Tribute to Naima Akef
This act was the most challenging thing in my dance life. It is the longest act I have ever done. And... I cannot wait to dance it live again.
The preparation and practice took me nearly a year; therefore, obviously, it was a big part of my life. Imagine this: home office, working, needing a break. Taking finger cymbals and practising for 10 min. Back to work. Another break, this time 10 min of lip-syncing. Work, meeting, work, and… break… this time balancing a chair in my teeth. Dance practice once my daughter fell asleep in the evening. Watching Naima’s videos when relaxing, listening to her voice before sleeping. I loved it.
This article is a record of how I created this tribute and what challenges I had to overcome. I hope it will give you enough insight and details behind the act, so your experience will become richer.
In addition, I hope it will inspire you to create your acts. They don’t have to be 10 min long. You don’t need to act. Storytelling can be done in various ways. Enjoy!
How did it start?
As Naima Akef is my long-time inspiration, no wonder that I have already recreated some of her dances. In the past few years, I have taught a workshop called Tribute to Naima Akef, where I have recreated and connected four of her choreographies from the Ahebbak Ya Hassan movie together. One night, when I couldn’t fall asleep, I wondered if I could transfer the choreography to a stage. And here is what followed in my mind:
“Yes, I can, but I need fast costume changes. It is also a pity that I cannot tell her story in one performance… Or can I? I need a narrator voice for that. The narrator will lead the audience through my performance. Who could be the narrator? My husband! ... Well, how can I start? I will start with her veil dance, which is a fancy one. After that, I need some contrast. One of her signing/comedy acts! Yes, good idea! Ok, I will recreate that… Hmmm, what else? I need to mention how great she was in various dances. And, of course, tap dance! She was a master of it. I have to mention it somehow. But… how? I will not be able to learn tap dance and master it to her level… So what to do? What would Naima do? Comedy! Ok, I will create a short comedy act and make fun of the fact that I cannot tap dance. Brilliant... (feeling nervosity in my stomach)… This has to be well done. Otherwise, I will look awkward. Oh, girl…
What else? Of course, Naima came from a circus family. I have to reference it in my act somehow. Wait! Naima’s sister mentioned in an interview that their grandma used to dance with a table in her teeth while Fatma and Naima were dancing on top of the table! That would reference the fact Naima came from Nile Delta, and acrobatic acts were part of her family traditions. But come on! I will not put a table in my teeth and invite people to dance on it. Haha, no way! I will use a chair on the stage, sit on it when removing shoes after my glamorous tap dance and then take it in my teeth… Chair in my teeth?! My mom (dental lab technician) will kill me. Oh my goodness… Am I doing it? Ok. I will… I need Nisaa. I need a private class with her!
Alright, but what about some dancing? I have the intro dance, but that is not enough. What was her iconic dance? Of course, the Mamluk dance! She won a gold medal with it at an international festival in Moscow in 1957, and the same choreography appeared in the movie Ahebbak Ya Hassan. That is a good choice. But… it is with finger cymbals! Oh, girl, I have to start to practise asap… But what about the costume? This iconic dance is in pants, but the intro dance has a skirt… What about wearing pants, bra and belt and having the skirt attached on Velcro from the inside side of the belt? Then I can remove it while turning and reveal the pants. Yeah, it will work. Will it?
But there is nothing yet about her personality. I should mention her hobbies, her personality and maybe some of her memories, right? But wait, I should mention her son, who she loved so much. Ok, I will act like the son is with her on the stage… (And then my chest closed and I bit my lips not to cry)… Naima died when she was only 36… My age… Her son was only 2 years old… Like my own daughter… (and then I cried and felt horrible that Naima left our world so early…) This part of her life has to be mentioned in the act… This will be hard to act. Can I do it?
The act cannot end with her death. What if the narrator says that her art still lives, that she inspires us until now… And I will finish with her dance on Min Hob Fik Ya Ghari sung by Hooreya Hassan. Wait… It would be better to finish with a song that Naima sings… Aaah! The gorgeous song from Bahr al Gharam movie! … (and I sang a bit of the melody). I will do lip-syncing and dance a bit… And leave the stage while dancing….”
Many, many, many challenges for me. I learned a lot. And I still have bits that I have to polish and do better. Of course, recreating the choreographies is a challenge in itself. Sometimes I adapted them a bit, so they could fit into the overall act. But, there was still the chair, finger cymbals, acting and more…
First of all: fear! Bite in a chair, balance it and dance! Damn horrifying. So I called my heroine, my inspiration, my source of knowledge – Nisaa. She was so kind to give me a private class, taught me hacks, gave me tips and witnessed my first ever chair balancing. It took only 2 seconds :-) Nisaa helped me to figure out what music to use in the act for the chair bit. Thank you so much!
Then, I had to practise. Nearly every day, at least 10 min of balancing a chair in my teeth.
But there was another challenge. How do I bring my chair to the performance venues abroad? Here my husband helped. While I was trying to design a chair that could be disassembled and put in luggage, he said: “You need a chair that is foldable, not expensive and easy to buy everywhere. Ikea.” Yup, he was right! So I went to Ikea with my mom and tried several chairs. Don’t worry, not in my teeth (though I was tempted). I lift them up in one hand to see the balance and weight. We bought a wooden foldable chair, and I can tell you, I love to bite it :-)
I did play some finger cymbals before, but usually two patterns while dancing a repetitive movement. Naima’s choreography is complex. It took me super long to learn just to play finger cymbals in the music. Then I practised only arms with finger cymbals, then only steps… Then slowly together while practising with a metronome. Slowly speeding up. Months and months of practice.
Finally, when I was happy with my progress, I danced on stage. The sound is so different! Dancing it on a stage is still a challenge for me as the sound is different, and it feels like I hear the cymbals differently. I guess all dancers that regularly use finger cymbals know it and are used to it. For me, after the covid period with no live performance, it was a shock.
Lip-syncing and acting
As challenging as the chair. Really. I asked two of my friends, Kamoush and Fatiha, to transcript the lyrics for me, so I could learn them. But then, when I was pretending to sing it, I noticed that it just didn’t look good. People would not be able to see it in a big theatre. The normal movement of lips is just too small. I had to over pronounce, which was pretty hard because either I was slow or looked stupid. Practise, practise…
There is one little tiny difference I have decided to make. When Naima sings 'Aala Raml' in the last scene, she holds the note on 'm'. It looks good in the movie as there is detail on her face. When I was on the stage, holding my lips closed on 'm' looked like I am off. So I decided to 'hold' the note on 'a'.
For the acting parts, I hoped to have private classes too, but unfortunately, all my acting idols were very busy at that time. So I had to work with my own skills. The most difficult was the acting during the tap dance; I was so scared that people will not get the joke. And also the sad part… The thing is, it always makes me sad. And cry. So I just stayed real.
Ahhhh… a long story! I will say it shortly. I wanted a costume that was a mixture of two costumes. The first one Naima used in her veil dance, and the second one was the one from the Mamluk dance. The shape of the bra and belt was very similar; the first costume used a skirt, and the second one used pants. The skirt had to be on Velcro so that I could remove it fast. I ordered the costume early enough, but due to some problems, the resulting costume didn’t match what I wanted. Suddenly, I had only 6 weeks before the first performance! I got a recommendation that Layalie Ahmed can make it fast and beautiful. Layalie worked fast but! There was a fire in her workshop just around the time of finishing the costume and sending it. Even then, Layalie finished the costume, made it absolutely beautiful and gave it to my dance friend Siobhan who was coincidently in Cairo at that time. She brought it to the Netherlands, and my husband rode his motorbike to pick it up just a few days before I left to perform.
To create the act, half of the work is in editing and selecting the music. First, I wrote a script. Then my husband and I recorded it. After that, I had to collect all the music pieces together.
Basically, everything you hear in the act comes from Naima Akef movies. Only the piano section and the voice of my husband do not. The act needed precise timing, especially for costume changes. And because I received my costume very late, I had to assume the time and hoped I would manage.
The main pieces of music were clear for me, but the others needed extra thinking. Selecting clips/music for the comedic parts was tricky. But I found a wonderful act of Naima in Forejat movie that is funny, and even the text fits perfectly! She sings about being a dancer, singer, artist, and genius. A wonderful match with the overall story.
I'm a dancer and a singer, I'm an artist, I'm a genie
I dance, I sing (I can tone) Dutch Sir and Greek
You will tell about my voice, it sounds like a curlew, like a car tire
Hear from me and investigate, hear from me and investigate
I'm a dancer I'm a genie
For the tap dance scene, I went through her tap dance clips, searching for something where she does super simple tap dance in the beginning and progresses to a difficult solo. Again, I found a gorgeous piece! For the chair dance, well, let’s say Nile Delta performers dance, Nisaa has suggested the famous Rakset Hawanem, a version to which Naima dances in the movie Forejat. It fits perfectly.
The last song is one of my favourite melodies. It is from the movie Bahr Al Gharam, and the text is just so beautiful. Although she sings about the town, I see a metaphor for Naima herself.
Sleeping on the salty sand
The sea kisses her feet
She sees the wave wandering
And she says God bless her
Our pure hearts are its heaven
And the eye and wellness are its bliss
I enjoyed the journey to this tribute. And I am looking forward to dancing it again! My final words are towards Naima, although I know she cannot read it.
"Naima, I am very sorry you had to leave the world so soon and couldn’t see your boy growing up. It is a tragedy… You were a genie, exactly how you sang. Your ideas, art, patience, stamina, attitude towards people, and your will to stand against ridiculous ways artists were treated, are inspiring. Thank you for all your work. You will always live through your art."
Big thanks to all who helped me, my husband Jochen, who provided valuable feedback and recorded the narration, and Nisaa, who taught me how to balance a chair in my teeth. Also, thank you, Sheyla, Sanne and Arne, who gave me feedback, Layalie, who made the costume; Siobhan, for bringing the costume to Europe; and my mom, for her support (and helping to find the best chair).