Editor’s note: This story is part of a special reporting project, “What Lies Beyond.” It is featuring students across six universities, reporting in-depth features and investigations on many of Egypt’s current events and issues.
By Omnia Farrag
A princess dances joyfully across the stage, dressed in a graceful tutu and full makeup, always smiling. A prince with a lean body and elegant clothes struggles and revolves only around his princess. He fights many battles to win her heart, and eventually succeeds. Their dance is periodically punctuated with the applause of 1,200 audience members at the Cairo Opera House’s main theatre.
This is the image that most people have of ballet dancers, but in fact, the reality of ballet dancers is not simply about love, music, and dancing. It is about long hours of rehearsals from the beginning of their career during childhood until they retire in their thirties or forties. It is about the painful and strenuous movements they have to command and the injuries they are subject to while rehearsing or performing.
At the Cairo Opera House in Cairo, in the main theatre building, the ballet dancers rehearse. Daily News Egypt got a chance to take a closer look at the life and the career of ballet dancers. “It is tough… ballet is tough,” Radwa Sherif, 18, a ballerina at Cairo Opera Ballet Company, said.
She began practicing ballet since she was eight years old at the Higher Institute of Ballet at the Academy of Art. She followed in the footsteps of her elder sister, but when she started, she did not expect it to be as difficult as it proved to be. Nonetheless, she said she became accustomed to it after few years.
“It is physically difficult since we used to have three classes every day, each one two hours long,” Sherif said. It is not just the long hours in classes that were difficult but it is also the difficulty of performing the movements correctly.
Most people cannot imagine how difficult ballet is; they only see the dancers’ smooth movements. Nonetheless, closely following the life of ballet dancers, especially when they rehearse backstage, tells a lot about the extent of muscle control for the movements.
When Sherif was doing the promenade, which is taking position on tiptoe on one foot while the male partner holds onto her and walks around her in a circle, each muscle in her body was shaking.
Ihab Salah, 21, is a ballet dancer at the Cairo Ballet Company and he started attending the Higher Institute of Ballet since he was eight. “In the beginning, it was a burden on me; I have to wake up early, go to the institute, and attend the classes… but [later] I understood that this is my career and my life,” he said.
Salah has been practicing ballet for the past 14 years, at least three hours every day. He said it is challenging but believes that nothing is difficult or impossible with consistent practice.
For Salah, the variation, or “pas seul” solo dance that lasts 80 seconds at most is the most challenging as by the “adagio” or “pas de deux”, which is dancing with female partner and the male is required to support her so she can jump higher.
Sometimes, the male must carry his female partner, which is both demanding and risky if it not executed correctly. The “présage” is one of the most demanding dancing positions, which consists of lifting the female dancer while she is assuming the fish position.
Art director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company Erminia Kamel echoed Salah’s and Sherif’s opinions regarding commitment to rehearsals. “Since you start dancing, you have to practice and rehearse every day. It requires full and total commitment to be a ballet dancer,” Kamel said.
Kamel’s journey with ballet was full of dedication, devotion, and loyalty. It started in Milan, Italy, where Kamel attended La Scala Theatre Ballet School and worked in La Scala Theatre Ballet Company for 10 years after graduation until she met her husband Abdel-Moneim Kamel, who later became chairman of the Cairo Opera House.
The couple traveled to Cairo in the 1980s; Abdel-Moneim Kamel then revived the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, which was very weak at the time. “The company was growing little by little thanks to him and now I am managing the company,” Erminia said.
She considers it her duty to continue her beloved husband’s legacy, who is considered the spiritual father of ballet in Egypt. “My commission now is to continue his legacy, adding something new of course, but basically I am keeping the legacy he was establishing,” she said.
Ballet dancers are subject to many injuries due to the difficult movements they execute. Sherif’s shoulder was broken once when she was dancing solo with her partner. “He lifted me and all of a sudden, I found myself on the ground; I could not feel my shoulder. The master asked me to move my hand but I could not,” Sherif said, adding that this was the worse injury she sustained.
Most ballerinas sustain foot injuries because of the tiptoes and the jumps they must perform. For Sherif, foot injuries are something that is all too normal to even mention, but still too painful. She said wearing ballet shoes and walking on her toes caused her feet to bleed after every performance.
“When I take of my shoes or my socks I feel like I am taking off a layer of my skin,” she said. Kamel said those injuries are “quite normal” since the skin on her toes gets hurt due to the friction while moving and jumping.
Dancers put all of their body weight on their tiptoes, which makes the injury even more painful. Not only are the injuries painful but they also affect the way the dancers’ feet look, Kamel said.
“No, I do not wear sandals or slippers,” she said, explaining that she does want to show off her feet due to the injuries and therefore does not wear footwear that shows her feet. Although Kamel said those injuries are harmful, the dancers are accustomed to it. She also thinks their passion for dancing causes them to forget about all their injuries.
Male ballet dancers do not go on tiptoes, yet they are subject to injuries in their knees, ankles, and backs. Salah strained his calf once because of an incorrect movement, and injured his ankle in another incident.
Injuries might force some dancers to retire, such as the case of ballet master and choreographer at Cairo Opera Ballet Company Sherif Ramadan, who had to retire at the age of 27 due to a major injury. “I was on stage, I did a wrong move while dancing; I felt the pain but I continued dancing,” he said.
After the performance, Ramadan started to feel “deadly pain”, and was later diagnosed with spinal disc hernia. It was his last dance but he said he was proud he continued dancing until the end of the performance when he felt his injury on stage.
Doctors advised Ramadan to quit dancing due to his medical condition. Consequently, Ramadan was disappointed for a long a period after being told that he had to quit the career he practiced for and loved since childhood. “Ballet is my career and my work, it is what I studied since I was young,” he said. However, he managed to overcome his sorrow and continued in the same field as a ballet master and choreographer.
To reduce the damage of injuries, ballet companies usually hire orthopedic specialists who attend the rehearsals and performances with the troupes.
Mohamed Abdulrahman, an orthopedic surgeon and injuries specialist in Cairo Opera Ballet company, told Daily News Egypt he attends the rehearsals and performances with the troupe to start treating any injury if it occurs and reduce its effects.
According to Abdulrahman, the most common injuries are lateral ligament tears and posterior horn medial meniscus tears. “[Ballet dancers’] ligaments are different from the average person’ ligaments; a sprain that usually takes 15 days to heal for an average person takes only five days for dancers,” he said.
Other major injuries occur and sometimes require surgery, especially those that occur during rehearsals. The real problem is when an injury occurs before the performance, since it puts the Master or Mistress and the physician in a difficult situation, deciding whether to risk it and ask the dancer to endure the performance or to risk the quality of the performance and assign the role to a backup dancer.
The health of the dancer “is above everything” and the main criteria they consider when they take such decisions, Abdurrahman said.
Among the most difficult struggle of ballet dancers have to endure is the prejudice that society has about them. “Are you a virgin?” a man once asked Sherif when he found out she is a ballet dancer.
“We do hip abductions, which is hard and some people think this movement affects our hymen,” Sherif said quietly and with a shy smile. What hurts her most is when people label her as a “mare dancer” because, she believes she is creating art, that is not “sexy or cheap”.
Kamel said the intellectual society should appreciate the art of ballet. She criticised female dancers who quit dancing based on their new husbands’ requests. “Why give up what they have been learning for years or maybe decades just for a husband?” she asked.
Sherif was also about to quit when her boyfriend asked her to stop ballet because it involves male and female dancers touching, but she convinced him that she would stay in this field for the time being.
“He convinced me that it is ‘haram’ [taboo] … and I know it is but I love it,” Sharif said conflictedly.
Male ballet dancers are also subject to societal judgments. Gender roles in Egypt are the main challenge male ballet dancers have to deal with, since many people do not accept the idea that a man works as a professional dancer.
“Some people know nothing about ballet except that a ballerina wears a tutu,” Ramadan said, noting that few people accept or appreciate ballet dancers. He believes people started to recognise the importance of ballet when ballet schools started to spread in many clubs.
As in the case of Sherif’s boyfriend, some believe that ballet is not accepted because it involves touching. Others, like the large crowds that attend ballet performances, believe it is quality art. But in all cases, it is hard to deny that ballet is difficult, whether for its dancers, masters or choreographer.
The art of ballet was introduced to Egypt when the Cairo Opera Ballet Company was established in 1958 by then minister of culture Tharwat Okasha and former chief choreographer of the Bolshoi Theatre Leonid Lavrovsky. At the time, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company was the only Arab resident classical ballet company in the Middle East. Lavrovsky sent Egyptian dancers to be trained in Russia and brought Russian ballet masters to Egypt to train the troupe. Okasha also established the High Ballet School in 1959 as part of the Academy of Art. In 1966, the first ballet performance produced by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, entitled “The Fountain of Bakhshisarai”, opened. The art of ballet declined in Egypt due to the Khedivial Opera House burning down and the political tension between Egypt and Russia, then-Soviet Union, during former late president Anwar El-Sadat’s rule. After the inauguration of the New Cairo Opera House, Abdel-Moneim Kamel revived the Cairo Opera Ballet Company and managed it until he passed away three years ago.