The People’s Dancer
by Edwina Nearing
(Originally published in Habibi Magazine in 1977 or ’78)
posted March 22, 2012
"When Sohayr Zaki Jumped in Front of President Nixon, American Security Men Moved In," ran the title of the June 1974 article in Al-Shabaka. The popular Middle Eastern magazine continues,
"Last Wednesday Sohayr Zaki danced before the guest of Egypt and the Arab people, the American president Richard Nixon. The occasion was the official dinner party which Egyptian President Sadat arranged as a greeting for his distinguished guest. The celebration was held in the garden of AI-Quba Palace, on a stage decorated with pharaonic columns and the gateway of an ancient temple, and a backdrop of the Nile covered with lotus blossoms.
”The music began, a pure oriental tune, for about a minute, and then Sohayr Zaki appeared in a green dancing costume. ‘My dance was my greeting to President Nixon,’ she said later. ‘I chose the green color because it represents Egypt.’ She started to dance, all soft movement, graceful arms – her hair gets in her face and she moves it away with her hands. She turns on the stage like a butterfly. She moves to the center of the stage, every step exactly in rhythm, a dazzling smile on her face … she finishes a section and begins another, this time with cymbals on her fingers, adding another tune to the music.
"The dance becomes forceful, then gentle again, then more lively with the rapid vibration of her body, and Sohayr pirouettes across the stage on which all eyes are fixed. Then she runs to the curtains and everyone thinks she has finished, but she comes back after two minutes wearing a dancing gown, with a cane in her hands – the oriental stick dance, which every real Egyptian man and woman knows how to do. She starts out on the stage but then jumps off in order to dance especially for the guests in the first row. She stops in front of a laughing President Nixon, and security men begin to close in with worried expressions, afraid of what might happen next. She dances before Patricia, President Nixon’s wife, who exclaims, ‘What a beautiful artist!’ Sohayr stays a moment longer among the guests in the first row and then jumps back up onto the stage and finishes her dance midst the audience’s applause."
Seldom has a performance of the East’s famous dance been accorded so many words in its own homeland. At the same time Arab readers were buying their copies of Al-Shabaka, color photographs of Ms. Zaki dancing before President and Mrs. Nixon appeared in such internationally distributed magazines as Time and Newsweek. Two months later, Al-Shabaka reported that Ms. Zaki had flown to Beirut to appear at an exclusive, Western-style nightclub in the Lebanese capital. There was to be no other Middle Eastern entertainment on the program, but the inclusion of Sohayr Zaki was deemed appropriate: the name of the club was The Watergate. This item, of course, was not reported in Time and Newsweek, for the irony would have been lost on Western readers. Sohayr Zaki, whose fresh, unaffected smile is familiar to every Arab home, is virtually unknown in the West, even to followers of the dance arts…
Decorated by President Habib Bourqiba of Tunisia and commended by her own government, the tall, raven-haired dancer with the famous smile and the head and shoulders of a Victorian cameo is referred to in the Middle East as "one of the three great oriental dancers of our time, along with Nagwa Fu’ad and Nahed Sabri," sometimes even as "the first of the three great dancers of the Arab world." While some might dispute the latter claim, most observers would concede that Ms. Zaki is the most popular dancer in the Arab World. Middle Easterners also consider her style the most classical, the most ‘oriental.’
"Anyone who is well acquainted with the oriental dance would say that Sohayr Zaki is the dancer who captures its real spirit … She is an oriental dancer one hundred percent … She has put her own special imprint on the dance, a style which differs from all others, but at the same time has retained its basics, its characteristics and its rules." (Al Kamera,
No. 25, 1976)
It is a mark of the esteem Sohayr Zaki enjoys that she was chosen by a government which merely tolerates ‘belly dancing’ to represent Egypt on such an occasion of state as President Nixon’s visit and, more recently, asked to dance at the wedding of President Sadat’s daughter. Indeed, it seems likely that Ms. Zaki will someday be given much of the credit for the degree of respectability which the dance has achieved in Egypt over the past few years. Watching this demure danseuse at any of the four clubs where she appears nightly, it is difficult to find anything in her performances that would move the most fastidious guardian of Egyptian public morals to repudiate the oriental dance. She seems to float in and through the music, queenly, unperturbed.
She soothes the eye rather than exciting the senses, drawing the onlooker into a sort of underwater realm where all movement is soft, rounded, buoyant, swaying to the gentle ebb and flow of the tide, circling to the tug of unseen moons.
Here you see Sohayr at the Palais Versailles, a little European- style supper club in an expensive section of Cairo, in a fifteen minute spot for the chic young crowd which has filled the club to capacity by 11 p.m. She appears on the small dance floor with no fanfare, wearing a bodice and broad girdle of fishscaled gold coins over a transparent sheath of garnet chiffon and matching skirt set off with delicate traceries of gold spangles. Her long black hair, parted in the middle, flows unconfined down her back. Golden ballet slippers protect her feet. The audience is reserved, distant, and Sohayr does not exert herself — she has other places to dance tonight. To her customary music, the songs of Um Kalthoum composed by ‘Abdel-Wahhab, she glides around the floor with a series of fluid ribcage lifts, leading with her right foot — a sequence repeated several times during the course of the dance. Another favored sequence: she moves clockwise about the floor in a great semi-circle, facing outward, rolling the right hip forward in time to the music. Her right hand frames the hip as she smiles over her right shoulder, while her left hand is held up, out and forward at head level, palm in, forearm at right angles to the floor. Simple movements, these, but perfectly defined and executed with consummate grace. Pacing herself, she fills in much of the dance with lyrical
spins and artful manipulation of her swaths of chiffon.
More than two hours later you see her at the New Arizona on AI-Ahram Street, a broad thoroughfare leading to the Pyramids long renowned for its many casinos. The New Arizona, not unlike a large gilt cafeteria with a stage, is patronized by Egyptians and foreigners from nearly all levels of society. At two o’clock in the morning Sohayr is visibly tiring, but she
will dance better and longer here than at the Palais Versailles. Applause breaks out as soon as her name is announced, an unusual response in view of the apathy with which even the biggest dancers are generally greeted in Egypt. Applause and cries mingle when she appears in a green dancing costume accented at left shoulder and right hip with silver-spangled rosettes. The audience remains hers for the next 25 minutes as she swirls as if caught up by a playful draught, or marches around the stage with a gentle shimmy, her arms, as always, the soul of spring zephyrs and flowers opening to the sun. "Ya hamama! O thou dove!" breathes a smitten oil sheikh. A girl jumps up onto the stage and joins her in the dance
for a minute or two, opening the way for several more people to ascend the stage and thrust bills upon the unruffled Sohayr, who smiles graciously and pauses just long enough for their pictures to be taken with her. Then, as others press upon her, she exchanges a few smiling words with them and they melt away, not at all discountenanced. She blows kisses at the audience, and their eyes light up; she claps her hands and they join in immediately. This is Sohayr, the dancer of the people.
The next day you see her on film. Her movements are larger, faster, more intricate, more convoluted. She dances in a small area, not utilizing the large floor-space, and uses her skirt hardly at all. This is Sohayr, the classical stylist.
The star who recently danced for the presidential family’s wedding began dancing when she was eight years old, according to an unusually comprehensive interview printed in the January 5, 1976 AI-Shabaka, "at wedding parties in Al-Mansoura, her home town. Her salary was a piece of chocolate. Still a child, she left for Alexandria with her mother and step-father to
find a better living, and performed in the Alexandria nightclubs until the producer Sa’id Abu aI-Sa’ad saw her and presented her on television. Then Muhammed Salem took over her television career, and she and her family came to Cairo. ‘Muhammed Salem was giving me money out of his own pocket to live, saying “You can pay me back later’ in order not to hurt my feelings,’" Sohayr remembers.
Sohayr rose to prominence in the mid-1960’s, not only as an oriental dancer but in both acting and dancing roles in movies and television serials.
“’Nagwa Fu’ad suffered more than me,’" she says, "because there wasn’t television in Egypt when she began dancing. Television lead me to success.’" She married cinematographer Muhammed ‘Emara. Her sunny smile and unaffected girl-next-door manner became her trademark all over the Arab World — indeed, she has even been reproached in the press for not keeping up a stellar image. "’I am not a clothes-horse,’" she replied in the Al-Shabaka interview.
"’My mother and her husband managed all my affairs. They made the contracts with the entrepreneurs, bought my clothes and my costumes and prepared them for me. They were buying everything for me and I didn’t concern myself with any of that except for seeing my accounts in the end … only two years ago,
when I read those accusations in the newspapers, I began to really look at myself, to choose for myself the clothes and costumes I would wear … ‘ ‘Beginning dancers say that you perform too much and get too little money and are ruining their business that way,’" the interviewer probes. "’I began to perform when I came from Alexandria … for two pounds ($3.00) a night,’" she replies. "’I had problems with accommodations, costumes and transportation. I started at the bottom. As for those who accuse me, they began at 15, 20, even 50 pounds
a night. There is nothing wrong with being the people’s dancer, and I am available to perform at any average clerk’s wedding. Is it wrong not to charge too much?’"
Not everyone approves of her style of dancing, either. Dancer Aza Sherif, for instance, asserts in a December 8, 1975 Al-Shabaka interview, "’Sohayr puts herself in a certain restricted area and does not try to get out of it. She does not try to develop or renew her dancing.’" But this is largely a matter of taste, and Sohayr claims that other dancers are becoming something neither oriental nor modern, but in-between.
"’I don’t like to ‘improve’ the oriental style for fear of becoming a sort of modern dancer and losing the oriental style which I perform and which distinguishes me from other dancers … I present the old oriental dance with little change, and I dance without tension or frenzy … I am like a pretty old antique – it is possible to polish it and add a little to it, but I am not going to ruin the old oriental heritage’." (Al-Shabaka,
January 5,1976) "’It didn’t bother Um Kalthoum that I danced so much to her songs. She asked me to dance for her and I did, after which she didn’t mind my using her music. I perform this dance with my soul, which is quite different from just shaking the belly. I feel my way through the melody first, then choose the rhythm which fits it. Sometimes I get someone to help loosely choreograph the dance I’m going to perform …’ " (AI-Kamera, 1976)
But Sohayr Zaki seems able to maintain a healthier perspective than most of her colleagues in the face of the accusations and other trials that habitually beset a star in the entertainment world, and this relative equanimity of spirit is reflected in her dancing. "’I am happy in my artistic life with the empathy of the audience, their appreciation and affection, and I am happy at home because I have an honest husband and parents who care for me, surrounding me with faith and love. The time I feel unhappy is when I look around me for people who love and respect one another and fail to find any of these beautiful human feelings in the artistic environment.’" In her early 30’s now, Sohayr has no plans for retirement yet, though she has at times said that she would quit while at the height of her powers, "’ in order to leave a good memory in the minds of the public.’" Once, when asked "’What is the proper age at which to leave the dance?’" she is supposed to have replied, "’At 53 years of age, assuming that the dancer has maintained her health, suppleness and looks.’" (AI-Kawakib,June 19, 1973) "’I am trying to provide for my future now. I bought a piece of land a few years ago. I am trying to build an apartment house on that land, and I will live in one apartment and rent the others. That way I shall be able to live at the same level I’m living at now when I quit dancing… I had to get a 45,000 pound loan from the bank in order to build it… I have a family and some sisters. My father, who died recently, left them for me to take care of … I’m depriving myself of many things. I can’t live a normal life like most people but live an unorganized existence, staying up at night and sleeping during the day, not getting rest, going to work when I am too tired … this is a burden on my health and my marital life … ‘"(AI-Shabaka, January 5, 1976) But fortunately for all who love the Dance of the East, Sohayr Zaki seems far from giving it all up. "’When I appear on stage,’" she smiles, "’I feel that everybody is my friend, especially when they say to me, ‘We missed you, Su-Su.’ And when I finish they say, ‘We’ve made you tired,’ and I answer, ‘I am nothing without you.’"
2012: "Those were the days, my friend;
We thought they’d never end . . ."
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