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Digging Deep into the Lives of Samia Gamal & Farid Al Atrache

Jennifer Ordon

This has been a year of “adjusting” to put it lightly. While we all faced struggles and scares, one thing is certain, it gave us the valuable gift of time. And with time, comes introspection, exploration and a heightened capacity for human creativity.

Several months ago, while COVID was at an all time high in the news and causing this once very busy and consistent private party dancer to stay home, I began digging back into dance projects that had been left by the wayside. One of these was my goal to research historical Golden Era composers and dancers that influenced Raqs Sharqi and what it is today.

Why Look Back To Move Forward?

Why spend a zillion hours researching into the past? Because it is 100% true what our mentors and dance teachers say…you won’t truly exceed in the dance unless you understand the roots and where it came from. How can a dancer create movements or their own unique expression without having an appreciation and understanding of the base movements and culture that define it? I am not talking about technique here, (that you can learn anywhere), I am talking about the HOW and with WHOM did these movements originate from? How did they execute their chosen craft and why? What was going on politically and socially at the time? What was the musical scene like during that period and how did that inspire the dancer or vice versa?

These are all questions that I had so longed to dig into once again after a few years of being overworked at my last job and being unable to do research. COVID brought the unique opportunity to FINALLY get back into this again. And so began this epic journey that took over 100 hours to complete.

I decided to start by analyzing Samia Gamal and Farid al Atrache. While researching Samia's life, I found the storyline between her and Farid fascinating, and so he became my chosen composer for the first lecture series.

I chose Samia because while she was not in my list of Golden Era favorites, she is an iconic figure that I had not dug deep into and wanted to begin to understand more. I wanted to see what moves were created by her, why she danced the way she did and etc.

Farid Al Atrache was a composer whose music I had heard and used a couple times but did not know extensively. This was the perfect time to really find out why he was considered one of the greatest Arab composers of the Golden Era.

And then…”Love of My Life” was Born

The Lecture Series “Love of My Life” is divided into 4 lectures:

Part I: History (Ottoman Empire-1952)

Before we can delve into the lives of these two iconic figures, we need to understand what was going on in Egypt since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire until the Egyptian Revolution. What was going on politically? How did war effect or not affect the music/dance industry? What technological advances were made during this era? All of this and more are answered in this historical overview. This was probably one of my favorite parts in the research process and really opened my eyes to why the Golden Era formed when it did. It all makes sense!

Part II: Farid Al Atrache & His Contributions You may have heard the tune “Gameel Gamal” while listening to various “___greatest belly dance hits” albums. Many times, as a Middle Eastern dance artist, I heard over and over again names such as Abdel Halim Hafez, George Sawah, and etc. but Farid Al Atrache was not one that was highlighted as much in any workshops or classes I ever took. This will baffle you once you listen to some of the gorgeous orchestrations in this lecture. I have to agree with Farid, he never was respected to the same degree as the Egyptian born composers of his day and I hope this lecture will introduce his music to many more dancers out there. You will also learn about his struggles as well and how he overcame them.

Part III: Samia Gamal & Her Contributions

You will be surprised by the hardship Samia faced throughout her life and I am just in awe of how strong this woman had to be. In the lecture, we discuss her life, watch a few iconic scenes and talk about the struggles as that is what I feel builds character and leads to greatness.

Part IV: Golden Age Films Together & the Impact

To conclude the lecture series, this final video focuses on the specific and most famous movies that Samia Gamal and Farid al Atrache did while in a relationship together. I find the films that they co-starred in to be some of their best work musically and with their acting. That is just my opinion though. They both brought their careers to a whole other level once they joined forces and we will have fun watching a few noteworthy clips. I encourage you to watch their movies. They are so fun! Please note: I don’t speak a lick of Arabic and could understand what was going on quite well.

The Importance of Looking Back to Create a Stronger Performer/Dancer

As a non-Middle Eastern dancer or performer, it is our duty to do all we can to gain a deeper understanding of what it is we are representing every time we dance or put on a costume. What we see in Raqs Sharqi today is a far cry from what it started off as, and then, what it became during the Golden Age of cinema. It is only when you stop and analyze the folkloric roots that you realize that perhaps we are doing ourselves a disservice by not taking the time to learn about this earlier on, or to study this more during our free time. I will be blunt and raw here and say that I found watching Golden Era dance stars during the earlier half of my dance journey as something I found to be boring. I did not understand why I had to look at it, I did not find the icons I watched to be doing anything special (I found the super gymnast-like modern renditions to be much more satisfying).

As I began to look back and watch more videos, I felt a shift and even my way of dancing changed. I started to appreciate nuance, I began to become more gooey, more simple. I could do all the “cool” and “awesome tricks” but the performances matured and strengthened as I learned to breathe with the music more, to think about the composers intention when writing the score and to balance high-intensity movements with slower, more internal ones. Things began to improve. It isn’t about doing 1001 tricks, it is about that essence, that feeling, that character you are portraying. Nothing can compare to that. I still love “tricks” and all that good stuff, but balancing it out, being more authentic in our approach and honoring the composer and what they were trying to achieve…these are things I implore you to consider. It will completely change you, what you think you know and how you execute movement for the better.

Thank you Farid Al Atrache and Samia Gamal for the legacy you left behind. We can all continue to learn so much from your artistic work, and your life stories have fueled a new sense of strength and resilience in me I could never have found had this lecture not occurred.

Go nerd out everyone, we can all become better people and pay homage to the icons that made a mark on how we dance and appreciate music today!

To watch the series please visit my online studio: you can purchase the entire 4-part series or buy them individually. Enjoy your day and continue to grow and learn all you can.

Bio: Jennifer is a multi-award winning Middle Eastern dance artist, author and designer based in Orlando, FL. She has been dancing since 2007 and was the winner of Bellydancer of the World 2013. To learn more about her and her journey, visit: Photo by Bob Garas

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