Originality & Tradition in Belly Dance: An Interview with Joana Saahirah of Cairo
I recently had the opportunity to interview Joana Saahirah, international performer and instructor. Joana’s dance career has taken her around the globe, including living and working in Egypt for 8 years, performing with her own orchestra. In this interview, we discuss the different views of Raqs Sharqi she has encountered, originality within the confines of a traditional dance style and more.
Mahin: It’s a pleasure to be able to speak with you! You have such a broad and deep experience with oriental dance.
Joana: Thanks for the interview, first of all. It´s always a pleasure to share a bit of my love for oriental dance. Yes, I do – and a very peculiar one. It really gives me a special vision on the dance and the world surrounding it. But the road started way before I ever dreamt about Egyptian dance. I´ve been dancing since I started to walk, then Classical Ballet Conservatory from the age of 5, and other dance styles along the way. Later on, I studied as an actress as the Acting Conservatory. All that gave me the base for my career in Egyptian dance.
M: To start out, can you give us some of your reflections on how Oriental dance as an art form is viewed differently in the East and the West?
J: It´s hard to resume, in a short interview answer but I´ll try to resume the most important points.
First, the East. Egypt specifically, which is what I know best.
Although Oriental dance – Raqs Sharqi or Egyptian dance – is an integral part of Egyptian culture and daily life, it´s not considered an art form. This happens for many reasons. One of them has to do with the fact that dancers, and any woman who exposes herself in public, is not respected. According to Islam, the dominant religion in the country for the last centuries, women should not expose themselves in public in front of men who are not their father, husband or close relatives. Women aren’t supposed to have a voice of their own, aside from their husband’s voice, or rule a group of men (the orchestra, technicians, assistant, etc), in the case of a dancer.
That’s the first reason why Oriental dance is not respected and treated as an art form. In fact, Oriental dance is under the tourism department in Egypt, not the cultural department.
Oriental dance has also been associated with prostitution and there´s a long story and justification for this. The current Cairo market is highly corrupt and it works mostly through favours, prostitution and factors that have little to do with quality, professionalism or talent. This also doesn’t help the dance´s reputation. In the 8 years I´ve performed with my orchestra in Egypt, I had to find 1001 ways to go around the corruption and prostitution market in order to thrive. And deal with prejudice and disrespect in my daily life. Not easy!
Add to these factors the freedom element and you start having an idea of how Oriental dance and dancers are seen. An Oriental dancer is FREE, a woman who expresses herself in public totally and unapologetically – body, mind, heart and soul. No limits, no taboos, no fear. That´s revolutionary – in the East and, certainly, still in the West.
Egyptians love and hate their dance, simultaneously. They may come every night to watch their favourite dancer perform but they’d never accept her as a girlfriend, wife, part of the family. She may be a great dancer in their eyes but she’s also shameful, committing “haram” (something forbidden by God).
M: That’s interesting that Oriental dance is under tourism and not culture. When did that shift? Was Mahmoud Reda’s company under the cultural department?
J: Yes, under the tourism department. I was shocked when I realized this as I was shocked with many other things I’ve found out while working in Egypt, Lebanon and Qatar, the 3 countries where I performed, as a solo artist in the Middle East. Mahmoud Reda´s troupe was something completely apart from the Oriental dance scene.
It was, and is, Egyptian folklore. Not Raqs Sharqi. This makes a huge difference in Egyptian minds. It also worked with diplomatic relations, a way of presenting group dances that went according to Islam (not too much body exposure, limitation in movements that may be sexually suggestive and so forth) and it was wrapped in western influences – ballet, tap dance, acrobatics, all of Mahmoud´s influences. That, and the time it happened, a time of nationalism and particular pride in everything Egyptian helped the troupe.
The genius of Mahmoud, the dancers, the composers who worked with the troupe and overall vision were also essential to Mahmoud Reda´s success. He recovered the raw material – music, dance, dialect, clothing – from different parts of Egypt, folklore people had never seen on a stage, and transformed it into a stage language that communicated the soul and identity of Egypt’s diverse people. Such a feat! Only a genius with a vision and lucky circumstances could make it happen!
The troupe never claimed to present Raqs Sharqi, I repeat. I studied, privately, and worked with Mahmoud Reda during all my years of work in Egypt and it was always clear to me he did folklore, and I did it with him, and what I did was Raqs Sharqi. For him, as for most Egyptians, those are separate things. The folklore deserves respect, for many reasons, while Raqs Sharqi doesn´t.
M: That is an important distinction that is easy to blur from the western point of view. Perhaps because as students of Egyptian dance, we choose to study both Raqs Sharqi and folklore as part of our dance exploration. They are much closer to each other in our perception. Not so in the minds of Egyptians, as you noted.
Tell us how you have seen and experienced the western view of Raqs Sharqi/Oriental dance in your travels.
J: In the West, the scene is different but the prejudices also exist. We’re not free from prejudice. Even the most intelligent, well educated, travelled, open minded people will usually associate Oriental dance with odalisques, sultans and seduction. The idea of an art form, or the possibility of practicing Oriental dance as an art form and not as an exotic dance made of contortions and seductive poses, is still new to the mainstream audiences.
Nonetheless, the West has brought dignity, method, structure and professionalism to Oriental Dance. No doubt about it. We miss loads of important points regarding Egyptian dance and culture but there’s a serious, honest, loving effort to dignify the dance.
You can see that by observing all the amazing festivals happening around the world, inviting artists and teachers like me and other professionals from Egypt, really trying to make a difference.
There´s a trend I call “Clone Machine Factory” where people are trained to look, act, think and dance like their teachers – something that goes totally against Egyptian Dance – and there are trends that have little, or nothing, to do with the REAL thing but mostly, I’m optimistic. The West tries, at least tries, to elevate the dance. Each person I meet in my work trips – organizer, student, audience – loves and respects the dance. I´ve never met anyone in the West, especially in the international events circuit, who wasn´t doing their best to develop and dignify Oriental dance as an art form.
M: Do you think some of the West’s respect and willingness to view Raqs Sharqi as an art has benefitted the dance in Egypt in some way? If so, how?
J: In some way, perhaps. Nowadays, Egyptian dancers work more outside of Egypt than in Egypt. I don’t mean the lower class dancers who cannot get a lucky strike with the Oriental dance mafia in Cairo, but the ones who can. By working more outside of Egypt than there, they’re exposed to the West´s ideas about dance, professionalism and respect. I believe that influences those dancers but only until a certain point. How they act in Egypt and abroad may be quite different.
Otherwise, I don’t think the West´s respect for this dance has changed the dance in Egypt. It´s a world apart, with its own rules, spoken and unspoken prejudices and magic.
M: In dance, as in any art, there is a tendency to be influenced by what is popular or successful. Sometimes it’s a subtle style influence out of admiration, sometimes it’s so strong it feels like mimicry. Can you give us your thoughts on individual style – where we stay in the realm of what is “real” Raqs Sharqi (if there is such a definition) and where a dancer’s personality can take them with their own expression?
J: There´s a compromise to be made and I refuse it. Adaptation, yes. Expansion/growth, for sure. Compromising what I know is authentic Egyptian dance for the current trends, NO! I´ll never do that. It would mean the end of my love for the dance. Discarding all I’ve learned in years of study in Egypt and, later, years of career and life in order to please current lobbies and tendencies- no way!
It´s hard to keep the essence of the dance intact while being a commercially successful dancer in a market that knows little about the dance.
Being influenced by other dancers, teachers, people we admire – no problem. Working to be their copy – NO. That´s what´s happening these days. Some of the most commercially appealing dancers of the West know little about Egyptian dance. But somehow, it becomes established, I know know by whom, that´s Oriental Dance when it´s not. People follow it blindly. They lack the resources, real information and criteria to recognize what´s fake and what’s the real thing.
Individuality is at the CORE of Egyptian dance. Nonetheless, most teachers I know don’t develop it in their students.
Knowing the language of Egyptian Dance in depth – because it is a language! – is essential; gathering information, training, reliable education by the ones who actually know the craft. All that is super important. Nonetheless, all that exterior data must be combined/coordinated with personal exploration, perspective, individual input on the music and dance. Oriental dancers should be individuals – unique, with their own vision and sensibility -, not dolls who mimic other dolls. Real human beings, with a body, mind, heart and soul of their own, interpreting the music, using all the data they´ve gathered from teachers and other exterior sources WHILE DISCOVERING THEIR LANGUAGE WITHIN THE LANGUAGE OF EGYPTIAN DANCE.
Teachers have the obligation to educate and empower students to grow into their own selves. I believe in this with all my heart.It doesn’t serve my marketing, in the sense that I don´t allow my students to become Joana Saahirah´s copies; I train them to be free, independent from me, totally themselves. But it serves the Art. And I´m a servant of the Art.
Information without an individual voice isn’t Egyptian Dance. As a famous theatre teacher, Konstantin Stanislavzki, once said: “actors study technique so they can be free from technique; so they can forget technique.” The same applies to Oriental Dancers. We absorb information, train ourselves and work hard so we can be free from all that luggage and express, simply and totally, our full selves. It takes a Master Teacher to understand this and put it into practice.
M: The author Todd Henry, writes about creative development and its phases. It starts with discovery – generally becoming aware of a new interest or art. It proceeds to emulation – learning by copying the masters.Then divergence – being dissatisfied by being a copy and evolving your own style – making your unique contribution to your art. Do you see the mimicry as a step, but one that many dancers have not moved past in their own development?
J: Yes. The problem is most dancers get stuck, forever and ever, at the second phase – the copying/emulating phase. They’re never invited to jump out of that box and find themselves. That´s the problem. Copying as part of the learning process is natural – we do so while learning how to read or write. But, then, if you wish to write your own stuff, you gotta give up those copies, put them behind, appreciate their influence and purpose but, ultimately, find your own voice.
Getting stuck into the copy phase and not being empowered to get out of there – that´s one of the biggest issues in today’s dance scene around the world. The teachers are to blame but there’s more: not everyone wants to get out of the box and find their own voice. Building your language within the language you learn from your teachers requires passion, consistent work, trials, errors and bliss and, the most scary part, the risk of exposing ourselves and not being accepted.
While you’re repeating your teacher´s moves, it´s THEIR moves, not yours. Your teacher, not you, is on the table. If people like it, it’s the teacher’s compliment; if they don’t, it’s the teacher’s fault. Not yours. There´s a lot of people who still prefer the safe shortcut which copying brings but my experience, in work around the world and in my online courses, is that more and more dancers are tired of being puppets and really want to find themselves in the dance. The result is gorgeous. I´m always amazed at the beauty, originality and soul that pours out of dancers when I guide them and empower them to find their own way within the dance. It’s beyond gorgeous and it makes me immensely proud of them. Human beings are so much more interesting, and unique, than we usually think.
M: In the interest of completeness to Todd Henry’s work – he also describes a fourth phase- crisis. Where an artist finds themselves “protecting” the style they are known for and have had success with and not continuing to evolve their personal style. This leads to a new cycle of discovery. Can you identify with that fourth phase personally in your own work?
J: That crisis phase makes perfect sense. I can recognize myself in it and I guess everyone who’s been in the dance field for a consistent amount of time will find it continuously.
There´s a base, a core that I never changed from the moment I fully remembered it in Egypt. It happened with Souhair Zaki and a certain number of classes I took with her before I moved to Egypt. That core has never been shaken or changed inside of me – the conviction that Egyptian Dance is the language of the soul, movements pouring directly from the heart, freedom exercised with an open mind and the willingness to expand. This has never changed or went through a crisis. Even the darkest side of the dance, which I’ve witnessed, first hand in Egypt could not shake that core.
But we must evolve, question, expand, adapt our art to our own growth as human beings and the world around us. And trying new roads, new ways of doing things. For sure. Always.
Reinvention is essential for a long term relationship with this dance. Especially if you’re a professional.
The creation of my first published book – “The Secrets of Egypt – Dance, Life & Beyond” – and, now, my new school – Joana Saahirah´s Online Dance School operated by Powhow – were two obvious out of the box leaps of faith. Two challenging ways to share the core of Egyptian dance. But there are many other ways. And there´s also the crisis that throws us into the question: why am I still doing this? Why should I continue? Those questions/crisis modes are essential.
M: Can you suggest some ways that dancers can check in with themselves and their work about whether they are stuck in an emulation phase? Questions they can ask of themselves to be more self-aware?
J: Checking in, to make sure we’re in this for the right reasons, is essential.
One thing I can share – respect your teacher(s) while exploring yourself, your movements, your way to reacting to the music. I believe the meaning of what I just said will be obvious to every dancer. Go to your dance studio, or similar, and combine your teacher´s information with periods of self-exploration. There are many ways to do that. Once again, you´ll have to join one of my workshops, or online classes, to know why and how.
It´s not a question of getting to a point when you should be asking yourself certain questions. Students should be empowered to explore, and know themselves, from the beginning till the end of their education which, by the way, never ends.
It´s a continuous work, not something you do from a certain point. Creating your own style may start to arise when you have gathered a considerable amount of information and practice but the training to do so starts in the first class, in the ABC. I believe in that. Even if I’m dealing with a beginner, I´ll suggest she/he reinvents a certain movement, explores a specific part of her/his body and so on. I know it will take time, and different phases, for this person to fly on her own but I prepare her/his wings from the beginning so, when the time comes, she/he won´t be afraid to jump.
M: Joana, thank you so much for your time and sharing your views on Egyptian dance and what you’ve learned in your career. It’s been a pleasure!
J: You’re most welcome, dear. I hope the interview informs and inspires many dancers.
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