"When some friends tell me I should not do ballet, I ignore their remarks. They do not like the movements, maybe... But ballet is art. It is also like sports. I love what I do...”
Thus 10-year-old Mariam on her experience at the ballet classes she takes at Alwanat, a unique centre in Minya, the capital city of the Minya governorate, 250km south of Cairo. This is the only venue in Upper Egypt to include ballet in their activities.
Mariam is not alone following her passion at the centre where I also meet dozens of other young girls enrolled in ballet, gymnastics, aerobics and zumba dance. Soon we discover that this is but a fraction of Alwanat’s programming.
“Look what I can do!” four-year-old Jody demonstrates the bridge she has mastered. “Is it difficult?” I ask. Jody nods her head swiftly, laughs and runs to the classroom.
Her friend Ayten, seven, steps in with a word of wisdom: “Everything is difficult at the beginning, but then it becomes easy.” She shows me the perfect split.
Fairouz, five, and her friend Malak, six, take both ballet and gymnastics courses; they tell me they would also like to join zumba.
But the older girl, Mariam has her mind set on ballet. “I agree with my mum who thinks I should work on one thing so I can become good at it.” She talks about the YouTube videos of ballets that she watches and unveils her dream to become a “real ballerina” and perform on the Cairo Opera stage. “I visited Cairo only once,” she says, “but it was for a conference with the church. I did not attend any live ballets.”
The passion of the girls adds a sparkling energy to Alwanat, where the ballet classes introduced in June 2015 have gained a large following in the community.
“We have a total of 150 children, boys and girls, enrolled in ballet, a few dozens in gymnastics,” Marco Adel, one of eight young people who founded the centre and remain the dynamo behind its activities, enumerates.
Alwanat, meaning “colours” in Arabic, is the perfect name for a centre with such a vast range of activities, able to bring the community together. Though the centre was officially registered as an NGO in 2014, its creators were already very active on the cultural scene years before. “Even before Alwanat, we used to organise artistic activities in Minya and the villages around it, cooperating with several parties.”
Ballet class at Alwanat in Minya (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)
Chalenges of Upper Egypt
Taking into account the highly conservative community of Upper Egypt and the strong polarisation of society, the popularity of classes in ballet, gymnastics, aerobics etc. – attended by both Muslims and Christians, boys and girls – will raise eyebrows. The news that reaches us from Minya governorate points to a completely different set of dynamics from what we see in Alwanat.
In Minya governorate Coptic Christians represent 50 percent of the population – the highest concentration of Christians in Egypt – and Minya governorate often hits the headlines with news of burning churches (last May, St Mary’s Church north of Minya was burned to the ground by the extremist Muslims; in July, locals of Samalout village set on fire an under-construction building thinking it would be a church), ransacking and torching of Christian homes (in July, five Christian houses in Abou Yacoub were torched) and public humiliations of Christians (in May, a 70-year-old Christian woman was stripped publicly by a mob).
Attacks on cultural spaces are not unheard of. Earlier, in August 2013, a massive attack that targeted the headquarters of the Jesuits and Brothers Association left the centre’s theatre – the best equipped venue in Upper Egypt – completely destroyed.
No wonder we are used to thinking of Minya more as a hotspot of a sectarian violence than a haven for artistic practices.
Marco Adel however doesn’t like to draw comparisons between the sectarian violence and cultural practice. “Tensions are definitely present, but they intensify in the villages. The situation is somewhat different in Minya city,” Adel explains, adding swiftly that such discussions are not even raised in Alwanat.
“Art always brings people together. We have children and youth from Christian and Muslim families, boys and girls, people from a variety of social strata. They participate in activities together and enjoy them together. The question of differences does not exist.”
Adel mentions that Alwanat also takes care to choose like-minded staff who think in terms of culture, not sectarianism. “When children and youth interact in such an environment,” he notes, “they immediately become part of those dynamics.”
Ballet class at Alwanat in Minya (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)
A positive change through artistic practice
For Adel, it is possible to change mindsets through culture and artistic practice.
“Maybe at the beginning, some people looked at ballet or gymnastics with skepticism, yet the discussions always take the same form as those in many conservative communities across Egypt.”
He explains that depending on the community there are people who make fun of art, those who consider it a waste of time, those who feel that since it does not bring in financial rewards it is useless, and those who find some sort of immorality in it, a vice. There are also those who value and enjoy the practice.
“In Alwanat we see that a large number of those who oppose ballet in particular or art in general can eventually embrace it. They see how the children benefit, how they love it and how healthy it is in their development. Today, parents recommend such activities to other parents. They encourage their children and tell them not to give up when some exercises prove difficult at first. We find young children at the centre are happy and their peers outside it want to follow their example and enroll...”
Adel’s thoughts are reflected in the words of one mother who sits in the lobby waiting for her two daughters, seven and 10 years old, to finish the ballet class. “My daughters learn many new skills here,” she says.
“I can see how art makes them happy and confident. Ballet teaches them discipline and patience and, as parents, we should give them a chance to explore art. This is very important for their formation and will reflect on any future specialisation. Art is also a way to show them how practice makes one reach a goal. And if they choose to be an artist, a painter or a ballerina, I will support it wholeheartedly. I try to open all doors to my daughters and they are free to choose who they want to be.”
She adds that it is also important to fill the children’s time with valuable activities which divert their attention from influences that might be harmful to the young minds. “Art enriches the soul. They practice beautiful art and, bit by bit, they will look at life from this perspective. Beyond practical skills, in the long run ballet will help them tell good and bad, beauty and ugliness apart.”
Piano lesson at Alwanat in Minya (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)
Stepping out of the world of small ballerinas, I follow the sound of a piano coming from one of the rooms. Inside, I meet Menrit, six, who plays a simple tune on the keyboard.
“I play the piano for very long time,” she tells me, enthusiastically pointing to the keys.
“I also do ballet, I draw, make paper cutouts and many things besides. But I like the piano the most,” Menrit sends a candy-coated smile to her instructor, Nancy Amir.
A graduate of the University of Minya, Faculty of Music Education, where she also lectures, Amir chooses the music curriculum depending on the child’s age and interests.
“With young children, I prefer to work on simple tunes, songs that they know. I use a more academic approach with older students, teaching them notation and piano techniques.” Amir reveals however that she especially enjoys working with young children as “they are very receptive and happy with their accomplishments, whether big or small.”
As she comments on the values that music brings to the children, I see how these echo the thoughts of Adel and the mother of two little ballerinas.
“Through music, we also teach children and youth the importance of determination and patience. This is crucial to shaping characters and boosting self confidence,” she comments.
Amir specialises in teaching piano, yet the centre also provides lessons in guitar, oud, violin and percussion.
With piano music coming from one room and rhythmic beats from the ballet room, an intriguing silence sheathes the door at the end of the corridor. This is the visual artists’ shelter.
The four young ladies hardly notice when the door opens. Focusing on the still life they are painting in oil, they project a very serious attitude. Israa, Marwa, Naglaa and Tasneem are in their early 20s, all students at the Fine Arts Faculty in Minya, who come to the centre to boost their skills. “We do not cover all techniques at the faculty,” Israa comments.
Marwa adds that in Alwanat, “the instructor pays more attention to the student and this is very beneficial.”
Visual arts class at Alwanat in Minya (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)
While they work, instructor Khaled Abdel-Radi, a fine art graduate and an artist with several exhibitions under his belt, encourages the girls, saying proudly, “They are all great but the market is not easy. They need to be better than others. I am confident they will make it and the fact that they are eager to develop helps a lot.”
Naglaa adds that, though some fine art graduates find it difficult to make a living, there are many opportunities in different sectors of design. Abdel-Radi believes that in time, all his students will be able to participate in group and then solo exhibitions in Minya and “who knows, maybe they will also reach national exposure”.
The apartment comprising the reception, ballet, music and visual arts rooms represents only one segment of Alwanat. The centre operates across three apartments in the building, giving space to other practices such as theatre, a film club, photography courses, a sculpture workshop, literary meetings and even seminars on ethics.
Among the centre’s most recent additions are courses in kickboxing, video editing and computer programming, all proving extremely popular among the young.
Adel directs me to the upper floor where the voices of young people indicate a theatre rehearsal. “We pay a lot of attention to discovering young talent. We try to initiate cooperation with the theatre specialists in Minya and Cairo,” he explains.
From local courses to a large scale cultural network
From courses and workshops to street festivals and other large events, Alwanat’s cultural dynamism is overwhelming; it grows by the day. Adel tells of the many events the centre organises, including collaborations and partnerships with other cultural entities or individuals as well as community outreach. Among many examples of cooperation is Alwanat’s work with the Jesuits, historically one of the most renowned cultural players in the region.
The operations that bring the community together and demonstrate links with renowned art figures are particularly palpable in Alwanat’s film activities. Alwanat runs a film club, and cooperates with the Misr International Films (Youssef Chahine). Last year, Alwanat screened a selection within the 8th Panorama of the European Film (25 November-5 December); it also cooperates with the Cairo’s art-house cinema Zawya.
On the other hand, last October, the centre launched the Alwanat Film Festival, which had screenwriters Tamer Habib, Mariam Naoum, filmmakers Mohamed Al-Adl and Gamal Al-Adl as jury members. “The festival included 35 short films; 10 were screened during the closing ceremony and three won the awards. The award ceremony took place at the main theatre of Minya governorate and was attended by an audience of 900,” Adel adds.
The second edition of Alwanat Film Festival is already being prepared and though Adel will not provide details at this stage, he assures me that it will be bigger and better and will bring over a number of renowned figures.
At the literary level, Alwanat organised a book fair in one of Minya hotel gardens.
“We managed to attract several publishing houses. At first they were unconvinced but later they realised that such an event generates major interest. People in Minya are interested in books, they only lack opportunities to attend such events,” Adel comments, adding that the eight-day fair sold over six thousand tickets, an unexpectedly big turnout. “We also organised trips for school students to attend the fair.”
Film screenings at Alwanat in Minya (Photo: Alwanat Facebook page)
The stories of Alwanat do not seem to end and each step across its rooms where the walls are decorated with photos of its many activities speaks of the dynamism of its founders and the enthusiasm of the children and youth participating in its activities.
Just as its name indicates, Alwanat represents many colours. Marco stresses that despite media reports on troublesome events in Upper Egypt the cultural life in Minya is much more dynamic than those outside the governorate think.
“People are interested in artistic activities, they participate, they talk about it. It is a very receptive community,” he comments.
We often read about the power of culture and how it brings people together, how it is a powerful tool that helps us change our mindsets and develop an appreciation of important values. Culture as soft power is a highlight of many textbooks on development, and it is a favourite headline of proposals submitted by the cultural players to a variety of supporters. We read and hear people make such clichéd statements a lot. As much as they are all true, the real challenge lies in the actual implementation of those aims.
When speaking about Alwanat, Adel refrains from using flashy vocabulary. Instead he walks us through the rooms and photos, discusses the film festival and his plans, points to the youth’s interest in photography or shares insights about the little ballerinas.
Adel talks about the centre’s activities as a natural part of life, since his passion requires no platitudes. Actions, as is well known, speak louder. And Alwanat’s actions are very obvious from the moment one enters the centre; they show on the faces of the children, in their laughter and joy, their attentiveness and discipline.
Nor does it look like Alwanat’s team will run out of energy or new ideas. New courses and events are being added to the centre’s repertoire on a regular basis. “We still need to do a lot of things. We want to develop even more.
We need to expand our outreach and find new ways of cooperation with a variety of parties, look for support in the organisation of events and the hosting of guests,” Adel concludes.
Mothers wait for the young children to finish their classes at the Alwanat's reception in Minya (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)
This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly
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