Your background is a mystery. Tell us a bit about your upbringing.
I was born in Singapore to Egyptian parents and we lived there until I was 15. We also spent a lot of time in Romania and Azerbaijan and ballet dancing was a big part of my life. My father works in the petroleum industry, my mother is a musician who runs her own business and my only sister, Nevine, is a writer who lives in the US. When I was 15, my parents decided to come back to Cairo, where I resumed ballet classes and went to school at the Cairo American College in Maadi. I then studied interior design but never became an interior designer. It was pretty much just a way for me to finish my university degree. I have always been a ballerina.
What inspired you to take up belly dancing?
When I was in Turkey, I went to this cabaret and was dazzled by how sophisticated and artistic everything there was. People were all dressed up as if they were going to the opera; and the dancers astonished me with the class and grace they danced with. It saddened me that Egypt, the land of belly dance, had become a place where the art wasn’t appreciated. I wanted to change that.
Have the misconceptions about belly dancers affected you in any way?
They have affected me in the sense that, in this business, you never know who you are dealing with. I find myself having to be aggressive in the beginning and that scares some people off. Unfortunately, the business is run by men, and women are completely objectified and are used as a way to generate money. That is why I have to be extremely careful about those I deal with, which is a challenge because now I have a reputation for being difficult to work with.
What is your favourite part about the job of belly dancing?
I love performing. I’m a very shy person and very introverted, so being able to go on stage and become a different persona is very amusing to me. Just being able to create a story with music and dance is amazing.
What do you least enjoy about your job?
The thing I enjoy least is the challenge of dealing with all the different kinds of people. I wish I could spend more time focusing on the dancing rather than the politics of the business and having to deal with some people I don’t really want to deal with.
What has been the biggest challenge you faced in your career?
Transitioning from ballet to belly dancing has been very difficult. My technique as a ballerina involved a lot of discipline, while belly dancing is all about letting go. It actually was a challenge for me to take my shoes off while belly dancing so as to feel the floor and move better around the stage.
Does belly dancing require as much skill as ballet dancing?
Ballet dancing requires practice from a very young age. It takes a great deal of discipline to become a ballerina and it takes years to be able to perform what you see on stage. That is why most people give up when they’re teenagers. But when you commit to it for long enough you reach the point where it is really exciting. Belly dancing is different, because you can learn it at any age. It’s particularly challenging when you’ve had dance training like ballet, which is so different from belly dancing. Also, Arabic music is very complex. I’m lucky because my mother is an Arabic music teacher and my father likes to sing. Even though I never used to listen to Arabic music as a child, it has always been part of our lives.
Do you have any pre-performance rituals before going on stage?
Yes! I find it very hard to eat all day on a night when I have a show; I usually get very nervous so I eat after I’m done. I generally try not to leave the house all day and just listen to music, pick my costumes, and try to maintain my focus.
How do you choose your belly dancing costumes?
The costumes have been an adventure for me. The costume styles have changed over the years; back in the day, they used to have amazing costumes like the ones of Samia Gamal or Taheya Karioka. Designers from Paris used to come and set up workshops in Egypt to design the dance costumes. I saw the dancers in Turkey sticking to classical costumes, and was disappointed that in Egypt we shifted to lycra and spandex. It was hard to find someone in Egypt who could make those intricate costumes for me until I found Jess Maghrabi, who designs impeccable costumes. I told her I wanted to go classic. I give her my ideas and she is capable of executing whatever I want. I remember one time I told her that I liked a certain Lady Gaga costume and wanted to design something similar.
How successful have your costumes been?
Actually my costumes have made me very famous. When I first started belly dancing, I wasn’t very good at it because I was still in the ballet mode, and it took me a while to develop my oriental style. However, people really liked my costumes because they were different from what they normally saw nowadays. I invest in my costumes and literally do not put a limit on how much I spend on them. I have a Swarovski costume that is entirely made of crystals, which cost me 25,000 EGP. We call it the Crystal Chandelier and it’s made of 400 meters of Swarovski crystals. I also have a peacock feather costume and it’s actually called the Enigma costume.
Where are you performing these days?
At the moment, I work in two places, Sofitel El Gezirah and Gu Bar. My primary goal is to try and bring attention to performing with a live band. I’ve been seeing a trend in Egypt of dancing at clubs to the same pop music that you’ve heard a million times. I’m following the trend too. I mean, it’s a wave I’m riding. I think it’s exciting that people are paying attention to belly dance, but I’m hoping to bring more attention to the classical approach.
What are your plans for the coming year and what is your ultimate goal?
I just want to keep developing myself as a dancer and plan to be even pickier about the jobs, including the weddings that I accept to perform at. I always ask about the people I will be dancing for and make sure the music is good. I’m also looking forward to taking belly dancing a little more out of the context of a celebratory art into more of a performing art.
How do you stay so fit?
I was actually a vegetarian for 12 years and for some reason, about a year ago, I started eating meat again. I plan to transition back to being a vegetarian since, healthwise, I felt better about myself that way. I also really do feel bad about the animals and that’s partially why I became a vegetarian in the first place. I also take a ballet class every day and a pilates class three times a week.
What are your biggest vices or indulgences?
My costumes are my number one indulgence. For me, the reason I became a belly dancer, and even a ballet dancer, was the costumes; the tutus, the shoes that make you stand on your toes, and later the belly dancing costumes with all their bling; they really are amazing.
What is your favourite non-dance activity?
I love reading. I can actually read three or four books at the same time and switch back and forth. I also love watching old movies, whether English or Arabic.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. I was a nerd and have always been into science. I actually have a table of elements at home that I like to look at every once in a while. I’m also really into old Russian literature and I read a lot of Russian classics. I’m also very shy and introverted, which is something I have to leave behind before I go on stage. Actually, my favourite time is when I’m alone with my music, books, cat, and Cappuccino.
What is your philosophy in life?
I follow my heart. I mean, whatever I do, I always follow my gut feeling. I don’t care about people’s judgments, because I’m not hurting anyone.
ART DIRECTION & STYLING: Maissa Azab
PHOTOGRAPHY: Ahmed Mobarez
LOCATION: Grand Nile Tower