The Gilded Serpent
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Shahrazad and I

by Thania

When you hear the name Shahrazad among dancers, students or professionals, there’s always a strong reaction. Some love her, others the opposite. The only thing they agree on is that she is an exquisite dancer and that she has contributed a lot to Middle Eastern culture in Brazil. She is a living legend.

However, she has a reputation for being difficult to deal with. When I decided to have private classes with her, many advised me not to go.

Nevertheless, I had already made up my mind to go and so I did. On the telephone she seemed a very nice and talkative lady. Actually, she told me her life story on the phone! It was a marathon to go to her house because we live in different cities. After bus, subway, train and a little walk, I finally arrived at her home, a simple house. When I got there I was feeling a bit worried but curious about the person I was going to meet.

She received me with open arms and a charming smile, called me sweetheart and since that day she has become my teacher, my master, my child, my mom.

Who is Shahrazad? Her real name is Madeleine Iskandarian. She was born in Bethlehem and was raised in Alep, Syria, later she went to Beyrouth where she started dancing professionally to help her family. She came to Brazil very young and started a very successful career. This was about 40 years ago.

What is so special about her? It’s difficult to describe, but as a dancer she charms you. She has a powerful look that captivates you and your eyes willingly follow each simple movement she does. When she looks at you, you feel naked, like she can see your soul and tell your most inner secrets. A skillful dancer who controls all muscles of her body and use them in a harmonious way, transporting you to the music and to her own world. Indeed, Shahrazad has her own world, with her own rules and logic. It was difficult for her to understand and accept ours. This has caused her many problems and she has been hurt and she has hurt many people because of that.

In her own world, she has found answers to all women’s bodies. Her exercises help us to get in touch with our bodies and produce more beautiful movements. We get to know our own bodies, but also we travel inside ourselves in a deep journey through heart, soul and mind. That’s what she always says: “Travel inside your body, feel the energy, free yourself.” “This is your moment, the only moment and you are truly free”. So when I’m in her class, I can feel it! She tells me: "Imagine you are a serpent. Be the serpent. Move like one." And you know what? I do feel like a serpent and my body makes things I couldn’t imagine it would. I’m under her spell.

Surprised by her simple house, I was astonished to know that after all her success and contributions to belly dance in Brazil, she was living alone and forgotten. Why?

That was the question that I’ve had on my mind over and over since I met her that day. There are no simple answers for that. Is there someone to blame? Ingratitude? Fate? Life? Stubbornness? I really don’t know.

She has a complex personality. I haven’t witnessed any outburst of her so famous temper, but I can feel it is there. Shahrazad, sometimes, is a caring mom, sometimes, a jealous lover. She takes you by the hand and advise you like an older sister. Other times, she is child who pretends is going to cry if you don’t do what she wants. She asks you not to forget her, not to leave her alone; asks you to hold her hand, to make her understand. She is a woman with a powerful gaze that reveals you. Sometimes, a mystic person; sometimes extremely religious. She tells her story, she cries and laugh. She has deep beliefs, but asks herself if she is really right about things. A scientist, a passionate soul. I can see all these changes in one afternoon by her side. Yes, she is difficult to be around, but how blessed I feel to have met her and be part of her life.

The history of Brazilian Middle Eastern dance couldn’t be told without Shahrazad. Anyone who wants to tell about Brazil and belly dance must refer to her.

We are her heirs and we have the duty and the right to register her work. I don’t care about the past, nor the future. Everything that I have learned and lived with Shahrazad will always be with me, forever!

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