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Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

MAGDA SALEH, aged 79


Born in Cairo, her father was Ahmed Abdel Ghaffar Saleh, an Egyptian, and her mother Gertrude Farmer (always known as Florence – her middle name) from Scotland. They met in Scotland where her father was studying agriculture and were married in 1937.

Her father went on to be a leading Egyptian academic, becoming Vice President of the American University in Cairo. Florence was a homemaker. Magda was born in 1944. She had three brothers named Tarek, Sherif and Amr.

Coming from a rich, middle-class background, her parents paid for her to go to a private dancing school. Egypt had no tradition of ballet. Any performances were usually private ones and the dance schools had foreign teachers – primarily British.

She was sent to the Arts Educational School in Tring, Hertfordshire. She had only been there 2 months when the Suez Crisis broke out. All Egyptian nationals (including Magda) were immediately repatriated.

When she got home, she found her British ballet instructor had been expelled. She was forced to go to an Italian instructor who, “was not quite as good”.

She went on to study English Literature at Ain Shams University. She had not given up her dream of being a professional dancer, so studying alongside her dance practice was hard for her. “It was very difficult to pursue this dream and I credit my parents for supporting me all the way through”.

But persuading her father to let her dance as a career, had not been easy. “I was absolutely madly passionate about ballet. My father was very upset. ‘If I allow you to become a professional dancer, I am taking a grave social risk.”

He tried to dissuade her by using the injury tactic. “Relying your career on your physical fitness…one injury and you are finished. A dancer’s life is very brief – like a butterfly”.

But he was eventually persuaded and was extremely supportive of her.

Post-Suez, Egypt forged close links with the Soviet Union. New teachers from Russia began to arrive and they took her dancing to a much higher level. She later called this, “a cultural revolution”.

The Cairo Ballet was formed, subsidized by the Egyptian government, to great criticism from the press. As part of this the Cairo Ballet School was also created. The driving force behind it was the Minister of Culture, Tharwat Okasha. Magda said many years later, “He was one of Egypt’s great sons. The Ministry of Culture is what it is because of him. He cast a very long shadow and that’s because he had a vision and he planned for the future”.

Tharwat Okasha (courtesy Egypt Today)

Then five of its young dancers, including Magda, were invited to Russia to train with the Bolshoi Ballet. They had been spotted by legendary Russian dance coach Igor Alexandrovich Moiseyev.

She was there between 1963 and 1965, and it was a very rigorous training regime. And then they returned home.

All five women became professional dancers with the Cairo Ballet, but the two stars were Magda and Diana Hakak. The two of them became firm, lifetime friends.

In 1966 the Cairo Ballet put on a major production – ‘The Fountain of Bakhchisarai’, based on a poem by Russian literary hero Alexander Pushkin. Every performer was Egyptian.

It told the story of a Polish Princess who is kidnapped by a Tatar Chief and is then killed by his harem in a fit of rage. Magda played Maria, the Princess, and Diana played Zarema, the leader of the harem.

The production was a massive success and turned the two women into superstars in their homeland, almost overnight. It also seemed to prove the government’s investment had been worthwhile. All media criticism stopped immediately.

The performance was attended by the president, General Gamal Abdel Nasser. He was so impressed he immediately awarded Magda the ‘Order of Merit’. She was the first ever Egyptian woman to receive presidential recognition.

By now she had earned the nickname ‘Opera’s Butterfly’.

From then on, Magda became guest artist with various Russian ballet troupes including both the Kirov (Leningrad) and the Bolshoi (Moscow). She even performed in the Kremlin.

She became known as Egypt’s first prima ballerina, but she wasn’t interested in the fame and fortune, but in spreading ballet throughout the country, to all the people.

Her favourite story was after a performance in the city of Aswan, a poor builder who was working on the dam and had seen her performance, came up and told her that her performance was, “a truly beautiful thing.” She called it her greatest compliment.

But then she had three major blows. Firstly, the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo, where many of her performances took place, burned down. It was the oldest theatre in Africa.

Secondly, Anwar Sadat became President of Egypt and he immediately severed all links with the Soviet Union. Many of the Egyptian performing arts community turned to the USA for support instead.

Finally, Magda had a major injury which forced her to retire from the stage. She too emigrated to California and took a master’s degree in modern dance at the University of California in Los Angeles

In 1979 she got a Ph.D from New York University. Her study was on traditional dances from rural Egyptian villages. It was entitled ‘A Documentation of the Ethnic Dance Traditions of the Arab Republic of Egypt’. She was deeply concerned that modernization and technology would destroy the traditional way of life.

And dance continued to be the driving passion of her life. “If I am not dancing, I will only be half alive”.

Magda returned to Egypt in 1983 and for two years became Dean of the Cairo Ballet School, recently renamed the ‘Higher Institute of Ballet’. She led the drive to build a large new opera house in Cairo (with a massive grant from the Japanese government).

But before the building was completed she fell out with the new Egyptian Culture Minister and was removed from her position. She immediately returned to the USA.

She lived in New York and dedicated herself to promoting Egyptian talent in the States. She gave many lectures and talks throughout the northern states. “I continue to serve the cause of Egypt with the best I can out of Egypt, but Egypt is not out of me”.

In 1993 she married American businessman Jack Josephson. He went on to become an Egyptologist, specializing in antiquities. They lived on Shelter Island, New York.

In 20016 she featured heavily in a documentary about Egyptian ballet, ‘A Footnote in Ballet History’. She said, “If you scratch an Egyptian you find an Ancient Egyptian – this means we relate to our ancient history and we can still survive the challenges”. She was delighted by a new generation of dancers known as the ‘Ballerinas of Cairo’.

Jack died late 2022 and her brother Amr died in January 2023. She moved back to Egypt to be with her family in March 2023, and died just 3 months later.

RIP – Russian Inspired Pirouettes


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