Samia Gamal is one of the most famous Egyptian dancers in the history of raqs sharqi. She is one of the great dancers of the golden era of Egyptian cinema, having appeared in at least 50 movies between the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s and having starred in many of these.
Thanks to the movie industry in Egypt being so well developed and the fact that Egyptian movies often had raqs sharqi scenes in them, we can see what the dance looked like from as far back as the late 1930s and still learn by watching some great dancers of the past. Samia Gamal was one of those dancers and she has been revered, imitated and has been an inspiration for raqs sharqi dancers all over the world ever since. Hence, a website about belly dance would not be complete without mentioning Samia Gamal. Below you can read some information about Samia Gamal, including a short biography, a list of the main films she starred in and an analysis of her dance style.
Samia Gamal was born in 1924 in Wana Al Qiss, in the Beni Suef Governorate, Egypt. Her birth name was Zeinab Khalil Ibrahim Mafouz. Her mother died when Samia was only 8 years old. Her father remarried and his second wife mistreated Samia. So she decided to go and live in Cairo, at the age of 13 (after her father’s death), with her sister and brother in law. Samia helped her sister with household chores and looking after the children but, as her sister’s family struggled to make ends meet, Samia eventually had to go and get a job and she worked in a cloth printing factory and as a nurse.
Since a young age, Samia was fascinated by dance, in particular the dance she saw at the movies, which she went to see with one of her neighbours. Those movies had dancing scenes in them and featured dancers such as Badia Masabni and other famous dancers of the time. This is how Samia started dreaming of becoming a great dancer too and of working for Badia Masabni in her Opera Casino.
One day, when she was about 15, Samia was sitting at Gamal Cafeteria and the son of the owner overheard her say that she dreamed of becoming a great dancer and of meeting Badia Masabni. As he knew Badia, he offered to introduce Samia to Badia Masabni. It was Badia who chose the name Samia as she thought that the name Zeinab was not appropriate for a dancer. The surname Gamal was then chosen as a thank you to Moustafa Gamal (from Gamal’s Cafeteria) who introduced her to Badia Masabni.
When Samia Gamal started working at Badia Masabni Opera Casino, she was paid 3 pound a months to be one of the chorus dancers, which was a lot at the time. The first time she tried dancing a solo, Samia was unsuccessful and she was booed off the stage. It was then that she became even more determined to succeed and she took private lessons from the Lebanese chorographer Isaac Dickson (who choreographed dance numbers for movies and for Badia Masabni’s Opera Casino, in particular the group dances). After a series of lessons with Isaac Dickson, Samia Gamal tried dancing solo a second time and this time it was a success and the start of a great career. From that moment onwards, Samia Gamal started working in different clubs, she was paid more and more, she travelled abroad and she started performing in movies.
In terms of personal life, she had an 11 years relationship with the singer and composer Farid El Atrache who never married her though, according to some because he was from a Royal family from Syria and he could not marry a dancer. According to others though it was because Farid believed that an artist should never marry as marriage kills art. After she broke up from Farid, Samia married a rich American, Shepherd King, who converted to Islam for her, and they went to live in Houston, USA. The marriage though only lasted one year, after which they divorced and Samia went back to live in Egypt. Her second marriage was with the actor Rushdie Abaza; they had a daughter and lived together until he died in 1982. Samia Gamal died at the age of 70, in 1994, after a 6 days coma in a hospital in Cairo.
Samia Gamal appeared in more than 50 movies during her career in cinema, that spanned from the 1940s until the early 1960s, although she was also in at least one movie from the early 1970s, El Sheitan Wi el Kharif (The Devil and the Autumn) from 1972, when she returned briefly to movies after a long absence. Below I list some of the most famous movies that Samia Gamal starred in, which contain some of my favourite Samia Gamal dance scenes.
In many or her early movies, Samia appeared alongside Farid al Atrache, who was an actor, singer and composer with whom Samia had an 11 year long romantic relationship. One of such movies was Hafrita Hanem(Little Miss devil) from 1949. In this movie Farid plays the part of a poor singer who falls in love with the daughter of his boss. A genie, played by Samia Gamal, is supposed to help him conquer the woman he loves, but she falls in love with the singer herself and tries to seduce him.
Two other movies, out of the many in which Farid al Atrache and Samia Gamal co-starred, are: I love you Only (Bahebbak inta), from 1949, and Don’t Tell Anyone (Ma takulshi la hada), from 1952. They are two romantic comedies, rich of dance scenes, including not only raqs sharqi but also other dance genres and Egyptian folkloric tableau scenes. These scenes are interesting to watch to see how these dance genres were interpreted on stage in Egypt at the time. Don’t Tell Anyone also has one of my favourite Samia Gamal dance numbers, where she is dancing in a nightclub and wearing a sparkly bedlah with sequins and the dance movements are quite dramatic and intense.
In the 1950s, Samia Gamal also appeared in some non Egyptian productions, such as the French Movie Ali Baba and the 40 Thievesfrom 1954, with the French comedian Fernandel. This movie is full of orientalist common places about the Middle East, including the fact that Samia Gamal plays the part of a slave that dances in a harem. Other foreign movies include the American Valley of the Kings, from 1954, in which Samia Gamal playes the role of a dancer, and the Italian Lo Sparviero del Nilo (Hawk of the Nile)from 1950.
Some of my favourite dance scenes with Samial Gamal are in A Glass and a Cigarette (Sigarah wa kas)from 1955. In this movie she plays the part of a dancer who stops dancing to marry a young doctor. However, soon she becomes jealous because a nurse tries to steal her husband and jealousy drives the dancer to drink, putting in danger everything she cares about the most.
Last but not least, I want to mention Zanouba, from 1956, because Samia dances to a song that is one of the most famous among belly dancers: Zeina, by the composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab, and her rendition is lovely.
Samia Gamal trained not only with the Lebanese choreographer Isaac Dickson in raqs sharqi, but also in numerous western and Latin American dance forms, including: ballet (with Sonia Ivanova), samba, rumba, waltz, tango, rock and roll. This was very common for her contemporaries and, as we can see from various dance scenes in Egyptian movies from the 1940s and 1950s, Samia Gamal, Taheya Carioca and Naima Akef all danced many different forms of dance.
For example, in films such as I love you (Bahebbak inta, 1949), Don’t Tell Anyone (Ma takulshi la hada, 1952), A Glass and a Cigarette (Sigarah wa kas, 1955), in addition to raqs sharqi, there are various dance scenes in which Samia performs numbers ranging from ballroom dance to samba, rumba, flamenco and folkloric Egyptian tableaux.
Because of the influence of these various dance forms that Samia had been trained in, her raqs sharqi also had in it some westernised movements, such as frequent arabesques, spins and a very lifted feeling. One specific characteristic of Samia’s style, is that it is always very fluid and elegant. She seldom stops and rarely pauses during her dance; instead, she is always moving, but without looking too busy.
Her hips are always moving and their movements are layered on top of travelling steps. She tends to prefer soft movements of the hips, such as small horizontal figures of 8, small inward vertical figures of 8 and lower torso undulations. Her arms are also always moving in a very fluid way, with her elbows soft and wrists relaxed and the fingers engaged in doing subtle wave like patterns. She rarely does percussive movements, she uses an accent of the hips here and there but only when absolutely needed. She does very few shimmies with the hips and quite subtle.
Samia did more shoulder shimmies than hip shimmies and there is one movement in particular that is her signature move, as she did it very often, where she shimmies the shoulders and then moves the chest slightly forward with a soft accent. This movement is often layered with an arabesque or done at the end of a turn, as a sort of ‘full stop’ for the turn. Finally, even though rarely, maybe only in one movie or two, Samia did use floor work in her dance. For example, in The Farewell Dance (Raqsat al-wadah, 1954), there is a scene in which she dances on a stage, on top of a huge drum, and towards the end of the number she bends backwards from her knees all the way to the floor and then she raises and she dances briefly on her knees before standing up again.
In the many movies with Samia Gamal that I have seen, the only prop she uses is the veil, just for the entrance. She never uses finger cymbals (which were very widely used by all other Egyptian dancers of the time) nor a saidi stick. As for clothing and costumes, she often danced with shoes with heels but, from the late 1950s to the early 1960s, there are more and more scenes where she dances barefooted.
In raqs sharqi scenes that were performed on stage or in a nightclub setting, which therefore required a costume, Samia Gamal sometimes wore a full dress but more often she wore a bedlah with a sparkly top and hip belt applied on the skirt. Generally speaking, the bra, in the early 1940s had wide shoulder straps that covered the shoulders, while in the 1950s it often had a halter neck and the skirt was often made of chiffon that flowed when the dancer moved. In the early 1960s movies, such as Bint al Hetta (Local Girl) from 1964 or Tarik al Shaytan (The Devil’s Road) from 1963, the fashion changed and the bra usually had two separate straps rather than a single halter neck. Also, the veil that covered the midriff in some costumes from the 1960s was darker (rather than being flesh coloured), giving the impression of the costume being a whole dress with veil material in the middle rather than a bedlah (with separate bra and skirt). In any case, Samia Gamal always wore a veil material over her midriff as it was illegal in Egypt to show the bare skin of the torso. Also, she often had something to cover the navel, such as a rhinestone placed on the fabric just over the belly button, or a stripe of beads or sparkly material that would extend from the middle of the bra down to the front and middle section of the hip belt. For dance scenes involving folkloric numbers she would wear baladi dresses.
To write Samia Gamal’s biography, I used mainly two sources: a 1968 interview with Samia Gamal by Fouad Moawad (translation available on http://www.shira.net/about/Interview-samia-gamal-1968-kawakeb.htm) and an article on Dahsha.com
If you want to watch more videos of her dance, there are plenty on Youtube. On Vimeo, there are two channels that I particularly like because they have detailed descriptions of the movies and provide dates and titles. They are the channels of Leb Dancer and TheCarovan Bellydance, which both specialise in belly dance videos from old movies.