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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Origins of Reda Troupe Dances:
Part 5: Melaya Leff

 

by Shira

 

 

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Table of Contents

 

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About the Interview

On July 31, 2006, Mahmoud Reda agreed to an interview to discuss the origins of the dances used in Reda Troupe. The purpose of this interview was to clarify which aspects of Reda Troupe's work were drawn from actual folk sources, versus which arose from other inspiration.

My objective for the interview was to document Mr. Reda's process and experiences that shaped the work he created. I wanted to provide a primary source that others could reference when performing their own research into Reda Troupe and its place in Egyptian theatrical history. For purposes of these articles, it is not in my scope to critique his work or provide my personal analysis.

Mr. Reda expressed a preference that I not record the interview. He said he would speak more freely if I didn't capture it on tape. For that reason, I opted to take written notes by hand instead of recording. To ensure I had accurately captured the conversation, I gave him the opportunity to review the articles I wrote describing what he said in the interview and correct any errors I had made. This final version has been approved by him as accurately representing what he told me.

Mahmoud Reda

 

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The Melaya Leff

"Mahmoud Reda changed the way my entire generation of Egyptians thought about dance." - A native Egyptian now living in the U.S., July 25, 2006.

What Is the Melaya Leff?

In the past, the melaya leff was an outer garment widely used for modesty by urban baladi Egyptian women in all the major cities: Cairo, Alexandria, and others. It was worn over the dress to cover the shape of the woman's figure. The word melaya means "sheet", such as a large sheet of fabric, and leff refers to wrapping it around the body. Therefore, the term melaya leff means "wrapping sheet".

When transacting daily business, women wearing a melaya leff would need to remove an arm from it in order to select purchases and pay for them. Completely covered except for one exposed arm, the women who wore their melayas this way were seen as very sexy — especially if the dress underneath the melaya had short sleeves exposing the bare skin.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the melaya began to decline in popularity among Egyptian women. Since the late 1990's, it has rarely seen any more, but the garment has found enduring popularity as a costume piece and prop in Egyptian folkloric dance.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The photo of Farida Fahmy was provided to Shira by Mahmoud Reda for use in illustrating her articles about his body of work. Fahmy is holding a melaya and wearing a dress in the style that Reda Troupe used for dances portraying women of Alexandria and Old Cairo. Click on the photo to see the image in more detail.

Farida Fahmy with Melaya

The First Use of Melaya Leff in Reda Troupe Choreography

When Reda Troupe made its debut in 1959, Mahmoud Reda had not yet had an opportunity to conduct his field research into the assorted folk dance forms of Egypt. For that reason, his very first production consisted of dances based on a culture that he had grown up with, that of Old Cairo. Reda's very first use of a melaya leff in a dance appeared in this show, and inspired the use of the melaya in many more dances in the years that followed.

Background Information About the Skit

At that time in Egypt, the syrup vendors were a very familiar sight in all the cities, including Old Cairo. They sold licorice syrup to children in the old districts of the major cities, similar to the way ice cream trucks in the United States today sell their wares to children in residential neighborhoods.

To understand the role the melaya served in story told by this dance, it is first necessary to understand the Egyptian saying, "tefresh lo el melaya." It refers to a woman being so angry that she casts aside her melaya to free up her hands, allowing her to gesture angrily or even to fight with her adversary. According to Mahmoud Reda, this expression means that a woman is so furiously angry that it could be dangerous to be near her!

This expression, "Tefresh lo el melaya", was the subject of a sight gag in the El Erkesous (The Syrup Vendor) dance skit, set in Old Cairo

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Mahmoud Reda is costumed as an "Erkesous" (Syrup Vendor) in the skit that featured Reda Troupe's first "melaya leff dance". It was included on a CD of photos that Reda gave me for the purpose of illustrating the articles. Click on the photo to see the image in more detail.

The Syrup Vendor

The Skit

The choreography opens with 6 children (3 boys, 3 girls) dancing. Their clothing represents the style of Old Cairo, rather than that of the rural people. The boys wear vests and trousers. The girls wear dresses, without melayas.

Along comes a syrup vendor clad in sarouelles (baggy pants), who sells syrup to the children. While he is dealing with them, a young woman (portrayed by Farida Fahmy) enters covered in a melaya with one sexy arm exposed. She distracts the syrup vendor, and he begins to flirt with her rather than continuing to sell syrup to the children.

The woman purchases syrup from him for herself. As he fills her cup, he accidentally spills some on her. She becomes angry and casts the melaya aside, in a sight gag that brings to mind the expression tefresh lo el melaya, then goes on to use hand gestures typical of an angry woman. She wins the fight, drives him away, picks up her melaya, and leaves.

This dance was an instant hit. Audiences responded with enthusiasm to the sight gag of casting the melaya aside. The characters portrayed were instantly recognizable as typical people seen on the streets of Cairo.

The success of this dance led Reda to create additional tableaux over the years which utilized the melaya leff. He found the melaya to be a useful prop for theater — it contrasts well with the colorful costumes, the fabric moves in interesting ways, it frames the dancer's movements, and helps illustrate a particular type of character.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Mahmoud Reda and Farida Fahmy act in a scene from El Erkesous (The Syrup Vendor). It was included on a CD of photos that Reda gave me for the purpose of illustrating the articles. Click on the photo to see the image in more detail.

The Syrup Vendor

 

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Fact or Faux?

Much lore has arisen regarding the origins of dancing with a melaya leff and the appropriate way to portray the dance.

Here are the views Mahmoud Reda expressed on some of these items:

  • There never was an actual folk dance consisting of women waving around melayas. The melaya leff dance is a concept Reda created to represent a particular type of familiar Egyptian character.
  • It is not accurate to say that Eskandarani dance (Alexandrian dance) and melaya leff are one and the same. Some melaya leff dances may be choreographed to portray a woman from Alexandria, but others may represent women from other cities where melayas were common, such as Cairo. Reda Troupe's first dance with a melaya represented a woman from Cairo.
  • The close association of melaya leff with Alexandria is not something that came from Reda Troupe. Melayas were worn by women in Alexandria, so it could be correct to use a melaya in a dance portraying a woman from that city, but it would be equally correct to use a melaya in a dance portraying someone from Cairo.
  • Some people have said this dance represents prostitutes meeting the ships in Alexandria and enticing the sailors. Reda has never heard of this, and this idea was definitely never used by Reda Troupe.
  • Many people believe that chewing gum is part of the melaya leff dance. However, Reda Troupe never chewed gum in melaya dances. Per Reda, both he and Farida Fahmy consider gum-chewing to be vulgar, like spitting. Reda stated that a person who has the proper respect for the melaya as a modesty garment would never chew gum while using it.

ABOUT THE IMAGE: This map of Egypt shows Cairo and Alexandria, two cities where the melaya leff was used by many women as a modesty garment.

Egypt

 

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Music

The music for Reda Troupe choreographies including melaya leff was created by Ali Ismail and some other professional composers for use in the shows. There are no specific traditional songs associated with the melaya leff, because it is not a traditional dance. It was created for the theatrical stage, with music composed for the purpose.

Dancers wishing to create a Reda-style melaya leff dance of their own could select music with a baladi aesthetic that tells a story, and use it to create a dance that portrays the story in the music. The choice of music and story line will determine whether the dance is perceived as representing Cairo or Alexandria.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Ali Ismail, the music director who composed nearly all the music for Reda Troupe, conducts the band playing for a performance. It was included on a CD of photos that Reda gave me for the purpose of illustrating the articles. Click on the photo to see more detail.

Ali Ismail

 

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Creating One's Own Reda-Inspired Melaya Leff Dance

Mahmoud Reda offers these suggestions for dancers wishing to create their own melaya leff tableau in the spirit of Reda Troupe dances:

  • Do not create a character with the melaya that is a prostitute soliciting customers. That would be out of character for the type of woman who would wear a melaya, and this was never something Reda Troupe would have done. Portray her as the girl next door, who can be a bit flirtatious.
  • If the character you're portraying is a coquette, she wraps the melaya tightly around herself to expose the curves of her body.
  • The melaya shouldn't be a lightweight fabric, such as a chiffon veil. It must be heavier, a garment intended to conceal.
  • The ideal fabric for a melaya is not the one commonly sold today by costume makers. Instead, the fabric used for a melaya consists of a series of tiny pleats. These cause the melaya to be a bit stretchy, and wrap enticingly when pulled close to the body.
  • A melaya should be black for contrast with the brightly-colored clothes underneath.
  • Don't flourish or wave around a melaya like a chiffon veil.
  • Don't do extensive movements with the melaya itself. Treat it with respect, as a dance partner, or as a frame for dance moves.
  • One way to use a melaya is to walk forward with it. It could be worn on the head, over one shoulder, or held in the hands dragging on the floor behind.
  • If walking backward, flip the melaya up over the arms first to keep it off the floor and avoid stepping on it.
  • The dance shouldn't be about the melaya itself. The melaya should be treated as a dance partner, and help tell the story.
  • If the melaya leff is cast to the ground, that signifies that the woman is furiously angry. Therefore, do not discard it onto the floor unless the purpose of doing so is to signify anger in the course of telling a story.

With respect to costuming, Reda recommends wearing a brightly-colored dress that is just below knee length, fitted close to the body, with short sleeves.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows a performance in later years of a choreography in which the dancers use the melaya leff from the video TV Festivals with M. Reda Troupe.

Melaya Leff

 

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Related Articles

Shira has written additional articles based on the interview. Some have not yet been posted online. This section will be updated once they are available.

 

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Mahmoud Reda for making himself available for the interview on which this article is based. He was most patient in answering my many questions and clarifying points for me when necessary.

I would like to thank Maleeha and Kahraman Near East Dance Ensemble for their important role in making this interview possible.

The material in this article originally appeared in print in Zaghareet Magazine, in 2007.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: I took this photo of Mahmoud Reda in July, 2006, the day of the interview.

Mahmoud Reda in 2006

 

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