Beata and Horacio

Partners in Paradox:

Beata Zadou and Horacio Cifuentes

by Shareen El Safy

The rumours were flying—Beata Zadou and Horacio Cifuentes were getting married! Many who knew them individually said it couldn’t last. How would two very accomplished solo artists, independently known for their demanding demeanor, aloof personality and pampered lifestyle, manage two successful careers together? “Who”, it was asked by many, “would get top billing?” Wouldn’t there be a constant struggle between them to assert dominance and maintain control?

Horacio Cifuentes and Beata Zadou

Now, as a guest in their top floor flat in Berlin, I had an opportunity to witness first hand how these two love birds were managing their shared nest. It has been two and a half years since their marriage in Hawaii, and these two are visibly, demonstrably “head over heels in love.” Sitting on an ivory Italian silk brocade couch and sipping champagne, with their luxuriously fat black cat, Mr. Mistoffelees purring in my lap, I had an opportunity to piece together an apparent paradox: my expectations contrasted with the reality of their everyday life. But in order to appreciate this study in contrasts, I needed to know more about my hosts, starting with their formative years as children.

Beata began her dance career memorably. As a small child in a local production, she alerted her family and the world to her, even then strong sense of order and drama, by shouting out stage directions to an unsuspecting cast of young dancers. Her mother, a retired professional dancer, steadily encouraged Beata with her studies, shaping in her an already innate sense of style and elegance. “My mother was a role model. She always dressed elegantly and taught me about makeup and skincare.” Stressing the importance of daily routine and maintenance, which for Beata includes facials, manicures, waxing and of course, workouts and good nutrition, she exhorts, “You have to take good care of your skin and body all the time to look good, not just for a show once a month, but all the time. Things have a way of plopping and rotting, so you have to prevent this as much as you can.”

Beata’s ballet training began when she was five. She continued with her studies until there were disruptions, which included her parents divorce. At thirteen Beata insisted on returning to regular dance training which continued until she was seventeen. Her father, who had served in the German military, was raised to believe that “one doesn’t dance for a living, not for a profession.” Beata was forced to give up dance classes in order to finish school, even though she “was only interested in dance. Everything else was a big bore”.

She studied medicine at the Free University of Berlin, preparing herself to become a physician. “I kept waiting for a feeling of privilege, but I got bigger, heavier, more unhappy and I had ulcers. I needed therapy.” Her therapist suggested she try dancing again. She plunged herself into intensive study which included ballet, tap, jazz, flamenco, modern, choreography and oriental dance at a state approved studio, dancing every day of the week. Slowly she dropped everything else and concentrated on her oriental dance training.

As fate would have it, one day Beata noticed an ad in the paper: “Oriental dance partner needed.” She was hired and began rehearsals with a Turkish choreographer. (Berlin has the largest Turkish population outside of Istanbul and is sometimes called “Little Istanbul” by the many Turkish and Arab expatriates living there.) They prepared for a nationally televised variety show in Berlin’s huge amphitheatre, the Tempodome. Beata’s lucky break came when she was, she says, “as green as the color of my costume…My dancing was not very Oriental, it was more like a berserk ballerina, but the audience response, as I opened my veil, was like a warm shower. Ah! I finally had an identity. I knew what I was. I thought, ‘This is exactly what I want.’ I finally knew.” The year was 1982.

Opportunity knocked again when Beata’s oriental dance teacher relocated to another city and asked Beata to take over her classes. Fearing that her knowledge of the dance was too limited, Beata wrote down every step and combination she knew, working on teaching concepts and class structure. She took every oriental dance seminar within her reach and traveled to those that were not. She studied with Sami, Bert Balladine, and Rakkasah’s yearly extensive workshop offering of teachers. She sponsored Mahmoud Reda in Germany, who helped her understand the structural differences between folkloric and raks al sharqi. She also studied with Ibrahim Farrah. A big “Ah ha” reverberated internally when “Bobby” encouraged her to be wild, passionate, “bitchy” in her interpretation of the music. “He gave me permission to show passion, not to hide, which is so characteristic of Germans, but to let the wild feelings out.” She also studied with Dahlena, watching her sense of pride in her lifted posture and walk. She also studied Egyptian videos and traveled to Cairo to see the performers first hand, “which made a big difference in my understanding of the interpretation of the ‘feeling’ in oriental dance.” While there she took class with Hassan Afifi. Every time she returned from Egypt, she felt she had grown and changed as a person, which was reflected in her presentation of the dance.

To date, Beata has taught and performed throughout Europe, the U.S. and Canada, as well as Australia, the Arab Emirates, Turkey and Morocco.

One of Horacio’s formative childhood memories was the soft, swaying rhythmic walk of the black women coming from their villages carrying huge baskets of exotic fruits on their heads. “They would walk really straight with just their hips moving from side to side. It was fabulous!” He was born in Cartagena, Columbia where music and dance play a cherished role in the culture. His family of four siblings, many cousins, various aunts and uncles and large extended family had big parties and celebrations almost every weekend.

“Every piece of furniture was cleared out of the room and chairs were put along the sides. In one corner there was rum and stuff. We would rent a really big stereo and everyone would just dance and dance and dance. My family is very vivacious, and my uncles were really good dancers. Sometimes people would make a circle around them when they danced; and when my mother and father danced the rhumba and mambo every one would go around them and clap. They were really chic and elegant! That made a really big impression on me.”

Another colorful memory is Cartagena’s carnival, similar to Rio’s world famous spectacle, but smaller, celebrating the independence of the slaves. For a week every year the streets are crowded with revelers, parades and floats culminating in the crowning of “Miss Columbia.” “The nightclubs would bring in the best Latin bands from Venezuela, Panama…”, said Horacio reminiscing. “This was the big band sound of the 50’s, before ‘salsa’ – classic Cuban style with a soft rhythm that you don’t hear now. I grew up with it; the beat is within me.”

Horacio’s father’s profession as an engineer and ship-builder took the family to the shores of Spain for a prolonged stay when he was five. Seeing flamenco performed for the first time, he begged his mother to take him to lessons, beginning his lifelong committment to dance. At the age of thirteen, the family again left Cartagena, this time for the shipyards of Gdansk, Poland. (Columbia would trade coffee for ships.) For the next three years Horacio was exposed to the ballet classics, and began his ballet training there. “The first time I saw Swan Lake, I cried. It was instant. I said, ‘I have to do that!’”

Seeing theatre productions of the classics struck a chord in the budding Horacio. He reflected on why the classics held so much appeal: “When I was young, my mother often wasn’t around (she accompanied her husband to his foreign job sites). I was brought up by my grandmother and my nanny. My nanny would tell me fairy tales before I went to sleep –“Sleeping Beauty”, “Little Red Riding Hood”…, about ten stories, again and again, the same ones. I was fascinated. When I was in Poland and saw classical ballet on stage with the costumes and the castles, it was like seeing the fairy tale come true, and I thought ‘I have to be part of it.’ That’s what I try to do when I dance…I suppose that the main element in dance is to be able to make the fairy tale come true.”

Horacio joined the Folkloric Troupe of Columbia when he was sixteen, but the style didn’t contain enough technique and was unfulfilling for him. Although he was not yet thinking ahead to a career in ballet, he was furthered in his classical training when he received a scholarship to the school of the American Ballet Theater in New York. There he trained with the great stars of ballet, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Cynthia Gregory, just down the hall in the same building. “For one year I was influenced by seeing the perfection there. I would eat, drink and sleep it.” On Sundays, his “day off” would be spent jogging to another ballet school, taking class and jogging home. He went for months like this without a break.

He was then offered another scholarship, this time to the school of the San Francisco Ballet. From there he was invited to join the company, beginning with small roles. Another year later he was apprenticed and one more year brought him a professional contract. By the age of twenty one he was dancing major solo roles with the Ballet. It wasn’t always easy for him, though. “I had to be single-minded. I had a lot of difficulty. People would say I was too tall (6’4″), too heavy. I had to work very hard, 5 classes a day with some weight training.”

The demands of performing as a soloist on the huge stage of the San Francisco Opera House, accompanied by a sixty piece orchestra and occasionally a chorus, took its toll. “Sometimes the jitters were just too much…I felt I needed a mental and spiritual discipline.” This motivated him to seek instruction with yoga master, Walt Baptiste. Within the walls of the academy, Magana Baptiste also taught Oriental dance classes. After yoga, Horacio would hear the drumming and peek into the dance class. One day Magana invited him to join them, and later he performed for a special event. With his earlier exposure to Columbia’s folkloric material, the movements and rhythm seemed natural. He was hooked.

His chief inspiration to begin a career in oriental dance was sparked by Suhaila Salimpour’s performance of “Maharajan” at Jamila Salimpour’s weekend dance faire, in San Francisco. “When I saw her dance I knew it was possible. She was so choreographed, it blew me away. I respected and appreciated the hard work, preparation and training behind her performance.” Horacio continued his classes with Magana, also taking from Suhaila, Bert Balladine, Ibrahim Farrah and Shareen El Safy.

One thing led to another, and soon people were asking him to teach. (He has since taught and performed extensively in the U.S., Canada and Europe.) While preparing to teach oriental movements, he soon realized that the students were so unaware of their relationship to space, correct posture and stage directions that he began to develop a method for teaching these points, many of which are typical for ballet as well as Oriental dance. He started taking combinations from ballet, translating them into movement with a soft, oriental feeling, echoing the various instruments in Oriental music.

He credits Ibrahim Farrah with making him aware of the potential emotional interpretation of Oriental music, how certain instruments produce a specific quality of movement and feeling. Farrah’s dramatic, theatrical flair encouraged the cultivation of performance with a variety of mood changes and emotional dynamism. It was at one of Magana’s yearly events featuring Ibrahim Farrah in workshop that Beata and Horacio first met. Farrah asked the two of them to demonstrate the choreography, side by side, for the class. “Suddenly”, recalls Beata, “I was in a bright energy bubble.” Later, seeing Horacio perform in the Festival’s show, “I almost fainted! My contact lenses went berserk on me. I couldn’t close my mouth. He was the most outrageous, exciting thing I had seen in a long time. I thought the people in Germany had to see him, so I invited him to teach here.” By the end of a five city tour of Germany, they were engaged.

Where is the paradox? A paradox of contrasting images and expectations became more apparent as I began to put some tough questions to Beata and Horacio regarding their attitudes and philosophy. I was surprized at their candid responses, overturning many of my earlier impressions and false assumptions easily made by the dance public at large.

I remember my first glimpse of Beata, as an enigma, at Rakkasah several years ago. She had just performed an exquisite Egyptian chorography with a super dynamic drum solo. Her technique and delivery were top notch, setting a very high standard of excellence, creatively challenging other dance artists. Besides all that, her bubbly, vivacious personality, innovative Egyptian made costume and gorgeous physique completely won the audience over. Now, as she brushed by me, nodding in my direction, she exuded glamour, mystery, success. Beata was wearing a blue mink coat with her long blonde hair trailing down the back, elegant but noticeable jewelry and red, red liptstick and nails. Conversation buzzed, following in her wake: she was from Berlin…she had a rich boyfriend…he lavished goodies upon her…a new black BMW, jewels, trips to Egypt and, of course, a mink coat.

When I asked her about her luxurious lifestyle, and my early impressions, she laughingly explained in proud, strong language. “Everything that I have, I have gotten myself!” Recalling one of her most glamorous dance appearances for a wealthy Saudi family in Monaco, “It was fabulous!” said Beata. “They even had a swimming pool that was half outside with the other half in the living room…I said, ‘this is what I want , but I have to get it myself’. Everything that I have in this flat, I purchased myself (the Italian dinning set, antique furniture, the custom made ivory and gold lacquered bookcases). “And the rich boyfriend?”, I asked. “Hah! If anything, I supported him.” He was a medical student on a limited stipend from his parents.

Explaining her show-stopping appearance at Rakkasah, “I think in California girls dress very casually, and here in Berlin, they don’t. Berlin is not so relaxed…They should see how women in Egypt dress — glamorous, beautiful, elegant and pleasing. It’s a frame of mind, you feel uplifted by it and forget your problems and the traffic and the bills…Also, the fur coat was a good investment. I’ve gotten really good gigs, because when they see the fur coat they think, ‘she must be good’. Sometimes people I see all year around don’t say hello, but when I wear the fur coat they say hello to me. Actually, they say hello to the fur coat, not to me. It was a good investment. Also I don’t freeze in the German winters.”

She also bought her own BMW and her own jewelry but, she says, “I worked like a dog, seven days a week, twelve hour days in the dance studio. I was my own bookkeeper, secretary, cleaning person, I did everything…I had no time. Sometimes I’d come home too exhausted to even cook for myself…” Now one of the largest studios in Europe, Berlin’s “Studio fur “Orientalischen Tanz & Yoga”, boasts up to 300 students with a staff of six personally trained teachers, two secretaries and two cleaning persons.

Things have changed dramatically for Beata and Horacio since they became partners on August 11, 1991, both in life and in dance. As I accompanied them to their fifth floor apartment after they had put in a twelve hour day at the studio, their evening routine spoke volumes for the complementary and harmonious flexibility of their roles. Upon entering the cream colored flat and after affectionately greeting their furry black charge, and changing into something comfortable, Beata went to her desk to complete the day’s paper work. Horacio headed for the kitchen to prepare a light gourmet dinner of sauteed vegetables and salmon that he had purchased earlier in the market. (Stores close sharply at six, in accord with state law. No shopping is available on weekends, so advanced planning is a necessity.) Horacio takes delight in overseeing their nutritious repasts, sometimes chanting and praying “good vibes” into the food. Thoughtful care for quality, texture, and color go into each meal. “You are what you eat,” he beams. “Bon Appétit!”

“We balance each other out,” says Horacio, explaining their joint enterprise. “I am limited by the language, even though I am learning (German) and trying to absorb, I can’t read or write. So Beata handles the taxes and the paperwork.” Horacio teaches a number of Oriental dance classes as well as yoga and children’s classes. Since he arrived on the scene, they have opened a second studio upstairs, which, like the one below, is spacious, airy and light, both with full bath and kitchen. They’ve also restructured studio procedures, designed new courses and have regular organizational meetings with their staff. Besides the extensive weekly offering of classes, the studio frequently hosts expert teachers and performers in the oriental dance field including Mahmoud Reda, Farida Fahmy, Nelly Mazloum, Momo Khadous, Bert Balladine and Shareen El Safy. Beata and Horacio are “100% committed” to their goal to create a first rate academy of strong, solid oriental dancers. The children’s classes are a big step in that direction. “Within fifteen or twenty years we’ll be able to say, “Okay, this is what we do—train and develop dancers.’”

Watching Horacio in class, I was impressed by a concentrated atmosphere of mastery. Serious, disciplined training was taking place here. But the charm of Horacio’s personal magnetism, that South American accent, his striking head with ancient Egyptian-like features and toned, sculpted body and nut-brown healthy skin, was not lost on the class of female students. Did he ever have trouble with uninvited advances, I wondered? “Women in Germany are very self-contained and controlled,” explained Horacio. “I am an idealist. I think women like me as an artist…Maybe someone is at first attracted to me as a physical thing, but if that’s what it takes for us to develop a teacher/student (relationship) which will lead to further growth as a person, and as an artist, then let it be. I am good at keeping a distance; I know how to be friendly and cordial.

“…This is a sexy, sensual dance,” Horacio continued. “It has a refined sensuality.” But, remembering an earlier unpleasant impression: “The first and second time I danced here in Berlin, when there were eight hundred and then seventeen hundred people in the audience, the response was vulgar. Women were screaming like I was a Chippendale dancer. They didn’t see the hours, the skill, the turns, the balance and everything I had worked hard at. They didn’t see me as an artist but only as an object. That was weird and it wasn’t comfortable for either Beata or me…In the U.S., the reaction is more one of appreciation for my work as a dancer.”

“…Students don’t really flirt with Horacio”, declares Beata. “No one has been fresh or forward.” Does she ever feel jealous of all the adoring attention he receives? “I don’t feel jealous. I’ve been madly jealous with other men in the past; I don’t sense that Horacio is open. We’re committed to each other. I feel very secure.”

Committment is the operative word here. I was beginning to appreciate the various ways these two artists have demonstarted their committment to the art, and now to each other. I found myself contemplating a blue, satin-edged, embroidered wall hanging above the couch. “I am always very committed to what I decide to do,” said Horacio, pointing to the needlework. “I thought it would only take me four months, but it took nine years…It’s all single thread!” The colorful metre square embroidery entitled “The Land of Hope” won the “People’s Choice” award at an exhibit in Marin, California. Horacio began the project while touring with the ballet. Every inch is covered with tiny, exquiste and fanciful landscapes of mountains and waterfalls, seas and trees, rainbows and shooting stars, birds in flight and flowers, contented, peaceful animals and happy, playful children. “When I married I said I would be committed,” he said, making his point, “and I am.”

Noting that there are relatively few men involved in oriental dance on any level, as students, performers or teachers, I asked Horacio to comment: “Men are afraid of this dance. It’s a woman’s dance; I am a freak! There are a few men who have that inner freedom to do it despite the stigma…It doesn’t have anything to do with sexual orientation,” he said, citing several examples of male dancers who are married with children. The issue is how “to interpret the movement so it’s not feminine, but human,” he continued. “I’ve had to think about how I can make the dynamics of movements work, but translate them into a male body. Women’s bodies are more flexible. I am selective.” In order to appear more masculine, he advocates building upper body strength. “It’s okay for a man to have feminine elements, but it’s more attractive for a woman to see a man identifying as a man. Some men feel as women, and that’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with it. But for the two of us dancing to-gether, it’s nice to have her really soft and me really punched!”

My interest in this paradoxical pair was further piqued. Sampling a dessert of freshly made fruit sorbet, I asked them to speak about their experiences of partnering within the framework of Oriental dance. Since their collaborative effort began, they have choreographed six pieces together: a Spanish-Arabic suite, a pharaonic tableau, “The Prince and the Mermaid”, two drum solos and “Mona.” Working together, they have drawn on each other’s strengths: Beata’s skilled knowledge of Egyptian style and Horacio’s mastery of ballet. “How has partnering affected their dancing?,” I asked. “There is a certain surrender and forgetting of self. I have to be attentive to Beata,” said Horacio. “She lets go and falls into my arms — I have to pay attention to her! And bringing her from horizontal to upright requires some physics: I have to feel her center. There’s a beauty about the man letting go of his own self to be there to present her. It feels good to do that.”

“Also, for me, I totally depend on you”, said Beata, joining in. “In the beginning I always wanted to do things because I was used to it (turns and getting up). Now I can’t, I have to let him move me, handle me. I had to learn to let him do that, otherwise it’s clumsy.”

“How does partnering work with the feeling of Oriental dance?” I wondered out loud. “It’s such a western thing.”

“It doesn’t feel Oriental,” returned Horacio. “It’s just show. It’s an element that’s being incorporated in order for it to work theatrically, to be expanded. The essence of the Oriental dancer is as soloist, like Sohair Zeki…I consider Oriental dance to be older and technically more classical (than ballet). It has more substance and poetry; it’s rich and earthy…All dance changes with time, but no matter how contemporary (it may be with the addition of) ballet and modern, it must remain Oriental” said Horacio. “Taking it into the theatrical level will open it up to broader audiences…Polished, professional productions with curtains and sets, well-lit with good effects, will attract the general public who are used to being entertained.”

Beata and Horacio have co-produced five concert level presentations, each with over a hundred participants dancing for large sold out theatre audiences. The operating budget has been strained by mounting such high quality productions, which include costly Egyptian made costuming for the cast and frequent trips to Cairo for choreography. Last season they proudly announced the acceptance of a grant from the German Senate arts support program, which helped to stage their “Oriental Fantasy V” production. They are hoping to attract funding from additional sponsors in the future. On April 28 to May 1, 1994, they will again stage “Oriental Fantasy VI,” with performances and workshops featuring Egypt’s beloved stars, Samia Gamal and Tahia Carioca. In keeping with the Egyptian theme, the first half of the program will be reminiscent of Cairo in the 1940’s, while the second half will be set in modern Cairo.

Acknowledging their independent and intertwined successes, I asked if they were aware of a general perception that they have achieved “star status.” Horacio replied, “I realize Beata and I are successful, but when we compare ourselves to the real stars…”

“Someone that everybody knows,” chimes in Beata, “like Michael Jackson or Madonna or Cher, it’s really a joke!”

“We are only known by a tiny little group of people”, continued Horacio. “We are not stars; we’re just Oriental dancers. It’s underground. It’s taboo. It’s a different thing.”

And what do they say to the handful of detractors who might criticize them for being unapproachable or arrogant? “I think people have a tendency to create their own ideas about artists, actors, dancers, and people in the spotlight who they don’t know personally,” said Horacio. “Perhaps it is because I carry myself upright, partly from yoga and partly from ballet training, and playing the roles of royalty. I trained for twenty two years to be “up.” ‘Dignified’ and ‘arrogant’ are two different things…Also, there’s a part of me that wants to stay private; not let myself be known so easily.”

He exudes a kind of seriousness, I offered. “I am concerned with doing things right. Public life and private life are two different things. I have a great deal of spiritual inclination,” he says by way of explanation. “Since I was a kid I’ve had a very strong spiritual devotion. I wanted to be a priest, and growing up I was an altar boy. I became disillusioned and began inquiring of Eastern philosophies. Everyday I meditate and seek my inner truth. One thing that’s very important in life is to get to know yourself on a spiritual level.”

Playing the devil’s advocate, I prodded Beata to speak about her self-confident and potentially intimidating ability to speak her mind quite spontaneously. “I also like that in other people. I don’t know what to do with other people if they don’t tell me what they think; they just sit there with a Sphinx face. It confuses me and makes me feel insecure,” reveals Beata. “I like an open exchange where you can quickly get to know people. Why hold back so much? Life is too short! I want to keep a certain childlike quality, where I don’t have too many ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ in my head… rather than hold back all the time and be careful and protective and miss out on everything. Now that I am not alone anymore, because I have Horacio, I can risk more. I can always go cry on his shoulder. I feel emotionally backed up. That makes everything lighter and easier for me.”

“We’re partners in the dance, in life and in everything,” says Horacio summing up the conversation. “Our partnership has elevated our dance.” I found myself thinking back to other famous married dancers like Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. “One of my favorite sayings is by Ted Shawn. He said that dance is one of the most perfect symbols for the activities of God and His angels”, recounts Horacio. “I find that to be a strong statement. Oriental dance is so circular; all the movements are connected to roundness. Expanding that, the moon rotates around the earth and the earth rotates around the sun. The body of God is the universe. All the planets are His atoms. Then the cosmic, divine dancer, which is the body of the universe is always circulating, always dancing, moving in circles around each other. Our dance has so many circles! This is the most cosmic dance there is! It’s ironic that it’s so vastly misunderstood.”

“But maybe, in this age now,” says Beata, hopefully, “it will change.”

Shareen El Safy is an award-winning instructor and choreographer who has performed and taught Egyptian dance in sixty major cities on five continents, including many states throughout America. She has made numerous trips to Egypt, researching dance, studying with renowned artists there, and leading her Dance Study Tours. As one of few westerners, Shareen performed raks sharqi in Cairo nightclubs during the 1988 to 1992 summer seasons. She has released a number of instructional DVD’s focusing on Oriental dance technique. Shareen presented at the 1999 World Congress of Sports and Dance, and taught and performed at the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival (2001), and the Nile Group Festivals (2009 and 2010) in Cairo. Shareen co-produced the First and Second International Conferences on Middle Eastern Dance in 1997 and 2001. She was Publisher and Editor of Habibi from 1992-2002 and Editor-in-Chief in 1993. www.shareenelsafy.com.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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