Ballerinas of Assiut: Upper Egypt classical dance school creates hope

Manar Attiya, Saturday 15 Jul 2017

Launched by three partners in June 2016, Assiut's Classical Ballet School recently celebrated its one year anniversary, having faced and partly overcome tough challenges

Ballerinas of Assiut (Photo: Mohamed Abdou)

About 20 girls accompanied by their mothers enter and then disappear in the changing room. Moment later, they reappear with their hair tied in buns, dressed in princess dresses or short skirts with stretch pants underneath, a few wearing justacorps on top. The outfits vary in style but the girls’ goal is the same: they want to learn classical dance, and they love it.

"We do not miss any session," many girls tell me.

Silence falls on the little girls as their trainer enters the hall, a place where they do all the physical expression. The girls align themselves next to the barre and begin basic movements. Backs straight, arms rounded and hands at the level of the navel, they begin with their legs, then stand on tiptoe to do a few pirouettes.

We are in the ballet school for girls, the first of its kind in Assiut (350 kilometres from Cairo), in Upper Egypt. Last June, the school celebrated the first anniversary of its establishment. It is a centre that has for its objective giving the girls of Assiut an opportunity to learn classical dance.

It all started in 2013 when Rofayda Mohamed, today in her thirties, moved from Assiut to Alexandria to follow her husband who worked in the Mediterranean city for two years. Rofayda practiced fitness and dance in one of Alexandria’s centres.

Back in Assiut, Rofayda began searching for a place to launch her own creative endeavour, but to no avail. But then two of her friends, Shorouk Mosfafa and Dina Omar, decided to join her in the pursuit and later on became her business partners in what soon became the first ballet centres in the city.

Ballerinas of Assiut (Photo: Mohamed Abdou)

Dina Omar underlines that the goal was not necessarily to create star dancers out of young girls. The dance sessions have an important impact on the participants’ self-esteem; they boost the girls’ confidence and as such create an impact on their future choices.

"Ballet is a tool that can give hope. If you have enough confidence in yourself, you can go wherever you wish, become whoever you want; you can shape your future and noone will be able to tell you what you ought to be. It's up to you to decide. That's what we teach,” Omar comments.

But before launching the project, the three partners had to overcome many challenges.

Opening a classical dance school in Upper Egypt proved to be very difficult, putting in mind the very conservative social environment where morals and traditions are deeply rooted in people's minds.

"Opening a dance school is a scandal for strict Muslims. There are people who look at classical dance as a great sin, probably bigger than being under the influence of alcohol. People were telling us how crazy we must be to wanting to launch such project in Egypt’s south. ‘What kind of woman will take her daughter into a dance class? What kind of father will accept his offspring to practice ballet and in such short and tight outfit?’ were among the many comments we have heard.”

The situation became even worse when the three young women started receiving threatening letters stating that their children would be kidnapped. Other letters arrived with drawings of coffins and skulls on them. The threats continued even after opening of the school, whether in letters or through phone calls.

"When the death threats started emerging, the Assiut police opened an investigation. Security guards and bodybuilders protected and monitored the premises,” says Rofayda, adding that she decided to react and demand respect for the initiative.

On the other hand, she spoke a lot to the girls’ parents, inviting them – especially the fathers – to join their daughters in the centre and watch the sessions. She wanted to persuade fathers that their daughters practiced an activity that was neither dishonourable nor degrading. She even offered several classes for free.

Ballerinas of Assiut (Photo: Mohamed Abdou)

Success stories: Tears of joy and pain

In June 2016, only four girls enrolled in dance classes, but today they are 120, thanks to the perseverance of the three partners as well as support and ploys used by mothers who want to offer a better future to their daughters and one more open than theirs.

The stories are as many as they are empowering for those young girls.

Among the attendees of those first sessions was Assala Al-Naggar, a 32-year-old woman who wears niqab yet brought her young daughter to the centre.

"At first, of course, my husband refused: No, dance is not made for Saïdi (South of Egypt) girls," she recalls his reaction when she first mentioned the centre to him.

Al-Naggar decided to act behind her husbands’ back. She told her daughter, “You will do whatever you want, but for now you will not tell your dad anything."

"The first time I told my husband that his 9-year-old daughter was taking dance lessons, it was at a show that took place at the school. He thought his daughter was doing karate. On our way back home, he reproached me for hiding it from him but I could see that deep inside, he was happy and proud of his daughter.”

Ballerinas of Assiut (Photo: Mohamed Abdou)

More painful is the story of Amal Lotfy, a Christian woman, and her 12-year-old daughter Gina, both of whom had to disguise in a niqab to avoid being recognised by relatives and neighbours.

A few weeks into this practice, the grandfather started having doubts, and eventually caught them red-handed. He asked the mother and daughter to stop visiting him.

"You take your stuff and you join the dancers. My daughter is dead. I do not have a daughter anymore," Amal recalls her father saying.

The ban on visiting her was a tough test for Amal, but she continues to move forward in order to realise her daughter's dream of learning classical dance.

At home, the girl’s father still doesn’t know about the ballet sessions. Gina has to wait for her father to fall asleep so she can practice new movements before going back to the next session.

Amal is proud of her daughter saying, "Gina, has made great progress; she is a mixture of grace, elegance and refinement. She attends the dance classes regularly, and it has become her favourite activity. After each workout, she looks forward to the next Thursday. She dances relentlessly, even when she is arranging her room or getting ready to go to school. Since she began dancing she has become happy and fulfilled.”

Amal is still waiting for the right moment to reveal her secret to her husband.

Ballerinas of Assiut (Photo: Mohamed Abdou)

Back in the ballet centre trainer Maria Alfonse leads the girls aged four and five. "Hold the barre with one hand. Always right first, the left leg must be closer to the barre. Turn to the left, repeat this exercise twice to the right and twice to the left,” she says. Alfonse has walked a long way and struggled a lot to become a dancer herself in a conservative society.

Dressed in jeans and a flowered shirt, she studies at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Assiut. She began learning classical dance by watching videos on YouTube at the age of 16, against her father’s will. Obsessed by this art, Maria asked her maternal uncle who lives in Beheira, Egypt’s north, to convince her father to let her go to Mexico for a month and a half, to attend ballet classes there.

What seemed to be a very brave and unorthodox request was eventually accepted by her father, but under three conditions: that he would accompany her, that she must wear trousers under her dress during classes, and that she would only dance solo, so no man would touch her.

In 2014, Maria and her father embarked overseas. Upon their return, the father became more flexible and acceptant of the ballet allowing his daughter to enroll in classes at the Cairo Opera. It is also at the opera where Maria learnt the basic pedagogy of dance. Today, she is capable of leading a class and in parallel she talks with the parents of her young students about the importance of this art form and its many genres.

Ballerinas of Assiut (Photo: Mohamed Abdou)

"For me, dancing is something I really need, a bit like the air you breathe, the food you eat. It is essential to me, even vital. I cannot live without dancing,” Maria comments, adding that at the beginning of her career as a teacher she was a bit worried. “I found out, however, that there are many similarities between those young girls and myself."

"We live under the same conditions, we understand one another hence things became simpler and easier,” she explains with great enthusiasm, while observing the movements of her students.

Maria invited the girls’ mothers to a session tailored especially for them, once a month. This aims at gaining their confidence and showing them that their girls are in a respectable environment.

On the day of family training, mothers try to do the same exercises as their daughters.

“I am happy and my daughter too, because I train with her. She wants me to attend all classes!” comments the mother of Nadine, a 12-year-old, who was trying to teach her a few dance steps and was surprised to see that her mum had talent. What a beautiful moment of sharing between mother and daughter.

Undoubtedly, all girls attending dance school aspire to a fine career in the world of ballet. They might very well be at the beginning of that road.

“The girls prepare for shows in front of Ahlam Younes, head of the Academy of Arts in Cairo and a former ballerina herself. She promised to orchestrate a big show at the Cairo Opera in which the Assiut talents would take part,” reveals Rofayda.

Looking with hope into the future, the Assiut girls still have a lot of challenges to overcome. Many questions arise about their possibility to continue, in the face of all cultural and family restrictions. Meanwhile, Rofayda keeps pushing the centre’s activities, still under pressure by locals, yet still not giving up.

Ballerinas of Assiut (Photo: Mohamed Abdou)

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