Tips for a successful (long term) career – part II

Joana Saahirah Magic.jpg

Me, captured by the lens of Zakahia TZ

Despite, or because of, their flaws, airports inspire me. Here´s how extra tips for a successful (long term) career came about,  between New York and Portland, USA, where I was heading for another fabulous event: I was holding a cup in one hand – coffee with almond milk; no sugar – and a book – Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner – in the other. The flow of thoughts came rushing into my head, forcing me to take out my notebook – faithful road companion – and write an almost illegible stream of notes.

I hope you find them useful and inspiring. Tips for a successful (long term) career – part II

  1. Polemic subject: personal relationships. We´re human and, therefore, we can´t avoid life and its bumpy roads but, as artists who live off their work, we have to take care of our hearts. In other words: skip, if possible, drama and destructive relationships.The dancer´s tool is her/himself and the core of that tool is THE HEART from where all insights and magic comes. If you´re constantly stuck, and drained from, romantic or other drama webs, you have no focus, mood or energy, to create. Artists need life experience as much as internal peace. I´m done with relationships who left me dry to the bone, unable to rise up and dance. Invest in healthy relationships or, in the lack of them, fulfilling alone time. Your work, skin and overall health, will thank you.

Err…what? I guess. Ok. Well…

2. Be aware that most of the work of an artist, in any area, is made in the background, behind the stage curtain, when nobody´s watching. I call it the tip of the icerberg.

If you´re waiting to get on stage, in a classroom or on a television studio, to start working, you´ll always me average, if not mediocre. Art is a craft – crafts are work. Persistent, consistent, invisible work. The results are what the public receives, the end of a line that started way back in a spot where only the creator was present. No, it´s not cool; it´s true. Stop playing the diva game – lock yourself in the dance studio and work. Practice/listen/choreograph/create/plot.tumblr_ncl37s0v1C1s30ko5o1_500.jpg

3. Coffee! Daily, unsweetened, with a dash of almond milk. No further comments required.

4. Remind yourself Artists are supposed to be ground breakers and educators, directly or indirectly. Oriental Dancers must know this, probably more than any other artists.


Because our craft is in desperate need of a rEvolution which can only come from us. Egyptian Oriental Dance is surrounded by outdated ideas, ghosts, prejudices, ignorance, tabus and phantasies. I don´t know any other art as stigmatized, or persistently misunderstood, as ours. If you´re a conscious artist in the field, you must search for outlets to EDUCATE THE PUBLIC. Doing your job the best you can is part of it – we teach through example -, but there are other ways of contributing for a much delayed change of mentality. Organize lectures, accept interviews on the radio, television and serious newspapers/magazines where you have the chance to talk about the History, purpose and value of the craft you love.

Put aside self-promotion, every once in a while, to focus ON THE CRAFT and bring it to light in a way mainstream audiences, the ones who build mentalities and stigmas, can understand.

5. Choose your looks according to what you want people to see and focus on.

If you want them to look at your cloths, instead of your dance, choose shining over the top cloths that take away attention from your dance; if you want them to look at you as the old time exotic vamp man eater odalisque, choose the sleazy, excessively revealing cloth; if you want people to focus on your dance, and what it has to offer, choose cloths that suit and serve your dance. Comfortable, made FOR DANCING and not for a catwalk, coherent with the dance style, mood and feeling you´re portraying.

What you wear, as an artist – especially an Oriental Dancer who is surrounded by persistent demeaning images -, defines a great deal of the way people will look at you and your work. Don´t underestimate the value of appearances.


Mixed messages, anyone?

6. Daily routines. Invest in the things that, in the long run, will keep you fit, inspired and  growing. Take care of your body – quality food and sleep, exercise -, your mind – keep educating yourself -, heart – love, be loved; have the courage to remain open & vulnerable – and soul – meditate, feel, observe yourself and others; put your hand, every once in a while, on your consciousness.

Do your best to be a good human being, one who values and nurtures her/himself.

These small, daily things, may be invisible to the public but, when gathered for a consistent amount of time, they are the matter which build your work and keep you climbing up the ladder. 

7. Self-discipline. Artists usually have the freedom to shape their time. With that freedom comes responsibility and management. You, and nobody else, is responsible for waking up and making things happen. Waiting for someone to push you out of bed, and move, won´t do the trick. You are the boss – act like one.

10986873_835604543174811_2096503970868503778_n.jpgCreate a schedule where the truly important things are written down – wait for no authority, but your own, to honour, and materialize, each task on that schedule.

8. Show up for the job, even when you´re not feeling particularly inspired/energized. The work rewards the worker. Always.

9. Your life is your dance material – make sure it´s interesting, rich, beautiful, worthy of sharing and never stale.

10. Set goals while being flexible. The world doesn´t revolve around your belly and private agenda. Some times, wishes don´t come true; other times, they do but in their own timing, not ours. And that´s ok.

You have your plans; life has plans for you. You gotta get along with that partner and negotiate. A mix of strong will, goal setting and flexibility are gold.

warhol-campbells-soup-can-1964.jpg11. This is a new, and difficult, one for me: you are a brand. I hadn´t thought about it until a fellow dancer mentioned it: “I like your brand”. For a moment, I was tempted to ask: which brand are you talking about? I´d never seen myself as a brand – just a person doing what she knows, and loves, best.

Then I thought about it and realized she was right.

Andy Warhol – a Visionary who understood his times and the times to come -knew a thing or two about branding and pop culture. He knew artists are brands because they are their own product.

Although I understood my work as a product, I´d never thought of myself as such. It sounds like I´m becoming one of Warhol´s Campbell´s Soup cans. Maybe I am.

It´s worth to consider and manage it the best you can without losing sight of your own humanity. And sanity. If you don´t build your own brand, the world around you will and, I bet, not to your advantage. Define how your brand should be presented to the world and what it has to offer; then act, and promote, accordingly.

Tough one, huh?

12. Criticizing is also promoting or, in other words, there´s no bad publicity. Instead of publicly trashing, and pointing the finger at people who do stuff you dislike, do the things you like. Show us what you wish to see by DOING IT. Be the change you wish to see in the world, as Ghandi so wisely put.

13. Redefine your concept of glamour. Almost 10 years of career, and life, in Egypt and 4 years of work around the world have showed me that “glamour”, if it exists, is not where people think it is. A lot of the “glamorous” dancers I know, particularly Egyptian, lead the least glamorous lives and enjoy external success due to the most unglamorous soul wrenching schemes. There´s nothing glamorous about the glamour most people project on artists.tumblr_o0hxj3ruko1ram7aao1_500

Glamour is a show where you touch your audience where the art resides: in the heart; glamour is the elegance of helping your colleagues and supporting them through success and hardship; glamour is teaching a high quality workshop where students gain knowledge, insight and empowerment; glamour is receiving an honest compliment from a fellow dancer who has nothing to gain from it; glamour is the luxury of living to/off/from your work in a world where most people are forced to have jobs they hate because they need to pay the bills; glamour is that* feeling of exaltation you experience when you dance with an exceptional orchestra; glamour is looking back and seeing how you remained a human being, despite the world´s attempts to turn you into a monster.

Everything else is nonsense and hypocrisy.

14. tumblr_mz1323KhP61qa9sf4o1_1280.jpg Don´t expect family, friends and/or strangers, to support you. Some times, it´s the ones we love the most who put us down. We´re only human – even your mum, dad and siblings. Appreciate when support is provided but don´t expect it all the time. Build your own internal support system.

15. Get ready to multi-task, especially if you´re an Oriental Dancer in the international dance market. Being a talented, professional dancer is not enough. These days, you have to be a well rounded performer, teacher, choreographer, lecturer, promoter and business/marketing woman/man. In my case, I add author to that list.

While mastering the first four facets – plus authorship – I´m terrible at the promotion/marketing/business part, mostly because I don´t have the time or inclination for it.

I´m good at creating – not good at selling what I create.

I know dancers who build their name exclusively (you read it well) on promotion/marketing/business skills. Their product may not be the best but they understand what the market asks for and mold themselves according to it. They present their – less than amazing – product in ways that correspond to the current trends.

Pure marketing. I cannot stop but admiring it. Homework for table number 1 (moi!).

16. Don´t let ambition blind you. Be ambitious, not greedy; ambitious, not a devil who will do just anything in exchange for what they want; ambitious, not a sell-out; ambitious, not someone who sells her/his soul to the devil for external goodies; ambitious, not someone who forgets who she/he is and delivers fake jewels because that´s what sells.

Basically, don´t allow ambition to swallow you. I´ve seen what it does to people and it ain´t pretty.

17. This too shall pass – applied to the happiest moments as much as the hardest ones. Everything is transitory – glory, and failure, included. Appreciate each moment as if it was the first and the last.

18. Show public appreciation for the ones who support you – students, sponsors, colleagues, fans, followers and random strangers who take their time to lift you up.

19. Remain humble and treat everybody with the same respect. Honour yourself, set limits and don´t allow others to step on you – WARNING: some will try! – while remaining with your feet in the group. Not on the ground – in it.

20. Don´t confuse knowledge with talent – feed both.

Talent is something you are born with and, eventually but not necessarily, develop; knowledge is something you acquire, or remember, along the way. The first doesn´t replace the second and vice-versa. Keep educating yourself while exploring the gifts you were born with – put yourself (YOUR THING) out there.

Knowledge is structure – the pillars of the house – while Talent is contents – the interior of that house or the life that happens inside it.

21. Keep (nasty) Envy ashore. You don´t need it, you really don´t. Stop comparing yourself to others and measuring your worth, and success, according to their worth and success. There´s a place, and time, for everyone and each person has a unique path. Rejoice with others´success while building yours. There´s nothing uglier, or more mediocre, than envy.


How Envy looks like. Believe me, I´ve crossed paths with it many times. Not cool.

22. Keep moving forward. Slowly or faster than a thunder. Speed is not important, as long as you keep walking ahead.

23. Go the extra mile – it´s never crowded. Do, risk and try what others aren´t willing to do, risk and try; don´t set your path according to other people´s path.

Practice a little more; repeat the choreography, even when you feel it´s fine; create, from scratch, your own projects; do more of what hasn´t been done and less of what´s already accomplished; add instead of copying; dare instead of repeating what everybody else´s doing. Review that text one more time; study, dare, fail or win (it doesn´t matter) a bit more.

24. EnJOY the Ride. It´s all about being happy at what you do. Hard times will come; nothing, no one and no field, is perfect or linear. But remind yourself to ENJOY.

One day, the ride will end. Make sure you look back and smile with gratitude and no regrets.

25. Understand Artists, Oriental Dancers in particular, are holistic entities. We´re body, mind, heart and soul and we use those 4 sides of our being in our work. If one of them is missing, our job is not done.

26. Oriental Dance, as Life, has many sides – bright and dark. If you take one, be sure the other will be revealed, sooner or later. I´ve often mentioned I´ve been through the whole circle, seen it all – the best and the worst of Oriental Dance – and came back to the surface with a stronger, in-depth knowledge and unconditional love for this art.

On the way up, I realized each sun has a shadow and sweetness carries sourness in its womb. I´ve finally come to terms with the complexity of life and, God!, it´s peaceful in here.

27. Talent is not an excuse for laziness and/or arrogance but a gift for which you are responsible. I´m fully aware of my talent(s) and do my best to honour them, working accordingly. The more talented you are, the more you work. Anyone who tells you otherwise, is lying or knows zero about talented people.

28. Inspiration comes from many sources: different dance styles, cinema, theatre, painting, sculpture, literature, travel; you name it. Artists feed off life and life is rich in its diversity. Open your eyes, and heart, and drink from these abundant, eclectic fountains.

29. Our target audience, as artists, shouldn´t be limited to our artistic communities. We should work for everybody, not for a closed, secret club where only dancers and dancer´s supporters are allowed.

Here´s one of my convictions, one that has never wavered: our target, as Oriental Dancers, should be the mainstream public, not our friends-colleagues-students & family. If you´re in the business for real, as a PROFESSIONAL, your work has to be good enough for the ones who have never heard about Oriental Dance or the ones – like boyfriends, friends and family – who are not forced, due to afilliation reasons, to watch and applaud.

Flamenco is not made for the Flamenco community; Classical Ballet is not made for the Classical Ballet community. No dance, or any other art form, which has something to say limits its target.

If you´re good at what you do, your work is for everyone, not for your colleagues and friends. I always aim at the ones who dislike Oriental Dance – they are my target audience. Have I made my point?

30. Know your biological cycles and work with them. If you´re a woman, I ´m speaking about energetic as well as menstrual cycles.

I know which parts of my day are more suitable for physical work – like working out or choreographing a new dance piece. Teaching – in presence or On Line, something I do every day and in the most varied schedules – flows any time, from early morning to late night. Mornings are better for writing – that´s when my brain is fresher – and nights are perfect for performing. Afternoons are suitable for logistics like answering emails, organizing my agenda and so forth.

I know my internal rhythms and I collaborate with them, as much as possible.

My menstrual cycles are blessed ( I hope you feel the same about yours): I swell up alongside the moon, literally. I become hysterical, heavy and depressed – yes. Particularly insightful, inspired, emotional, sensitive, visceral and creative as well.When the full moon hits the sky, I´m ready to explode, physiological and creatively speaking.

New moons have a special energy: the impulse to start new projects, intentions, ideas, dreams. I recognize those trains – from the inside out – and I catch them. You won´t find me complaining about my menstruation any time soon. I LOVE the goodies it provides.

Know yourself. Then collaborate.

31. Be ready to sacrifice romantic relationships or, God willing, be incredibly lucky.

I´ve never met a man, not one, who wasn´t intimidated by a successful, independent, intelligent and strong woman. Add passionate and experienced to the recipe for truly bombastic results.

These qualities look good on paper but, in reality, when man meets woman and they get intimate, there comes the dreaded Medusa – aka successful, intelligent, free woman who won´t take shit or accept less than a partner who is worthy of her – and the love story is over. He´s suddenly terrified, not knowing how to deal with you.

(Men want to make love with Lilith but they marry Eve. Got it?)


Lilith, our sister

If you want to set the house on fire and speed the imploding process, go ahead and tell them you´re a professional Oriental Dancer – something they will read as “sexy bellydancer who will strip for me” -.

He´ll be excited, at first; then lost – utterly lost. There´s an immediate fascination, desire and open air lust; maybe obsession but never – ever – a mature, adult relationship.

Men, from the most basic to the most intelligent and apparently open minded, prefer women they can predict, control and overwhelm in one way or another. They need to have the upper hand on her – discreetly or bluntly.

Nobody wants to hear this but, then again, it´s the truth. There must be exceptions out there – I´ve never found one. When – if – I do, I´ll report back.

32. Learn when to speak and when to keep your mouth shut. There are discussions/conflicts unworthy of your time and energy. Identify when talking is constructive and when it´s not. Silence can be gold.

33. Never be ashamed of learning from other teachers and acknowledge it, when you do.

I´ve lost the count of the times I´ve heard “It was so nice to dance with you” from dancers who had taken classes/workshops with me. Clarification:

You didn´t dance with me – you learnt from me.

Paulo, Chris, David, Ray and other gentlemen who are not afraid to sway their hips like they mean it, dance with me at hot salsa nights;

An endless array of wonder*ful dance floor partners – professional and amateur – dance with me in milongas in Buenos Aires, Cairo and wherever I can practice my Tango.

My niece, Alice in Wonderland, dances with me when we goof around with Julio Iglesias playlist.

My folkloric dancers, in Cairo, danced with me. On stage, in my show, choreographed by me.

Some of my boyfriends danced with and for me.

Mr. Ruiz, an old man with scary sideburns directly from the 60´s – an acquaintance from Tijuana de Mexico (don´t ask!) – danced bachata, and other local folkloric delights, with me in an evening too absurd, and fabulous, to describe.

You – the dancer who takes private lessons or group workshops/classes with me – do NOT dance with me. You learn from me, the same way I learn from other dancers whenever I take a class with them.


34. Your work/dance is your message to the world. What would you like it to say?

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