Singing with Her Body
By Francesca Sullivan
Anwar Sadat once said to her “You are the Um Kulsoum of dance. As she sings with her voice, you sing with your body.” President Nixon named her “Zagreeta,” when he learned that the word referred to an expression of joy. She received accolades and medals from the Shah of Iran, the Tunisian President and Gamal Abdel Nasser. This summer, after many years of retirement, Sohair danced again, this time for a crowd of adoring students at Cairo’s International Oriental Dance Festival.
For those who attended, seeing a living legend take the stage once more was an unforgettable experience.
Here’s a question: What happens to a star when she’s taken her final bow to the audience, hung up her costumes for the last time, and closed her front door to the public? After a lifetime of dance, of being in the public eye, and receiving adulation and the love of a devoted audience, home must surely seem dull.
Sohair Zaki lives just a stone’s throw from one of the cabarets that once made up the bright lights of Pyramids Road in its heyday. A time when the street was lined with expensive villas—most now demolished to make way for blocks of flats—and nightclub audiences were still comprised of the Basheraat ; the cream of Egyptian society. Later into its history, when Sohair was in her prime, the cabarets of Haram Street grew in number to cater to rich customers flying in from the Arab states. Now the lights are dimmer, many of those venues have gone, and supermarkets and internet cafes have sprung up in their place. Just one block behind the main street the neighborhood is more than a little run down. But inside Sohair’s apartment, grandeur lingers on. The living room boasts sparkling chandeliers and plush upholstery, and is as beautifully lit as a movie set. Exactly on cue for our appointment, Sohair walks smoothly in, dressed in a slim, tailored orange suit and glittering turquoise jewelry. Her hair is perfectly coiffured, her makeup freshly applied. “I’m ready for my close-up now, Mr. DeMille” I almost expect her to say, only there’s no staircase. Instead, she moves with practised ease around the room, knowing just where to stand or sit in front of the camera for the optimum effect. When I comment on this she smiles. “Don’t forget: my husband was a lighting cameraman. We even met on a film,” she explains, and poses for pictures with the natural poise of a true professional.
But wait a moment. If we’re looking at the life of a legend, perhaps we should begin at the beginning.
Sohair Zaki was born in Mansoura, where she and her family lived until she was nine, before moving to Alexandria. Music and dancing were hardly in the family tradition—her father worked in the building trade, and her mother was a nurse—but Sohair fell in love with both from an early age, and taught herself to dance, listening to the radio. Natural talent showed itself young, and before long she was being noticed at the birthday and wedding parties of friends and family. “I used go straight from school to the movies, to watch Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal on the big screen. I even had my hair cut and styled to look like Fairouz” (the child star who danced in the early days of Egyptian cinema).
Sohair’s desire to dance in public overcame the initial disapproval of her father, though perhaps it was a part of her fate that he passed away when she was still young, and her mother remarried. It was her stepfather who really launched and handled her career, arranging her orchestra for her, and becoming her manager.
The happiest time of my life, when I look back on it, was during those early days when I first began dancing in Alex. I was blossoming into womanhood, and feeling the changes in my body, while at the same time I felt carefree and without responsibilities. Throughout my working life I had someone to take care of my business who was within the family, and of course he had my own and my mother’s best interests at heart.
She worked the regular nightclubs of Alexandria, where the audience were a mixed bunch, many of them in the Greek community that in those days dominated the Alex nightclub scene. Fame and fortune beckoned when, in 1962, a celebrity party in Alex was broadcast on national television, and the young Sohair, still in her teens, appeared alongside other local performers. She was spotted by television director Mohamed Salem, who asked “for the girl with the long hair.”
I was the only dancer in those days that didn’t wear a wig, or need much make-up. He wanted to turn me into a TV presenter, and I went to do the audition but it wasn’t a success. My voice was all wrong, and besides, I was only interested in dancing.
But Sohair had made the move to Cairo, where she stayed put, beginning the rounds of weddings and nightclub performances that would start early in the evening and go on throughout the night. Her failed audition as a presenter turned out to be only the beginning of her career on television.
In those days there were weekly TV shows featuring dancers—programs like ‘On The Banks Of The Nile,’ ‘Adwa el Medina,’ and ‘Zoom.’ I was a regular solo performer and we also danced ‘tableaux’ by choreographer Ibrahim Akef. (Ibrahim Akef, who still teaches today, was the cousin of the dancer and film star Naima Akef, and has choreographed shows for many of the top dancers of the past four decades.) He would coach the back-up girls: I would come in on the final take. They used to say about me, Sohair hears the music once, and dances without so much as a rehearsal.
Her meticulous ear for music is famous:
In the whole of my career, I never once raised my voice to a member of my orchestra. If someone played a wrong note, I would hear who it was even though I had my back to him. Afterwards I’d take him on one side and remind him exactly where in the music he’d made a mistake. The musicians always respected that.
Though television helped to make Sohair’s name, it was the regular nightclub and wedding work that brought in her income. Dancers in those days were the stars of the cabarets, unlike now, when singers usually top the bill.
The first nightclub I danced at was the Auberge, in Haram Street. My contemporaries included Nehmet Mochtar and Zeinnat Olawy, followed by the up and coming generation: Nagua Fouad, Nahet Sabri and Zizi Mustafa. Fifi Abdou started just down the road, at the Arizona.
Despite the fact that there was plenty of work to go around, competition was fierce, with dancers vying to out-do one another in having the best and biggest orchestras, the finest costumes, and so on.
My biggest rival was Nagua Fouad—we were in fierce competition. If we’d both been booked at the same place in one night we’d each rush to put our costumes on and send our orchestras to the stage before the other one.
Whereas Nagua went for flash, employing more and more razzmatazz within her performance until her show resembled a Las Vegas spectacular, Sohair represented the opposite extreme. World-renowned teacher and choreographer Raqia Hassan, who brought Sohair to this year’s Oriental Dance Festival, sums up her popularity:
Sohair Zaki epitomizes the ‘natural’ dancer. Her appeal was in her simplicity: she translated the music precisely and naturally, without excess or flamboyance. Her steps have lasting appeal, and are still taught today. She was always herself in front of an audience—acting was never part of her performance. How you see her face to face now: quiet, soft-spoken and polite, is how she was on stage.
The cliched image of the oriental dancer—sultry, seductive and passionate—is perhaps at odds with this description. And yet it explains why Sohair Zaki has emerged from the controversial world of the dance with her reputation more-or-less intact. She is proud to say that she danced at the weddings of each of the daughters of both Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, that she was consistantly chosen to entertain visiting dignitaries, from the Russian Defence Minister to President Nixon and Henry Kissinger, and that when she became the first ever dancer to dare interpret the revered songs of Um Kulthoum on a nightclub stage she had the singer’s own blessing.
One evening we were driving between shows when Um Kulthoum’s “Inta Omri” came on the car radio. I said how wonderful it would be to use this music to dance to. Its rhythm, its complex musical melody—it really appealed to me. Despite nervous objections from some quarters, I did it anyway, and Mohamed Hasanein Heyka, then head of Al Ahram, happened to be in the audience. He wrote about it in his newspaper. Soon afterwards we were booked to perform at a high-class party at a villa in Zamalek. As I came out to a piece by Um Kulthoum, I suddenly caught sight of the lady herself right there in front of me in the audience. At that moment, the musicians and myself all wished fervently for an earthquake so the ground would swallow us up. But when we had finished, Um Kulthoum actually came over to congratulate us. She said we were wonderful, and that she was amazed that the band could perform the song so well when she herself had only just sung it a week ago, after needing dozens of rehearsals with the orchestra. It was the biggest compliment anyone could ever have paid us. After this I became known for dancing to her songs on television, and that’s really what spread my name across the Arab world.
The cinema, of course, helped too. Sohair made over a hundred films during the course of her career, alongside screen stars such as Farid Showky, Shakoukou and Shadia. Unlike dancers before her such as Tahia Carioca, Naima Akef and Samia Gamal, acting was never appealing to her. Her roles tended to be small, and she was there to dance. But: “if they put my picture on the film poster, it used to draw the crowds,” she asserts. She met her husband, Mohamed Amara, on a movie set. It was a successful marriage, since he came from a family used to the pressures of show business. (Her father-in-law, Ibrahim Amara, is credited with putting Abdel Halim Hafez on the screen in his first film, “Lahn el Wafaa”, and her husband’s uncle was renowned director Hassan el Saifi.)
“My husband, being an artist himself, understood me well. We had a lot in common.” Nevertheless, married life had to be squeezed in between her busy nighttime schedule, TV and the cinema, and it was along time before they could raise a family.
I became pregnant several times, and always miscarried—perhaps because of the pressures of my work. I finally managed to produce a child when it was almost too late. He’s all the more precious to me for that reason.
(As if on cue, Sohair’s son Hamada enters the room. He’s fifteen, and studying hard for his exams. “Next year, insh’allah, he will go to the American University.”)
In the late 1980’s, the dancing scene began to change, and Sohair, seeing the way things were going, began to think of bowing out gracefully. Already, profound changes were taking place within society’s view of the dance.
One of the saddest days of my life was when oriental dance was taken off the television. It was God who gave me fame, but it was the television that brought me into peoples’ homes. I remember hearing on the radio the announcement of the television anniversary celebrations, and there was to be no dancer. I had appeared at that event every year since it began. I sat down and cried.
There were other reasons too, which made it seem appropriate for Sohair to retire.
The look of the dancers was changing. I put it down to the costumes. In my day, we wore romantic, voluminous chiffon skirts and looked like princesses. Suddenly, everything was tight stretch lycra. When you spin, lycra doesn’t move with you, it clings. Being a dancer is not about showing off your body and posing on stage. It’s about showing the art of dancing. I never even used to make eye contact with the audience until I’d finished my show and was taking a bow.
(Despite this claim, old footage of Sohair proves that she was as adept at using her eyes as her body. And if you point a camera at her, she fixes the lens with a strong, charismatic gaze.)
Of the hundreds of costumes that Sohair wore over the years she has kept only one. “It’s a Pharaonic piece designed for me by Shadi Abdel Salam, for a special television appearance, and I still treasure it,” she says.
Other than this, the few remaining costumes she still had left over she sold at this year’s Oriental Dance Festival. When I told her that one lucky customer spent the afternoon of her purchase dancing around her hotel room in a state of ecstacy, Sohair laughed with delight.
Exactly what she makes of the worldwide passion for this most Egyptian of art forms is hard to gauge. On the one hand she concedes that foreign performers often have the right physical attributes (“a dancer should be tall, well-built but slim, and have beautiful hair, as well as being able to dance”). But on the other hand, the influx of foreign dancers onto the market—a trend just beginning when she retired, has not impressed her.
Sometimes it seems there’s been an invasion of Russians. If I’m an Egyptian businessman taking clients out to a nightclub, why should I pay a hefty bill to watch a foreigner perform? At the opening of last year’s festival, I saw some foreign girls up on the stage dancing. It amazed me to see that the music was doing one thing, and they were doing something else entirely!
And what she has seen of the new young Egyptians has not overly impressed her either. At this year’s festival, she watched Dalia, Amani, Sohair Rageb and Randa Kamel, but commented that none of them had yet reached an advanced level in the dance.
Going out on the town is a rare occurrence for her now, she says. She stays at home, looking after her family, and has few trusted friends. Which brings us back to that original question. What does it feel like to turn your back on the thing you’ve loved for so long?
When I first gave up the dance and decided to retire, I was depressed for a long time, and my weight shot up to more than eighty kilos. My husband was worried, and took me to a doctor—actually, the husband of actress Hind Rostum. He took one look at me and said, it’s simple: you miss your old life, just like Hind. You used to be feted and adored—now there’s no-one to look at you. He put me on a diet, and I began to exercise. I go to the sports club regularly, and walk on the track, and I eat very little. Two or three times a week I exercise at home using a video. I’ve tried Jane Fonda and Claudia Schiffer, but the only one I really like is Cindy Crawford’s exercise video. It has really unusual, effective technique.
My main piece of advice, if you want to stay looking young: sleep as much as possible – I get at least nine hours a night.
After retiring from the stage, Sohair had no plans to dance in public again. So some were surprised when she agreed to take part in Raqia’s “Ahlan Wa Sahlan Oriental Dance Festival 2001” as a master teacher.
When Raqia Hassan first came to me with the idea I was reluctant, and my husband even more so. But I was persuaded by old colleagues, who said it would be a good thing for me, and for the dance, and finally my husband agreed.
Raqia herself says she was amazed by the impact Sohair’s presence had on bookings. “It wasn’t until the applications came flooding in that I fully realized how beloved Sohair is around the world. Almost every single student attending the festival asked to be in her workshop.”
On the day, the class was so large that it was split up so that half the students would stand and participate while the other half sat and watched, then vice versa. Before Sohair arrived, an air of building anticipation buzzed through the room (the Cairo Sheraton’s ballroom was opened up fully for the occasion). Meanwhile, being driven from her home to the hotel, Sohair prepared herself by reading verses from the Koran. “I prayed to God to ensure that the workshop would go well, and to steady and calm myself,” she says.
It clearly worked; from the moment she took to the stage, Sohair mesmerized her crowd of over two hundred students, without even looking at them. Beginning with warm-up stretches and breathing, she indicated to her helpers when her chosen music should be played, and then simply stepped inside it. For almost the entire three hour class (during which she took several breaks to recover her stamina) she kept her eyes closed, and let the music pass through her body, carving shapes, movement and pattern, whilst transmitting the sense of each song. Although she danced to Um Kulsoum’s “Inta Omri” (a sight which brought tears to the eyes of many of the women present) she also chose two contemporary songs, one from Warda, and one from newcomer Bahaa Sultan.
“I had barely heard these songs before,” she afterwards admitted, “but as I danced to them, I was naturally moved to interpret the lyrics.” This she did eloquently, using facial expression and hand gestures. Watching Sohair, many older dancers were reminded why they first fell in love with Oriental dance, while some of the younger ones came to feel for the first time its true meaning. With so many young dancers today, even here in Egypt, lacking a really deep understanding of how to interpret oriental music, Sohair’s simplicity and stress on feeling rather than doing was a monumental lesson.
“It was a milestone in my life as a dancer to be able to stand in front of her and actually see the way she moves. I’d hero-worshipped her for so long,” said Shelley Moustafa from the US, voicing the feelings of many.
Sohair later told me:
The day of the workshop was very special to me because on that day I re-lived my youth. I danced with my eyes closed because I was living with the music—I didn’t see or feel anyone. It was only afterwards, when people crowded around me, and a girl sat on my lap and cried, that I realized for the first time in my life that my dance actually has the power to move people to tears. By the time they began bringing me bouquets of flowers, I was crying too!
As if she needed reminding, the whole event has brought home to her just how great an impact her career has made upon the dance. But despite her reaction to her audience’s tears, in some ways it’s already something she knows, and has put behind her. And although a modern generation of women the world over have discovered the dance, Sohair is well aware that its golden era in Egypt, which she was so very much a part of, has silently slipped away.
In the words of a famous song by Um Kulthoum herself, “So you want to go back to the old days? Try telling the old days to come back as they were.”
Those days will never come back again—the atmosphere, the guests. Where are they now? Oriental dance has been my life. I have my son, and my husband. But the best memories of all are of the dance.
Yasmina (Francesca Sullivan) is from London, where she began studying Oriental dance in 1984. Her principal teacher was Suraya Hilal. She began dancing in the clubs there while working as a fashion photographer. She graduated from the Polytechnic of Central London with a degree in Film and Photographic Arts. Beginning in 1988, she danced for a year in Italy, followed by six months in Morocco. In 1992 she began dancing for a Middle Eastern agent based in Beirut, and spent the next three years working in five-star hotels around the Arabian Gulf, in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Bahrain, and also in Jordan and Syria. Since 1995 she has been living and working in Egypt, where she danced for two years at the Meridien Heliopolis Hotel, as well as Tivoli, Sunset, Safir, the Nile Maxime, and Pyramisa. Yasmina is currently a freelance journalist in Cairo for Egypt Insight and Cairo Times, and also writes articles for the British press. www.yasminaofcairo.com