“Freedom to a dancer means discipline. That is what technique is for liberation.”
Ever since I met you and saw you dance with Sandra’s students in California, I saw in you a dancer of a different profile. Later you came to Silicon Valley on vacation, and we met over coffee to chat about Oriental dance, its music, its instructors, the dancers, and this whole magical world which attracts both of us so much. In your case, you bring us an air of Spain, which of course has a different style from that of the dancers in the United States. Nevertheless, it is a special world which unites all of us who are cultivating these dances from different parts of the world. Like you, I admire the theater that fills this art, which every day gains more followers and admirers who practice it with tenacity and love, as you and I do.
You are one of its cultivators, and I have seen you dance not only in Sandra’s classes in California, but also in your YouTube videos, and I felt attracted by your dance style and personality. I am fascinated by two of the teachers you study with in Spain, specifically in Madrid: Nesma and Ana Saeeda. They are both fantastic and I recognize them and their styles in your dancing.
It is wonderful to be able to interview you using the technology we have available these days, as in certain cases we will be able to watch videos of you and of the great figures of dance we have named here, and perhaps of many others.
Your path as a dancer is very interesting, just as your path as an academic is also interesting and remarkable.
One of the most significant attractions of many dancers is not merely their professional portfolio as cultivators of these dances, but their academic portfolio, which every one of us has built in addition to our dance experience. Based on these two lives, as disparate as they are similar, as art and the talent to achieve it exist in both, I have asked you for this interview, which will be conducted via Skype between California and Madrid, Spain. Thank you for lending me your time and for unveiling for me the mystery in the dancer you are and in the academic who lives in you…
Thank you for your very sweet words. It is an honor for me to participate in this project, and I hope my answers will be of use to you.
Why did you choose to dance belly dance and not other types of dance?
The thing that first brought my attention to belly dance was the music and not the dance itself, as I knew nothing about Oriental dance, and I had never seen it performed before I went to my first classes. I had some cds of Turkish music at home, which some Turkish friends had given me, and I loved the music. Every time I heard it I wanted to dance to it, but I didn’t know how. One summer, when I wanted to try a new activity, I decided to go to belly dance classes, and that’s how I fell in love with the dance.
What does this dance mean to you, and what do Middle Eastern music and Oriental and Cabaret styles of dance mean to you? What is the difference between them?
The answer to that question is very long. I will try to give you a shortened version, but please forgive me if I don’t succeed.
First, what does this dance mean to me?
This dance is life for me – I can’t imagine living without it – my life would be very sad and poor. This dance fills me with happiness, it lets me express my deepest feelings (as with all art), and it lets me connect with other people. Besides this, it is a very special dance, because it is a dance which highlights women. The subject of feminism and the position of women in the modern world, whether in the West or the East, is a very complicated and difficult matter, but I have seen how this dance changes the lives of women who engage in it and also how it touches the lives of those who receive it from the audience. It gives women strength and lets them feel more comfortable with themselves, which is very important in the world we live in today.
Second – the music.
The music of the Middle East is very expressive, rich, and enchanting. It places a lot of importance on feeling and on improvisation, and the dance follows it in this respect. Further, as the music is so complex with its huge range of rhythms and maqamat (1), it can express many different things, and this works very well for the dance. I never get tired of the music. And the world of the Middle East is so large that there still remains much for me to discover.
Third – Oriental vs. Cabaret Dance
This is the difficult part, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to give a complete answer, because I don’t think that anybody can define exactly what Oriental dance is, what Cabaret is, etc. In fact, I would say that Cabaret is one style of Oriental dancing among many, and so it has much in common with other types of Oriental dance; however, in general, I see Cabaret as a dance that is directed mostly at entertaining the audience. I don’t mean that it can’t be used to express emotions as well, but entertaining the audience is generally the first priority. For this reason, the dance uses lots of full-body movements and exciting moves which impress the audience.
When was the first time you saw belly dance, and who was performing? Did it have a big impact on you?
The first time was with my teacher, but I can’t say it had a big impact on me because while I was watching her dance, I was there in class trying to follow her movements, which was quite difficult for me at the beginning!
There were two performances that had a big impact on me when I was just starting to dance, which made me want to keep studying and learning more about the dance. The first was the DVD of the Bellydance Superstars performing in Paris. An incredible performance. I had never seen anything like it: so many beautiful women and dances, so different from what is usually called beautiful here. It was like discovering another world – another level of beauty. I wanted to be like those women. And coincidentally, after several years of dancing, I came to Spain and began to study with one of the dancers who had appeared in that performance: Ana Saeeda!
The second performance that had a big impact on me was Suhaila Salimpour’s performance at the Rakkasah Festival in California. She brought her whole band to the show; the band was on the stage for about half an hour warming up before she even came out. I had no idea what was going on! But when she finally appeared, what a woman!! What power!! That was true dancing. She knew how to connect with the audience, she had so much strength, so much joy. You could tell she was having a great time on the stage. That performance inspired me a lot.
What do you feel when you dance?
It depends on the music and also on how I’m feeling that day (although music is great for changing how you feel). Often I feel pure joy, but other songs make me feel other emotions: sadness, loneliness, love, power… With this dance you can feel everything!!
Through this dance you bring out all the artistic and creative feelings you carry inside. Are you another person onstage?
I am another person and I am myself at the same time. It’s like being a purer, more distilled version of myself. And, as with all art, you have to be authentic. Art must be authentic so that your deepest feelings can reach the public.
Do you feel fulfilled when you’re dancing? Do you feel you have neither a lack nor an excess of anything while you’re dancing?
Well, I never thought of it that way, but yes, when I’m dancing I don’t lack for anything. But that’s like doing anything that you love, isn’t it? When you’re really involved in it, you don’t think of anything else. You don’t have time!
Would you say there exists a spirituality in these dances which transports you to other dimensions when you dance, or is it work for you and nothing more?
Work and nothing more – that would be awful. If it were like that, I would find another way to live – it’s difficult enough to make a living dancing… Yes, there is a spiritual element in these dances; I think it’s something that is more accepted here in Spain than in the U.S., or at least where we live, in Silicon Valley. In general, Americans are quite practical; the culture doesn’t grant a lot of room to the spirit, and most people don’t want to admit that certain things can transport them to other dimensions. That’s why we need artists in this world. I read something in an interview with a Sudanese painter, Musa Khalifa, that really resonated with me. He was speaking of a painting he wanted to create, and he said: “The painting I am dreaming of speaks to the universe, with universal words, seeking a self balance… It should speak to every person’s desire to dip into the sun, to feel the real flame, to feel the burning… Our role is to call out to each person to feel the sun in him.”
Personally, I believe that these dances are a walking meditation. Do you agree with me in this spiritual, mystical approach?
Completely. Yes, they are a meditation, a therapy, everything!! Often I won’t feel very well, I’ll be tired or something else is wrong, and I think about not going to class, but in the end I always go, and I always feel amazing afterwards. I forget about everything, and I know I’m not the only one like this. Dance can cure everything (or almost everything).
Do you feel a mystical feeling while you are dancing?
I don’t know if I would define it as mystical. There is the feeling of art, of the universe, which is in everything if we look for it. Dance helps you find that, but it isn’t the only way.
Do you feel that the drum has a magical sound that invites you to dance? It is a primitive music for human beings, the doom doom dum takatak tak. It was our first music and our heartbeat in our mothers’ stomachs.
Yes, certainly rhythm invites people to dance. It’s very difficult to listen to a rhythm without moving at least a little bit. And yes, it is related to the rhythms of the body, especially those of the heart. Rhythm is a fundamental part of Oriental dances and it plays a much more important role there than in many Western dances, which don’t use nearly as many nor as varied rhythms.
Which instrument entices you most to dance and why?
There are two instruments that speak directly to my heart and that I prefer to dance to: the accordion and the violin. The accordion is a ‘common’ instrument - an instrument of the people – and I love it. For me, it expresses the deepest feelings of the soul (when it is played well). I love balady songs and other accordion music.
The violin also gets directly at my heart. They say it’s the instrument most similar to the human voice, and because of this, it can express things other instruments cannot express so easily.
Do you feel that you can express yourself fully when you dance? Does your body communicate what you feel to the audience?
Fully no – that’s why I need to work every day on refining my technique. I am constantly working to improve it. The body is the tool we use to express ourselves, and technique goes hand-in-hand with feeling. But in the end, you never know how the audience will react to your dancing, just like with speaking or other forms of communication. All you can do is try to express yourself in the clearest, most honest manner, so that your ideas and feelings will reach others. Then they will interpret them as they are feeling, or as they like.
Do you enter into a sort of trance while you’re dancing and does the mere act of dancing place you in another dimension?
I wouldn’t say it’s a trance. I am here in this world, but of course it’s another psychological and spiritual state.
Which dances or styles do you like most: Turkish, Egyptian, Moroccan or others?
I adore the Egyptian style, which is pure feeling. I like it because it places full importance on being authentic, on connecting with the audience, and on connecting with the music. However, I also like other styles like Turkish, Lebanese, etc. I really like Romany dancing from Turkey. It’s quite different from Oriental dancing – very powerful and also fun.
What is your style?
A difficult question. In general, I identify with the Egyptian style, but I don’t try to dance like such-and-such dancer. I try to use what I’ve learned from all the teachers I’ve had, and of course it must go with the music I’m dancing to. If the music is Shaabi, then I’ll dance Shaabi style; if it’s Saidi, Saidi style – you have to dance what the music dictates to you.
Do you believe it’s important to practice other dances or disciplines, such as ballet, yoga, zumba, pilates or others in order to achieve more perfection as a belly dancer?
Good question, and the answer is yes, definitely! If you want to perfect your dance, belly dance classes alone cannot give you everything you need. Nearly all the great dancers have studied other types of dance, like ballet, ballroom, etc. Ballet is great for all kinds of dancing because it gives you the technical base you need to control your body and to allow it to express what you want to express.
Besides this, being familiar with other types of dance can enrich your dancing, as do other types of art and in fact almost everything – traveling, nature… It’s important to always be open and to learn from everything.
Regarding other physical disciplines, I believe they can also help a lot. Personally, I’m a big fan of yoga. I really enjoy doing it, and I feel like it helps me a lot mentally, spiritually, and of course physically, because it requires lots of strength and flexibility. But everyone needs to find the things they like most. I’m sure that pilates and martial arts are also fantastic. In fact, I’d like to learn some type of martial art.
Who are your favorite dancers, from the past and the present, and what were or are their styles?
I have many! From the past, I adore Naima Akef, not just as a dancer, but also as an actress. I love her films from Egypt’s Golden Age like Tamr Henna and Ahebbak Ya Hassan (I love you Hassan). She has a lovely style; it can be quite athletic and also expressive. I also really like Samia Gamal, whose style is elegant and varied. And later there is Fifi Abdo, whose style is complete balady.
Among present-day dancers, there are quite a few whom I like. The Egyptians like Dina, Randa Kamel and Camelia are incredible. They all have wonderful technique, but they know that technique is only the base. They don’t dance to show off their technique; they make use of their technique to dance. The times I have seen them dance in person have been some of the most wonderful experiences of my dancing life.
I also really like Daria Mitskevich from the Ukraine and Aida from Russia. In general, the Russians and Ukrainians have a very strong style, very spectacular, with nearly unbelievable technique.
Which male dancers are your favorites and what are their styles?
Tito, an Egyptian-style dancer, is one-of-a-kind. I have just been to four workshops with Özgen, a Turkish dancer, and I love his Romany-style dancing. He dances with lots of strength and passion.
Do men make better belly dancers than women?
One is not better than the other; it all depends on the individual. There are fewer male than female dancers, that’s for sure. Besides that, there are different ways of dancing belly dance for men; they can dance in more feminine or more masculine ways, so there’s a lot of possible variation in that.
Do you prefer to dance with live music or with a cd? Which is more comfortable for you?
I have danced very little with live music, but it’s a thousand times better. Cd music is dead. It can be very beautiful, but it will never surprise you; it’s always the same. Live music is completely different. You have the rapport with the musicians, you never know exactly what’s coming. You have more freedom, but you also have to be more attentive.
Where do you buy your belly dance costumes, and who is your favorite designer? Is a belly dancer’s wardrobe very expensive?
Yes, as for being expensive, quite definitely, because you have to dress very very very well. When you dance, you are a character for the audience, and you have to fulfill all the requirements of that character; it’s an important part of the magic the dance creates. Because of this, you need your costumes to be stunning and unique; they should go perfectly with your body and with your dance, in addition to the hair, the make-up, the nails, everything. It’s not easy to deal with all of that – it takes a lot of time and money – but it’s part of the job.
I don’t have a specific favorite designer. I look for high-quality costumes in colors and styles that I like.
Do you dance barefoot or do you wear something on your feet, whether high-heeled shoes, practice shoes, or half slippers? Or perhaps you decorate your feet with jewels? Do you feel it’s necessary to have contact between the Earth and your skin in order to dance?
I normally dance barefoot, but more out of habit than because I need contact with the Earth. But it is very good for your feet to go barefoot.
How do you create your choreographies?
The most important thing is for me to love the music; it must fascinate me. Otherwise it’s very difficult to dance to it, it’s almost impossible to dance to it well, and it’s not worth it to create a choreography.
Once I’ve chosen the music, I listen to it very well, very closely, many times. I take a notebook and I write down the music’s structure, the rhythms, the instruments, how many measures of such-and-such part, whether any parts repeat… so that I can have the whole song written down there, and I can plan it better.
Then I go part by part. Sometimes the moves come to me without my hardly having to think about it, and other times I can be there for days trying to find the right moves for a part. It’s like writing a poem, which I used to do quite a bit. You have a structure which helps you, it gives you a starting point and certain restrictions or definitions, and then you have freedom within that structure.
Do you like to improvise or to dance choreographies?
Both. Actually, I prefer to create the choreography myself as opposed to dancing others’ choreographies, though I do learn a lot from those choreographies, and then I am able to incorporate what I’ve learned into my own choreographies. But when I improvise or create the choreography myself, I can interpret the music in my own way, and I listen to it more closely. Also, I don’t need to always be thinking about which step comes next!
Would you say that when people improvise they use one hemisphere of their brains and when they dance a choreography they use the other hemisphere?
Yes, we certainly use different parts of the brain. If you’re improvising well, you’re probably using the right hemisphere more, that is, the more creative part. In order to dance a choreography, you have to use your memory. That is why I believe that to dance a choreography well, you need a lot of time so that it can really sink into your brain so that later it seems more natural.
Which is more creative, improvising a dance or creating a choreography and later dancing it?
They are both creative, but creating a choreography requires more time and effort. It’s good for the brain.
What do all the dance props mean to you: finger cymbals, a veil or veils, Isis wings, swords, lighted candelabra, snakes, or trays with various items on top, such as a teapot with tea, cups or other things?
I like finger cymbals a lot, and as for the other props, when they are used well, it’s very nice. The problem happens when people start to focus so much on dancing with props that they forget about the true essence of the dance. Props should be used because they help to express something in the music and not because they create a show in and of themselves.
Are you more comfortable dancing by yourself or with a partner, in a trio, or in a group?
By myself. It’s one of the reasons I like belly dance so much.
Competitions: do they make you grow as a dancer?
Up to a certain point yes, but you shouldn’t allow them to make you feel bad. The most important competition is the one you have with yourself.
Are the judges always unbiased or do politics enter into these dances and into national and international competitions?
I think it’s impossible for anyone to be completely unbiased. Everyone has different tastes and in this respect, there’s nothing we can do. But politics shouldn’t play a role in the scores the judges award.
What are your dreams as the professional dancer you already are?
I have many vaguely defined dreams regarding this. One of my personal dreams is to be able to earn my living doing what I love most: dancing, performing, and teaching dance. But beyond that, I would like to be able to dance in a way that moves people, that opens their minds and hearts; I want to be able to transmit all the beauty that exists in the universe of dance and beyond. Natalia Makarova said “To become a ballerina is to bring into ideal balance the physical possibilities of your stubborn, imperfect body with the possibilities of your soul, which as you go through life is continually renewing itself and constantly demanding new expression”.
Achieving that ideal balance is one of my dreams, and as she says, it is a dream that can never be fully achieved, because the soul is constantly changing, as is the body.
Finally, as so many people know nothing about Oriental dance or Middle Eastern cultures, another dream of mine is to open up this world to them and let them see the wonder of this art which arises from those lands.
And to be happy, always!
We have spoken quite a bit, though not enough, about the belly dancer/Oriental dancer, and although we would need more time to speak about this subject and about you, I think it would be good now if you spoke to us about your personal life as a dancer. Who are you, and what are your circumstances? And so we will move on to this. Tell us, what is your real name, if you use a stage name?
I don’t use a stage name. My name is Zoë, and that is the name I use to dance as well.
Where and when, if it’s possible to know the latter, were you born?
I was born in California in 1985.
Who are your parents? When and where were they born?
My mother was born near Chicago in 1949, and my father was born in Los Angeles in 1948.
What are their jobs?
My father is an astrophysicist – a helioseismologist to be precise. He studies the sun. My mother is a computer programmer. My father works at Stanford University, and my Mother works at SLAC, a particle physics research center that is also affiliated with Stanford. Besides this, they both like to sing in operas, which they do regularly as a hobby.
Do you have any brothers or sisters and if so, what do they do, what are their jobs?
I have one older brother. He is a professor of Mathematics at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.
What did you study, why, and where?
I received my Bachelor’s degree in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University. Then I received two Masters degrees in Computational Linguistics from the Universities of Malta and of Groningen in the Netherlands. I studied these subjects because I found it fascinating to examine how people think and how these thoughts are translated (or not) into words.
Is it difficult to become a good belly dancer or Oriental dancer, or is it simpler to obtain other degrees and academic disciplines?
It is the most difficult thing I’ve ever attempted in my life.
Is there a retirement age for dancers, or can one grow old dancing, whether one is a man or a woman? Or perhaps teaching classes or onstage as well?
I don’t believe there is a retirement age for dancers. Especially not in belly dance; it’s a dance for all ages and all people.
Do youth and beauty influence one’s development in these arts?
If you want to perform professionally in restaurants and at parties, yes. Your image is very important, and it would be unrealistic to pretend otherwise. But in order to develop as a dancer or teacher it’s not necessary, especially for being a teacher. In fact, I think the experiences of having danced, learned, and lived for many years are very important in making a good teacher.
What is the importance of the hair and the arms in these dances and why?
The arms frame the movements, and the dancer must know how to use them well. But she must also know how to use the hands well, as they are the most expressive part of the body after the face. It’s not essential to have long hair, but it looks very nice in my opinion, especially when the dancer knows how to use it well.
Did your family object to your being a dancer as your main profession?
No, they have never tried to object to my life. They have always let me do the things I liked most, and they have trusted me, even if they would have preferred me to do something else. I have been very lucky in that respect.
Is there a way for one to obtain a degree of professional dancer? If there is, who awards it?
No, no such degree exists, and I don’t see how one could.
How many years does it take for an ordinary person to become a professional belly dancer?
It depends quite a bit on the previous experience you have, and on the work that you are willing or able to do in order to improve your dancing. If you already have a base in other types of dance, you have an advantage. But there are many things you need to learn or that will help you if you already have experience in them: knowledge of other physical disciplines, knowledge of music, theater, etc. For example, I did not have much experience in any type of dance when I first began, so technique was something I really had to work on, and which I continue to work on. I went to ballet classes, classes of folkloric dance, yoga, I studied anatomy and physiology… But on the other hand, I had already had ten years of performing experience in the theater, and I had lots of musical experience as well. I play the piano and I have sung in different choruses, I used to play the violin… so these are advantages for me. You have to find what you can apply to your own dancing.
Is practicing and dancing these dances a passion or a trend?
A trend, not at all! For me it’s my life’s passion. It took five years for me to realize that dancing was the thing I wanted to do most in my life as a profession and not only as a hobby. Although I would never have imagined I could dedicate myself to this; in my family everyone is an academic, everyone has a PhD. It would have been a natural step for me too, but I recognized that I have another path to follow.
Which countries or country practice the dance most?
In Middle Eastern countries, they practice the dance more as a part of everyday life. When women get together they dance, people dance at parties, weddings, and other celebrations, but most people don’t study dance there as they do in other countries. Professional dancers are stigmatized there, and apart from the big stars and the foreigners, I think the majority of the dancers there do it to earn money and because they have no other options.
And what is your dream as an academic?
Just as before, the most important thing for me is to teach people what I have discovered in my studies and to try to always spread more truth and fewer lies. Though I have very little to do with the academic world these days, I continue to research Middle Eastern dance, music, and culture quite a lot, and in these spheres there is also a lot of false information being passed on, or there is simply a lack of information. So there is a lot of work to be done.
Thank you for answering my questions about such important dances. There is so much to write about them and their performers that I can only thank you for your time and patience in answering them.
Thank you too. It’s been a pleasure to talk about a style of dance so close to my heart.
Note: Maqamat are somewhat like musical scales in the music of the Middle East. Each maqam (singular of maqamat) uses certain notes and brings a different emotion to the listener. For example, some maqamat are sad and others are joyful, or more spiritual, etc.
California – Madrid
Photos: Michael Baxter