When you want to develop your own dance persona, one of the greatest tools you can utilize is to choose an inspiring role model. You’ve got to take a close look around within the realm of belly dance and not be afraid to select the ‘stars’ that encompass all the things you’d like – from costuming to dance style, from charisma to business savvy. Consider any Middle Eastern artist anywhere in the world and also from any era, past and present. While personal experience is the best teacher, the second best is to learn from and copy those who have already acquired the look and success that you want. Select your role model(s) carefully. Have a clear picture of what you want from your dance. I hunted for role models back in the 1980s. At that time in Egypt, there was a famous dancer who was extremely impressive. Her name was Suhair Zaki.
Suhair was born in 1944 and still lives today in Cairo, Egypt. She no longer performs, having retired in the 1990s at the height of a very successful career. I was fortunate to see her dance many times in Cairo, from the stages of smokey nightclubs to extravagant wedding receptions in grand hotel ballrooms. She is my favorite Egyptian dancer because she is not only an outstanding artist, she conducted herself 100% as a lady.
Suhair’s dance style was along the lines of Tahia Karioka. She did not rely on props to dazzle her audience, nor did she need a lot of space on the stage. She performed as a soloist with no background singer, dancers or troupe, as did some other well-known performers. Her only backdrop was her excellent orchestra. Music was specially composed for Suhair every six months, as were her costumes. One of the most famous costume designers, Madam Abla, created the stunning baladi dresses (more like cocktail dresses than folkloric dress) as well as the heavily fringed and beaded oriental outfits, complete with mesh over the midriff. They set the fashion trend for belly dancers around the globe.
Suhair’s shows were a class act. Her group of musicians numbered between 15 and 30, and they connected with Suhair perfectly. Together they made magic happen on the stage. Suhair was the first oriental dancer to perform to music of Om Koulthoum, one of the highest revered singers in the history of Arabic music. It was a risk to do so, at first, because at the time Suhair was still young and not well known. But Om Koulthoum herself claimed that Suhair interpreted the music beautifully.
Many dancers in Cairo have choreographers that assist in the creation of their show. Suhair never did this. She claims that she always danced from her own inspiration and feeling, and that is what moved her body. She was quoted as saying that she needs the dance as anyone needs air to breathe. She believes that dance is art and must always be honored and respected. In that, she honored and respected herself as a dancer and as a woman. She did not compromise her integrity, not even when the trends dictated a change to more risqué costuming and flashier variety-show performances. She stated that on stage she wanted to feel like a princess.
Suhair danced with passionate emotional expression and amazingly precise hipwork. Her movements were feminine, graceful and rather reserved (less is more!). There were no high kicks, incessant spinning, or overly skimpy costuming. Instead, she used her hips, back and abs to create intricate contractions.
Today you can find online films of her performances. You will encounter music that was written for her, and many others that used her name to indicate the classical oriental style of the music, not that she was the producer. There are tons of photos of her in her dazzling costumes.
Suhair Zaki’s standards were high, and her name epitomizes the elegance and grace of oriental dance. If you choose Suhair as one of your role models, you will join the movement to promote and preserve the Art of Middle Eastern dance.
JASMIN JAHAL, Author
I've been dancing since I was 3 and a professional belly dancer for over 40 years. I've learned so much from personal belly dance experience and want to share with you advice, tips, suggestions and more. Anytime you have any questions and need sage advice, please reach out and let me hear from you!