Among the pioneers who brought Sharqî dance onto the international stage, one cannot overlook the significance of Samia Gamal. With her talent in both dance and acting, she became one of the most admired icons of the Egyptian cinema’s Golden Age, playing a central role in popularizing oriental dance on the big screen.
In early 20th century Egypt, at a time of vibrant cultural awakening known as the Nahda, the public was fascinated by a generation of emerging female artists that flourished in cinema, dance and music. One of them goes by the stage name of Gamal, a name that would soon shine brightly. Born as Zainab Ibrahim Mahfuz on February 22, 1922, Gamal was brought up in a humble family in a small town in Egypt. When she was just a child, the Mahfuz family moved to Cairo, and the little girl began to work as a seamstress to support them. After discovering musical cinema, she immersed herself in it.
Gamal’s career began in 1935 when she joined the dance company of the businesswoman Badia Massabni, who established venues for dance and performances in Egypt. The shows of Massabni gathered several Egyptian dancers who would later be famous, such as Taheyya Karioka. She received training from classical ballet teachers, allowing for a fusion of oriental dance, including belly movements and non-oriental steps such as samba or rumba. She was taught to blend traditional Egyptian and Syrian dances with a touch of Western styles, such as music-hall.
Throughout the spectacles, Gamal began to make a name for herself by becoming one of the most adored dancers at the club. She stood out by adding her personal touch to the Shaqî dance, combining it with Hollywood steps, classical ballet moves, and a hint of Latin American influence. Her innovation in oriental dance included introducing heels on stage adding grace and sensuality to her performance.
This is how the world of cinema welcomed her with open arms. From 1940 to 1960, she played in some fifty films, such as “A Bullet in the Heart” in 1944, directed by Mohammed Karim.
On the big screen, the dancer doesn’t fail to showcase the extent of her dancing talent, notably by performing Latin dance solos such as in “Cigara w kass” in 1955. Her Sharqî dance style continues to refine through her outfits and accessories: she moves from dancing with heels to barefoot. Gamal became the new queen of the Egyptian cinema star system, admired by millions of fans across the Arab world, gracing the covers of magazines such as Al-Kawakeb. Her influence goes beyond the cultural fields and King Farouk of Egypt bestows upon her the honorary title of the first national dancer.
At the same time, she crossed paths with Farid el-Atrach, the famous Syrian-Lebanese singer and actor. Their love story turned them into one the most famous artistic couples of the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema. The couple reunited on screen with the movie “The Love of My Life” by Henry Barak in 1947, then with “Afrita Hanem” in 1949, from the same director. Their movies were immense commercial successes, and they were a winning combination that allowed them to play in other movies, such as “Ahebak Enta” in 1949, directed by Ahmed Badrakhan.
Gamal’s influence extended beyond the realms of Arabic cinema. In 1949, she played in the Italian film “Lo sparviero del Nilo” (Hawk of the Nile, 1950), directed by Giacomo Gentilomo. After her break-up with Farid al-Atrash, she embarked on a tour of the United States and married wealthy Texan Sheppard King. In 1954, she decided to come to Hollywood and appeared in the movie “Valley of the Kings” by Robert Pirosh, portraying a belly dancer. The same year, she gained recognition among the French public by embodying Morgiane in the film “Ali Baba et les quarantes voleurs” with Fernandel.
At the end of the 1950s, Gamal divorced her American husband and returned to her native country for good. Back in Egypt, she achieved two of her greatest successes, “Zannouba” (1957) and “Maweed Maa Maghoul” (1959). She married one of the country’s most talented actors, Ruschdy Abaza, with whom she played in “El Rajul el Thani” (1959) by Ezzel Dine Zulficar. They divorced in 1977 and she gradually scaled back her screen appearances.
Gamal officially retired from cinema in 1972. The actress returned briefly on stage in 1984 before devoting herself exclusively to dance. She practiced her art with passion until the early 1990s. Gamal died of cancer on December 1, 1994, in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, at 72.
Samia Gamal embodied, like no one else, the art of Egyptian Sharqî dance and will forever remain a legend.
All images are sourced from archive websites and Pinterest.