I´ve spent 8 years inside my “Egyptian Cocoon”. The world outside it didn´t matter for a long while. It couldn´t matter. There´s a time for everything: for hibernating and for rebirth.
During my years of life and career in Egypt, my time was totally absorbed by my goals and the struggles they entailed. No time to look to my neighbor garden: rehearsals, daily shows and an increasing success – and responsibility – on my back. Self-made people know what it means to build who they are with their own bare hands.
My personal relationships naturally fell apart – in Egypt, no “respectable” has a publicly assumed relationship with a “rakkasah” (dancer).
Strangers who knew who I was – or, at least, what I did for a living – treated me as an alien, at best, and as a prostitute, in most cases.
The reason that took me to Egypt was misunderstood by family, friends and folks with lost dreams: it was a feeling, a Call, a certainty from an uncertain place only I could have heard. The Wind speaks to the ones who Listen.
I must go to Egypt and rediscover, on my own skin, what is the authentic Egyptian Dance. In order to do that, I had to build my own career in the Mecca of Oriental Dance, probably the tiniest, most competitive and dirtiest market on planet earth and surroundings.
There I went, on my ambitious archeological research, towards the roots/essence of Egyptian Dance and, no doubt, towards myself. The dream didn´t only include the construction of an artistic identity in Egypt but the writing of a book that would tell the TRUTH, no diplomatic lies & no derrière covering for anyone.
I´d had chats with God, you see?
– After I´ve made it in Egypt, without selling my soul to the devil, and if I feel perky, I´ll also like to have the chance to share the treasures I found with the world.
God must have laughed at my guts and, allas, agreed with my plan.
They say Egypt is like the sea: it rejects dead fish. Not surprisingly, I agree and disagree with it. There are many ways of succeeding in Egypt, as a professional dancer: you can attach yourself to a man (boss, manager, musician, whoever brings you the WANTED dance contract and promotes you from that point on) or decide to go the hardest road which is also the FREE road (it´s known freedom has a high price attached to it).
I´ve decided to move ahead through the hardest, free road. Lilith all the way; no gold handcuffs around my wrists, thank you very much.
I hold dearly to my values but the refusal to prostitute was not just an ethical question. As an Artist, I work from my soul. If I sold my soul to the devil, what would I have left to fill my dance with? Accepting to sleep around with the “right” men in exchange for career opportunities seemed – still seems – sheer humiliation to me. And, what is equally bad, a statement of lack of talent & character.
No wonder I´m used to be called arrogant. A woman who decides to respect herself, and her art (they´re one and the same), refusing to play the games that would take her out of her Goddess throne, is usually considered dangerous, wild, weird and yes, arrogant. The Classical Bitch.
-Who do you think you are? Why would you succeed in Egypt without playing the games everybody is playing? You think you´re better than everyone else? – I´ve lost the count of the times I´ve heard these comments and others, way less complimenting.
Back to the story: God agreed with my plans but not without a fight. There were traps, life and death crossroads and challenges that tested much more than my dance skills. They tested my limits, as a human being and, no doubt, as a dreamer.
-How much do you want this?
I wanted it badly, although not to the expense of my dignity.
After performing with my orchestra for 8 years in a row, in the best venues of Egypt and with no owner attached to my success– yey! –, the self-prophecy started to become a reality.
I´ve dug deep during those years. That was the main reason that took me to Egypt: archeology, a wide concept Sigmund Freud understood all too well.
Fame and external approval didn´t matter as much as doing a great job and rediscovering a sacred language I´d forgotten, as every else.
Although books and unanimous opinions seem to agree this is an exotic dance, that was never how I saw it. For me, it´s an universal art, a natural expression of the body, mind, heart and soul – healing, creative, artistic, relaxing, potentially life changing. It depends on what we wish to find in it; it depends on the level we aim for.
One thing´s for sure: I´ve never felt Egyptian Dance belonged only to Egypt or that it was a language foreigners couldn´t grasp. Fair enough: there are cultural, mental, historical, genetic and many other factors that shape this dance. If you don´t belong to that universe; if you weren´t born and raised in Egypt, it´s certain some important characteristics of the dance will have to be learnt – as much as possible. I cannot erase the fact I´m not Egyptian but, then again, why would I want to be Egyptian?
One, from the innumerable, things Egypt has taught me is this: being myself is always the way – Oriental Dance & Life wise. At one point in my career, the reservation desk of the place where I was performing started to sell me as an Egyptian Dancer. People would call them, asking for my name, and they would joyfully add: “oh, yes…we have Joana…she´s our best Egyptian Dancer…”
I was amused, if not a little annoyed, when I realized this. So I called them myself. Here´s how the conversation went:
– “Salam ualeekum”(May God be with you).
– “Aleekum salam” (May God be with you too).
– I´d like to make a reservation for Joana´s show; for tonight, please.
– Sure. How many people?
– Very well. Would you like a table near the stage?
– So I´ve heard…but…is she Egyptian? I mean: was she born in Egypt?
– Yes, of course.
– Are you sure?
– I AM sure.
– That´s funny because I know her and she says she´s Portuguese.
– Nooooo! She´s one of us. Pure Egyptian.
– I AM JOANA!
– I AM HER. I AM JOANA. It´s me.
Had that lady been anything but Egyptian, she would have probably had a stroke but she was who she was and handled the case with the customary lightness of heart. After all, which dancer wouldn´t like to be “sold” as authentic Egyptian?
I wouldn´t. Curiously enough, Egypt taught me that. People don´t buy copies – at least not Egyptian people. They buy the original or they don´t buy it at all. It´s clear that, with experience, observation, a sharp critical eye over myself, and the persistent ambition to grow, I´d embodied qualities you usually only find in Egyptian Dancers. But that wasn´t because I wanted to copy them or emulate a nature that wasn´t my own. Anything that didn´t make sense to my soul was instantly rejected. The opposite also applied: whatever my soul recognized as true, I immediately took it under my skin. Throughout the years and thousands of shows with/for Egyptians under my belt, I was nothing but myself. Furthermore: I´ve discovered who I was and built my identity – artistic and personal (one and the same) – during those years.
Then the time to get my head off the cocoon arrived. A bird has got to fly: from Portugal, my homeland, to Egypt; from Egypt to the World and…
I´ve worked outside of Egypt, for the first time, in England. That first trip happened by the side of my dearest friend and teacher, Mahmoud Reda (The Father of Egyptian Folklore; founder of the iconic “Reda Troupe”). I´ve started to work with Mahmoud, as teaching assistant, in Cairo. Everything I know about Egyptian Folklore, I owe it to him. He was my best friend, my supporter but the only person I could sit with and listen to endless hours of Om Kolthoum, Mohamed Abdel Wahab and Abdel Halim Hafez. Those old tapes tasted like heaven to us. It takes one (…) to recognize the other.
He was the only one who could understand my childish excitement on Gene Kelly or Bob Fosse. Egyptian Dance is everywhere and in every style of dance. Mahmoud gets it –no wonder he´s a Visionary.
Two crazy dance passionate freaks watching “Singing in the Rain” for the 221th time, sipping tea and sighing at the emotion you only feel when you witness exceptional talent.
After that first trip to England, the world took notice. I´ve started to receive occasional invitations to teach and perform in different countries while still performing in Cairo with my orchestra on a regular basis.
Suddenly, BAM! The (attempt of an) Egyptian Revolution. It exploded on January 2011 and life as I knew it changed forever. Unable to leave my apartment, in Zamalek (a neighborhood in the heart of Cairo, 5 minutes from the hot stop of the so called revolution: “Tahrir Square”), I sat and did what I could: I started writing the book I dreamt about for so long. I was finally ready and overflowing with knowledge acquired in the field, no intermediaries in the middle. I also didn´t have other appetizing choices. Faithful to myself, I turned to pro-active girl mode: Al-Jazeera channel on, a cup of tea on the dining room table, the atmosphere of terror and uncertainty floating above my head and a book starting to materialize.
The SHIFT was happening. My Egyptian Cocoon hibernating period had come to an end.
The chaos and changes the country suffered were not the only reason why I decided to move on. I´d conquered a comfortable throne in Cairo. People knew me and came from all over the place (inside and outside of Egypt) to watch me perform. I´d made IT. My way. My style. My Dream. Pride and gratitude filled my heart. But that throne had become too comfortable for my own good.
If I´d go with my panties over my head to a show, I bet people would consider it a genius act, even without understanding it. I got so comfortable in my hardly won status that I lost the fear (or excitement) towards the stage. I´d launch myself on those crowds with the same easiness I´d take a shower or go for a run at the gym. I´d become impermeable. A bona fide professional dance machine.
That scared me: the loss of the freshness, the humbleness and insecurity that made me human. To make matters worse, there was nothing more to conquer, at least nothing I´d want to conquer. I knew that, from that point on, the only way to go higher would be to get into cinema and television. That would bring my name into the mainstream, turning me into a house hold name between the audiences who cannot afford to go to fancy hotels, nightclubs and other venues where good Oriental Dance is presented.
In order to achieve that, I´d had to accept starring in degrading movies – I was offered roles in several movies, all of them portraying a negative, decadent image of dancers – and fight against another prostitution misadventure. Dating producers or directors – or a man who knew them and paid them handsomely in order to “make you a star” – was the only way to go.
-Nah! I´ll pass.
I´d done what I was meant to do and I knew, from that time on, my destiny was to travel the world and share the incredible pearls I´d collected along the way.
It was time to move on (and higher). The country would change for the worse; I´d learnt what I had to learn and achieved my goals; my current boss had just started to give me troubles because, after years of hope, I´d continuously refused him as my “sugar daddy”. The World, this big, wonder*ful world of ours, was calling me and I always follow The Siren´s Chant.
The funny thing is: for some reason, I believed the world knew what Egyptian Dance was. It didn´t. It doesn´t. As work trips multiplied and I´ve started to perform, teach and lecture in different countries, I´ve observed the things that make Egyptian Dance magical – and it is MAGICAL – were nowhere to be found. I took notes on those absent essential things and created a course which I called “The Secrets of Egyptian Dance”. From that course, a book was born (not the one I´d started writing during the Egyptian Revolution, but another one, an unexpected flower born out of unexpected soil): “The Secrets of Egypt – Dance, Life & Beyond”. The first edition of this book is practically sold out. A second, updated and revised, edition is on the way. The seeds it ´s spreading cannot make me feel less than hopeful and proud.
In this course – and book – I teach, or simply remind, what I call “The Tail of the Dragon”, those things I´ve learnt by osmosis during my years of work and life in the Middle East and North Africa (I ´d already performed in Lebanon, Oman and Qatar before I signed my first long term contract in Egypt).
I was surprised to see the biggest and most developed markets in the world were not aware of what is the CORE of Egyptian Dance. Technique was there, as far as technique has been understood, and choreographies rocked people´s enthusiasm, giving them the illusion they knew how to dance if they memorized this and that sequence. Yet Egyptian Dance is so much more than technique and choreographies! So much more than competitions, comparisons and Clone Machine Factories.
Sponsors do their best and so does the majority of dancers and students I´ve met so far. By working with them, I know there´s a willingness to know better and, consequently, DO better.
If Id´had to choose one from the Secrets of Egyptian Dance, I´d go for what I call the Invisible Dance. Most people consider dance as a merely visual art. It is visual but it´s not limited to it. Egyptian Dance, in particular, is more focused on the invisible than the visible. It´s not so much what you see but what you feel that matters the most. Technique and external harmony are essential communication tools but they´re not the ultimate goal: the ultimate goal is to speak from your soul and the soul cannot be seen, in most cases. It cannot be controlled, corrected, criticized or put on a shelf.
The Invisible Dance has to do with our inner worlds and how we share them with the world. Which brings us to another important question I mention in the course/book: the need to reeducate dancers as human beings. If I don´t love myself, I cannot express love. If I don´t believe my inner world is unique and precious, I´ll not feel comfortable to express it in my dance. If I don´t trust emotions, instinct, intuition and that invisible realm where Magic happens, Egyptian Dance is out of my reach.
A NEW COMMUNITY (world) for a NEW (ancestral) DANCE – this motto sings in my heart on repeat mode.
A bridge between Egypt and the world has already been built. I don´t claim to be the only one creating that connection. All contributions are valuable, even the ones that don´t go past the superficial, old and rotten, hoochie coochie circus act.
As far as I see it, Egyptian Dance – the one I rediscovered with my own eyes in endless professional/personal experiences – is an ART form, but only if we wish to raise its standards.
As far as I see it, Egyptian Dance is a HEALING tool but, then again, only if we have the courage to dig inside ourselves and face our demons as well as our Light.
As far as I see it, Egyptian Dance is UNIVERSAL – an expression of the human soul which is naturally divine – , but only if we open our minds and erase the differences, never as strong as the things that unite us.
As far as I see it, Egyptian Dance is ready for the World and the World is ready for it. The fact that you´re reading this article, right now, is not a coincidence. The world is shifting – towards death or rebirth, that´s our choice. Egyptian Dance is just a gorgeous reminder of that. If only we believe there´s ONE WORLD, ONE HUMAN RACE, ONE LOVE.
Cheers and gratitude to every sponsor, dancer, student, audience, curious stranger who keeps cherishing Egyptian Dance or, in other words, what makes us all Human.