I've always wanted to help out and feature all the wonderful and kind dancers I've met throughout the years and this is my small way of doing so. Every now and then, you'll get to read interviews with some of my favorite dancers and people- dancers I believe that will make it far, not just because of their talent but because of their determination and generosity.
I think I first met Daniela in Budapest at Mercedes Nieto's Cairo Festival a few years back. She had this quiet, down to earth energy and was very easy to talk to, and once I saw her dance she immediately became one of my favorite dancers. She was subtle and sweet, and her dancing showed off her sincere personality. She never tries to be something she's not, whether as a dancer or as a person. Here are some questions I had for her:
Meet Zaghareet Daniela...
When & how did you start Middle Eastern Dance? What about MED called out to you the most?
I started attending “open” belly dance classes in my hometown Bratislava in 1998. After that I enrolled into Medical school and wanted to take my studies very seriously, so I dropped all my hobbies. In 2000 I started going to regular classes again at another dance studio. I started teaching three years later.
When I think what about MED called out to me the most I must say that it was not the dance itself at all. I have always been attracted to music from the East, whether it was the ME, India or the far east. I spent six years as a child in Colombo, Sri-Lanka, with my parents, so I guess the love of different cultures, music and art came to me at this time, I grew up with it.
I remember feeling things I have never felt before while listening to Arabic music for the first time. By music I mean quality music, not the disco remix songs with “Arabic background motif”. I didn’t understand why I felt all those strong emotions, until many years later I read an article on the subject of Tarab analyzing the musical scales used in ME music. It stated that Arabic music has a higher potential to stimulate your nerve system to the state of Tarab – definitely I’m the guinea pig proof in this experiment cause it works on me. And of course the article appealed to me as a doctor, too.
So I guess I just wanted to express what I felt while listening to the music. That’s all, I have not seen a real bellydancer before I started taking classes.
Who have been your biggest inspirations & why?
My biggest inspirations – of course there are many wonderful wonderful teachers and dancers I have studied with or have had the privilege to see them dance live over the years. But I guess there is always a “first” that forms your future. For me it was Khaled Mahmoud, the first Egyptian teacher I have ever studied with. He opened a whole new view for me – I found out that you can dance differently than the Western dance studios dictate. That MED is not just a set of movements, but much much more.
Then I think it was Shereen from the Czech republic. The first person whom I have known about to have left her homeland nest and went to dance in Arabic restaurants in London /I was shocked, surprised and admired her so much for this.
So far, what would you say is your greatest accomplishment?
I think there was a process leading up to my greatest accomplishment … first of all I am not a very extroverted person. I was always very shy as a kid. I had a lot of issues when it comes to body consciousness aso, still struggling here and there in my worse days, and I had problems speaking out loud in front of people, I didn’t like people looking at me much, attracting too much attention. MED opened a whole new world for me. I started teaching classes, I started creating choreographies, I danced on stage in a two piece costume! I travel all over Europe and Egypt, I have so many new friends now and got to now a whole new culture! I teach at festivals abroad and managed to dance in Cairo and the Red sea district too. My greatest accomplishment – to embrace a new culture in such a way that I can perform for an Arabic audience without them seeing me as a foreigner.
You recently spent some time living & dancing in Cairo. Tell us about it! What were some of your fears, thoughts, and overall impressions?
Yes, this summer I was lucky enough to have fulfilled my lifelong dream – to dance in Egypt. Unfortunately it was right during the time when millions called for president Morsis resignation at Tahrir square, the Tamarod movement, the coup-theories, Muslim brotherhood “strictly peaceful” sit-ins, theirending aso.. I spent some time in Cairo and moved to Sinai later, then back to Cairo again. Surprisingly, me myself, I was not really afraid of anything although I knew that the situation was not that stable. It was my family and friends back home – fed interesting information from the Western media – convinced right to the bone that there is war in Egypt.
Dancing in Egypt is all about connections, you can of course travel after making a solid contract from your homeland with some animation agency /which will still not really help you when you arrive on the spot and find out that things aren’t exactly as it was stated on the paper J/, but this was not my choice. I went to Cairo and contacted a few friends and dancers I knew that were currently in Egypt /although many were actually leaving Egypt at this time/, I had a few gigs – only small ones – weddings, an offer for a video shooting supposedly for a shaaby-song clip aso.. After this I got an offer to join a folkloric dance troupe in Sinai. They needed more people for the end of Ramadan. So I decided to go. I did folkloric dances with them and solo oriental performances. It varied – in some places – restaurants/hotels asked only for folkloric, sometimes only the tanoura man was performing, sometimes they asked only for a “belly dancer”.
The group I worked with was very nice, young people, mostly married couples, three couples had small children. The interaction between husband and wife was individual – some husbands allowed their wives to do also the “oriental show” when needed, some only allowed their wife to do folklore with the group. Overall the male members were very protective of the females wherever we went, no one was allowed to freely speak to us, or bother us. We were not left alone, always accompanied by our “guide for the evening” – even it be the driver of your microbus for that evening.
Regarding the dance – I learnt the group choreographies at a few rehearsals – one girl showing the steps, usually the whole group was never present so I just had to guess the use of space directly during the performance itself most of the time J. So the rehearsal went by and on the next day, or two days later I was performing the new bit – if I screwed up – they told me that its OK, that I am learning on stage :P. The technique in the folkloric parts was nice, most of the people danced all their life, some being previously in the Reda troupe. The “oriental part” was much much worse – everyone was surprised that in my homeland we go to Belly dance classes and pay to learn this dance :D. There was little or no technique in oriental dance, all was based on watching dancers on El-Tet TV and having a natural feeling for the rhythm and of course – understanding the lyrics of the song.
Some of the group-members came directly from the Shobra district of Cairo and danced amaaaazing Shaaby at a few small birthday celebrations within the group – at least that was how I saw it – they were just having fun and enjoying the moment. My oriental shows were completely in my management – I only got instructions how many costumes changes there will be and how may songs I should choose. They expected of course to see a Mejance in the beginning and Tabla solo at the end.
I’m happy not to have gone to Hurghada or Sharm, where I was in Sinai the majority of the audience was not European, but Arabic. So I got very nice feedback on my dance, the feedback I really wanted – from Arabs.
Fears regarding my stay? Very little – sounds funny, but really. As a foreigner in Egypt you are a bit of an attraction wherever you go, but I didn’t have the feeling I would be in bigger danger than the rest of the general population. Even traveling by the regular bus to Nuweiba /9hr bus-ride from Cairo/, being in a microbus with the rest of the troupe and chased by Bedouin people with guns, being caught half way in the desert at a checkpoint in curfew hours without permission to return back to your home… I never felt afraid, only maybe a bit uneasy here and there. Oh no, wait – I had fear for my dear life while our driver raced through the dusty, unlit roads on the edge of the mountain right above the beautiful Red sea. Egypt had the highest rate of deaths in car accidents in the world.
Egyptian people are in my eyes generally good, only pressed by the political situation and religious up-bringing to react in certain ways, that might not be the best in our Western eyes sometimes. Sadly I have to admit that being a female dancer in Egypt is generally scorned upon. If you are not working for a real institution like the Cairo Opera House for example /although even these women have a question and exclamation mark hanging over their heads many times/ you can be very vulnerable. I have been sent off to Egypt with advice from an Arabic male-dancer dancing currently in Europe: “don’t trust anybody, especially in dance”. Of course I didn’t take the advice thoroughly and put myself in a few risk situations due to my gullible nature.
Overall it is not a good job to be an oriental dancer in Egypt. If you dance professionally for example in ballet, you cannot do oriental in your free time, because the minute your employer would find out that you are doing this, as a female you would get fired. As a paradox, many men dancing at the official institutions are publicly known to work with belly dancers – accompanying her as a group during her Mejance, her Saidi part of the evening routine aso. Generally male dancers are paid much worse that female. Most of the female dancers in Sinai lied to their families about what they are doing and called it “working in tourism”. Many dancers have fake FB accounts not to be connected with dancers. Some of the girls who were from Cairo and came to dance to Sinai for a few months or years, returned back to Cairo wearing a hijab and never admitting they ever danced publicly.
Overall dancing in Egypt was an amazing experience for me. Generally it is meant for the stronger type of dancer, if you don’t want to end up stuck in an animation team in the kiddy corner. Dance in Egypt is strongly stigmatized by questioning the morals of the female dancer and they are very often viewed as “easy women”. So it’s really no dream job at all. It requires to have people or a partner around you who knows what it takes and is familiar with the dance scene itself in order to give you real support. Many people will act supportive just to get a thrill out of getting closer to you and gaining your trust, hoping to get more of who-knows-what later.
I have not even touched the topic of legal/illegal dancing in Egypt, the license issues and my wonderful Mogamma experience – that would require a whole interview by itself. Shortly – you have to know people who know people who know how it goes …
What is something you wish you knew 5 years ago?
That MED is sooo broad and rich and wonderful. Sadly I cannot spend all my time with dance, but I spend time with my medical practice too. I think either one requires life-time commitment. So sometimes I wonder which one to choose. Actually most of the time. Life is so short and fragile! We should live it to the max.
What advice would you give to aspiring professionals?
Work on your own style, dance with passion and love for the dance, not for fame or recognition. Take classes with various teachers. Behave professionally on and off stage. Always stay humble and don’t forget that even you were a beginner once. Be true – don’t forget that this is not only about the dance itself but about a whole culture – study about the background of the dance, understand what you are dancing to. Keep continuously working on yourself – theoretically and practically.
What are your hopes & dreams for the future of Middle Eastern dance?
My wishes regarding the future of MED – I wish the political situation in the Middle East calms down, to let the art flourish again. I wish to see more fantastic dancers directly from the countries of origin of the dance and I would love the people of these countries to be proud of their cultural heritage. In Europe, America and Asia I hope to see teachers respectfully passing on this art form, young dancers respecting the origins of the dance, modernizing it with taste, keeping in touch with the roots. I wish to see more quality festivals, quality competitions with high standards, projects aiming at education not only choreography – but technique, health benefits of the dance, theoretical background.
Are you working on any projects that you would like to share with us?
I would currently like to get involved in an absolutely fantastic project by the wonderful Shereen from the Czech Republic. Save the date – 4th-7th December 2014 for visiting Prague. Shereen is organizing SHRQ – Symposium on Middle Eastern culture – it’s a set of seminars by the most renowned lecturers on the topic – ethnologists, musicologists. You will be able to experience for example Sahra Saeda, Farida Fahmy or Aunt Rocky. I hope to step in as the coordinator of the Slovak participants. It will be an awesome, one of a kind event! I’m looking forward to seeing all professional dancers there and dancers who really care about what we are doing in the field of oriental dance, which we love so much.
In the end I would like to thank you dear Žana for giving me this wonderful opportunity to raise my little voice and say something about my experiences and view regarding MED. I wish you and your readers all the best and many happy moments while dancing.
You're most welcome :)
Photo Credit: Zdenko Vozarik
Like this interview? Feel free to share it!