Tahia Carioca is considered Egypt’s greatest belly dancer and certainly the most famous. She was born Abla Badawiya Muhammad Karim Ali Sayed in Ismailia, Egypt. Her overbearing brothers caused her to run away to Cairo as a teenager, where she went to live with an old neighbor from Ismailia, Souad Mahasen, who owned a nightclub. Even though Tahia took dance lessons at the Ivanova Dancing School Souad would not allow the young girl in her nightclub, much less perform there. However, she did introduce her to Badia Masabni who owned a famous Western style cabaret. Badia gave Tahia a job in her troupe and the stage name “Tahia Mohamed.” Tahia quickly rose in the ranks, became popular with the patrons and earned solo spots in the show.
Tahia excelled at a Brazilian dance called the “carioka” (made famous by Carmen Miranda and then Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their first film together, Flying Down to Rio - 1933) After the movie’s release she renamed herself Tahia Carioca and incorporated latin rhythms and footwork into her performances. By 1936, at the age of 21, she was dubbed Egypt’s premiere dancer by the country’s sexually obsessed king Farouk, who asked her to perform in his wedding procession. The king was 18 at the time, having ascended to the throne two years earlier after the death of his father, King Fouad. Tahia performed to music sung by Om Kalthoum, an admirer of Tahia’s who once praised her as an “artist who can sing with her body”. Besides her striking beauty, Tahia was known for her intelligence, wit, hand gestures and flirting during her performances. She was also well-known for the rivalry between her and Samia Gamal, her co-worker at Masabni’s nightclub. Tahia was the stuff legends are made of. She even dared to slap the King when he threw an ice cube down her dress at a party. She was considered at her best during WW2, when English generals, French diplomats, Egyptian pashas, Arab sheiks and occasional kings longed to get their hands on her.
Tahia's first movie was in 1935. Although her roles were small at first, mainly just a dance number, she was at the vanguard of a new international media. The first full-length Egyptian musical was only released in 1933. Through her early performances she quickly rose to the status of Superstar. Her first starring role as an actress was opposite El-Rihani in Li’bet Al-Set (Woman’s Play) in 1946. Her most famous film was Shabab Imra’a (A Woman’s Youth) where she played an older woman who seduced a college student. Tahia finally quit dancing in 1963, at the age of 48, but continued to appear in over 200 movie and television productions.
She also played the role of an activist off the big screen. After the 1952 revolution, she became left-wing and married a Marxist officer. A year later she was thrown in prison for 3 months when she supported a post-revolution return to constitutional democracy.
Tahia followed in her father’s footsteps (he married 7 times) by marrying 14 times. She even married an American, besides the many famous Egyptian actors, directors and singers. Never bearing children of her own, she adored those of her siblings. Tahia Carioca died of a heart attack on September 20, 1999. She was the only belly dancer in Egypt’s history to be given a state funeral.
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