Girls learn ballet steps in conservative Upper Egypt

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An Egyptian girl practices ballet moves as other classmates watch during her training at Alwanat Cutlural Center in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya. (AFP)
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Egyptian girls practice ballet moves during their training at Alwanat Cutlural Center in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya. (AFP)
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Egyptian girls practice ballet moves during their training at Alwanat Cutlural Center in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya. (AFP)
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An Egyptian girl practices ballet moves during her training at Alwanat Cutlural Center in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya. (AFP)
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An Egyptian girl practices ballet moves as other classmates watch during her training at Alwanat Cutlural Center in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya. (AFP)
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Egyptian girls practice ballet moves during their training at Alwanat Cutlural Center in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya. (AFP)
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Egyptian children sit during a ballet class at Alwanat Cutlural Center in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya, about 277 km south of the capital Cairo, on February 17. (AFP)
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An Egyptian girl practices ballet moves as other classmates watch during her training at Alwanat Cutlural Center in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya. (AFP)
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Egyptian girls practice ballet moves during their training at Alwanat Cutlural Center in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya. (AFP)
Updated 02 March 2017
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Girls learn ballet steps in conservative Upper Egypt

EGYPT: In Egypt’s conservative southern province of Minya, young girls in black leotards and white tights wobble on their tip toes to classical music in a room painted with colorful motifs.
“Look forward, stretch your arms,” a male instructor calls out to the girls aged four and above.
They try to mimic their teacher, a professional ballet dancer from the capital, as he gracefully raises his arms over his head.
It’s a surprising scene in the traditional province, which more often makes headlines for family feuds or sectarian violence against its large Coptic Christian minority.
But the founders of the Alwanat Center in Minya city are determined to make it the first ballet school in the wider Upper Egyptian province of the same name.
“Society is a bit insular in Minya. They say there’s some extremism here,” says Marco Adel, one of the center’s founders.
“We want children to be more open to life, to like art,” says the 33-year-old law graduate, who is an avid drawer.
In the almost two years since ballet lessons started at the center, they have become a great success, with parents driving up to one hour from nearby towns to bring their children to lessons.
Christine Essam, whose daughter Eleina is learning ballet steps at the center, says she and her husband thought carefully about signing their four-year-old up for classes.
“Most people around us — whether family or friends — were against it. They’d say: ‘Couldn’t you find anything other than ballet?’“
“Girls in Upper Egypt are expected to wear modest clothes,” the 26-year-old pharmacist says, adding it is a “bit hard” to make dance socially acceptable.

Around 160 students aged four to 26 — including boys — now flock to lessons at the center, Adel says, up from 15 after classes were launched in May 2015.
Most Muslim girls and women who come to learn ballet wear a headscarf, he says, and they can choose to learn with one of the center’s three female instructors, including two who also don the Islamic hijab.
But for more than a month, the center has also had a male instructor.
Mamdouh Hassan, a professional dancer with the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, travels the 240 kilometers (150 miles) from Cairo every weekend to teach the next generation.
Adel says a few parents have complained about a man teaching their daughters, but eventually, the instructor was accepted.
“At first, we were a little surprised. But we were told he was very experienced and we trust the center,” Essam says.
Vivianne Sobhi, the mother of seven-year-old Farah, says social barriers have started to break down in Minya.
“These days girls go swimming in swimsuits,” the 27-year-old teacher says.
Running a ballet school hundreds of kilometers from the capital is not without its challenges.
Male instructor Hassan was once two hours late because the motorway from Cairo was closed due to fog, and the center had to order ballet shoes from the capital as none were available in the southern city.
Adel says the Alwanat Center — which also offers Zumba and music classes, as well as theater and cinema workshops — was born of “personal efforts.”
“But the culture ministry or sponsors are welcome to help,” Adel says, pointing to the center’s small rooms.
But parents seem happy.
As he helps his five-year-old daughter Heaven arch her back for a gymnastics move called a bridge, Adel Gerges says he is thrilled with her experience at the center.
“We were deprived of all of this during our childhood,” says the 35-year-old pharmacist.
“We won’t make the same mistake with our daughter.”


Soviet-era motorcycle sidecars add to Cuba’s retro appeal

Updated 21 March 2019
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Soviet-era motorcycle sidecars add to Cuba’s retro appeal

  • Ranging from rusting relics to the pampered and the pristine, hundreds of old motorcycle sidecars rattle through the streets of Havana

HAVANA: Cuba’s love affair with 1950s-era American cars is still intact, but the communist-run island also has a lingering attachment to a stalwart of Soviet-era leftovers, the motorcycle sidecar.
Ranging from rusting relics to the pampered and the pristine, hundreds of old motorcycle sidecars rattle through the streets of Havana.
The retro appeal gets a lot of attention from tourists “but here it’s common, normal,” says Enrique Oropesa Valdez.
Valdez should know. The 59-year old makes a living as an instructor teaching people how to handle the sidecar in Havana’s traffic, where riders seem able to squeeze the machines through the narrowest of gaps.
And they’ve built up an intense loyalty among the mend-and-make do Cubans.
“They’re very practical,” according to Alejandro Prohenza Hernandez, a restaurateur who says his pampered red 30-year-old Jawa 350 is like a second child.
Cheaper and more practical than the gas-guzzling, shark-finned US behemoths, the bikes are used for anything from the family runabout to trucking goods and workers’ materials.
“A lot of foreigners really like to take photos of it,” says Hernandez. “I don’t know, I think they see it as something from another time.”
Cuba lags several decades behind the rest of the world due to a crippling US embargo, so the makers’ badges on the ubiquitous sidecars speak of a bygone world.
Names like Jawa from the former Czechoslovakia and MZ from the former East Germany, as well as antiquated Russian Urals, Dniepers and Jupiters.
Havana’s military acquired them from big brother Moscow at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s and 70s, for use by state factories and farms. Over the years, they gradually filtered down to the general public.
That’s how Jose Antonio Ceoane Nunez, 46, found his bright red Jupiter 3.
“When the Cuban government bought sidecars from the Russians in 1981, it was for state-owned companies,” he said.
Later, the companies “sold them on to the most deserving employees,” he said. His father, who worked for a state body, passed the bike on to him.
“Even if the sidecar gets old. I’ll never sell it because it’s what I use to move around. It’s my means of transport in Cuba, and there aren’t many other options,” said Nunez.
Valdez himself has a cherished green 1977 Ural.
“I like it a lot, firstly because it’s the means of transport for my family, and secondly because it’s a source of income.”
And it costs less than a car, still out of reach of many Cubans.
Settled on the island with his Cuban wife, 38-year-old Frenchman Philippe Ruiz didn’t realize at first how ubiquitous the motorcycle sidecar was.
“When I began to be interested, I suddenly realized that I was seeing 50 to 100 a day!”
Renovating a house at the time, he saw that many sidecars were being used to transport building equipment.
Through an advert on the Internet, he bought a blue 1979 Ural a few months ago for 6,500 euros.
“It’s a year older than me and in worse shape,” he said. “Soon he had to strip the bike down and “start repairing everything.”
With few spare parts available in Cuba, “people have to bring them in from abroad,” which slows down repairs.
But he has no regrets. An experienced motorcyclist, he’s discovered a whole new side to his passion by riding the Russian machine.
“It’s very funny, it’s a big change from the bike because we cannot turn the same way, we can’t lean, so you have to relearn everything but it’s nice.”
“It’s especially nice with the family because you can put a child in the sidecar, my wife behind, and suitcases,” he said.
In future he hopes to take advantage of the interest in the old bikes to rent it out.
“I think it will be a bit of a change from all the convertibles here.”