INTERVIEW: Farida Fahmy: Celebrating a lifetime of Egyptian dance and cultural resilience

Jihan El-Gharabawy, Sunday 9 Jul 2023

Farida Fahmy, the renowned Egyptian dancer and founding member of the iconic Reda Troupe, spoke to Ahram Online on her 83rd birthday about her rich legacy in a group that has had a powerful impact on the country's cultural life and challenged prevailing stereotypes.

Farida Fahmy
Farida Fahmy


Egypt has been marked by millenia of dance history, with first depictions found on the walls of Pharaonic temples. As history progressed, this art form took many colors. However, by the mid-20th century, Egyptian dance was usually identified with belly dancing and night clubs. It was into this reality that Farida Fahmy was born in 1940.

She married Ali Reda (1924-1993), who founded the iconic troupe together with his brother, the choreographer and Olympic gymnast Mahmoud Reda (1930-2020). The latter became Fahmy’s long life dancing partner.

As a founding member of the Reda Troupe, Fahmy’s passion made her one of the first female artists to challenge the narrow perception of Egyptian dance at the time, returning it to its folkloric roots.

Her legacy spans across the continents with dance schools carrying her name and implementing “Farida Fahmy’s choreography” in Brazil, USA, France, Mexico, Japan and Korea, among other countries. Her presence is also translated through her official website where we can find articles on Egyptian dancing and the Reda Troupe in a total of 12 languages. 

Fahmy appeared in a number of films: The Man of My Dreams (1957), Stranger (1958), Women's Enchanter (1958), Ismail Yassin in the Military Police (1958), Djamilah (1960), Mid-year Vacation (1962), Love in the Karnak (1965), The Paper Thief (1970) and Masters and Slaves (1978)

In her extensively researched book titled Daughter of Egypt: Farida Fahmy and the Reda Troupe, and published in Dance Research Journal, the American writer Marjorie A. Franken focuses on Egypt’s artistic renaissance that followed the British occupation. Focusing on Farida Fahmy, Franken places her on the same level in dancing as Oum Kalthoum – the “Star of the East” – was in singing.

Fahmy turned 83 on 29 June, celebrating it away from the spotlight, but nonetheless enjoying well wishes from friends and pupils scattered around the world.

On her birthday, I met Farida Fahmy to talk about her rich life and sparkling career. I gifted her the front page of Al-Ahram Newspaper from the day she was born in 1940, triggering many memories from this remarkable artist.

Ahram Online: What was the main value that you carried with you throughout your career? 

Farida Fahmy: I built my entire life and success on the concept of perfection that I learnt from my father, Hassan Fahmy [also a renowned university professor]. Leisure time is the enemy of success. In Reda Troupe we aimed for a profound impact and not the financial gains. Both families, Fahmy and Reda, had a strong educational backbone and we lived life of good standard. Perhaps I am the only dancer in Egypt who would not start her story with “I danced so as not to die from hunger.” We loved dancing and knew it as the oldest emotional and motional expression reflecting man’s history, civilization and the people’s character.

Scientific thinking, commitment and high self-esteem are the best qualities that I inherited from my father and of course love is the most beautiful thing life gave to me.

AO: So your father left a profound impact on your character?

FF: He had an unforgettable impact on anyone who had known him. If it were not for him, we could not have founded the Reda Company. He was the planner and the first financial and emotional supporter of this endeavor. 

My father was the production department head in the Faculty of Engineering and obtained his PhD from England. He wrote a book on Arabizing engineering terms. In the beginning, people used to speak about me as Dr. Hassan Fahmy’s daughter but my father used to say: “I am now proud that I am the father of Farida Fahmy, Egypt’s first dancer.”

AO: How did the Reda Troupe start?

FF: We spent a long time in preparation; studying and collecting adages and popular songs and recording the distinctive dances of every governorate, each oasis and even remote areas in Egypt. I visited the peasants’ homes and recorded their popular songs, including those performed at weddings and other events. They were our inspiration.

AO: In your youth, did you ever try to imitate famous foreign dancers?

FF: Absolutely not. I did not feel that I could express my character through ballet, for instance. The Western ballet form uses movements that are anti-gravity, elevating the movement to the highest possible point. Every civilization has its own style in expressing itself. In the East, we dance in a way that is aligned with the Earth’s gravity. The secret of our success is that we were true to our society’s distinctive character, history and style. We were true and genuine Egyptian creators not imitators nor pretenders. 

AO: Since you did not need to rely on the company’s profits to live, do you think the fact that you had this financial stability away from Reda Troupe, contributed to its success? 

FF: Not at all. None of us were rich; on the contrary, a few members of the company needed a stable income, such as composer Ali Ismail, who was called the Reda Troupe’s Beethoven. He was indeed a genius. 

But it was never about the money. All of us put love, art and beautiful work as our top priority.

AO: The troupe never let the audience down. Everyone remained professional and committed even in times when this was difficult for some members, correct?

FF: Indeed. There was an instance when just hours before our trip to one of the African countries, we had to take four vaccines including anti-malaria tablets. This led to some of the company members literally collapsing before going on stage. However most of the company members including myself braced up and performed until the end.  

Another instance took place during the War of Attrition (1967-1970). The Egyptian Armed Forces’ Morale Affairs Department invited the Reda Troupe to entertain the soldiers on the front in a remote area. The weather was very hot. The soldiers painted the stage with wax which, due to the blazing sun, became slippery. In order not to slip I danced barefoot. My feet were burnt and having completed my performance, I had to be taken to hospital. 

Nobody knew about this during the performance. When Mahmoud Reda asked me, “Why did you continue to dance?” I replied, “Because this is not the audience’s fault!” Today, when I look at the pictures and see the smiles on the soldiers’ faces, I feel gratified.

AO: Tell us about your husband in the company.

FF: I will tell you a nice situation to illustrate my relationship with Ali. We were hosted in a television programme and the female presenter asked him: “Is Farida Fahmy as good at cooking as she is at dancing?” In spite of the fact that I love cooking and I cook well, Ali chose to be a bit mischievous and said vehemently: “Farida is an excellent cook, she used to cook keshk [an Egyptian dish] you would throw out the window.” The presenter laughed; I did not comment. Next day, Ali was verbally attacked by women on the street, for criticizing me publicly. He commented to me on that laughing: “Today, I’ve discovered how much you are loved. You are the only dancer in Egypt who is loved by women more than men!”

Ali was the love of my life, my friend, mentor and the dynamo of the company. He was the one who introduced us to President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The latter’s encouragement and appreciation for the troupe helped it reach this great fame. We traveled all over the world, becoming ambassadors of Egypt. During the Afro-Asian Organization Summit in Egypt held in the late 1950s under Abdel-Nasser, I danced in front of 55 monarchs and presidents. 

AO: How do you see Ali Reda’s legacy today? 

FFI am a bit anguished, to be honest. After all those honors and awards inside and outside Egypt, from President Abdel-Nasser until President El-Sisi, Ali Reda is not sufficiently remembered. He was a very important director who created hundreds of shows and made a few films. This is not remembered by many festivals, including the Cairo International Film Festival. 

His 1965 film Love in the Karnak [a fictionalized story of the Reda Troupe] is now being restored by Saudi Arabia. It is apparent that Saudi Arabia is honouring and celebrating Egyptian artists. Earlier this year, Riyadh celebrated Egyptian composers Mohamed El-Mougy and Hani Shenouda. That made me happy.

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