In January of this year, MOON Dance Company put on its most recent show, "The Golden Era of Belly Dance." Each member of the company was assigned a famous dancer from 1930s to 1950s Egyptian film and directed to research her, teach other company members about her, and create a choreography in her honor.
This was an amazing and magical process. I was privileged to watch seven fascinating, brilliant, compelling women truly embody the spirit of all of these legendary dancers, creating works of art that helped us all, for a little while, to appreciate the rich and varied history of belly dance.
I was assigned the role of Badia Masabni. It terrified me and I loved it.
About Badia Masabni
Badia Masabni is responsible for how we know belly dance today: full stop.
Born in 1894 Damascus, Badia and her family were compelled to emigrate to Argentina after 7-year-old Badia was raped by an adult man. By fleeing the shame and stigma that came with having a daughter who was no longer a virgin, the Masabni family hoped that the attack would be forgotten by the time they returned to Syria, so that their daughter could marry and have a respectable life. Sadly, Badia and her family found that was not the case, and were unable to arrange a marriage for her.
To support herself, Badia entered show business, as she had loved acting, dance, and music during her childhood in Argentina. Beginning in theater troupes, she eventually found work in a nightclub, where her act of folk songs, local dances, cymbal-playing, and poetry recitations were wildly popular. She met and married her husband, Egyptian comedian, actor, playwright and director Nagib El Righany, at this time, though the marriage proved to be a stormy one, with frequent separations and reconciliations.
In 1926, after a final separation from Nagib, Badia opened her own nightclub in Cairo. Over the next 25 years, she built an empire of nightclubs, the most famous of which were the Casino Badia and the Casino Opera. She featured Arabic music and polished forms of the folk dances that would become the raqs sharqi, or belly dance, that we know and love today. Legendary dancers of the era, among them Tahia Carioca, Samia Gamal, and Naima Akef, had their start at her club, and went on to successful movie careers. So influential were Badia's nightclubs that practically every nightclub scene-- especially one featuring dance-- that took place in any 1940s Egyptian movie was filmed at one of Badia's clubs. She developed the bedleh, the bra-and-belt set that we associate with belly dancers today. She became the richest woman in Egypt.
In 1951, Badia fled to Lebanon for tax evasion, where she purchased a dairy farm and lived, by all accounts, a tranquil life, aside from a brief marriage to a 25-year-old man. She died in 1975.
Preparing for the Role
You can see why I might be a bit intimidated by this.
Fortunately, I had a method for preparing for a role that I used-- I'd just never danced the role of a legend before. This method was going to be put to the test.
First, I educated myself about Badia and her life, and the world she grew up in. There are some very good essays and resources by the belly dance community out there, which I will list below. As I was doing this, I selected music and costume for my performances, working from surviving images and videos-- because Badia was of an earlier generation than most Golden Age dancers, my costume had to have a slightly different look. I settled on a piece of instrumental music entitled "Raqs Badia," which featured her cymbal playing. And, while I marinated in all of that, I collaged-- pulling together in my mind a picture of woman who was determined, independent, tough as nails, and yet used all that grit and fire to create art, glamour, and beauty, and nurture it in others, leaving a legacy, that, hopefully, I can start to honor today.
I don't know, in all honesty, if I can ever do justice to Badia Masabni-- she is too critical to belly dance, and my knowledge is so limited. But I'm so incredibly grateful to her, and I hope that gratitude is what makes me a better dancer and artist.
-Posted by Jennifer Parsons
The following articles were very helpful to me in preparing for this role:
A rare 1934 advertisement for the Casino Badia, featuring the lady herself. This video was adapted for YouTube by Jalilah at GildedSerpent.com, whose article on Badia Masabni was a source for this post, and provided by El Hami Hassan, film professor in Cairo.
This blog is designed to provide information about Moon Belly and MOON dance company happenings. At times, it becomes an open journal of our various theatrical explorations. At other times, it serves as a source of education on belly dance culture and history.