Changing roles of Belly Dancer in the Egyptian society - Interview with Vanessa Lynn Freedman

photo - Melad Nasif

 by Isis Zahara

"The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate."
Oprah Winfrey

Vanessa Lynn Freedman is an American artistic director and creator of  her own entertainment company in Egypt - the Vanessa Show Productions - based in Sharm El Sheikh. Her history came to me through Mohamed Shahin, and was a good surprise! Vanessa shows exceptional talent and sensitivity. Her dance is a banquet of expression, a breath of fresh air in the current Oriental dance scene.

IZ - When & why did you decide to move to Egypt?
VL - I had been living and dancing in New York City for 8 years.  Over that time, I worked with many Egyptian musicians and business owners who encouraged me to try to make a career in Egypt.  Also, I had the opportunity to take workshops with many Egyptian stars.   
My mentor, Gamila El Masri (of New York City), as well as my first teacher, Miabella (of Ft. Worth, TX) were both huge supporters of workshops and dance seminars.  Gamila made sure that I took classes with Mahmoud Reda, Farida Fahmy, Hassan Afifi, Aida Nour, Raquia Hassan, Dr. Mo Geddawi, and other reputable coaches.  
 I remember when Gamila gave me a video (this is before Youtube existed!) of the Reda Troupe. “Watch, and learn”, she said. She was tough on me, but that was because she knew I had potential, and she wanted me to be successful.   And I thank her for that.  If it weren’t for Gamila, I probably never would have gone to Egypt. 
 The year I really decided to go was in 2007, when Randa had some kind words of encouragement for me. Another person who influenced my decision was Dr. Mo Geddawi.  He said to me (and this was after taking workshops with him over the span of a few years) “Vanessa, you of all people! If you care so much about this dance, then why don’t you go to Egypt, so that you can really understand it?”  That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to say.  
 I moved to Egypt the following summer, in June 2008.

Sometimes, I feel like I am working for free,
and all my money goes back into the group.
It is a business.  It can be stressful.  But it is also rewarding.
I have been so lucky and blessed to have had this experience.
I have met and worked with many wonderful people,
and I have learned many things.

IZ - How was it like to work with Hassan Afifi?
VL - I was extremely honored and lucky to get to work with Mr. Afifi.  He has done so many things for the dance, and worked for so many years with so many wonderful and talented people.  Getting to work with him really made me feel like I had arrived in Egypt!  One day, I remember speaking with Mona Said over the phone while we were in rehearsals, and she asked for me to tell Mr. Afifi about her.  It really solidified to me just how many people knew and respected him.  I felt like I was really part of something special.
Mr. Afifi is such a character!  He is always wearing a hat—I  have never seen him without one on!   The first time I met him was in NYC in 2006.  Yousry Sheriff was hosting him for one of his famous week-long summer intensive workshops. It was such a great time!  One of the dances that we did was using a chair as a prop.  We danced around it, danced on the chair, and even jumped off of it! Let’s just say it was a really good workout!!!
 Never in my wildest dreams, would I have guessed, that two years later, I would be working with Mr. Afifi in Egypt! And to top it all off, in the show, there was a dance with a chair!  Not the exact same choreography, but at least I felt like I knew what I was doing when he taught it to us!  It was as if the workshop in 2006 was a mini-training for what was to come…

photo - Melad Nasif

IZ - Did you have any adaptation problems with the Egyptian culture? 
VL - This question is a tough one, because there are so many topics and facets to the Egyptian and Middle-Eastern cultures.  In general, I like many things about the Egyptian culture: the people, the food, the music, and especially the dance!
The profession of “dancer” is looked at differently in various parts of the world.  Unfortunately, here in Egypt the majority of the public do not have the highest respect for those who choose to dance.  Even if they like to see a dancer, they sure wouldn’t want their wife, sister or daughter doing it in public for money!  Sure, there are exceptions to that, but more often than not, there is a veil of judgment that may or may not be intentional.
 Some parts of the culture are in conflict with themselves…for example, the music is such an important and prevalent part of the culture (you can’t get away from it—even when you want a little peace and quiet!!!), but the dancing which goes along with it is not always respected as an equivalent art-form.
It is hard for me to see that there are many dancers who are ashamed to be associated with the dance itself. Many of them are forced to hide the fact that they are dancing from their friends and families!  It makes me sad that there are talented people who will never get to share their passion or hobby with others, because their families or spouse may not allow them to dance in public.
Fortunately, my family has always supported me every step of the way.  I never realized just how lucky I was until I saw that many girls do not get the same type of support from their loved ones.
As a foreigner, I am already looked upon differently, and judged differently than an Egyptian girl would be judged for dancing.  This is perhaps not fair, but this is the reality.  So perhaps people do not look down on me for dancing, but they are all curious to see if I really CAN dance! Ah, the irony….
There are some non-dance-related topics that I have been challenged by since my arrival to Egypt.  I would like to see more awareness with women’s rights, domestic violence issues, and the importance of education.  Egypt is a beautiful country, and many of the people are very kind and fair.  The people have been more concerned with feeding their families than other things, and I understand that it will take a while for things to change.  Hopefully, things will get better for the people.  It will probably take a while, and it makes me sad to think that there are some still struggling with these issues. 
The main point is, I am living and working in a different country than where I grew up.  It does not matter how many years I have lived here, little things will always come up, and that’s the way it goes.   I try to be respectful of certain rules, and I am always having to check myself to make sure that I am not offending anyone!  I can say something rude without even realizing it!  (Especially since my Arabic is far from correct!) So in that respect, I am still adapting…it is a learning process.  I do understand what Dr. Mo meant when he said that I should come to Egypt to understand the dance more.  He was right.  Spending time in this country has been such a wonderful, educational, and enriching experience for me.  

photo - Melad Nasif

IZ - Did you have a time you thought you couldn't keep working?
VL - Of course, over the last four years, there were several times when I thought I could not keep working, or stay here.  One of the first times was about four months after I had been in Cairo, before my Luxor contract.  I’m so glad I stuck it out and didn’t give up.  Another time was during and after the revolution.  Obviously, the work had disappeared, and everyone was worried about how safe it was to live in Egypt at that time.  My parents definitely wanted me to come home, but I decided to stay in Sharm, as it was still safe to be there, and even though there were many cancellations, I still had some work.  Again, I am glad that I stayed during this trying time.  The tourists came back, and the work gradually got back to normal again.
In general, it is a challenge to live and work in a foreign country.  The system is different here, and it always takes time to adjust to the way things are.  There were some very difficult times, but these issues would pass, and I feel that I have always come out stronger (if not wiser…!) in the end.
The work can be physically demanding.  It is not always as glamorous as some make it out to be. It is work.  I love my work, and I am not complaining, but we are human beings, and sometimes you don’t feel well, but you can’t cancel your show.  In some hotels, I can find a replacement, but not all hotels allow or appreciate this.  Cancelling a show that has been sold to the guests is not an option.

"If I’m the owner of the group, 
and I am helping the girls to wash the Falahy costumes,
 then I don’t need some stuck-up girl acting
 like she can’t sew the hooks on her own costume!!!! 
Do you know what I mean?!? "

Mentally, the work can be tricky also.  I am dealing with so many types of people in different hotels.  Not only am I an artist, but I am also a manager/agent, so I get to hear the comments coming from everyone!  This is something that most dancers deal with (the opinions of people) but because I am doing two types of work, I get double duty when it comes to public relations.  Sometimes I get a comment about something ridiculous, like, the shoes another dancer was wearing!  Sometimes I feel that the managers look for something to say, and if they can’t say anything about her dancing, her costume, her body, her perfume, her music choice, her makeup, her personality, then I guess the shoes are the last thing they could think of!!! I just take a lot of the comments in stride…I used to let every little thing worry me, but now I don’t have time for that kind of stuff.  If they want me, or my show, great.  If not, fine.  I have worked very hard to get where I am now, and I don’t stress the small stuff.
Over the last few years, I have dealt with hundreds of managers and event planners who have their very own special outlooks and opinions. 


(Once, I even had a nightclub manager offer to make a rehearsal with me to help with my dancing!  And you know what, he had a few good moves!  I still make a joke and pull out one of his steps every now and then for my own personal amusement!) Musicians are another topic.  God bless them! We need them of course, but as a foreigner, I really had to prove to them that I understood the music, and the rhythms, and I know when they get lazy and don’t add the extra accents that should be there.  One time, a certain musician thought he would teach me a lesson (during my show) and decided to play the full version of Alf Leyla Wa Leyla, instead of the cut version which we had agreed upon.  After he realized that I knew the entire song as well as he did, he never again argued or said anything to me.  I had earned his respect, and the rest of the band thought he was a total jerk for trying to make a fool out of me, which of course back-fired, and he was the one looking foolish.  Now, I don’t have to prove myself to the musicians and the managers.  But it took time, as everything does…

“The negative effect that has still lingered is due to the greedy under-cutters.
They have ruined our market.  They killed all the efforts
we had made to have a standard for fair pay.
Their greed and lack of respect for themselves and our art and our
work has brought the pay rates down, and it has been absolute hell
trying to convince the hotels that it is time for it to go back up.
Shame on the people who did this! They do not deserve to be working at all!”

Another group of people I had to prove myself to were the local dancers here.  They, of course, and understandably so, were curious about who I was, and what I was doing on their turf!  I would be lying if I said they were all nice to me. Of course they were not comfortable with a foreigner coming in and taking work in some of the best hotels.  Some really tried to make problems for me.  Within my first month in Sharm El Sheikh, I had someone anonymously call the secret police to report that a foreigner was working illegally.  Well, what these people did not realize was that I did have papers, and not only that, we were in the process of making the company papers, which covered the work for foreigners under the umbrella of my company.  So, not only did the police enjoy my show, but I ended up with a special letter of permission from the manager of the actors union in Sharm! 
Now, I know many Egyptian dancers here.   When I go to the coiffer to get my hair done, I always run into a few dancers I know.  I always try to be polite, because, the world is very small, and I am always hiring extra dancers during the busy seasons, or when I go on holiday.  There are some girls who only work free-lance, but many of them know and like me now, and don’t mind to do a show or two when we call them in the last minute.  What goes around, comes around, and when they are ill, or need help, they know that we can cover the shows for them, and they don’t have to be afraid that I will steal their contract! 

photo - Melad Nasif

 IZ - How did you started working with your own troupe?
VL - When I first came to Sharm, I started working on my own as a free-lance bellydancer.  I did get bookings, but it took time.  As the new kid in town, I did not know who to trust, and I thought it would be better to try to do it on my own without being represented by any specific agent.
 Of course it wasn’t easy…I  spent a lot of money that took years to get back.  In reality, it cost ten times more than I thought it would, and just when things were starting to go well, the revolution happened, and wiped out everything…I spent countless hours of rehearsal with the dancers.  All in all, it is a huge responsibility—daily programs, transport, housing, salaries, replacing dancers, fixing broken props, shoes, repairing costumes, dealing with contracts, making dances for special events, listening to managers talking about things which they don’t even understand, fighting for decent changing rooms, hospital bills when people get injured….  But at least it was mine—my group, with my name, and at least I felt like I was creating something.
Obviously, as a foreigner in Egypt, I needed the help of some Egyptians to get the tax papers, licenses, and all other necessary documents.  I had the help of a few wonderful people.  One is my partner Yasser, and the other was his mentor, the late Mr. Mohamed El Hariri, Artistic Director of the Ministry of Culture dance group in Beni Suef, Egypt.  Mr. Hariri made some of our original dances, and helped bring dancers with whom he had worked with before. After some time, other dancers heard about us and contacted us for work opportunities, and that is how we built the team slowly. We do not advertise—the dancers here all know each other, and they talk about their work experiences with each other.  Everyday, we get phone calls from people wanting work.

photo - Melad Nasid

 IZ - How is to be your own agent in Egypt?
VL - Well it happened for me because the circumstances at the time allowed it to happen.  It is definitely not normal for a working dancer to also be an agent, especially, her own!  And believe me, it also has its drawbacks too!  Being an artist is easier, because all you have to worry about is yourself, and how the people respond to you.   Being an agent can be a pain in the neck! Why? Because all the comments, complaints and suggestions go to me!  If they don’t like a bellydancer, they call me to say not to send her again.  If a boy in the folklore team has an attitude with the DJ, I have to fix the problem! If the musicians are late, or wearing brown shoes, who has to hear about it? ME!!!  But that’s my job.  It isn’t all bad—I do get many good comments, and many “thankyous”, and most of the people are respectful. But at the end of the day, I am providing housing for over 20 people, and paying salaries.  Sometimes, I feel like I am working for free, and all my money goes back into the group.  It is a business.  It can be stressful.  But it is also rewarding.  I have been so lucky and blessed to have had this experience.  I have met and worked with many wonderful people, and I have learned many things.

IZ - What changed for you after the Revolution?
VL - After the revolution, the business crashed.  All the tourists were leaving, and shows were being cancelled left and right.  All the hotels were cutting costs, sending employees on holiday, closing restaurants, and, of course cutting the entertainment, as there were no guests to entertain.
Fortunately, because we worked in very reputable hotels, we did still have some work, but it was cut drastically.  When all of this started to happen, many production companies were forced to stop, unless they wanted to lose more money paying a large staff, with no work to support their costs.  This is when many other agents and dancers got to be quite desperate, and the under-cutting got to be completely out of control. Some people were practically working for food! Or FREE! It was horrible—all the hotels wanted to pay less. And because they could always find people for a lower price, we had to make sure that we kept our jobs by giving the best quality and offering temporary discounted rates. 
We were lucky here that there were very few demonstrations, and hardly any problems as far as safety was concerned.  Because Sharm is a tourist resort area, the security has always been very strong, and also because many of the staff from the hotels were sent home during this time, there were fewer people here to cause a problem.  I never felt unsafe, but it was hard to see Sharm as a temporary ghost town—no planes landing with tourists, nobody on the streets, nobody in the hotels, nobody on the beach, nobody in the discos.  No tourists—no work.
Now, almost a year - and a half later, things have gotten back to normal—almost.  Sharm is full with guests, hotels are busy, and our schedule is full.  The negative effect that has still lingered is due to the greedy under-cutters.  They have ruined our market.  They killed all the efforts we had made to have a standard for fair pay.  Their greed and lack of respect for themselves and our art and our work has brought the pay rates down, and it has been absolute hell trying to convince the hotels that it is time for it to go back up.  Shame on the people who did this! They do not deserve to be working at all!

photo - Melad Nasif

IZ - You have contract with the top of 5 stars hotels in Sharm el Sheikh. Is it hard to strike balance between the 'commercial' and an artistic show?
VL - Generally speaking, I dance and work how I want. If they hire Vanessa, then that means that I will do it my way.  Sure, if I am dancing for an Egyptian/Arab audience, I will make sure to include favorite musical selections which they will appreciate and be happy to hear.  That goes without saying.  If I am doing a special party, or if I am dancing for foreigners, I will cater to the needs of the special event or demographic.  This is just common sense.  But I am Vanessa no matter what, and I dance what I feel, and that is the only way I know how to do it.  Sure, when filming a video clip, you may be dancing to music that you don’t feel you would actually dance to in a show setting, or the director wants lots of spins for a visual effect, and I wouldn’t usually do that in the music…but that’s the way it goes.  Even actors have to react in a way that the director tells them to, but they still put their own stamp on it.  That’s how I feel. 
In the beginning, I wanted everyone to like me, and I was trying to prove myself to a lot of people.  But at the end of the day, I can’t look like someone trying to dance like someone else.  I can’t be Fifi, I can’t be Nagwa, I can’t be Randa, I can’t be anyone else but me.  I love what I do, and I hope that when I share my love with the people, that they will love me back.  That’s all anyone can hope for.

photo - Melad Nasif

IZ - How do you make the auditions for your troupe? Do you have preferences for foreign dancers?
VL - Well, usually dancers find me.  I have been very lucky that way.  If they are here in Egypt already, they will come to do an audition, or join a rehearsal, and I see how they are doing, and if they would be compatible with my team.  The most important things to me are attitude and work ethic.  I have turned away dancers who were very good, but had a horrible attitude.  If a dancer makes a problem with the other dancers, then it will not work.  We are like a family.  Of course arguments and mis-understandings can happen, but I need people who can work and deal with other people.  No divas here!  If I’m the owner of the group, and I am helping the girls to wash the Falahy costumes, then I don’t need some stuck-up girl acting like she can’t sew the hooks on her own costume!!!! Do you know what I mean?!?
I can’t say that I prefer foreigners over Egyptians.  Some dancers are better suited for different work. I just prefer dancers who have a professional work attitude, and know how to do their job.  Because we are in Egypt, it would be silly to offer Egyptian Folklore without any Egyptians!! Of course, now that we have an International Dance Show, the foreign girls come in handy, as many of them have a broader spectrum of dance training and experience.  Our rep includes Samba, Jazz, Musical Theatre, Spanish, Indian, Oriental, and other specialty dances.  I just want dancers who can learn the dances quickly and maintain a high level of professionalism. It’s pretty simple. 
Currently, all the boys in my dance teams are Egyptian, and the girls are a mix of Egyptian and foreign.  For those dancers who are interested to be considered for future work, you can send me several different videos or youtube links, pictures, and CV including references, training, and work experience. It is also good to mention any special skills such as acrobatics, fire, and props.
We are always looking for new talent, and we always need more people during the holiday seasons.
 Many bellydancers have contacted me to ask about my experience here in Egypt.  They are curious as to how I was able to successfully work here.  I really have to say that it was supposed to happen.  It was against many odds, and there were many challenges along the way. Of course there is corruption in this business. I have seen it first-hand. Some managers may want girls, or extra commissions.  This has been going on since the beginning of time.   That is not all it is, however.   One of my dance teachers used to have a very true saying posted on her wall: “Success is when preparation meets opportunity.” Sometimes people get their chance.  Sometimes people are given opportunities, and they rise to the occasion.  I am certainly not the most amazing dancer in the world.  But I love and live to dance.  I like to share the things that I have learned with the people who work with me.  I do not keep anything for myself. There are many fantastic dancers out there.  Some of them may be afraid to try.  Why? If the job opportunities don’t pan out the first time, the worst thing that can happen is that they went to Egypt on a holiday, took classes, and came back home with a little more experience than before.  But sometimes, you get lucky.  I think I did.


Mentally, the work can be tricky also...........
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