Foyer of the Academy of the Arts’ High Institute of Ballet in Cairo, Egypt

In the Dean’s office at the High Institute of Ballet today. I am there to get acquainted with this academy where I have been placed to lecture. My proposal, which won me this Fulbright, was for a project I titled “Artist as Catalyst.” But I soon realize no one is familiar with my proposal or my CV. They think I teach at Columbia University.

I know pretty much nothing of this academy. The website has been under construction all year and I have received little to no response from my e-mail communication. I don’t speak enough Arabic, and the Dean is uncomfortable with English. Turns out he is gracious, productive and joyous.

The office, which had been abuzz with activity of both female and male faculty rushing around negotiating student files, now becomes unusually still and quiet as the Director of Cairo Opera Ballet enters. He is a bit of an aloof and cultured character. I cannot figure him out just yet but am impressed just by the aura. He wears a brown vest and light wash jeans, is gallant yet slim, and when introduced to me, says nothing, kisses the back of my hand, slowly and certainly.

Prestigious. A long tradition of it.

Both the Opera Director and Institute Dean are men in their late 50s. But I’m bad at guessing ages.

I feel awkward and nod my thanks to the hand kiss, whispering some mumbled combination of Assalaam, marhaba, and So happy to meet you meet you. But no one notices my blunder because I have somehow managed to pull it off with a little luck and Chicago charm. Then this man leaves the office with many of the faculty following him.

The Dean and I are now alone in his office and he asks me to sit. He is more relaxed and asks for his colleague, who speaks English, to join us. He asks that someone bring me tea. And when we move from one office to another, someone is asked to carry my tea for me.


One of the many dance studios inside the Institute. A sense of pride and no acknowledgment of the need for repairs. Rumor is a whole new building will be erected in the future.


I learn that the students here at the High Institute of Ballet (in the Cairo suburb of Giza) must pass a difficult exam in order to enroll. The faculty audition 7-year-old children from around the city and country, looking for technical capacity, body shape, and musicality. Students all pay a reasonable tuition; no scholarships or work-study programs exist. Males and females equally eager to enroll.

All students must take 9 years of intense study of classical ballet (Russian method), modern dance (mix of methods), ballet partnering/lifting, music theory, piano, folkloric and historical dances, and dance appreciation, focusing on story ballets. These students are in the dance studio 3 hours a day and then take their academic classes in another part of the building. During my meeting, there was a reference to boys and girls being in separate classes, but I don’t know if I heard wrong.


High Institute of Ballet

At age 15-16, after 9 years of training, some students continue on to undergraduate level (either the choreography track or the more conservative, pure-lecture track in teaching). A select few dancers become graduate students with research and choreographic projects, and perform with the Cairo Opera Ballet or major dance companies across the world.

The students, parents and faculty here are some of the most liberal-dressing and socially open Egyptians I’ve run into so far. There is laughter. The genders mingle in equality and everyone seems to have a bounce in their step.

Except the custodial/janitorial staff. They don’t have the same bounce.

Hallways inside the High Institute of Ballet

When I asked about students cleaning their own studios, the response was pretty much a spit-take. My assumption is that the students think it is someone else’s job and they are used to just waiting for renovation, maybe it’s a class/privilege thing, about liabilities, or maybe there is too much red tape in such a traditional, large, and selective institution.

I got the same sort of spit-take when I asked about bringing non-students from the community here for classes or a community-dance project. Looked to the custodians right away, thinking they should be honored and dancing. But I had the feeling my idea was not ready to be introduced.

I asked about outreach projects and was told their idea of outreach is putting audition notices in the newspaper.

At the end of the day, it sounds like I will be teaching modern for the teens. Then starting in October, offering workshops about whatever community arts theories I want. But those workshops can be no longer than 2 hours. I said I might invite some undergraduate students to volunteer with me in the children’s cancer hospital and alternative venues in the city. That was promising and exciting.

As a community-dance practitioner, I have to find a way not to be intimidated in an environment like this. Not to shrink from their technical prowess and knowledge. Remember that I am a good teacher and have merits. I have to find a fine balance between learning the Egyptian way and challenging their thinking.

Dance can revolutionize public education, youth development, community development, healthcare, cross-cultural and inter-religious understanding, conflict prevention and resolution…

Teaching dance in a Northwest Bosnian village in 2011

Dance can revolutionize. That’s what I know.

Semester starts September 22nd.



***The views and information presented in my blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Scholar Program.


  1. Heather Hornik

    Don’t be intimidated, Ms. Shawn. You know things they don’t know and they know things you don’t know. I am confident they will come to appreciate your many special gifts. Be yourself, and you will meet them in a place of communication and respect between your knowledge and theirs. You’re terrific–a magnet for people who are eager to expand their world. Soon they will love you.

  2. Mike Amling

    “students cleaning their own studios”

    For the benefit of those few of us readers whose closest approach to a dance class is the balcony of one Joffrey performance per year, what is the story with students cleaning their own studios? Is that commonplace in America? Are we talking about wiping the sweat off the bar as one would with gym equipment? Or getting out a mop and pushbroom? Or …?

    • shawnlent

      Thank you, Mike. In the U.S., it is not uncommon to see students with a broom or wiping the mirrors and barres. In some schools, there is an actual cleaning rotation. In others, scholarship/work study students take on cleaning responsibilities as part of their agreement. Even where these systems are not in place, students are not likely to wince if you hand them a rag or ask them to all lend a hand.

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