Oriental Dance Behind glitz & glamour - interview with Joana Saahirah part 02

photo by Myrian Abdel Aziz
by Isis Zahara

They said,- You are a savage and dangerous woman -.
I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.”
Nawal El Saadawi

IZ - What you think makes dancers frequently be mistaken for prostitutes?
JS -  For many historical, religious, social and political reasons, Oriental Dance has always been an outcast that locates women in a position of power, totally contrary to the place women are put over here. She is the boss, the owner of her own body and team. She obeys no master, in principle. She is the centre of attention and exposes her body to all kinds of people, including men. In Egypt, the Islamic interpretation in action does not see with good eyes a woman who does not restrict herself to the domestic, wife oriented role. Even less the woman who shows her body in public, an act which is considered “haram” (forbidden by God). By tradition – allegedly Islamic – women´s bodies should only be seen by their close male relatives (husband, son, brothers or not even brothers in some cases) and exposing your body, emotions, pleasure and inner strength in front of strange men goes totally against it.
On this side, there is a Revolutionary side to the dance that is feared and looked upon as a danger to the submissive place most women are thrown to. The Oriental Dancer is a FREE Woman who sustains herself and her musicians with her own work. She deals with all kinds of people and goes against the instituted morals of current Egypt and Middle East.
Aside from this mentality/cultural point there is the FACT that most dancers will grow in their carers by prostituting and/or marrying convenient, powerful, influential men who can give them stable work, protect them, finance their shows and help them escalate the fame stairs. Although this is often made through marriage, it is still prostitution. Just an institutionalized form of prostitution, in my opinion. The few who do not do it pay the price for the majority and carry the stigma, even if they are the most honest women on earth.

"To share that richness, we need to know
 what we´re doing. Memorizing some choreographies
 of other dancers DOES NOT MAKE you 
a PROFESSIONAL DANCER and exposing an 
empty exhibition of movements which look nice 
and exotic does not make you an ARTIST. "

IZ -  About Sexual harassment on foreigners women/dancers in Cairo. How was and what changed after the Revolution?
JS - Sexual harassment is not something exclusively related with dancers. We face it in our work but it is all over the place, in the streets, shops, etc. Common women who are not in this field and even dress according the current morals “hijab” or “niqab” - covering their hair or all their body - suffer from it as they walk in the street for grocery shopping. Sure Oriental Dance suffers an extra stroke on this one as it is a barometer of Egyptian society. If people are more repressed, mentally blocked or confused, hopeless, unemployed, frustrated then this will be reflected in Oriental Dance audiences and the way they react to us and our work yet it is a daily matter, not exclusively related to dance subject.
After Revolution, which didn´t happen yet (the 25th January was an important first step but journey to Freedom and Democracy was not complete until now), the economy and the tourism of Egypt fell into the deepest valleys and that had an enormous impact on Egyptian citizens who saw themselves with no work, no way to make a living and an uncertain future that is still open to definition. Unemployment rates went higher than ever – and they were already high before the Revolution – and the religious extremism took the chance to clearly invade people´s daily lives as a light at the end of the tunnel. The music tended to be replaced by the “Quran” at every moment of the day, men started to grow beards to exhibit their pious attitude and everything related to FREEDOM to think and do what you have your heart/mind was smashed, more than before. Men were particularly affected by this unemployment and uncertainty of the future as they are socially forced to have money, material goods and all the financial security that allows them to be respected and even marry. With no work, money or hope in their hands, they had extra free time, frustration and anger to throw at someone else and the victims are Women who dare to walk in the streets of Egypt. Covered or not, you´re prone to pay the price for moving in public spaces! Some discussion groups, movies and debates have been held by Egyptian women addressing the subject and the more the religious extremism advances into this people´s minds, the more sexual harassment and perversions will arise. It is human nature: everything you repress, expands. Unite that to the free time and frustration of men, who feel their masculinity is hurt by not being able to gain money, and you have a recipe for disaster.

IZ -  You wrote in your blog:

"(…)My only question: Has Oriental Dance turned into a commercial product so strong that the actual ART/DANCE tends to disappear?!(…)” 29 Jun 2009

I'm wondering about your post. Throughout the history of art, relations between art and commerce have been complex. We are in a time that the artists are discovering to focus on Art, instead of the commerce (sponsors, music, dance industry, festivals etc…). I believe is not a problem to stay in business but is necessary to find the right balance with Art. What you think about that?

JS - This quote refers to the current state of Oriental Dance in Egypt and around the world where I've started to teach and perform in these last couple of years. I've been seeing what´s being taught and done in this matter and confess it is not what I learned here, working with Egyptians and for Egyptians. There is a history, context, meaning and soul that is being ignored or distorted in most cases.
It is good to have so many events spreading Oriental Dance and Egyptian Folklore and I take immense pleasure on sharing my knowledge, vision and experience with so many talented dancers from all the corners of the world but it I guess it reached a point of extreme commercialism and clone making and the true MEANING, FEELING and PURPOSE of the dance get lost.
I see teachers with no preparation calling themselves Masters, dancers who call themselves professionals and have no idea of what they´re doing, students who just started learning a few months ago and throw themselves on stage with no consciousness about the disrespect that act entails towards the Egyptian Dance and Culture. No knowledge of the different styles, music and characters inside Egyptian dance which is much wider and complex than most people think…empty movements, vanity and show off with no understanding of the SACRED LANGUAGE Oriental Dance is. As I studied with Souhair Zaki between others, I understood that this dance must come from the SOUL and speak to the SOUL of our audience. We are, as dancers, story tellers who use our own inner life, experiences and personality to communicate with our audiences. What I see being taught and performed is a bunch of choreographies people are happy to memorize and then repeat and teach to other students till exhaustion. Nice movement´s exhibitions, copies of other dancers, acting and a total messed up view of this Art.
With My dearest friend and Folkloric Teacher – Mahmoud Reda with whom I was blessed to learn from and work with - I also realized that we must respect this culture and reinvent the technique we are taught in order to expand it into higher dimensions. Remember Oriental Dance can be performed and taught on many levels. I am interested in the most rare of all: the artistic  level and that´s the one I wish to see more and more in the future. Here in Egypt and all over the world.
To raise Oriental Dance into recognition as an art form  we must practice it as such. It is not worth to just speak about it as Art and then do it as an empty sequence of exotic contortions who speak to no one and lift no one´s soul.

photo by Melad

IZ - Where does the festivals find the balance between art and commerce?"
JS - Some sponsors/organizers are more focused on the commercial side and profits but I think most are really aiming for quality. I cannot complain until now as I´ve been invited to perform and teach at wonderful events where I felt my art was needed, appreciated and understood. Sure there must be a commercial side to it all, otherwise these events could not exist but it is a responsibility of the organizers – whom I respect and thank for their efforts, risks and guts! – to push on the quality side as well. I have to add that these Festivals are responsible, in great part, for the growth of this Dance in the world. By being dynamic and offering their communities to know different teachers/artists, they are helping this art to flourish and being taken seriously. My gratitude and respect goes towards them!
We all share the same goal, that I am sure: To see the day Oriental Dance is understood and recognized as an Art form. We just have to work for it and proving it with our own talent, hard work , creativity and perseverance. We can only teach and change mentalities through example. As my personal hero Mahatma Ghandi once said “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
I wish to see Oriental Dance on the same level as Classical Ballet, Flamenco (which was, until recently, on a similar ethnic shelf as Oriental Dance), Modern Dance, etc. How come all the daughters and sons of this Art are recognized for what they really  are and the Mother -“Om il Dunya”= Mother of the World, Egypt - is not?! The Mother is being misused, mistreated and misinterpreted for too long. It is time to give her back her throne. I propose Dancers UNITE, DIGNIFY themselves as  respectable, passionate human beings and gather efforts to see our love growing as it deserves. It was about time and that time has arrived. Now!

IZ - What you believe is the future of the Oriental Dance in the coming years?
JS - The future of Oriental Dance in Egypt is one thing. Around the world is another thing although I believe that, if you kill it in its source/root, it will not be able to strive or spread itself anywhere else. Without the roots, the tree cannot grow.
Oriental Dance had its golden years in the past. From the nineties on, many reasons – political, economical, religious, etc – contributed to its downfall. My musicians who are from an older generation than me – some of them could be my grandfathers and they are the BEST! – tell me amazing stories on the time they worked with Souhair Zaki, Fifi Abdou, Nagwa Fouad and others and how respected this field was, how many talented composers and singers there were, how the business was flourishing and there was space for talent and creativity. Times have changed since then and the market got smaller, deteriorated and not stimulating for musicians, composers, poets and dancers (who are interconnected and interdependent). The SOUL of it all seems to have been buried under the desert sand…
Many Oriental Dance Festivals and schools are flourishing around the world – notice that quantity is not quality – and I see a truly good intention in most sponsors who wish to bring the BEST to their countries and elevate their community´s dance level, skills and awareness. It only scares me the superficiality and lack of true understanding of this Art. I would like to see more DANCE and less acrobatics and aerobics vanity rituals. I would like to see the  technical  standards up, as well as the knowledge of the music, culture, language, the whole context and meaning of the dance. The Goal of this Dance is to be born from your Soul and touch/move other people´s Souls as well. How many times did you find THIS?! Very, very few…
Notice that, as a professional Oriental Dancer, we have a huge responsibility to bring the BEST of Egyptian Culture to Life. We are representing a Dance, a Country, a millenery History, an whole Identity that needs to be known and appreciated by its positive side, not only the negative which is what tends to be spread in the West.
To share that richness, we need to know what we´re doing. Memorizing some choreographies of other dancers DOES NOT MAKE you a PROFESSIONAL DANCER and exposing an empty exhibition of movements which look nice and exotic does not make you an ARTIST.
In Egypt, it is unpredictable as we don´t know which political direction the country will take after elections. All the arts, specially the “despised” and misunderstood/misused Oriental Dance, will be affected by the political/religious direction of the country. The Western world has learnt its lesson: do not mix politics with religion. We had the Inquisition, the mental retard cult and many other kinds of oppression and wars BECAUSE of this dangerous connection. Egypt seems to ignore the lessons of Western History or many know about them but their ambition keeps them in this destructive track so there has been a mix between political interests and the prevalent religion in the country. As more and more religious extremists are arising and influencing common people with very basic education- or none – we tend to see Dance in an even uglier spotlight. The more repressive, mentally/emotionally/physically/ spiritually blocked a society is, the more Oriental Dance will be misunderstood, feared, mistreated, eliminated. This is the Art of FREEDOM, HUMANITY, UNITY and every time you separate or put people in several kinds of prisons, you´re not allowing them to SEE that truth. This patrimony of Egypt (of Humanity, actually!) can only be SEEN by OPEN EYES, MIND and HEART. We all hope for the best as Oriental Dance, like it or not, is a HUGE part of Egyptian identity. Killing music, dance, freedom to rejoice and feel pleasure in Egypt will be like killing the country and the nature of its people. It would be a pity as Egypt is a box of many precious treasures we wish to see flourishing and shared with the whole world. We don´t want Egypt´s ORIGINAL GREATNESS to be buried under the rocks of ignorance and ambition. We want it BACK!

IZ - How do you see your future as foreign Oriental Dancer in Egypt?
JS -This last year I've been focusing on the writing of my book, on special parties and events that leave me a little bit more free time, focus and energy to write, as well as a new project called “Empowering Women through Egyptian Music and Dance”. I've also been traveling to different countries to teach, perform and give conferences on the subject so my time is divided into traveling, performing, teaching Oriental Dance to Egyptian women (whom I love) and seeing the positive and liberating effect this dance has on them and on my writing. I would like to take my live show with musicians to another landscapes touring the world with performances and live music workshops. This is my next step. My book will be published this year and I will keep performing in Cairo and outside for as long as me and my audiences enjoy it. A lot of life in Egypt is dealing with the unpredictable so I am open to the Universe´s surprises. I've been performing here for six years and feel mature enough to face any challenge so I replace fear by curiosity and flow with the times and all the great surprises they always bring me.

IZ - You’ll be performing/teaching in the 2ndSalamat Masr. What are you most looking forward in this festival?
JS - I am very excited with this particular team and spirit behind it. It is still a business venue so some commercialism has to come with it but there´s a real and fresh passion in this Festival´steam of organizers, artists and teachers and people have been chosen by their talent, favours exchange or through convenient connections and how many paying students they can bring to the event. The goal is to reignite  the quality over the quantity,offering limited spaces on the workshops so that the taught contents are not lost into indistinct crowds. I've also been treated with respect by the organizers and asked to do my best work ever and that really stimulated me. I believe it will be an unforgettable event for us all. Bringing back the Soul of Oriental Dance is my personal motto and I guess it is the one of this Festival.The right place to learn from a place most have forgotten: the HEART!

Joana Saahirah's blogs:

*This is the second part of Joana Saahirah's interview.  


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