Hello! My name is Joana Saahirah. I´m a professional Oriental Dancer which most people insist on calling “bellydancer”. I´ve lived and performed in Egypt with my own orchestra for 8 years and have been teaching, performing and lecturing around the world for the last 4 years.
Although I´m aware how exotic and, in many cases, demoniac, my trade seems to the mainstream crowd, I´ve never seen it that way.
In Egypt or around the world, where I currently live, my life is filled with joy, challenges, victories and the ever present void between the way I see myself and my work and the way others see me.
Imagine the scene: me, on a date, having dinner with an apparently intelligent, educated, well travelled and open minded man. He knows who I am and what I do for a living. But The Question arrives. It always does.
-You´re a bellydancer, right? – The word “bellydancer” is pronounced as you´d pronounce “freaking awesome porno flick”.
-No. I´m a Professional Oriental Dancer.
-Isn´t that the same as bellydancer?
This is when his mouth starts to water fed by phantasies which have nothing to do with me. I can read his thoughts but I wish I couldn´t. I´ve been through this thousands of times. Literally. So I know. Shit and stuff. And knowing can be a big problem.
I revolve my eyes, unable to go through the old explanations, the retelling of the story, the justifications. Damn! I´m tired of explaining, educating, correcting, (unconsciously) apologizing for who I am.
I leave the table, letting the man standing there, confused, holding a piece of bread in one hand and a fat question mark in the other. After a while, the waiter will ask if he wishes to drink something else. He´ll nod affirmatively, keep an olive hanging from his mouth and start dreaming about an oriental sultanesque lap dance that will never happen. Maybe with the waiter (who knows?), not with me.
I´ll head off, thanking God for my destiny and absolute lack of patience.
Being a Professional Oriental Dancer has taught me a lot, more than a single article could tell. Here are a few of the lessons I´ve gathered under my belt, between frustrated dates, bosses who were sexual harassers, prejudices of all sorts thrown at me:
1. Everything, even ignorance, serves a purpose. Any Professional Oriental Dancer will come to terms with this fact. Or go mad. The same way I ignore the rules of agriculture in Kuala Lumpur (is there agriculture in Kuala Lumpur?), I have accepted that most people know nothing about my craft. And that´s OK.
2. You can empower yourself through contrast, allowing challenges to shape you like a Diamond which keeps getting perfected by the constant cutting.
3. What you are is what you dance. Be the person you wish to see in your dance. That means a heart which keeps itself pure, a mind which keeps itself open, a body which keeps itself free, a soul that keeps itself above the mud of the world.
4. Being a marginal – outcast – is not always bad. In fact, it can open doors “normal” people never get to touch. I´ve lost the count of times I was allowed into places and conversations that would make the devil blush just because I am an Oriental Dancer – aka loose woman, men eater, vamp, Lilith sister. Hell, yeah! Whatever.
5. Life is too precious and short for us to worry about what others think about us. Being an Oriental Dancer teaches me, daily, to be in the moment and that presence doesn´t include pleasing others. It´s my life, my body, my dance – I do whatever I please with them. If others don´t like it, they can turn around and contemplate another lanscape.
6. Freedom has a price. A very high one. Especially for a woman and, even more especially, if that woman happens to gather the most dangerous combination: beauty + intelligence + talent + character. Although the price is high, is worth paying. Never apologize for greatness.
7. Men, Eastern or Western, will treat you differently because of your profession. I´ve never met a man, so far, who was inddiferent to my profession or treated it with naturality and respect. For me, it´s my job, my passion, a big part of my life. For them, it´s a movie, a harem filled with odalisques and sexual drama.
8. Selling your soul to the devil in order to get more opportunities may bring immediate fruits but, in the long run, it´s suicide. Your dignity is your gold.
9. Prejudice doesn´t define me if I know who I am.
10. I shouldn´t apologize for being healthy, vibrant and embodied – what others see as a seduction tool (their projection over my body) I see as my Sacred Creative Tool (how I see my body). I let them keep their prejudices while keeping my lucidity.
11. Sensuality is a way of LIFE, being chronically seduced by life and all its pleasures. It´s NOT the willingness to provoke or seduce others. I dance, and live, for my own pleasure. If others want to join the feast, they´re welcome, but I don´t do it for them. I do it for myself.
12. Different is not a synonym of bad. Embracing who I am, independently of what others think I should be, is the biggest act of creativity I could ever embrace. Work of a life time.
13. Oriental Dancers work as mirrors for other people, men and women.If we´re aware of our craft, we notice how the game works and we don´t take offense when others throw their frustrations, dreams or sexual phantasies on us.
14. “Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda… and woke up with me.” – Rita Hayworth
Same thing applies to Oriental Dancers. The question is not to stop being an Oriental Dancer but finding a man worthy of waking up with Joana.