Oriental Dance Behind glitz & glamour - Interview with Joana Saahirah part 01

Joana - photo by Melad
by Isis Zahara

We must strive for freedom if we strive for self-knowledge. 
The task of self-knowledge and of further self-development is 
of such importance and seriousness, it demands such intensity of effort, 
that to attempt it any old way and amongst other things is impossible. 
The person who undertakes this task must put it first in his life, 
which is not so long that he can afford to squander it on trifles.”
 George Gurdjieff

Joana Saahirah is one of the most respected Oriental Dancers in Egypt now.

She performs with her own orchestra in Cairo and travels around the world as a guest artist and teacher in major Oriental Dance Festivals. She has also written articles to several Magazines and Newspapers and now is writing a book about her adventures as a foreigner Oriental Dancer in Egypt.
Joana Saahirah was born in Portugal and received a wide education including several art forms and studied with some of the best teachers of Egyptian Oriental Dance and Folclore as Souhair Zaki, Nagwa Fouad, Mona El Said, Azza Sheriff, Mahmoud Reda and Farida Fahmy.

She has travelled l around the world to teach with Master Mahmoud Reda, assisting him in this work as well as in his choreography challenges.
She headed to the Middle East to perform in Lebanon, Qatar, Oman and Egypt where she has been living and working for the last five years.
Her first book about Oriental Dance and the achievement of her dreams in the Middle East (Egypt and the World) will be published this year.
She has also  blogs where you can read much more about her life and analysis about the contemporary life in Egypt:

 IZ - How did you begin?
JS - I began studying Oriental Dance by chance – if chance exists! – while I was at the Theatre and Cinema Conservatoire to be an Actress. I´ve danced since the age of five (did many years of Classical Ballet Conservatoire), experimented many ethnic dances for fun and got into Acting as a professional path. Then I found Oriental Dance and my life was turned upside down! I had no idea or special interest in Egyptian music or dance and didn´t really know what they were a about so I started learning as a blank page, rediscovering myself through it. As a person, as an artist who searches for deeper, more truthful ways to express herself.
I tried an Oriental Dance class at a World Dance Festival in Portugal, my original homeland, and was immediately hooked because I had found the natural language of my body and my soul. For me, it was never something new or exotic or a vanity exercise but a flight from which I could forget my own ego and limitations and feel totally united with myself and the Universe. From that first recognition moment, I never stopped following Egyptian Oriental and Folkloric Dances. Curiosity, the amazing way it made me feel and the infinite creative tool it was made me eager for educating myself and I started attending workshops and festivals, traveling to Egypt with my first Egyptian teacher – the great and unforgettable  Master Shokry Mohamed, unfortunately deceased – and reading all I could gather about the subject. I did several research trips to Egypt – studying with the “real people” (not only with teachers) in Luxor, Assuan, Alexandria, different Oasis, etc – and found myself immersed into this passionate LOVE. No return. I had found myself. My Soul. Through this Sacred Dance. Egypt was in my heart and I was, definitely, in Egypt´s heart.

photo by Mahmoud Reda

IZ - How did you start to dance in Egypt?
JS - I travelled Egypt to study several times, before I decided to move there in order to have a professional and artistic standard show and do “on the spot” research to write my own book about the TRUE Oriental Dance (the book will be published this year, God willing).
I studied with some of the best in the world in this period (Prisca Diedrich from Germany, Shokry Mohamed from Egypt, Mahmoud Reda, Souhair Zaki, Nagwa Fouad, Azza Sheriff, Raqia Hassan, Yousry Sheriff and other inspiring teachers I will not mention because the list is long.
I first arrived when it was forbidden – by law – for foreigners and had to perform in another Middle Eastern countries (Lebanon, Qatar, Oman, etc) for about two years until this law was changed and I returned to Cairo for good to start my own Egyptian journey. I arrived with no agent, impresarios or any other kinds of help and with many voices discouraging me, telling me I would never succeed by myself. I have proven them wrong until today and I´m very proud of the way I did it. My own, dignified, stubborn way!
My family thought it was a crazy move, the man in my life – at the time- was against it and tried to stop me through threats and even physical violence but I resisted it all and went, personally, to knock on every 5 star venue´s door, dealing face to face with the responsible people, the ones who choose and hire dancers. I've had many disappointments, faced many sexual harassment games from managers and their own intermediaries who take commissions out of every job (specially the dirty jobs like prostitution) and refused several contracts in exchange for sex and dating the boss. 

Once I knocked on too many doors and realized how dirty this business was, I had my own lucky star working by my side, taking me to the only honest and professional man I've met in this business, an indian manager – Mr. Chaudhri of the Oberoi Hotels - who gave me a fair chance to prove myself. No favours, no help, just a clean, fair opportunity and that was all I needed. I gathered musicians I found in nightclubs, built my first show programs according to what I loved to listen to and dance to, orchestrated them through my ear and taste and was blessed to be received with the warmest and most loving arms by Egyptian local audiences who could not believe I was a foreigner but only one of them.

"Egypt was, and still is, the Great School of Mysteries.
 You just have to be a worthy student to be able to get
 into it and from that point the sky is the limit."

IZ - What kind of rumours have you been victim?
JS - Oh, many! As much as your imagination can go. And they all make me laugh because they´re the exact opposite of my journey´s reality and they reflect the envy and frustration of the ones who wish they could do what I did but cannot succeed. From dating powerful men in Egypt that I never personally met, to dating my bosses with whom I hardly speak or going out with them till marrying in secrecy with a musician in order to get the Egyptian nationality and, therefore, enjoy the legal benefits it brings to dancers here. I don´t actually pay much attention to these rumours because I have no time or energy for them but, once they reach me, they often make me laugh REALLY loud. I´ve heard I was pregnant from different men and was identified with affairs with the most varied men in the business. Curiously enough, none of the men I actually dated had anything to do with this business and were, mostly, against it. I am very careful about keeping my personal life away from the spotlight so very few people actually know the truth but a lot enjoy gossiping and bad mouthing for the sake of their free time and envy. I even find flattering that so much people would spend their energy on me as I do not spend it on them. Focusing on my Art is my priority. False stories and gossiping is just an envious children game, as far as I am concerned.

photo by Nagle

IZ - Why you think people invented stories about you?
JS - Partly because there is a Dance environment in Cairo that is, in reality, CORRUPTED and prone to reward prostitutes and not talented dancers. In 99,9% of the cases, you will not have decent contracts and grow in this profession as I did for the past 6 years if you do not get sexually involved (or even marry) with some specific venue´s owners, managers, musicians, men who have influence in the business. Even after proving my talent on a daily basis to Egyptian audiences, I still have to manage to go around an environment that punishes you if you don´t get into the sex game.
Women are seen as bodies any man can buy any dancers, in special, fit this category in most Egyptian minds and in some reality cases. The system itself promotes prostitution and a dancer who is totally independent, who works with no managers, pimps, favours and is still able to strive is a very odd thing to believe in. I just believe it because I´ve done it, otherwise it would be hard – even for me – to accept that is possible. Talent and professionalism does not seem to be enough to get the jobs you deserve. I blame many dancers for prostituting themselves as they are a reason for the bad image this dance has in Egypt and all the Middle East. When dancers start respecting themselves as women and saying “NO” to their bodies´s trade, then the system will start to change. While they accept to sell their bodies and souls to the devil, nothing will improve.
Another reason is pure and simple envy of the ones who cannot succeed and hate you for succeeding. Human basic frustration and defense mechanism.

IZ - It seems like you had a hard time dealing with bellydance business in Egypt, what did you see is really helpful and good to make you stay in Egypt that long?
JS - I didn't perform and lived in Egypt until now because of the dirtiness and obstacles I faced. That would be, to say the least, masochist and stupid. Different dancers will have a particular reason why they are here. For me, all the negative points are balanced - not erased - and compensated by the immense pleasure of dancing with and for Egyptians who I feel are the best audiences in the world. I also learn on a daily basis with my own orchestra, other dancers I work with, the local audiences which are maps and guidelines to the RIGHT direction in Oriental Dance. Their reaction ~musicians and audiences as well ~lets you know if you«re missing the point or if you are on the right track. The recognition of my talent by people who know what they are seeing is precious to me. The love and respect of Egyptians for my work is precious. The relation of constant learning I have with my musicians is precious. The "Tarab" I experience on stage, day after day, is precious. The growing process - as a dancer and a person, both deeply connected - is precious. The emotional connection I reach between me, my musicians and our audiences is precious. Those are the reasons why I tend to deal with the negative BUT focus on the positive. Most of all, I LOVE - with total passion and commitment - this dance and it is my aim to bring back its soul to Egypt and the world.

"Oriental Dance is connected with
 a complex and fascinating – often hurtful and full of 
contradictions but always interesting – context that
 you can only learn about living here, between Egyptians."

IZ - What a foreign dancer must to do to be legally working in Egypt?
JS - In order to be legally working in Egypt you need a specific contract of a venue which will be responsible for your work visa and other required extensive paperwork. Egyptian dancers pay less taxes than foreigners, do not need so many complicated bureaucratic procedures and are free to sign as much contracts as they wish. Foreigners can only sign ONE single contract with a venue, by law. Then we can perform at weddings and other parties, pay the related taxes and commissions to the impresarios that get us those gigs. In my case, I´ve also been different as I don´t work through intermediaries and clients contact me directly for their events, after seeing me perform in my regular spot or at any given party. It is the difficult way but at least I tend to sleep peacefully at night and it´s worth it all for me.
The owners of the few places where Oriental Dance still survives (hardly so) know our existence here depends on them as they are the ones who sign the contracts that will allow us to have fixed work and be legal so they play with that power, manipulate dancer´s ambitions and usually get what they want from them in exchange for the work opportunities.


IZ - You said something in a way that seems trite:

(…) “There is a DEEP CORRUPTED SYSTEM of DANCERS in Cairo and no one better than me to confirm it. I’ve come here all by myself and built my name without help, many obstacles, no "sleeping around with my bosses" *(who punished me for that!), not even a manager of my own. I have made it EXCLUSIVELY through my talent and hard work BUT I cannot lie in order to make the dance scene here look nice. In 99,9% of the cases, a dancing contract comes trhough sleeping&dating your boss.” (…) facebook april 2012

Please, tell us one of these moments you were punished for don’t submit to this kind of system and tell us what happens frequently in other cases. 
JS - This subject is too wide and long for this interview as I am approaching it in my own book in full details. I can say I´ve been cut from my work after my boss discovered I have a boyfriend and lost hope of a romance, for so long planned, with me. I've been sent the police – by other dancers and other angry men I have refused to sleep with – to check on my cloths and movements as there is a special code we must follow and a special police that checks on “bellydancer´s” morals. I've had my backstage room inspected by police after a report on me affirming that I owned drugs and I've fired myself from a place because my teams´s payment (me, my musicians, technician and assistant) was more than two months late and I was disrespected by the main managers of the venue. There are many other episodes and different ways how you can be punished. Other dancer´s managers will pay to have them in certain venues and spread horrible rumours about me to discourage clients from coming to see my show and my paper work has been blocked from proceeding in different occasions also by people who didn't want me to continue dancing here. Eliminating competition is the bread of the day over here, instead of improving one´s skills in order to shine over that competition.

photo by M. joudi

IZ – You are saying 99,9% of the contract are getting only if you dating your bosses. But currently there are foreign dancers having contracts and they perform every night and some of them having husbands or boyfriends, is that also applies on them?
JS -
I am a low profile person who respects my own privacy and others privacy and all that is known from me is my work and talent so I never comment on another particular dancers (although I know each story because this market is very small and I've dealt personally with the owners/managers of most places) because their lives are not my problem at all. It is not elegant or productive to comment on other people on a negative way so I ll not open an exception here. Even if I know the truth about a lot of people, I keep it to myself and let them deal with their own conscious. I am not God to judge and point my finger at others.I point my finger at the system and lead by example, hoping more dancers will follow the honest, dignified path which belongs to real artists. I just comment on myself and my direct experience. It is not my style to offend others and focus on them.

"Eliminating competition is the bread of the day over here, 
instead of improving one´s skills in order to shine over that competition."

IZ - There are many dancers in Cairo and each one has different experience. Why you think this is happening to you? 
JS - Sure every dancer must have a personal view of the market, benefits and difficulties of being in it. I only comment on my own experience  and what I saw with my own eyes. If others had - or say they had - a different view, then it is their responsibility to say so. Ambition is natural to everyone, the difference between me and others I know is how far you will go for your ambition. I've sacrificed my own homeland security, family, comforts, personal relationships with men who were totally against my work and tried to stop me from dancing, etc. This has been the price I choose to pay. Others will choose to pay other prices and it is a subject between them and their consciousness, not between them and me.

photo by Nagle

Nothing is happening to me, specifically. Reality is  REALITY and I am not a victim of Fate. I choose, until today, to face all the obstacles because I receive worthy treasures in return. Although it has been really tough, I have been recognized by Egyptians- and everywhere I go to teach or perform all over the world - as a talented Artist and that is worth everything for me. Egypt has been a Great School for me. A hard one, no doubt, but still a school and I am a good student who enjoys growing. It teaches you how to be an alchemist as you have to grab negative stuff and turn it into positive and, by doing so, you reach higher levels in your art and life.
Another reason why I am exposed ~probably more than other dancers in this market ~is because I came to Egypt alone, no manager of my own, no boyfriend getting me working contracts, no Egyptian husband to give the nationality and protect me from other hunters, no Guidance  or Help at all so I experienced, first hand, all the traps, dirtiness and games of this field. If you have a man between you and your work, then he will be a bridge between the two, keeping you away from a lot of this hard reality. That was not my case so I built my orchestras by myself, I even orchestrate them, planned all my shows and managed everything by myself. This is not the usual way of doing things around here but, at least, I didn't have to date, marry or sleep with men for my/his own convenience.
Not having my back covered exposed me, more than usual, to everything: the good and the bad. Until now, you have only questioned about the bad. Once you ask me about the positive, I will gladly let you know about it.

IZ - What are the positive things about being a Oriental Dancer in Egypt?
JS - I also suspect that this answer will be different according to each dancer´s point of view and aim of their career. My first goal was staying in Egypt for about an year, maximum, and gather some “on the spot” information to write my book (which will be published this year) and also find the musicians for the show I always dreamed of.


Once I started working, I realized that this universe of Egyptian Dances is much wider than I could have imagined so one year was not nearly enough to dominate the matter. I also got addicted to the adrenaline and self- realization of being appreciated by Egyptians who easily spot talent and true feeling. To understand Egyptian dance, you must  understand Egyptian people, their nature, language, mentality,character, politics, religions, etc. Oriental Dance is connected with a complex and fascinating – often hurtful and full of contradictions but always interesting – context that you can only learn about living here, between Egyptians. I fell in love with the Arabic language, the immense richness of Egyptian History and Culture and the mysterious division present in today´s Egyptians: they despise Oriental Dance/dancers with their minds (which have been fed different kinds of garbage and frozen by politics and the way a distorted vision of Religion is applied nowadays) but they feel it  and love it from their hearts. This division is very stimulating to observe as I go deep into the subject and learn about Human Nature through my Dancing work.
After discovering local styles (like “baladi”, “shaaby” and folkloric expressions as Saiidi-Tahtib, Nubian, Bedouin,etc) and the (Queen of my heart) Om Kolthoum in depth, my passion for this country grew immensely, leaving me curious to go deeper into it. Local styles and Om Kolthoum ´s repertoire became a central part of my work and attachment to the Soul of Egypt. My biggest pleasures have been the learning process that is still happening (you discover more and more about music, dance, expression, art, secrets of this Art and yourself), the recognition of local audiences which were my only spontaneous marketing tool, the “Tarab” that is available for me on stage through the connection between me, my musicians and my audiences.

Notice I have a very special relationship with my musicians and I love being with them. No other musicians are as inspired, talented and funny than Egyptians, in my opinion. We have a lot in common when we work. Both me and them create from the heart and improvise everything on an Artistic level. I also share with them the playfulness “dalaa” that is characteristic of this people´s nature, enjoying the process (similar to the jazz music) of creating new stuff on the spot and not taking ourselves too seriously.
I torture them with constant rehearsals, corrections, requests but they tend to give me their all with true respect and tenderness for me. They are my sole protectors, my creative buddies, spontaneous body guards and teachers. This brings me great joy!
I also enjoy expanding my mind, heart and soul through the differences I find in my own way of living and most Egyptians way of living. One can learn through contrast, even shocks, behaviours, we don´t understand. Egypt has been my biggest source of inspiration, my school – hard but efficient – my home, my Fate.
If you love this Dance with all your soul, then you will see it expand and understand its true meaning while performing here. Egypt does not give talent to the ones who don´t have it. It does not deliver informations and revelations on a platter but, if you have the guts, intelligence and sensibility to observe and feel what´s around you, then you´ll get the point about it all. Something in you must be a part of this country, a zone of your soul must be Egyptian in order to be aligned with it and communicate with its emotional audiences. The dance, the people, the reason why this was – and still is, no matter how superficially it is done – a Sacred Dance that connected Humans with their own inner Divinity.
Egypt was, and still is, the Great School of Mysteries. You just have to be a worthy student to be able to get into it and from that point the sky is the limit.

  to be continued


Shokry Mohamed (1951 - 2006) - Egyptian choreographer, performer and teacher of Egyptian Dances. Author of several books about Oriental Dances: 
"La Danza Mágica del Ventre I" (1995)
"La Danza Mágica del Ventre II - La Mujer e la Dança Oriental" (1998) 
"La bailarina del Templo" (1999)
"Danza Oriental" (2000)
"El reinado de las Bailarinas" (2005)


Thanks for doing such great and so many interviews that touch on important subjects related to Oriental Dance. Sharing knowledge and true facts - the good and the bad - will help us move forward as Artists and Human beings.
Hugs, Love and Courage to everyone!

Joana, my dear sista, you are not only a fascinating dancer but a beautiful soul as well.
Stay blessed....

she is phenomenal dancer to know about Oriental Dance Behind glitz & glamour. really impressive Interview with Joana Saahirah amazing talented dancer.

Set Up A Ballet Fitness Business in UK | Ballet instructor in UK

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