Samara: Sayyida Raks Sharqi
by Nuria Tahan
She is known as “Sayyida Raks Sharqi” in the Lebanese press — “Mistress of Oriental Dance.” I prefer to call her “the innovator” since that is what impresses me about her dance. Samara always has new and original ideas and has created interesting shows that keep her fans eagerly coming back for more. This doesn’t mean she needs gimmicks to be popular — she also has amazing technique and flexibility, beauty, a strong but slim body and remarkable stage presence.
I interviewed her in the coffee shop of the Carlton Tower Hotel, Dubai, where she was doing special performances for the Muslim holiday of “Eid al Adha” earlier this year. She was casually elegant in designer jeans and blouse, her long, luxurious mane free and flowing. She had just woken up (at 4 p.m.), so this was breakfast for her. Her makeup was minimal, but she doesn’t really need it, with her huge, dark eyes and clear skin. She was confident, obviously well-accustomed to being interviewed, although this was her first time for a non-Arabic magazine. I had brought a few back issues of Habibi with me, and she seemed pleasantly surprised to find a specialized belly dance magazine in America (of all places). She ordered orange juice for both of us, and we started to talk. She speaks English fairly well (better than my Arabic and French), and although somewhat reserved at first, she gradually opened up.
Although the stunning star is known as a Lebanese artist, she was actually born in Baghdad, Iraq. She was born in 1963 under the sign of Cancer, making her a young looking 33 years old. Her real name is Tahira, but she adopted the name Samara for stage. Samara’s family wanted her to study engineering in Lebanon, but Samara had leaned towards something more creative, such as cosmetologist or manicure artist. She moved to Lebanon in 1981 as a student. It was there that she started watching Nadia Gamal on TV, and she knew she was destined to dance. Being traditional Muslims, her family was not happy with her decision to become a professional dancer.
Samara approached Nadia and asked for instruction in the dance. Nadia showed her three dances, then asked if she truly loved the dance, or was only after the money. Samara told her that she had loved dancing ever since she was a child. She expressed a desire to study with Nadia, but Nadia told her she should not try to copy Nadia’s style, and to form her own character. Samara would have to practice every day and develop her own unique style. Fourteen years down the road, Samara has succeeded brilliantly, and she is well-known for incorporating elements of other ethnic dance styles in her performance.
She has an eleven-year-old daughter named Eliana, whom she adores. I asked her if her daughter has shown any interest in becoming a dancer. Samara told me that she likes to dance, but prefers to draw. I suggested that she might become a costume designer someday, and design Mommy’s costumes. Samara laughed, “Maybe!!”
She is currently divorced: “Free as a bird!” she says. She has no plans to marry in the future, at least not right now. “It is better that way, since the dance is my life!” She does have a boyfriend, but demurred when I asked for details. “He is a man.” (Come on, Samara!) “He is brown (like her complexion), he is Lebanese, and he doesn’t work in the entertainment industry” were all the details I could get from her. She prefers to keep some mystery about her love life.
During the first three years of her career, she stayed in Lebanon. In 1984, she started traveling overseas. Some of her first contracts were in Africa, which has a sizable Lebanese expatriate community. She dazzled audiences in Kano and Lagos, Nigeria and Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. She has been in all major European countries and most Arab countries as well. I asked her if she had a favorite country, but she replied that she likes all the countries she performs in. She feels that she can establish a rapport with any audience, and that everyone enjoys her shows.
Every four to six months, she changes her show. This is necessary not only for artistic development, but also to keep her fans guessing as to what she will do next. Being a top star, Samara is one of the few artists who has her own band and brings them with her when she travels for performances. Most dancers have to use the hotel band. She also has been putting out a new cassette every year with her own special music. Her most recent cassette, “Morjana,” has fascinating original rhythms, inspired by American New Age music. She didn’t know the names of the American songs, but she said that her musicians in Beirut changed them to make them Oriental in flavor. I asked her if she prefers classical Arabic music or new music. She replied that she prefers to have her own music written just for her. She likes everything to be new and fresh. She made a music video to accompany “Morjana,” featuring the title song. It is a New Age instrumental piece which has Samara running through a forest pursued by eager Bedouins. She teases and flirts with them, then runs away. The video was shot outdoors in natural surroundings. She opens the video dressed all in red flowers and “grass” skirt, looking like a Polynesian maiden. During the course of the video, she changes costumes through electronic wizardry from typical Oriental to Indian to beledi. At all times, she had to keep her body covered since the video was designed to be shown in the Arab Gulf states. Basically, she wore her normal stage costumes and tucked pieces of chiffon or silk in the neckline, and made body stockings to cover her torso.
Over the years, I have seen Samara come out with some very unique shows. She has a knack for taking elements of foreign dances such as Polynesian, Greek or Indian and blending them into her Oriental show. Sticking to Nadia’s advice to form her own character, she has gone far beyond that. She says of European music that she likes only Spanish and Greek, because it is similar enough to Oriental to be familiar, yet adds an exoticness to her shows. Her Polynesian/Hawaiian segment is performed in a splendid costume made of earth-toned chiffon to simulate a grass skirt, and her bra and belt are made of wooden beads to give a tropical feeling to the costume. She told me that she loves Hawaiian dancing because all the movements come from the hips, contrasting with Oriental which also relies on torso and arm movements. She hasn’t been to Hawaii yet, but claims that she really wants to go there some day. As she turns her back and executes strong shimmies, making the chiffon “grass” go flying, one can’t help but be transported, just for a moment, to a tropical island paradise. From there, she easily moves into “Zorba the Greek,” and invites audience members to join her in a Greek line dance.
Samara’s Indian-influenced dance is very interesting. I’ve only seen it on video. The music she uses isn’t exactly Indian — it has a more Persian/Central Asian flavor to it. The costume is a blue and silver two-piece outfit that looks a lot like the costumes you would see in a Hindi film, except Samara adds a fringed dance belt. The skirt is made from border printed sari fabric. The entrance also has a more Persian flavor, like a bouncy and flirtatious little girl. This progresses into dance movements she must have seen in a Hindi film, like strong hip bumps, stomach pulses and head slides. She has an unusual movement where she goes into a deep back-bend, puts one hand on the floor behind her and shimmies. She then rises effortlessly into more hip bumps. Samara is a remarkably flexible dancer and the drum solo is where she really shines. In this routine, she does a full five-minute drum solo which never becomes boring because the rhythm is constantly varied, and she has a huge repertoire of movements, including zar head tosses, back-bending shimmies, undulations with shimmy overlays, and she even gets the audience involved by dancing to their clapping. The ending is pure Lebanese — a lively tabl beledi drummer comes out and follows her around, all the while hopping about in sort of debke steps. The audience is dancing in the aisles. Samara has once again captured their hearts.
For the past three years, Samara has starred in the annual “Mahrajan Raks Sharqi,” held in the summer in Lebanon. I lamented the fact that Americans are not allowed to travel to Lebanon, as I would love to attend this big party. It is held outdoors to accommodate the huge crowds, and usually has between four to eight belly dancers on the program, and a couple of singers. Samara is the only dancer to have performed in all three past Mahrajans. Her performance at the 1995 Mahrajan opened with a beautiful pharaonic tableau. Samara’s costume was black with gold, red and blue accents, and was inspired by pharaonic art she had seen on TV. Since nobody really knows how ancient Egyptians danced, Samara incorporated the typical “pharaonic poses” in her Oriental dance, which was mostly drum solos. She was escorted on stage by a bevy of “Nubian” slaves, and took the attitude of a pharaonic queen. In the second part of her show, Samara was in a multicolored floral costume which reminded me of French Caribbean dance costumes, again accompanied by “slaves.” Although she told me they were supposed to be African, they looked more Fijian to me with their palm frond costumes. She enters with a basket of “evil eye amulets” and passes them out to the audience. I asked her how she managed to find all these African dancers in Lebanon. “Did you put an ad in the Beirut Times: ‘Wanted, African dancers?’” We both started laughing, and she said mysteriously, “I found them, this is my job!” She also performs with a cane to Lebanese music, and does some killer drum solos. This show ended with Russian music, and she invited some Russians in the audience to dance with her.
Every year, it becomes more difficult to come up with new ideas to outdo her previous show. This year, she is planning a tableau inspired by American Indians! The music is from America, but “like Oriental.” (I think she must be referring to New Age music). She described her costume as being “like American Indians.” I asked if it was made of leather and feathers, and she said, “a little bit.” I have no idea how she is going to make an Oriental show out of this, but I can’t wait to find out. Samara never ceases to amaze me! She doesn’t claim to be doing an authentic representation of the countries whose dances she borrows, but merely takes inspiration from them to make her Oriental shows more exotic. I was wondering what other countries might inspire future shows. She said that she likes Spanish, but only does a little bit because the real Spanish dance is very disciplined, and she has no training in it. I suggested that Persian or Uzbeki dance might be interesting, but she has never seen it before, so couldn’t comment. (Her Indian dance was actually more Persian than Indian, so she might have seen some without knowing what it was). She did say that she was interested in dances of the Far East, but admitted that they are very different. “They have nice music and use their hands a lot,” she said as she tried to demonstrate a Thai hand movement.
Since Samara frequently performs in the Gulf, I asked her what she thinks of Khaleegi dance. She says that she enjoys watching it and she likes the music, but she does not have the same feeling for Khaleegi as she does for Oriental. Her current show includes “Rahib,” a popular Saudi song, but she only does it when she dances in Dubai, because the audiences here like it.
It is not only foreign countries that inspire Samara’s shows. Sometimes it is the elements of nature. For New Year’s Eve, 1995, she looked to the sea. Her show opened with a huge clam shell on stage. As the music started, the lid was raised, and Samara slowly emerged, representing a pearl. Her costume was of the elaborate Lebanese variety, all in pearls. She said that this idea came from her hairdresser, who sometimes comes up with good ideas. She prepares music and coordinates a costume, and likes her shows to have a basic theme.
Besides unique show ideas, Samara also has some dance technique all her own. There is one movement I asked her about which she uses in her drum solos, and I have not seen any other dancer do it. When talking to my other dancer friends, I call it “the Samara butt bounce.” From a position in which her knees are slightly bent, she straightens them quickly to the rear, causing her derriere to bounce straight up while shuffling one step to the rear. She does it with a lot of strength and manages to make her skirt bounce. She usually does them in very quick succession, traveling backwards. I tried to do it and almost threw my back out. (Kids, don’t try this at home!) She says that she developed this movement on her own, through practice. She neither takes lessons, nor teaches.
Samara is also the best dressed dancer in Lebanon. She has been using the same designer, George Wanoon, for nine years. Her costumes are stunning and very elaborate. They are also not cheap — she spends between $1000 to $2000 on each one. The Oriental and beledi type costumes are designed by George, but when Samara has a special tableau like the Hawaiian, Indian or American Indian, she has to tell him how she wants it done. The bead work is very intricate, and it takes weeks just to finish one costume. I have seen many photos of Samara in the Lebanese entertainment magazine, Ash-shabaka, and marvel at the tremendous wardrobe she has!
But does fame have its price? I asked Samara what it is like to be a big star in Lebanon. Do people stop her on the street, ask for autographs and photos? She laughs, “Sometimes! Not so much on the street, or in shopping malls, more at parties and nightclubs.” When she is at home in Beirut, she does not have one special nightclub. She performs in all the five star hotels according to her contract. She has also done special parties for VIP’s, ministers, and weddings for wealthy Lebanese.
Samara does not have many interests outside of dance. She enjoys seasonal sports such as snow skiing and water skiing. She does not enjoy strenuous sports like football or tennis, and especially not horseback riding. I contradicted her, saying that I saw her make an entrance on horseback at a previous “Mahrajan Raks Sharqi.” She said that was the one and only time anyone ever got her on a horse, and she does not want to try again. I can’t say I blame her. She almost fell off at one point, and from watching her expression (on video), she was clearly not too happy with the horse! She expressed an interest in scuba diving and the beautiful underwater world, but is afraid to deal with all the equipment involved. Her busy dance schedule does not leave much time for traveling, but Samara does enjoy taking holidays. She does not have any special exercise program, relying on dancing to stay slim. As I noticed what she had ordered — all vegetables — I could see that she follows a healthy diet. She does not eat much meat, and very few sweets. Like all women, Samara likes to shop, especially in Dubai, where prices are low and she can choose from a wide variety of merchandise.
What does the future hold for Samara? It is clear that she loves her daughter, and likes her freedom as well. She does not seem ready to settle down. She has an inexhaustible supply of ideas for future dance shows, and enjoys the challenge of outshining herself, never mind the other dancers in Lebanon! She would like to travel more. She plans to make more videos and music cassettes. Most of all, she wants to continue to grow and be respected as a true artist.
Nuria Tahan was born and raised in Southern California. She is an inveterate traveler, having traveled to every country in the world except Libya and Lebanon. Currently, Nuria resides in Dubai, where she designs costumes independently, and performs dance in Dubai and Kuwait. She also enjoys scuba diving and surfing the Internet, and continues to plan exotic adventures to her favorite countries around the world. email@example.com