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Magda Saleh: The Life & Times of Egypt's First Prima Ballerina

Ahead of being featured in a grand celebration in New York, we speak to the trailblazer in the world of dance, whose storied career resonates with Egyptian artists of every generation.

We’ve all been on the recent train of obsession that is the Ballerinas of Cairo. Taking an avant-garde direction in their performance of ballet on the streets of Cairo, these talented young women are defying societal norms enforced by a conservative culture. In a society that still plays by the old rules, these ballerinas are standing in the face of cultural oppression and battling it with pirouettes. It's something that can be said of many an art form in Egypt, but in the specific case of ballet, the battle started some 70 years ago with Magda Saleh, who paved the way for so many after her.

Egypt in the 1950s was nothing like the Egypt of today. Cairo was once a bustling metropolitan city that saw people coming from all over the world. It wasn’t just tourists however. By the late 1950s the ballet industry in Egypt was witnessing its beginnings and it was right around that time, that a young pig-tailed Magda Saleh was about to embark on her journey to becoming Egypt’s first prima ballerina.

It’s all about hard work, persistence and a limitless ambition and drive. Being a masochist doesn’t hurt either. And sometimes the cost is pain.

Born of a Scottish mother and an Egyptian father, Saleh, was enrolled in ballet classes; a way of grooming little girls into mature refined women of society. She had no idea, however, that she’d go on to leave her mark on the Khedival Opera, graduate from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, become a prima ballerina and finally a dean at the Higher Institute of Ballet in Egypt, among numerous other achievements.

“I’d been taking ballet lessons for a while and I remember the school treated us to a show from the Bolshoi. Watching them, the feeling was indescribable.I was blown away. And for me, it was like, that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. It was clear to me that I wanted to be a ballet dancer. That’s when the seed of pursuing it as a career was planted. But I shelved it for a while, until the Russians came along. And then it became the most serious thing in my life," reminisces Saleh as she describes the beginning of her journey into the world of ballet.

While, at the time, there were no national ballets troupes in Egypt, visiting companies from Russia would perform every year. That is up until 1958, when the Higher Institute for Ballet was founded by Egypt’s first minister of culture, Tharwat Okasha, and ballet teachers were brought in from Russia, then the Soviet Union.

Having started off at the Conservatoire De Musique in Alexandria, which boasted of British teachers and a foreign curriculum, Saleh continued her schooling in what was a newly-opened, state-funded Higher Institute of Ballet in Egypt. Once there, Saleh, along with four other students, was awarded a scholarship to study in the Bolshoi Academy for Ballet in Moscow, from which all five girls graduated in 1965. Upon their return from Moscow, they were referred to in Egypt as the Bolshoi Five. Soon thereafter, Saleh launched into a professional career in ballet. 

“The big thrill came in 1966 when we were meant to present our first full length, four-act ballet," Saleh recalls of The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, at the Cairo Opera House. "We poured our hearts into practicing for the performance and we trained for it for over a year. These ballets performances were very carefully and thoroughly rehearsed. Performing in it, for me, that was a moment of triumph. It was just exhilarating. It was such a proud moment because the show was performed entirely by Egyptians and in the Opera. It was something else."

The president at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser, even came to their show and awarded the ballerinas with state distinction certificates. And that, in and of itself was an achievement. Dancers had never been previously awarded with such high honor and recognition from the state.

Saleh went on to take the lead roles in Giselle and Don Quichotte which were performed at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and the Kilove theatre in Leningrad in 1971-1972. This paved the way for a string of ballets shows performed internationally, in the U.S, Bulgaria and several other countries, by the young ballerina.

It’s not a career for the faint hearted. It’s something you do to the exclusion of many things. You have to give up a lot.

But beyond ballet as an art and practice, Saleh was propelled into a very particular kind of fame. With its origins rooted in the royal courts of Italy and France, ballet is a formalized dance that was practiced among princes and princess. As a dance born out of the European Renaissance, the ballerinas of Egypt at the time were seen as heirs to an elite tradition.

“It was an art practiced in the courts of France at its heights before it came to us. And this was an art devised during the age of reason. Ballet was something very alien to the culture experience of the general Egyptian though. That being said, it was different from any country I know of in the Middle East, we did actually have a scheduled program called Fan El Ballet, that aired regularly on television at the time and lasted for decades,“  Magda explains. 

Ballet isn’t all pirouettes and tutus, though; at times there’s a darker side to it, one that sees girls struggle with weight issues and body image in keeping with the endless mission for a clean cut physique and their struggle to the top.

"It’s all about hard work, persistence and a limitless ambition and drive. Being a masochist doesn’t hurt either. And sometimes the cost is pain," says Magda of making it as a ballerina.

I fought with my father. He was a prominent academic. And to him, I was taking a grave social risk.

Saleh tells of how girls would be expelled if they gained a little too much weight. They were required to keep their figure slim and that became harder as they got closer to puberty.

“There was a girl with us at school and she was the teacher’s favorite. He even used to call her Madame Ulanova, one of the great Russian ballerinas of the 20th century.  But she’d gone away one summer and came back having clearly gone through puberty. She had come back more developed physically and had put on weight. That was it for her, she had to go and she got expelled,” elaborates Magda.

Having worked hard physically, emotionally and mentally to reach her revered role of Prima Ballerina, Saleh made the sacrifices that needed to be made.

“It’s not a career for the faint hearted. It’s something you do to the exclusion of many things. You have to give up a lot. My mother was a terrific cook and she used to try to tempt me into eating and I wouldn’t. And while initially it was to keep my figure, as I got into ballet, it was also partly because I’d get home too tired!”

Saleh broke the mold in more ways than one, though. Knowing full well how dance as a practice was seen in a society that placed certain expectations on women, she even fought her father.

“He was a prominent academic and, from his perspective, I was taking a grave social risk," Saleh explains. "He wasn’t thrilled by my career path initially, as socially there were a lot of stereotypes tied to the idea of dancers, musicians and actors in Egyptian society.

It was too late for Saleh, though; she had already fallen in love with ballet and eventually managed to get her father on board - something that she credits for a continued success that will be celebrated by New York theater troupe, From the Horse's Mouth' for her impact on Egyptian ballet. As part of the troupe's 20-year anniversary celebrations, a special event under the name of A Footnote in Ballet History? will be held in her honour, as well as the premiere of documentary, Egyptian Dances, which Saleh narrates. The event will be taking place between the 13th and 17th of March. 

The recongintion is well-deserved, but one can't help feel a twinge of sadness that this kind of honour is being bestowed on her on foreign lands; a fact that serves to prove Egypt's contradictions further.

"As a culture, we’re a little ambiguous, because on the one hand, there's a lot of taboo in terms of dancers and dancing. And yet Egyptians love to dance and they’re full of joy and life. They're a happy people. And they’d never let go of the exhilaration that comes from dancing. Just look at Egyptian weddings. And it’s natural, dancing is an essential part of us as human beings!"

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