Dancer of Passion
Interview by Nina Poethen
posted August 18, 2010
Originally version published in “TANZ Oriental“, December 2006 in German
Born in Spain, Nesma resided in Cairo from 1993 to 1998, where she studied Oriental dance and Egyptian folklore. During that time she performed as a soloist with her own orchestra in over 3,500 shows on the most prestigious stages in Cairo. She broadened her artistic career in the National Egyptian Folkloric Reda Ballet, as the only non-Egyptian dancer to form part of the company. Since 1998 she has danced and taught around the world, and founded her own school and dance company in Madrid: Al-Andalus Danza. Nesma will be performing this weekend in Minneapolis as part of the 2 week annual show produced by Cassandra Shore and the Jawaahir Dance Company. “The Dark NIghtingale” will feature the music of Abdel Halim Hafez performed by the Georges Lammam Ensemble.
Nesma, do you miss Cairo?
Of course I miss Cairo. Though I never really left completely and I’ve kept my apartment there and I visit frequently. When I am in Europe, I have a deep longing for Egypt. I’ve lived there a very long time. There is a saying in Egypt that says: Who drinks water from the Nile will never forget Egypt, and he will always come back. That is the case with me.
How has it been, to live there?
For a foreign woman, alone, and a dancer, life is not easy in Egypt. At first I was completely lost; I couldn’t understand either Arabic or the culture. I had to trust people and I had quite a lot of bad experiences. Unfortunately dancers are not well considered in Egypt; the dance scene is scary and not a pretty world. I had to learn how to manage it and it took me quite a while. On the other hand I felt isolated. I used to spend all my time working, all night, 7 days a week. I had very few friends, and not much contact with my family. My life there was dance. But with all the difficulties, it has been a great experience. I learned a lot, and not only about dance. It gave me more self confidence in life. Now I know much better what I like.
When was your very first contact with bellydance, and when did you decide to make it your profession?
My first contact was in 1990. My brothers created a comedy show for television and my sister and I were to be part of it. We created a humorous sketch representing a Middle East scene and we had to dance imitating Oriental dancers. Actually we didn’t know anything about Oriental dance and at that time it was unknown in Spain. There was just one teacher, Shokry Mohamed, and we starting taking lessons with him. Immediately we fell in love with this dance, but for us it was just a hobby. I never thought I would become a professional dancer and dedicate my life to it. It was only a simple passion. During the Summer holidays of 1993 I decided to travel to Egypt with the idea of taking lessons and to discover Cairo. I didn’t know anybody there. I took a round-trip plane ticket, my bag, and just enough money to spend 2 months. I never used the return ticket; I stayed there for 5 years.
Did you have to convince your parents, especially to go to a place like Cairo?
I went to Cairo for a short stay, just to take lessons, so my parents understood. After those two months when I was about to leave, I presented myself for an audition to work in the nightclub of an important hotel in Cairo. After the audition the hotel wanted me to sign a contract for year and a half. It was a total surprise. The same day I had to decide: go back home and to university, or become a professional Oriental dancer in Cairo. I was so excited that I decided to stay: the following day I was dancing in an Egyptian wedding. Everything was succeeding very quickly. My parents couldn’t understand my decision, especially when I had only a few subjects to pass to get my degree. They were worried for me and wanted me to come back. But the music, the dance and the breeze of the Nile were stronger than anything.
You were still pretty young when you began to work in Cairo- at that age girls normally go out to discos.
I was only 24 years old when I started to work there. The work was pretty hard. The dance level is very high – not only the dancer’s technique but the whole show, and the music in particular. I needed to find a good orchestra, to have my own music, to dress in beautiful and expensive costumes, to dance new choreographies: it represents a lot of work. It’s right that I spent a large part of my twenties dancing in Egyptian Night clubs instead of having fun with friends going to discos, but I never regret it. Now I can go to discos and I have a lot of fun with friends and family.
Here some of the Oriental people say: nobody ever would work as a dancer, if she had the chance to study- and other people say: "Dinah was studying- Why not?"
I was in the last year of agriculture engineering when I left university to dance in Cairo. Just like a lot of young people I know, I was studying to get a degree but I didn’t have a real objective. Actually, learning a profession is more like insurance for your life. I decided to become a dancer when I got my first and unexpected opportunity, and I haven’t ever regretted my choice. I am so happy I changed my direction. I cannot imagine being an engineer; it wouldn’t be natural. I feel like I was born to be a dancer. On the other hand, the life of an artist can be really sad if he does not have any success. The risk is higher than to study at university for sure. I am grateful I succeeded in my dance career. It cost me my full dedication, an amount of time and effort I wouldn’t have invested in any other career.
In Cairo you have worked with the biggest names of choreography. Can you tell me something about that? Is there difficult training like ballet or Flamenco in our countries?
Ballet is different; it associates at the highest level of art, technical knowledge and fitness. If you don’t start as a young child, you will never dance ballet. Oriental dance is more about art and feeling. But to express your feelings you need to integrate all the technical background, to understand the music, and to be fit. Then to make a great show, you work on choreographies. I spent a lot of time working on choreographies with great artists such as Raqia Hassan when she was not so famous yet, Ibrahim Aakeef, … and the master Mahmoud Reda. They were all very demanding. I have learned so much from them; it was the complement to the scene experience.
Was it harder for you as a non-Egyptian to work there and to get accepted- and to work in such good places?
I guess it is also difficult for a Japanese person to be a flamenco dancer. When you dance in night clubs in Cairo the audience is purely Egyptian and Middle Eastern people who understand a lot about music and dance. You must feel the music to communicate with the musicians and the public. You have to represent an Arabic princess, the beauty in Arabic culture. It takes a lot of time being immersed in this world to get all that knowledge and the feeling. And you have to work a lot to get a nice show. You need all that to open the doors of the best places. Then you should add your own special features, and I think to be successful, all you need is one opportunity.
How did you find your orchestra? Was it hard to be a chief of the Egyptian musicians? (Are these the musicians on your CDs?)
I was very excited to work with live music. It is one of the things that makes it different to dance in Cairo rather than in any other place. Where can you find a ensemble of 25 great musicians who know about dance? It allows you to feel the music going though your blood and to improvise on the stage.
I formed my orchestra when I started dancing and then I made it bigger and better step by step. During Ramadan, the only time when you are not dancing, I had to train with my orchestra to prepare new themes and choreographies. Once you have the orchestra working for you, you cannot stop working even one day; if they don’t work enough they leave you.
To manage the orchestra is quite complicated. They are all men and the dancer must always keep her distance from them. You have to use the service of a manager who is the intermediary between you and the other persons involved in the business. It is very important to have a good manager, a good professional and good person as well. And it is not so easy to find, I can tell you. You can imagine that is not easy to work like that when you have an occidental mind, but it is the way it works in Egypt. As a dancer you cannot speak to any man but your manager. You represent both the most attractive woman and the worst person in popular society.
You are serious in your work and taste. The music you dance to is not the "American belly dance- disco-style"; it never sounds superficial. Sometimes it has the flair of Egyptian dance music of the 30´s/ 40´s and is quiet and romantic. Do you feel it´s typical Egyptian, or is there some of the pride and passion, and depth people feel and show in Flamenco?
I get to dance because I fell in love with Oriental Middle Eastern music. I have tried to learn from everybody I have met including musicians. Then I developed my style from the classical Egyptian “raks sharki” to express my feelings of the music I like. I always thought this dance is sentimental, elegant and certainly sensual. The dancer must be relaxed, move gently even in fast or intensive parts. For instance, I enjoy a lot the style of Naima Aakeef, or Fifi Abdou and Mona Said in her early years, although every dancer has something particular I admire. Also I appreciate other styles and fusion when it is performed with feeling and elegance. Myself, I have created and danced choreographies of Flamenco-Arabic fusion. I like new creations but I think we should always differentiate the fantasies from the traditional dance. We must not change or lose the meaning of the terminology.
Is it possible, that you as a successful dancer in Cairo also did influence the bellydance scene there?
I hope I have but I am not able to judge. There are so many good dancers In Egypt. It was already major recognition for me to dance in so many great places and to get the public coming to see my show. For example when I got the contract to perform on my own in the Balloon Theatre, or when I was contracted in the Reda troupe, they were prizes I couldn’t even dream about.
Now I am working to create new works as a teacher, choreographer and director of my troupe, and as a producer of music: I hope my work can benefit the image of Oriental dance and Middle Eastern culture in the western countries. No matter how successful I’ll be, I cannot think I will influence this art. I just expect to help to open this dance and music to theatres and to a wider audience because it is worth it.
Your CDs have been surely very big work. Was it all your idea- which pieces you took and how you arranged them for dance?
When I decided to quit the dance scene in Cairo, I wanted to record my music as a souvenir of all the years I spent on the stage. That’s why I recorded the music of my first CD “Memories of Cairo” in 1998. I wanted this music to be arranged exactly as I like to dance it. I was so pleased with the result that I started thinking it could interest other dancers. Two years later I created a show for my troupe with Egyptian and Andalus music, “From the Nile to the Guadalquivir.” So I recorded other pieces including folklore themes, classical music and new compositions. It was a new experience for me to produce this music, and long and fascinating work. I especially care about the arrangement to adapt the music to the dance and I looked for the best musicians to record the music. Then it took a lot of work before I could get it into a real CD. I had to create my label and I wanted the CDs to be as nice as the music sounds to me. I created all these works with my heart: I really hope people enjoy them.
Can you tell me something about your favorite pieces on your CDs? The accompanying booklet is wonderful and the texts are very informative and helpful- but can you explain your concept to the readers?
I chose or ordered (I mean the new compositions) personally every piece I recorded so I cannot really specify favourites. Certainly I feel something special for the pieces created for me like the one which has my name.
When I finally decided to produced the music on CDs and distribute them in the market I wanted not only the offer a CD but to give the listeners information about the pieces, their meanings. I wanted to be a complete product, not only tracks of music – an object people like to have in their disc collection. Also I created my music to be danced to. When a dancer asks me if she can use my music to teach or to dance in her show, I feel grateful.
Why did you go back to Madrid? How is the life with Oriental dance there?
On one hand I have to admit I was tired of the night life. It was so much work and I couldn’t even see my family once a year. I wanted to think a little bit about my life in the margins of the dance. On the other hand, I felt I had reached the top of my career in Cairo and I wanted to open my own school and develop other projects.
It’s clear that the best place for Oriental dancers is Cairo. But I see that many people in Europe and in Spain feel passion for this art. I am very happy to teach what I’ve learned in Egypt.
To see Nesma perform with Cassandra and Jawaahir Company in Minneapolis see here
This edited version of this interview, text and photos belongs to Gilded Serpent©.
For use of this material please contact the author for the original text and Nesma for the original photos.
Ready for more?
- 3-15-08 The Magic Sounds Studio of Cairo, 3 Albums reviewed and Compared by Amina Goodyear
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In a world where Egyptian dancers dance in the "less is more" tradition, the world of musicians seemed to be – more is better and lots more is best.
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