Deciphering the Language of Oriental Dance
by Leslie Strang Akers
Sahra is an attractive woman and an exquisite dancer, but these items are de rigeur in an oriental dancer. Sahra also has a quirky sense of humor mixed with gentleness and surprising modesty that often hide a sharp intellect. However, the thing that makes Sahra extraordinary is that she possesses the eye of an artist, the heart of a mystic, and the well-trained mind of an anthropologist.
Sahra was born Carolee Kent in South Carolina, but was raised in Colorado and California. She was surrounded by music and immersed in dance at an early age. Her father was a jazz drummer and instructor. Her mother played both the piano and the flute, and was a piano teacher as well.
Sahra started her dance instruction at age three. At age twelve, when she saw the blood-soaked lamb’s wool in the toe shoes of more advanced students going en pointe, she abandoned ballet for jazz.
Studying jazz in private studios led Sahra to Palomar College, where she received an A.A. in General Education and Modern Dance. She studied the Martha Graham technique and even received two awards, one for best dancer and one for best choreographer. Even then the siren song of oriental dance seemed to be beckoning her. “As a modern dancer, I was constantly having my hands slapped, because I was moving them in a flowery manner. And all my choreographies had torso movements that seemed risqué (to the western eyes). Contractions and releases are the only torso movements sanctioned by modern dance.”
At the suggestion that dance was probably not the most practical or lucrative career choice, Sahra continued her education at California State University at San Bernardino. Thinking she would be an archaeologist, she studied cultural anthropology and graduated with honors. After one summer of field work, she realized archaeology was not what she wanted to do.
But her college years proved to be fertile ground for Sahra. It was during this time she first heard Middle Eastern music and first saw belly dance. When a nai taqsim wafted out of a college room, she discovered the quality of sound that she had missed in her mother’s flute playing. And then there was the belly dance.
Sahra received her first lessons in belly dance from local instructors in the Riverside and San Bernardino area, but she says, “I never felt like I was doing the natural kinesthetic response to the music I was hearing.” When she began performing at the Cascades in Anaheim (California), Lou Shelaby, the owner, recommended she take lessons from Feiruz Aram. She continues to use some of the techniques she learned from Feiruz even today.
Sahra’s oriental dance education was extended by renting and watching videos of Egyptian dancers. She studied Soheir Zaki, Samia Gamal, Tahia Carioca, and occasionally Nagwa Fouad. By happy coincidence, a tape which was supposed to be Nagwa Fouad turned out to be Farida Fahmy and the Reda Troupe. From that moment, she wanted to go to Egypt and study under Farida Fahmy.
She was informed that in the Middle East, dancers do not teach until they have stopped performing as dancers. Very disappointed, Sahra decided to take her savings and go to graduate school. She wanted to combine her dancing with anthropology, so she applied to and was accepted by the Dance Ethnology Department at UCLA. On the first day of class, fortune smiled mysteriously: she was sitting next to Farida Fahmy.
Farida Fahmy had just ended her career as a dancer and was in LA as a visiting instructor. Synchronicity was most definitely in full play. Lou Shelaby had just hired two former members of the Kawmeya Egyptian National Troupe, Mohamed Abdel Hay and Fatin Mohamed, to choreograph and direct group dances at the dinner show at Cascades. Sahra studied the Reda style with Farida Fahmy during the day and then learned the Kawmeya style at night. These two dance troupes were the top folkloric dance styles in Egypt, but they came from very different traditions. Sahra soaked them up like a sponge.
However, change is the only constant in life. Eventually Farida Fahmy, who had become a close friend to Sahra, had to return to Egypt. The Cascades, where Sahra had danced for seven years, sadly shut its doors. Sahra continued to perform in clubs in the Southern California area. She taught classes at UC Riverside. She appeared in videos produced by Dr. Sami Farag and Raja Zahr. She played Fatima, the dancer at the 1893 Chicago World Fair, on stage in a San Bernardino production of “Showboat” starring Donald O’Connor. Yet even with all these things going on there was something missing.
Sahra completed her coursework and exams for her Masters. She now had to concentrate on her thesis. She had written and presented a paper on the zeffa, the wedding processional, as done by Arab-Americans in the LA area. Her thesis, too, would cover the zeffa, but as practiced by the Egyptians.
When she received a call from Farida Fahmy to holiday in Egypt, a new phase began in Sahra’s life. What originally was planned as a few weeks of field study and fun turned into over four years of performing as an oriental dancer in a five-star hotel.
Under the sponsorship of an impresario (a kind of manager/agent) and the knowledgeable eye of Farida Fahmy, Sahra now performs six nights a week at Le Meridien in Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo. She has acquired thirty-five costumes, many of which she either designed or constructed. She has her own band complete with singer and two tabla players. Recently she has acquired a male folkloric dance partner, Sayed El Joker. She is very excited about working with him.
This life seems glamorous, but it is also hard work. It combines business and entertainment with art. Through all this Sahra continues her reseasrch of the zeffa and has obtained a great deal of knowledge about oriental dance. “There is an on-going debate in dance ethnology circles, whether dance is a language or not. If it is, then the Middle Eastern people have one language and the Americans have another language for the dance. Very often you think you are communicating to them (Arabs), but they have no idea what you are doing. For instance, Farida had choreographed my dances and I was trying to do them to the best of my ability with verve and life. And I thought I wasn’t doing too badly. Finally somebody told me, ‘You make me so nervous! Why don’t you just stand still and dance.’ Stand still and dance! You know, it told me a lot, taught me a lot. One of the characteristics of Egyptian oriental dance is to relax, slow down.”
In analyzing the act of performing, Sahra has written:
I need to push myself to the discipline of getting ready at the same time, at the same place, six nights a week for years. But there is a certain professionalism that is developed when you have to find an entertaining performance within you on nights you didn’t feel like it, or for an audience who has seen your best and expects it. Deep wells must be deepened; you must extend yourself to find the artistic flame and then keep it lit for an hour.
There’s a certain excitement and mutual adrenaline when you and a new or seldom-seen audience are experiencing each other for the first time. Then you must use your discipline to keep centered and not give in to the chaos of showing everything you know in five minutes.
You must never underestimate the audience. They deserve a performance where the energy follows a logical and conscious flow, where they can take part as well. Otherwise, a performance of three steps of this and five steps of that makes no poetic sense to the visual observer and gives the emotional feel of an on-going stumble if the viewer is kinesthetically empathetic.
What are Sahra’s future plans? She has just completed and released her new video, “Ahlan Ahlan!” Sahra would like to do at least two more videos, including one on the dance zones of Egypt. She also plans to continue teaching in the U.S. and Europe whenever she gets the chance.
Her contract at Le Meridien continues through January 1994. Whether or not she will be dancing in Egypt after that is in the hands of God. A groundswell of opposition is on the rise against oriental dance in Egypt at this moment. With this factor, plus the fact that Sahra misses many things in America (including fast food, of which she is a connoisseur), future plans in the area are unresolved. At any rate, Sahra will pursue the mysteries of the Zeffat al-’arusa and will peel away the layers of hidden meaning in the oriental dance for as long as she is able.