Is Oriental Dance in extinction?

10376276_657795097683096_5557169400985608373_nPolar bears, Malaysian tigers and Oriental Dance – aka bellydance (or its Arabic correct name: Raks Sharki) – just a few species in extinction

Am I being ironic? Maybe a bit. A tiny bit. Yet irony often contains a glimpse of Truth.

How can Oriental Dance be an endangered species if schools, festivals and teachers are flourishing, like mushrooms in a damp morning, around the world? Even the tiniest countries and the most remote villages seem to have their own “bellydance teacher”.  How can it be extinct if Oriental Dance has never been more popular and democratically practiced?

Let´s start where the story begins: in Egypt.

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Major symbols of Modern Egyptian Dance: Samia Gamal, Badia Masabn and Tahia Carioca.

I´ve heard countless Egyptian Dancers complaining about the loss of their art – dancers from a generation that performed until the 90s. By the end of that decade, the country went down the toilet and so did its – old devil; damned Lilith – dance. Those dancers and their musicians – some of them would be my own musicians, my private story tellers from another era – lived the bling, the glamour and, so they say, a (relative) RESPECT for dance as an art form. Between a rehearsal and a show, my musicians sat on their chairs, smoking their “Cleopatra” cigars and telling me about that glorious past with a dreamy look in their eyes. According to them, artists (dancers & musicians included) inhaled appreciation and exhaled the soul of Egypt; huge orchestras were easily hired; dancers had the status of cinema stars (some of them were indeed cinema stars); there was money to invest in professional dance productions, orchestrators, choreographers, dress designers, scenography specialists, the whole dream come true and then some. It was Nationalism time and Egypt looked inside its womb, searching for an identity that was not defined by any of the colonizers that had occupied the country for so many centuries.

We cannot know, for sure, how much of that apparent “respect” corresponded to the way Egyptians thought about dancers, underneath the social, public and superficial realm. The blemished status of a “rakkasah” (dancer, in Egyptian) may have been there the whole time. I don´t suppose that was a morally/religiously accepted profession back then, even if appearances suggested otherwise. Men must have refused to marry women who had that “dirty occupation”, just as they keep refusing nowadays. Taking a “rakkasah” as a prostitute, of course. That´s what she´s there for. Even as a lover, under the table. No problem. Men, only men, are allowed such liberties. A dancer is not a respectable woman, anyways, so it´s natural you treat her accordingly. Marrying her is another matter. You don´t marry the bad girl – you just screw her and go off to marry the good girl. Welcome to Egypt (and beyond)!

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Samia Gamal and Farid El Atrash, promoting one of the many movies they starred together.

In fact, one of the most famous dancers of the Golden Era, Samia Gamal, had her own frustrated love story with her cinema partner, Farid El Atrash. According to legend, they were in love for years but he always refused to marry her due to the “class” differences between them as well as her profession. A royalty heir, such as himself, could had never married a fallen woman like her, no matter how many times people called her a star. Samia Gamal story is not exceptional.

If we forget the reality and focus on the way Egyptian society treated famous dancers back then, at least from the 1930s till the beginning of 1990s, we get a glimpse of paradise, especially compared to what happens nowadays. That paradise was the Egypt I found in 2004, the year I arrived with the intention of building a career, a successful (and hard-won) trajectory that would expand from Egypt to the World.

Lulu (let´s call her “Lulu”, a fictional name applied to a real character) is the last “Gone Era Club” torch keeper and even her flame seems to have been put off by the winds of reality and, alas, time. There´s also Dandash, another Egyptian Dancer who CAN rescue, occasionally, the spirit of Egyptian Dance, but I don´t see her as a fair torch keeper. Something´s missing, even in Dandash. A dignity. A presence. A spirit. The Magic. Probably the recognition of the Goddess.

I lost count of the times I headed to her usual performing place,“Le Paris” (also a fictional name applied to a real place), a cockroach infested nightclub at the decadent Pyramids Street (once the glamourous, hot spot for performing arts in the Middle East), just to watch her dance. How the mighty fall!

10388205_854708647891838_6484033770730519243_nWe shared some musicians – a delicious promiscuity – and they took me to watch her after we´d finish our work. I´d usually finish around 1.30am, if there was no wedding after that, and Lulu would start performing, if she was in the mood for it – Inshah Allah institution -, around 3 or 4am.

I´d wait, sip some tea, practice wishful thinking and despair until she, eventually, appeared. While I waited, hoping for a glimpse of heaven, I´d be observed and harassed by prostitutes and rich Arab guys who had their mouths stuck to “shishas” and their eyes stuck to hell, no matter where they looked.

I needed that time, a gift to myself, a parentheses in the mad, savage world of Cairo Oriental Dance scene. That nightclub was not a spa or anything like close to it. It was hell, in its own way. But it was a kind of hell where I could get a glimpse of heaven; a hell where I could watch without participating.

Some nights, I´d head for “Le Paris” in ecstatic joy – result of a particularly amazing night; great audiences and feed-back; me and my orchestra on fire, hitting the Inspiration spot without a moment of rest. No dirty business could have touched us on those occasions.

Other nights, I headed to that dark night-club with a sinking heart and many question marks – those were the nights the police showed up to extort some money, checking my cloths, work papers and “moral” behaviour; those were the nights when another dancer – or her manager – made a point on eliminating competition, letting the police know I was, allegedly, carrying drugs in my work bags; those were the nights when I felt the sting of prejudice in my skin: the impossibility of a healthy relationship with a man because I´m a “rakkasah”; the neighbours gossiping; someone refusing to rent me a place because I would, no doubt, throw bacchanalia parties there. Ah! The glamour of it all. 

When Lulu got on that sombre stage, she would take care of business. First things first. She´d please the dollar crowd – those rich guys who fill night-clubs in order to pick up prostitutes, drink alcohol (forbidden by Islam) and having the sordid pleasure of throwing money over dancers´heads, going as far as sticking the notes in their belts and bras. Lulu played the game, although she didn´t look like she needed the money. I could understand why poor “dancers” would do it – they desperately need that money; they often have families to support and no other way to make a living. But Lulu is a big star. She has made it and, aside from the wealth accumulated through her work, she´s (or was) married to another classic: the rich business man, owner of the mentioned “Le Paris”. So why? Why lower yourself getting into a game you don´t even need to play? Another mystery.

I covered my face in shame, sadness and frustration. If I could, I would have dragged her out of those tables where she did her “khalleegi” act in exchange for dollars thrown over her head; if I could, I would stop her from shaking her breasts on those jerks´faces. I couldn´t. I would have been immediately arrested. That´s Egyptian justice, ladies & gentlemen!

The decadent part of the performance was endured with deep breathing (thanks, yoga!), some more green tea (so out of context) and a well trained poker face. Lulu would rock those tables and chairs, driving those repressed beasts crazy. They would haul, yell, laugh out loud and pour their dirty money over her, swashbuckling, boasting with male lust and pride.

Then, after the dollars were collected (by a rather strange boy who moved like a mouse gathering bread crumbs with his tiny, frenetic paws) and that male testosterone was put at ease, Magic happened. Maybe 5 minutes of it – not more. A slave turned into a queen. She would leave the hauling wolves behind, proud of their masculinity (in Egypt, money defines a man´s worth); she´d go up the stage, right where she had started, and stood there, for a few moments, motionless and with her eyes closed. From the moment she retreated to her private world, a mist of reverence and divinity covered the whole nightclub.The mood of the evening was uplifted, utterly changed – cleansed, purified from every mundane matter. Her musicians would give us their best Mona Lisa smiles; they would focus, preparing for the REAL THING.

One thing´s for certain: the world around her, that world where she had been eager to please and tease, vanished into thin air. The message was clear: it was her time: to dance, to be, to feel, to fly. Mostly for herself. Pleasing the dollar crowd was not in question anymore. That game had already been played. Done. Finito.Those dollars had been collected – she´d fulfilled her obligation. Those guys and their money were reduced to ashes or simply put in their rightful place. No one and nothing mattered anymore. Lulu got into a particular Wonder*land of her own where no dirtiness would even come close. Those were moments no amount of money could buy: divine, pure, noble, goose bumping.

In those nights, I was honoured to enjoy Oriental Dance Master Classes. I got backstage with Lulu on several occasions and had awckward chats that exposed our similarities but, mainly, our differences. Although we worked with the same musicians and in the same market (sort of), we were miles away from each other; continents away; universes away. A distance that doesn´t come in maps. We were also close; living in the same house, practically.

She often warned not to put my purse on the floor because it wasn´t good for money attraction. Supersticions! Yet another thing Egyptians keep practicing, despite Islam forbiddance.

Joana Saahirah of Cairo

“The Secrets of Egypt – Dance, Life & Beyond” and its author, Joana Saahirah.

In a show that could last 2 hours, I´d catch only 10 minutes of real dance but those 10, or 5, minutes were worth all the waiting, the despair and the mud. Her movements were simple, raw, absolutely honest and heart breaking. Her body served as a tool to express her soul – period. There was no concern on how she looked, how well she could move or how high her technique was – what she did was beyond and above any “technical” consideration. A loving, warm fog surrounded her body, bringing her into the Untouchable Club.  The Visual and the Invisible Dance I mention in my book The Secrets of Egypt – Dance, Life & Beyond”.

Magic. I repeat: magic. 

Other times, she wouldn´t show up. Simple as that.

-She´s sick; she´s out of town; a family problem came up; she´s working in a wedding; Cairo traffic, you know…- the typical excuses.

In those cases, the manager knew he´d have to give me my money back. The only reason I spent those nights there – going through hell – was to watch her. I´d return home, tired from my own work and frustrated for the lost night, exhasperated at the thought of never watching that magic again.

Although a new generation of dancers has been active – and made more popular abroad than in Egypt -, it´s a fact that THE MAGIC is lost. These dancers have all the moves, the attitude, the ego excess, the diva tantrums and even a few karate kicks. They don´t have The Mojo that takes your breath away and touches the deepest corners of your heart. They´re not the kind of dancers I´ll wait an whole night to watch.

Another famous Egyptian dancer, the main responsible for a law that legally forbade foreign dancers from working solo in Egypt for a couple of years, used to complain that foreigners could never get the point where Oriental Dance is concerned:

-They can have more technique, nicer bodies and even be more professional but they will never dance like an Egyptian.

By “dancing like an Egyptian” she meant: understanding the hidden language of Egyptian Dance, the soul, the context, the feeling, the character and purpose of the dance. She meant having “the magic” – the magic I´ve been talking about. Years ago, that same person publicly declared she would never sell herself to foreigners, those fools who will never get it, refusing to teach and perform in dance festivals organized for/by non Egyptians. Now she´s happily selling herself to those foreigners she tried to ban from Egypt; the same foreigners with whom she refused to work for so long; the same foreigners she proclaimed were lost cases because they “would never get the point. These generous fools pay her handsomely while she works her persona on stage, shaking her shoulders and yelling a couple of command words as if they were rare, exclusive diamonds. She´s probably right: ain´t worth the effort…they´ll never get it. 

One thing I agree with: the magic is mostly gone. But it´s not a foreigner exclusive problem. If foreign dancers don´t get the point, let me add that current Egyptian dancers don´t get it either. Not anymore.

Competitions, choreography craze, clone factories, communities that only promote the “insiders” or whoever those insiders decide are “friendly” enough to have in their midst – this is what´s rocking most of the international dance scene. I´m blessed to work with a good number of exceptions but that doesn´t mean I can´t see the big picture. Although there is a serious effort, from many sponsors, students and dancers, to raise the level of the dance, the majority is still stuck with a primary operating mode.

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The cover of “The Secrets of Egypt – Dance, Life & Beyond”. Exclusively sold by the author (orders via email: dancemagica@gmail.com).

After I´ve started travelling the world to teach, perform and lecture, I could see with my own eyes how the Big Machine is working: mainstream markets ignorance requests ignorance. People who work in the field usually give them what they request.

You want cheap exotic aerobics? I´ll give it to you.

You want a quick fix to make you feel like a queen? I´ll give it to you.

You want a choreography to impress your boyfriend, family and friends? I´ll be glad to help.

You want Shakira? I´ll give you Shakira.

You want the old phantasy – odalisque meets sultan? I´ll be happy to serve you.

End of story. A vicious cycle that serves the perpetuation of Oriental Dance indignity.

There´s limited (if any) space for individuality, self-exploration, true fraternity between dancers, love, knowledge, freedom and understanding of what everyone presumes to be doing. Students get caught in the commercial web and are convinced that memorizing choreographies equalls learning how to dance. They don´t know enough to escape this web and, more often than not, their teachers don´t know as well.

The majority of students want short cuts and easy solutions ( plus stardom on a platter, if possible) and they want them immediately, on the spot. Discovering who they are and taking their time – and effort – to learn an ancient craft, one that looks so deceivingly easy to master, seems to be too much trouble. We live in the age of speed, machine mode productivity and immediate results: I want my berries and I want them NOW!

My book “The Secrets of Egypt – Dance, Life & Beyond” is an attempt to address some of the issues Oriental Dance (identity loss) is facing at the moment. More, much more, needs to be done and it can only be achieved with a collective effort coming from a collective consciousness.

A NEW (ancient) DANCE for a NEW (ancient) COMMUNITY!

So much to do. So much awakening in the verge of happening.

This urgency of a rebirth can be found in foreign countries but also in Egypt wich is supposed to be the root and source of authenticity.Think twice and don´t believe everything you hear/read. The Egypt of today is NOT the Egypt of two decades ago; not even one decade ago. Countries change. Sometimes, more often than we´d like to admit, they lose track of who they are. Just like it happens to people.

Egypt keeps searching for its identity in all the wrong places and its dance suffers with it.

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Performing with my orchestra in Cairo, Egypt.

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Performing with my orchestra in Cairo, Egypt.

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Dressed as a Saiidi man for a “tableau” in my show. Cairo, Egypt.

During my years of life and career in Egypt – almost ten years of success and struggles -, I´ve realized what was missing. It was not only the fact that I was immersed in the culture, working with and for Egyptians on a daily basis. That, alone, doesn´t garantee that you “get the point”; it doesn´t give you talent or insight if you have none; it doesn´t shape you as a dancer if you´re not permeable to it and already inside of the “Egyptian La La Land” dimension.

Believing a dancer MUST be good because she performs in Egypt is like believing I can sing like Maria Callas just because I was around her, probably picking her shoes up before and after her shows. Egypt can get under your skin; or not. Dancing in Egypt doesn´t always mean you become it. 

Aside from professional experience in the field, I was lucky to have remembered “the point” through various encounters with true artists whose last steps I caught before they vanished into thin air. Mahmoud Reda, the real name of a real and wonderful person, with whom I studied and worked (one my best friends and few supporters), is certainly one of them. Souhair Zaki (also a real name in a real character) is another.

If Oprah was in my place, she´d say I had several Ah Ah! moments, times when deep visions of the truth invaded my mind, heart and soul – lighting my path and never allowing me to go back to ignorance or superficiality.

It was one of those Summer Cairo afternoons when everything melts under a bright yellow, merciless sky. A lady, whom I recognized as Souhair´s assistant,opened the door, after I rang the bell, and let me in.

-I´m coming for Madame Souhair. – I told her, sweating profusely and feeling slightly shy, not knowing what to expect and how I´d be received. I´d taken a workshop with Souhair Zaki, a couple of days ago, at “Ahlan Wa Sahlan” festival, in a time when the choice of teachers was still made according to QUALITY and not business/finantial perks. An amazing time – or purpose –  I wish could be recovered.

The path to an overdose of furniture was shown to me by the lady who was probably a maid or a relative, dressed in black and veiled, although the heat was unbearable and she was at home. The costumary tea was served. I sat and waited. Then I waited some more. Punctuality is not on Egyptian etiquette and it will probably never be. Nobody knew me, at this time. I was just one more hallucinated student who carried the big dream in her eyes and followed the mirage of an art that she couldn´t fully understand. Learning was my obsession; learning from the best was my only goal.

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Souhair Zaki, in her golden days.

I was finally taken to Souhair Zaki, a fragile figure, quiet and humble, her body shrinking towards the ground as she walked; smaller than a child. She smiled but not too openly. We settled in a room where music and solitude were provided. She had no concept of teaching – as most Egyptian teachers don´t. Oriental Dance is not meant to be structured, analyzed or understood, according to Egyptians, but experienced and unearthed from the deepest corners of our Being.

She could only dance, letting me watch her and, eventually, catch up with what she was doing. No explanations or repetitions were provided. Although I was paying for the class, it seemed I wasn´t even there. I was an accessory, an invisible element, a blond chair mixed with the excessive furniture. I didn´t mind – not in this case; not with Souhair Zaki in the room.

What happened next is what I commonly call “the capture of the Dragon´s Tail”. I saw IT – the magic, the purpose, the core of the dance. A breath of air; a breeze, so light that you doubt of its existence. Was it real or did I imagine it? It was like talking with a ghost – a real ghost – as actually did in Ireland, in an enchanted castle called Charleville. It´s like touching an alien (no, I didn´t; not yet). Once you go there, you can never go back to where you were.

No need to follow her. No need to move a finger. My soul recognized the Truth. I preferred watching and remembering. Key word: REMEMBERING.

-Oh, yeah… I remember… of course…how could I ever forget it?

I knew, in that moment, I would never see better than that. I also knew my vision of Egyptian Dance had suddently shifted from a mere curiosity to my destiny.

Souhair Zaki almost didn´t move and never left the floor where her two feet lay, as if kissing the earth. Stillness, for the lack of a better word, was her main super power. Forget the movement cathalog – I have this move, and this, and that; oh, let me show you another one…I´ve got so many moves to show…you´ll be impressed! – most dancers (me included) often like to show off, consciously or not. We want to be seen, accepted, appreciated, validated because we´ve forgotten we´re already enough, just as we are. Souhair Zaki knew better.

Forget the yearning to prove that you can dance. What I experienced, while watching her dance, was LIFE in all its glory and pain. Her soul expression; a transformative ride made of absolute vulnerability, bravely dettached from the results. I think that´s what some call TARAB (ecstazy; fusion with the moment & the music) or meditation. But, then again, isn´t this a damned dance only practiced by men eater vamps? Isn´t it? How can a dirty dance like that be meditative?

Well, well.

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Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan, another inspiration of mine and the Mother of Modern Dance, once said that if dance could be translated  or expressed through words, there would be no point in doing it. We dance what we cannot express through words or the rational mind. It´s spiritual, therefore beyond the mind. That´s how I feel when trying to describe that blessed class and many others I had to true Masters; that´s how I feel when I try to explain what it felt this or that show I´ve presented with my orchestra. Some things are out of words reach, no matter how witty and resourceful we may be in that area.

Dance & Love & God. Synonimous, as far as I can see. Which words can make them justice?

What I can say is “Egyptian Oriental Dance” is the language of the soul, a language so deep and total that leaves you breathless at the sight of it. It´s visible but, mostly, invisible. Like Love. A language so human, light and darkness included, that it becomes divine. It´s more about what you feel than what you look like.

Yes, I do think Oriental Dance is an endangered species. At least the dance I know, the one Souhair Zaki did for me in a dark, desolated room, in a common apartment hidden beneath Cairo dust. Quantity is rarely a synonimous of QUALITY.

Is there hope? I´d like to think so. The moment I feel the Magical Dance of the Orient is completely dead, it´s the moment I shift my career from dance to, let´s say, agriculture. If all I see is the exotic aerobics, I´m not interested. Nothing against it – zumbas, bumbas, lumbas, rumbas, catrapumbas and pimpampumbas. But I still believe the revival of Egyptian Dance Soul is here to stay, even if rarely found. I´m crazy that way – a dreamer; a magic freak. Blame it on the boogie (aka Egyptian Dance).

Once upon a time, a great poet, Eduardo Galeano, was asked by a journalist about the usefulness of Utopia. He answered something like this: we may never reach it. It´s the journey towards that vision that counts the most. Utopia serves to give us a purpose; something to look at and work for; a guide; a direction; a worthy destination. Maybe we´ll never reach the horizon we aim for but we know we must walk towards it.

I know I´m not walking alone. It´s quite like Egyptian Dance – beyond explanation. I just know it.

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12 thoughts on “Is Oriental Dance in extinction?

  1. I appreciate the honesty. So many important points that needed to be made. And hearing someone say it is something new. But the information itself is not new; it has simply been dismissed, forgotten and dis-validated over and over. Anyone who is connected with their heart knows all of this and more without saying. You won’t meet these people in the international workshop circuit. Thanks.

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    • Nothing is really new, dear Kendra. But, whatever you may call it – remembering it, rescuing it – it´s important that someone knows it and SHARES IT with the world in the shape of meaningful work that is coherent with those forgotten truths. Also: what may look obvious to you may be totally strange to another person. As for the absence of these values in the international circuit: you´re mostly right.Mostly. Not totally. I´m in the international circuit and I´m doing IT so I believe others can do the same. It only takes ONE to start a Revolution. It´s the DOers, not the critics, who make the world advance. And cheers to Honesty! Thanks for your comment.

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  2. When something is commodified – packaged for sale on a grand scale – In my view, it’s impossible to keep the grain from which it sprouted. You have many strand of thought in this really powerful piece. Everyone wants everything NOW – technology has made that possible, from smart phones to microwaves, from Google to the robotic vacuum cleaner (Roomba). Understanding that life is not a bunch of events, but a process/processes for which dots need to be connected….that’s part of the lost art. Appreciating one’s roots and not trying to be what one is not – tough order. We are to be the physical manifestation of the music and the words that come from a place many of us strive to touch. We are now about fluff and frenetic movement, Carnivale/Las Vegas type dress that has nothing to do with the music and heart and soul. It is where and what it is, in this journey through time, politics, religion, sexist behavior (at a rampant epidemic level around the world). Somehow I remain hopeful – thanks for keeping me focused, Joana. Shukran and Salaam Alekum.

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