Meet the woman who introduced Egypt to contemporary dance
We talk to Karima Mansour, founder of Cairo Contemporary Dance Centre, which is encouraging Egyptians to embrace the art form
An excerpt from a handwritten letter, dated March 2016, hangs in a glass frame by the entrance of the Cairo Contemporary Dance Centre (CCDC). It was written by a former student of the centre’s three-year training programme, a first-of-its-kind in Egypt. As dozens of dance neophytes hustle past on their way to a class, I read it: “Here I have bled and bruised on the inside and out. Here I have met like-minded aspiring artists and polar opposites alike. Here I have discussed philosophy and art and life with a woman who goes by the name of the goddess of the stars … Here I have grown, and most importantly, here I have danced.”
Observing Karima Mansour in action
The week before I noticed the letter, I was one of those dancers. I was due to meet Karima Mansour, Egypt’s foremost contemporary dancer and CCDC’s founder and artistic director, so I signed up to attend one of her sessions first. I was curious to observe her as a teacher, divorced from the managerial duties that have become the crux of her routine since she founded the centre in 2012. I also wanted to become better acquainted with an art form that I, admittedly, knew little about.
Contemporary dance is still novel in Egypt. But before CCDC was an active player in the scene, the sight of dozens of people draped in tracksuit bottoms and tank tops, ready to leap, scuttle and move in snake-like motions across a stage, was very rare indeed.
In the hour-long class, Mansour has a calm demeanour that could easily be mistaken for sternness. She speaks with authority, demonstrating every move with rigour, patiently observing how we, a group of non-professional dancers of all shapes and sizes, attempt to copy her, often with no beat to follow. “It’s exactly like walking,” Mansour says, matter-of-factly, as she illustrates how our arms should move, making her way from one end of the dancefloor to the other, dropping into a plié every couple of steps, as the class looks on.
The birth of the CCDC
Mansour returned to Cairo in the late 1990s and it was then that the seed for CCDC was first planted. She had spent seven years studying and performing in Rome and London, and the Egyptian capital, by contrast, was a barren land for independent contemporary dancers. “There was no space to do classes or rehearse, and no access to a stage to perform, unless you were working with the state theatre,” Mansour recalls. She quickly became an assistant professor at the Higher Institute of Ballet at the Academy of Arts, bringing contemporary dance to the academy for the first time. But something didn’t quite fit, she says. “It felt like, after seven years in Europe, I was being emptied and nothing was coming in. I wanted to dance and perform and choreograph. This is when I realised there was nothing here. If I wanted to do it, I needed to create the environment for it.”
So Mansour formed Maat for Contemporary Art, the independent company through which she continues to dance and choreograph. It wasn’t until 2011, however, that an opportunity to open CCDC presented itself. “This was when the dance scene really came together,” she says.
A thirst for knowledge
The centre was founded on the back of a shaky alliance with the state, at a time when revolutionary fervour was at its peak. The centre initially operated from within the state-run Cairo Opera House, but then support dried up. Nevertheless, Mansour, who had made a name for herself already, was able to rally enough backing to keep the centre going. Months later, she found a new home for it in a corner building on a quiet square in Mohandiseen, west of Cairo, on the fringe of the state’s cultural estate.
Even Mansour was surprised by how many students returned to training. She had imagined CCDC as a stepping stone for young independent dancers, a space that offers possibilities that were once unthinkable for her generation. Now, some students teach introductory and intermediary classes to the public, while others take on managerial tasks. Alumni also return to CCDC as teachers, and everyone is eligible to take part in performances produced under Maat, which relaunched in May.
A 'holistic' experience
Mansour is not interested in creating typical, svelte ballerinas. Instead, she tells me, the curriculum is designed to train aspiring dancers in everything from martial arts and voice techniques to dance theory, choreography and teaching. It’s meant to offer a “holistic” experience, even for actors and theatre professionals who she says are now seeing value in movement training, too.
Access to dance venues and the prevalence of relatively inexpensive training in Egypt – among other factors – have allowed people from varying socio-economic backgrounds to engage in dance far better than, for example, visual arts ever has. In order to enrol in CCDC, formal training is not a prerequisite; students are enrolled solely on the basis of talent, which is assessed through auditions.
Today, students of the second cohort are on a 95 per cent scholarship (something Mansour is proud she is able to maintain, despite the centre’s financial woes). The current group, which will graduate in spring, includes a 16-year-old dancer who has enrolled in an evening university. Mansour says this is evidence that more parents are willing to take a chance on dance. “The idea of finishing school and immediately getting a dance education is scary for a lot of parents,” she says, recalling the support she received from her own family when she first started out. “Now I’m stuck and glued to my chair out of choice.”
For Mansour, like for many of those working in the arts in Egypt, uncertainty is an inevitable reality. Imagining an alternative to the overwhelming sense of stagnation in the scene often results in nothing more than despair, and fear of normalising, and of succumbing to the void, is rife within the industry. But Mansour is somewhat hopeful, because of a certain responsibility she has borne to everyone who has crossed paths with CCDC over the years, and because of a growing audience of people who are keen to see more works – even if many of them continue to mistake contemporary dance for aerobics.
Updated: January 13, 2019 02:10 PM