Making a difference on the dance floor

When Salwa Rizkalla’s father signed her up for ballet lessons, she went to class begrudgingly.

But those lessons set the 10-year-old on a path to grandeur, first as a professional ballet dancer and later as a teacher.

The artistic director of Fountain Valley’s Festival Ballet Theatre and owner of Southland Ballet Academy began her career in her native country of Egypt.

Around that time, when Gamal Abdel Nasser was president, the best of the world’s performing arts, from Shakespeare and Italian opera to Russian ballet and symphonies, were featured nonstop in Egypt.

“We participated with so many companies that came to perform in Egypt and danced in every opera,” she said.

It’s been about 30 years since Rizkalla moved to the United States, but what she learned through the first Russian-style ballet academy in Egypt has remained with her. She is now passing on the Russian vaganova ballet technique to her students here.

When her father heard of the opening of a new Russian ballet school in Cairo, just down the street from the great pyramids, he immediately enrolled her.

“He said, ‘If you make it, this will be your school,’” Rizkalla said. “I didn’t understand.”

She hated it at first. Having to repeat the plié — a bending of the knees outward with the back held straight — over and over made her bored, and not being able to speak Russian only made matters worse.

But getting out was not an option.

“My father said, ‘Too bad,’” Rizkalla said. “‘That’s your school. You have to love it, and you have to do it.’”

She is now thankful for her father’s assertiveness.

“After the first year, nobody could take me out of the ballet school,” she said.

The nurturing and importance Egypt gave to arts, including its own musicians and actors, made it the Hollywood of the Middle East, a reputation that lives on, though not as abundantly.

Rizkalla’s clear hazel eyes lit up with excitement as she spoke of the role the Egyptian government gave to her group of dancers. The program was financed by the government, and the dancers performed every time dignitaries visited Egypt.

“They told us, ‘You’re the ambassadors of Egypt,’” Rizkalla said.

And tears filled her eyes when she recalled how that image and the importance of the arts began to deteriorate with bureaucracy and lack of funds.

Rizkalla said the arts program began deteriorating after the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel as enough money wasn’t available.

“When you’re an artist, you’re selfless,” she said. “You just want to do it, but when there are bureaucrats in the way, they complicate everything.”

Rizkalla ended up leaving the Egyptian ballet company and taught briefly until she moved to the United States with her husband.

She opened her first studio in 1983 in Fountain Valley, then began Festival Ballet Theatre — a nonprofit that puts on several productions a year — 24 years ago. And although she has many ballet instructors at the academy, the 64-year-old continues to teach in addition to serving as artistic director for the ballet theater.

Many of her students have gone on to be professional ballet dancers, including Jamie Kopit, 18, who now dances with the American Ballet Theatre in New York.

Kopit began taking lessons with Rizkalla when she was 3 years old.

“She’s a great teacher,” Kopit said. “She has so much knowledge and she has so much love for all her students. I think she really wants to be there, which makes all the difference, I think. There’s no place she’d rather be. She wants to give to her students as much as she can.”

It was through one of Rizkalla’s connections that Kopit was able to audition and get into The Royal Ballet School in London.

Halfway through the program, Kopit auditioned for the American Ballet Theatre and was offered a job in April.

“It’s Salwa’s connection to all these major, important people that really made the difference,” Kopit said. “It gave me an advantage.”

Twitter: @MonaShadia