Life´s a naughty little beast, isn´t it? It has such a wicked sense of humor!
We plan, imagine, presume to control but, no matter how much we work and focus on our desired horizon, we´re not more than a boat constantly roaming towards the Unknown – no compass, no reliable weather forecast, no warning signs of landing, storms or dangerous sirens.
My plan was good, really good. At least, I thought so. A true classic of the genre: to become a successful Oriental Dancer in Egypt and then, if it wouldn´t be asking for too much, to spread the magic around the world. Reality ended up being even better, if not harder and totally unpredictable.
I was a daring girl with a big dream and immense curiosity in my luggage, as well as a good dose of ignorance (blessed ignorance that pushes us to essential precipices). I thought I´d arrive in Egypt and take it by storm through the irresistible allure of my dance, personality, emotion and whatever I believed I had. I probably did have it. Yet Life happens. Our plans go down the toilet in great, or disastrous, style. I chose (and keep choosing) Greatness – not a circumstance but a way of Life.
After I´ve arrived to Egypt and found out I was legally unable to dance (there was a law forbidding foreign Oriental Dancers from performing solo on a professional level), I flew wherever the winds took me. They decided I had to go to Oman, Qatar and Lebanon, where I performed with my first orchestra, a neat, posh, quite professional and boring band composed of the “crème de la crème” of Beirut musicians.
Samia Gamal, iconic Egyptian Oriental Dancer, photographed for LIFE magazine.
Adventures and misadventures happened along the way – so much life, so much dance and so much life inside my dance. It seems God was preparing me for the Big Adventure that was ahead of me, as invisible and certain as a miracle about to happen. I soon realized there was a dark side of Oriental Dance no one had told me about. Where were the roses; the incense; the purity of the movement that translates and adds beauty to life? Daily shocking revelations made it clear: every sun has a shadow and there is no light without darkness. Before I got to heaven, I had to explore hell´s avenues.
The places where Oriental Dance was born and has grown as integral – but not accepted – part of the culture don´t consider it an art form. In fact, these countries (like Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey or Morocco) have developed a disturbing, irrational love/hate relationship with that (shameful) part of their identity. Islam plays a strong role in this madness. A woman´s voice, body and presence is considered “haram” (forbidden my God) and an agent of “fitna” (social chaos; disaster); let alone a dancer who exposes all she is in a state of total freedom while leading a team of men! Ah, you damned Lilith!
In Egypt, for instance, Oriental Dance is not under the Ministry of Culture but the Ministry of Tourism. If you tell an Egyptian that his dance is an art form, he´ll do one of three things:
1. Nod without the slightest idea of what you´re talking about.
2. Laugh out loud: an art form? Are you crazy?
3. Act diplomatic – Egyptians are good at it – and pretend to agree with you while thinking the opposite.
As soon as that “attack to human rights law” was changed, I went back to where I´d started: to Cairo, knocking on managers doors, presenting my show, a show that only existed in my head, as if it was the best invention after the light bulb. Those men I met in fancy offices couldn´t care less about the light bulb, other scientific inventions or my show. They wanted meat.
I knew that my dream of becoming a successful Oriental Dancer in Egypt, rescuing the roots of my craft while I was at it, was going to happen. Against all odds. Me, alone, swimming in an ocean infested with sharks.
It didn´t matter that my surroundings told me otherwise. It didn´t matter that famous teachers I respected discouraged me and advised me to leave, for my own good. It didn´t matter that I cried on a daily basis, after meeting managers of dance venues who could only offer me a work opportunity in exchange for my body (and soul, because you never sell your body without selling your soul).
-I´ll show them what I´m made of! I´ll do it on my own terms. With whom do they think they´re speaking?
My rage and conviction grew after every frustrating meeting which invariably ended with me, closing the door on their faces. I mourned the failed attempts of showing them that not every dancer is a prostitute and moved on. Ambition is not necessarily synonymous of lack of scruples and dignity but everybody I met, in those days, seemed to think otherwise.
The more Egypt – and Egyptians – yelled “that dance you love is dirty, low and shameful”, the more my conviction grew.
The more Egypt – and Egyptians – yelled “only prostitutes succeed in this dance field”, the more I believed I would succeed, in Egypt and beyond it, due to my talent, intelligence and serious work. The ones who surrounded me saw me as a lunatic – a megalomaniac who believed in the impossible and aimed way too high.
Then he arrived – the needle in the haystack: an Indian manager who happened to give me a fair chance with no monkey business in the middle. A man-miracle, in fact. My only chance, which I grabbed with all my might.
He didn´t help me or made my life easier but he also didn´t stop me from trying my luck just because I refused to sell my soul to the devil. I signed a contract that said I´d only work if people requested my name. This meant I would have to make sure people asked, exclusively, for my show. Otherwise, me and my orchestra would remain workless, no money for rent, food, transportation, cloths, life´s essentials. The day I signed the contract, after a couple of auditions with live audience and the whole management staring at me, I felt a rush of terror (the responsibility suddenly fell on my back) and relief. At least, I knew I depended on my own efforts and not on some man´s favor. I knew I could fight for my success on my own terms and attract local audiences, the ones I was interested in, through my dance and my dance alone.
From the moment I started performing with my orchestra, life as I knew was over. I entered what I call my Egyptian Cocoon.
Joana Saahirah, so far one of those unknown wannabes that float around the Cairo dance scene, became the “Rakkasah” the whole town was rushing to watch. Without even noticing, I turned into a freak who lived in the limbo between Virgin Mary and the Fallen Prostitute.
Social life? Yeah, right. Love life? Sure… A normal daily routine, like everybody else has? Well; what´s normal, anyway?
People saw me as the vamp, the prostitute who eats men at breakfast (with a side of eggs, thank you very much) but, then again, reality was quite different. I lived a highly disciplined, structured life that left no time for the promiscuity people imagined.
I´d wake up, go to the gym or prepare new repertoire for my shows. Then I´d head to work, every single day, performing the whole evening, sometimes 6 times a night; other times, performing from midday till 4 o´clock in the morning. I´d also rehearse after each show in order to correct stuff, add details and solve problems. That was a full time job taken to a whole other level.
Suddenly, the problem was not how to get work but how to stop. My days off had to be imposed. That was good and bad news: good news because it meant people requested my name and that reverted into continuous work and power; bad news because I became a dancing machine, a workaholic who only stopped to sleep, when she could sleep. Meanwhile, I absorbed, learnt and digested treasures I would only fully appreciate later on, when distance and experience allowed me to see the Big Picture.
My luggage was loaded with the most incredible treasures and I knew there would come a time I´d share them with the world. Once I´ve started to get invitations to teach and perform outside of Egypt (the first happened through my dear friend and teacher, Mahmoud Reda, with whom I´ve worked as teaching & choreography assistant), the world literally opened to me. As I sat at judging tables across the globe, I noticed how the most important things I´d been absorbing in my years of career in Egypt were absent. As I taught the best dancers in some of the most developed dance markets, I noticed the truly important things, those things that define Egyptian Dance to the core, were nowhere to be found.
-Where´s the Language? Where´s the feeling, the soul, the expression? Where´s the Magic? Why are they so deeply disconnected from their bodies and hearts? Why aren´t they Listening? Why they don´t seem to remember they were born free? Why so much competition and so little understanding of the dance and its purpose? Why do teachers create Clone Factories instead of promoting Egyptian Dance as it really is: a healing, freeing art that allows us to be – and dance – the best version of ourselves?
Why? Why? Why?
I hadn´t noticed the enormous distance between my Egyptian Cocoon and what was happening outside of it. Although I also realized there was a serious effort – from sponsors, dancers and students – to know and do better, the practice of Egyptian Dance, the Language of the Soul, had turned into a Circus Act.
The first thing I did was taking notes. These notes gave birth to a Dance Course I´ve introduced in several countries: “The Secrets of Egyptian Dance”. From that course, a book was born: my first published literary baby: “The Secrets of Egypt – Dance, Life & Beyond”. Who knows what other fruits this seed will bear?
Although my initial dream became reality and expanded into dimensions not even I had in my mind, at least not consciously, I see the biggest dream is yet to be accomplished: to build a dance community that gets to know authentic Egyptian Dance and the Unity that lies at its base. A dance community who sees further: here´s an expression of the soul; the reuniting of the lost pieces, body, mind, heart and soul; a transversal art that is not only Egyptian but Human.Bonus: the personal transformation that goes along with. You cannot learn Egyptian Dance without learning about yourself on a deep level, therefore understanding and loving others more wisely.
From all the things people presume I am (and by people I am including myself), I think The Bridge may be the right one. I´m a Bridge, ladies & gentlemen. That´s it. A bridge that reconnects the lost pieces of the puzzle; a bridge that reminds, more than teaches, what is a Sacred Language of the Soul; a bridge that spreads around the jewels she dug out of Egyptian soil.
This bridge sings: less competition and more fraternity. You see and treat other women as you see and treat yourself.
Dance diagram made by myself – teaching tool used in my ON LINE PRIVATE COURSES.
This bridge sings: less clone factories and more uniqueness; we need teachers who respect and support the individuality of each student for it is in our peculiar self that our strength resides.
This bridge sings: less diva tantrums and more love.
This bridge sings: less arrogance and more self-confidence.
This bridge sings: less exotic aerobics and more art.
This bridge sings: less (dumb) certainties and more exploration.
This bridge sings: time has come for us to rediscover an Art that is religious in the true sense of the word (religare – reconnect).
This bridge sings and, no doubt, dances: less ego and more TARAB. Love.
What has been lost in the thirst for innovation? What is missing in this dance? What has been forgotten, on the road to the so called “modernity”? Probably more important: what is missing in our lives? The answer to these questions is one and the same.
A painting by Klimt. Representation of a “NEW COMMUNITY for a NEW (ANCESTRAL/ETERNAL) DANCE”