Some Dance History

Badia Masabny – by Jalilah Lorraine Zamora

In 1926 a woman of Lebanese origin named Badia Masabny opened a Super-nightclub in Cairo in the fashion of European cabarets. This nightclub, known as “Casino Badia”, and another club later established by Masabny, “Casino Opera”, were to have a profound influence on Middle Eastern Dance as we know it today. Many dancers have perhaps never even heard the name of this woman to whom we owe so much. Who was Badia Masabny?

According to her autobiography, which appeared in the book “Bauchtanz” by Dietlinde Karkutli, Badia Masabny was born in Damascus in 1894 from a Beiruty father and a Damascene mother. Raised her early years between Beirut and Damascus, after the death of her father they moved to Damascus. At the age of seven, she was raped by a cafe owner. After serving only 4 weeks in jail, the man’s life returned to normal. Badia’s life, however, was changed forever as she was no longer a virgin. To avoid the gossip and shame of it all, the Masabny family emigrated to Argentina. In school there, Badia was happy and discovered her love for acting, singing and dancing. When she was in her teens and therefore of marriageable age, the Masabnys moved back to Syria. The events of the past were, however, not forgotten and the family had a hard time finding a husband for her.
Feeling she had no chance in a place where everyone knew of her past, Badia decided to run away to Beirut. On the train, she met a nice woman who offered to take her in. Only in Beirut did Badia realize that this “nice woman” was the madam of a brothel! With no one to support her and no real skills, Badia tried to think of something she could do without having to sell her body. She turned to the two things she most loved: singing and dancing. When her mother arrived in Beirut to take her home, Badia persuaded her to accompany her to Cairo instead.

Badia found work playing small roles with the famous George Abiad Theater Ensemble. She lied to her mother, telling her she had a night job as a seamstress. When the ensemble’s summer break arrived, Badia was offered a bigger role with a traveling theater troupe that was leaving for Said, Upper Egypt. When Badia’s mother learned the truth about her daughter’s employment, she insisted they return home to Syria. As the train that was to take them to Alexandria, where they would board a ship for Beirut, pulled into the station, Badia jumped to the other side of the tracks and ran away as fast as she could. She caught up with the traveling theater troupe just the day before they went on tour.
Searching for her mother, In 1914 Masabny came back to Beirut and performed in the well-known theater of Madame Jeanette, a French woman who employed exclusively European artists to perform for a mostly upper-class Lebanese clientele. Badia convinced Madam Jeanette to let her sing and dance in Arabic. For her debut on September 14, 1914, accompanied by two Austrian women playing oud and qanoon, Badia performed a Syrian folksong, singing, dancing and playing cymbals all at the same time! Badia was a big hit and became the feature act.
Masabny continued to work in Lebanon and Syria. While performing in Damascus, she was attacked and almost killed by her brother who believed he was defending the family honor due to her work in the entertainment field. While Nagib El Rihany and his ensemble were producing in Lebanon, Badia eventually began working with the Iraqi-Egyptian comedian, actor, playwright and director. Returning with them to Cairo in 1921, she became the star of the company. A passionate, but turbulent love story developed between Masabny and El Rihany and they eventually married. Although it was a troubled marriage, Badia was able to learn a lot about the theater from her husband. After numerous breakups and reconciliations, Badia left him in 1926 and opened her own nightclub, called Casino Badia, on Emad El Din street. (It should be noted that the term “cabaret” was never used in the Middle East except to describe a very low class establishment. Nightclubs were at that time known as “Sala” which translates to a “big hall.”
The nightclub was a huge success. Masabny created a program with both European and Arab artists performing short acts that appealed to European and upper-class Egyptian tastes. Badia danced and sang several numbers herself. She and El Rihany got back together for a brief time, but then split again, this time for good. Badia moved her nightclub to a better location and named it “Casino Badia”. A diverse entertainment program featured local dancers, singers, musicians and comedians, as well as various European acts. It was at this time that the traditional “Raqs Sharqi” began to undergo significant changes.
The term Raqs Sharqi first came about to distinguish the dance from European, or western, dances. (“Orient” as opposed to “occident”.)
Up to the 1920’s, dancers had performed mostly at weddings, private homes, “Hanat” or “Kerkhana”, (places where alcohol is served) or at outdoor religious festivals known as “mawalid” (plural of “mulid”). Originally characterized by mostly hip and torso movements, the dance had usually been performed in small spaces. The dance, therefore, had to be adapted for the stage. Masabny employed western choreographers such as Isaac Dixon, Robbie Robinson and Christo, who added elements from other dance traditions, for example, the turns and traveling steps from Western dance forms such as ballet and ballroom dance.

The late master instructor and choreograph Ibrahim Akif, who also worked with Masabny, identified “shimmies”, undulating movements (including what we sometimes refer to as “camals”),circles and “eights”, as well as various hip thrusts and drops as being the original “Sharqi” or oriental movements.
Badia Masabny was a tough woman. According to Karin van Nieuwkerk in her book, “A Trade Like any Other”, journalists wrote that Badia had no need for a bodyguard as she herself was one, even going so far as to threaten intrusive journalists with a gun. Perhaps her childhood had forced her to become tough.

In 1937 Masabny invested and lost all her money in a film project which flopped. She declared bankruptcy and left Cairo to tour Upper Egypt with her troupe. A young Tahia Carioca, still in her teens, was part of the entourage. In debt, Badia borrowed money to open up her biggest project yet: a nightclub with a movie theater, restaurant, cafe and an American-style bar. “Casino Opera” opened in 1940 and was extremely successful.
The Egyptian film industry was flourishing at this time, producing countless musicals requiring singers and dancers. Many of the nightclub scenes in the films of this era were actually filmed in “Casino Opera” and many dancers were discovered there. The program in both “Casino Badia” and “Casino Opera” featured group dances.
Through exposure in these films, as well as in Masabny’s nightclubs, dancers achieved a celebrity status that could never have been achieved in the past. The most famous of these dancers were Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal, who became popular movie stars in Egypt, and Nadia Gamal, who later became a star in Lebanon. All these dancers and many others, including Ketty, Hoda Shamsadine, Hagar Hamdy and Naima Akef (although, according to Ibrahim Akef, Naima actually started in the nightclub of Masabny’s rival, Beba Azzadine), credited Masabny for helping them get started and for teaching them what they needed to know in the beginning of their careers. According to an interview with Nadia Gamal in Arabesque magazine, Masabny trained her dancers every afternoon at the Casino. She was an expert at “zaggat” (finger cymbals) and played them herself on stage. Not only dancers, but also many well-known singers and musicians, including Farid El Atrache and Mohamad Abdel Wahab, got their start with Masabny.
Badia Masabny earned good money during the war years and Casino Opera continued to prosper after the war as well. In 1951 the Egyptian government demanded that Masabny pay £74,000 (Egyptian pounds) in back-taxes. It was impossible for her to come up with such a large sum of money without being ruined financially. She escaped from Egypt in a private jet and returned to Lebanon. There she bought a small farm in Chtoura in the Bekaa valley in North Lebanon and opened a shop for dairy products, called Badia Masabni. The shop still exists until today on the main road to Chtoura, Badia lived in Lebanon the rest of her days in peace and tranquility ( aside from getting married to a young man of 25 and divorcing him after couple of months!)
Badia Masabny passed away in 1975. Very similar details of her life are told in a 1975 film called “Badia Masabny”.
While no one denies that Badia Masabny had a profound influence in the development of modern Raqs Sharqi, not everyone agrees if this influence was positive or negative. One school of thought maintains that her changes elevated the dance to a performing art for the stage. The other maintains that she degraded the original dance form by making the dance more sexually suggestive and by moving the dance into a nightclub setting to begin with. In any case, one can hardly imagine how the dance might have evolved without Badia Masabny! Thanks to the Lebanese superstar Amani Amani for additional information and photos.

This is revised article that was originally published by Gilded Serpent

Some dance history