Egyptian Dance wasn´t a childhood fascination of mine. I´d never watched an Oriental Dancer, never felt the attraction of the Orient, or sensed a particular call to Egypt.
I was born a dancer and a performer – a very annoying one, I must admit – but far from the Nile shore. At the ripe age of 3, I was improvising performances to my peeps during our nap time while the kindergarten ladies sneaked out for an after- lunch coffee. An absolute need, or compulsion, to create and connect dominated my being.
When I was 5, I started my Classical Ballet Training and I never stopped. A wide range of learning experiences, from guitar playing to afro-jazz dance, from Contemporary Dance to Indian Classical Dance, from Flamenco to Theatre, permeated my upbringing, turning me into an eternal student in search of myself.
Once time to decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life arrived, I decided I'd be an actress. Acting I did until Destiny caught up with me.
It was a lazy- hazy, dreamy Summer evening, the kind Shakespeare wrote about, and I was chilling with friends from the Acting Conservatoire at an Ethnical Dance Festival in the north of Portugal. We were jumping from dance tent to dance tent, trying out steps and flavors from the world, when the sound of a flute made us stop on our tracks and dragged us into a stage surrounded by multi-colored veils and incense smoke.
I knew something ancient, and urgent, had awakened in me; I knew I had to follow that sound and discover where it would take me. I knew, without knowing, Egypt and its ancient wisdom was calling me.
What started as a curiosity soon became an obsession. I read everything there was to read about Egyptian Dance, searched for courses which at the time was scarce, and promptly launched myself into solitary research trips to Egypt where I fell madly, and eternally, in love with the Art of Raks Sharki (aka Egyptian Dance).
There I was, a 21 year old young woman, alone, fueled by madness, traveling down the Nile, digging into the Upper Egypt countryside, diving into the light and the darkness of Cairo; revisiting tombs and walls filed with dancers, musicians, and alchemists; returning to the ruins of Alexandria and its enlightened ghosts. I had one eye in the past and the other in the future – an invisible bridge was under construction, one that will take a life-time to complete.
Soon after that, I left a promising acting career, family and friends, financial security and the safety of my homeland in order to move to Egypt. The goal wasn't to study there, to limit myself to research and the comfortable reality of a tourist – the goal was to become a part of Egypt, to work and live there with and for Egyptians; to learn the language, the culture, the dominant religion and the faiths that lay beneath it, buried under the sand; to bring the Soul of Egypt back home, within me, and to bring myself back to a place my heart recognized as its own.
I found myself as lonely as a human being can be, lost in the city of a thousand minarets, with the highest ambition and the lowest realistic perspectives - as soon as I landed in Cairo, to move there, a law came out forbidding foreign dancers from working as Egyptian Dance performers. It felt like someone had thrown a huge bucket of freezing water over my head. My dream was suddenly pronounced illegal by the Egyptian Government.
I had no idea how to materialize my – now seemingly impossible - dream; I didn´t speak Arabic and had no contacts in the field I wanted to master. I was by myself in one of the most populated iron jungles in the world; a foreign girl, educated, ambitious and free, in a country where women are still treated like second hand citizens whose only skills are to procreate, serve their husbands, and God.
There were endless obstacles, moments of despair and shock; the daily meeting between my dreams and reality was almost too hard to bear.
Well-intentioned advices, begging me to go back to my country, started flooding on my hopeless situation. There wasn´t a single person who´d believed staying, in the conditions I was in, was the right thing to do. Why would I trade a safe, comfortable, known, successful environment by absolute uncertainty and potential dangers I wasn´t prepared to face?
It´s true: I could have quit and returned the safety of my homeland but that wasn´t me, that wasn´t the way I wanted to live my life. If I had a dream, I had to give it my all. If, in the end, I´d fail, I would, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “at least fail while daring greatly”.
There was a pivotal moment, one early morning, when I found myself lying on my living room floor, buried in my tears, awakened by the voice of the “muezzin” that invaded my home with the call for the prayer. My mother, who had accompanied me for the first two weeks of my big move to Cairo, had just left, crying and hopeless, asking why her daughter had turned out to be such a stubborn, irrational, warrior.
She was right. And she was wrong. The leap of faith I´d decided to take, at any cost, was indeed a proof of my madness but there was something in Egypt for me. And that something would make me who I am today.
The floor was freezing, it must have been around 5am, and my mum, the last remnant of my familiar world, was gone. I was officially by myself and at the mercy of fate. Should I quit and save myself from failure, struggle, uncertainty, possible death(s), or should I fight for myself, my dreams, my life?
An empty horizon extended itself in front of me. The room went quiet, despite the invader´s voice who kept calling to “Allah”; I had no idea how I´d survive, much less thrive. But I yelled, and I yelled really loud for the whole country to hear:
The morning I decided my dreams and I were worth it, took me to Oman where I performed for Sultan Qabus, became friends with his personal dance troupe, and was accidently jailed for shutting a sexual harasser up in the street; it took me to my first big dance contract and orchestra in Beirut, Lebanon, and my first invitation from the devil – “you give me your soul, I´ll give you the gold” - and back to Egypt where I hand-picked my musicians from noisy, dark, haxixe&prostitution-filled night-clubs . There I was, at the epicenter of the Egyptian Dance World, rocking storms on a daily basis and turning my dreams into reality. The doubters who once guaranteed I´d never make it suddenly patted my back; the naysayers became fans and the ones who once had turned their back on their dreams became haters. I remained on my track, following my Call.
In six months, after the law which forbade me from working was revoked, I´d learned how to speak Arabic, I´d built my own show, solo-managing a team of musicians, technicians, and assistants, and became the most sought-after dancer in the Egyptian market.
Almost 8 years of uninterrupted success in Egypt went by - I was performing daily with the best musicians in the field and in the most respected venues, filling houses with warm Eastern and Western applauses, and I got my first invitation to teach and perform abroad.
After a few more years of traveling the world to teach, perform & lecture, sharing the Soul of Egyptian Dance, Music, and Culture with audiences and students from every nationality and walk of life; after having created Private Online Coaching Programs that change students´ lives; after Joana Saahirah´s Online Dance School, a pioneering school where only the best is delivered to a community who wants to dance and live full - body, mind, heart, and soul -, after having seen the best and the worst of this blessed (and damned) art form,
I bow in gratitude.
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