A Ballerina’s Story, Once Upon a Time in Egypt


Yet the school developed rapidly, and in 1963, Ms. Saleh and four other female students were offered scholarships to study at the Bolshoi in Moscow. She was 19 — or “19 going on 11,” she said, “because we were so sheltered.” Now they were on their own in the bitter cold of the grim Soviet capital, sitting on radiators before class to thaw.

In suits with matching handbags — their mothers had stuffed their suitcases “like a trousseau,” Ms. Saleh recalled — they were disappointed by the decrepit condition of the Bolshoi studios, especially in contrast to their brand-new institute in Cairo. After a week, their Russian teacher conveyed the message that they should dress more plainly. “We were supposed to be the client state,” Ms. Saleh said.

The experience was tough. “But character forming,” Ms. Saleh said. “The Russians taught us with love. Not love for us. Love for dance. They instilled this in us.”

Back in Cairo, diplomas in hand, they wanted to dance. So the ballet institute mounted “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai,” a 1934 Soviet ballet about a Polish princess abducted by a Tatar Khan. The Egyptian public loved it. The president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, awarded the dancers the Order of Merit.

Even more meaningful to Ms. Saleh was the praise of a poor old man after a performance in the southern backwater of Aswan. “People had insisted that Egyptians wouldn’t accept Egyptian ballet,” she recalled misty-eyed. “But we were right!”


In 1963, Ms. Saleh and four others were offered scholarships to study at the Bolshoi. Here they are in front of the theater. Credit via Magda Saleh

More ballets followed, and then the ultimate triumph as Ms. Saleh toured the Soviet Union. When she danced as Giselle at the Bolshoi in 1972, it was her best performance as a ballerina, she said. It was also her last.

For a while already, she had been plagued by muscle problems. Dancing Giselle in Moscow, she said, was “beyond pain.” And there were other reasons outside to stop. Just before the tour, the Khedivial Royal Opera House, built in Cairo in 1869, had burned down. “It was the end not only of dance in Cairo but of cultural life,” Ms. Saleh recalled. The building was replaced by a parking garage. (It was 16 years before a new opera house was built.)

Many of her colleagues went to study in the Soviet Union. One of her dance partners, Reda Sheta, began a successful career in Europe and Israel. But Ms. Saleh turned to the United States, getting a master’s degree in modern dance at the University of California, Los Angeles, and then a doctorate at New York University. (“Egypt Dances,” a fascinating ethnographic documentation of folk dance that she filmed throughout the country in 1979, will be screened at the 14th Street Y on March 17.)

This time, Ms. Saleh was ahead of her country. In the 1970s, President Anwar Sadat switched Egypt’s allegiance from the Soviet Union to the United States. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Sadat ordered Soviet advisers out of the country, which meant that the ballet institute lost most of its faculty.

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