around town can teach you the right moves. They include:
3/F, 528 Jaffe Road, Causeway Bay, inquiries: 2575 5838
Ballroom Dance Promotion Society
9/F, 518 Jaffe Road, Causeway Bay, inquiries: 9304 2487
Oasis Dance Centre
4/F, 1 Anton Street, Wan Chai, inquiries: 2522 6698
Graceful Belly Dance
7/F, Sheung Wan Civic Centre, 345 Queen's Road, Central, inquiries: 9689 7301
G/F, One Grand Tower, 639 Nathan Road, Mong Kok, inquiries: 2390 7788