Friday, December 04, 2015

The show must go on......!

Yesterday I published a post about continuing to work for the past 9 months despite severe pain. Some of you have expressed surprise as to how I was able to do that. To be honest, I am pretty surprised at myself too! 

If you are a professional dancer like me I am sure you will have nights where you just can't get in the mood, or you are suffering either physical or emotional pain. How do you manage to get up on that stage and go for it, when it's the last thing you want to do?! Here's some of what goes on in my head and helps me put those sequins on when all I really want to do is get into my PJs and curl up with a good book in bed! 

The main thing is professionalism. 

This breaks down into two intrinsic elements: Brand value and income protection. 

Brand value- I have to show that I can deliver what has been promised. I cannot bring myself to let people down and have them think ill of me. I need people to know when they book me, they can trust me to be there. If I cancel, even with a really good excuse, like a slipped disk, I'd run the risk of breaking that trust and losing that client. 

When you run your own business you really do need to put your best foot forward or face the consequences. If you cancel work in Cairo, you run the high risk of never being offered a gig at that venue, or with that person again. There are other dancers out there and if they are forced to use another, they may not ask you back. Competition is steep. Money is seldom the reason most dancers I know have chosen this challenging occupation, however of course, we still all have rent and bills to pay. You can't afford to give the work away, you need to protect your current and future income. 

photo credit:

Sickness, injury, whatever reason you wish you weren't going to work that night, now because of professionalism you have steeled yourself up for it. So how do you manage to paint on enough of a smile that will show the world you are not only there doing your job, but happy to be? We need to make that effort because there is nothing worse than watching a dancer who looks like she doesn't want to be there. 

For me it is all about slipping my feet into the shoes of my audience. Not literally! 

'The show must go on' attitude has always been strong in me, no matter what, since the beginning of my performing career. I have always thought 'there will be at least one person in that audience who has never seen Bellydance before and it is my duty to make sure they go away with as favourable an opinion as possible'. Educate them, if you will. 

Of course, you could argue that everyone in Cairo has seen Bellydance at one point or another so the above reasoning doesn't really apply unless I am performing at the time for a boat load of tourists or outside of Egypt. 

In Cairo my thinking is more in relation to how the general public view belly dancers. 

The vast majority of them really do see us as only one step up from prostitution, mainly due to the way Bellydance has always been portrayed in media. The dancer in films is always the 'bad' influence. Sadly. So when I set foot on a Cairo stage, I do so with the attitude that I want to show 'it's not like that'. Yes, it is sexy, but it is not crude or vulgar. There is elegance and skill involved too. 

That is always part of my purpose and the thing that gives me that energy boost to get on stage and 'prove' them wrong or at least challenge their preconceived prejudices. 

The third factor involved in that impetus to "get the show on the road", is entertainment. Everyone has struggles within their own lives and when you go out to see a show you want to be distracted from that and given the opportunity to smile, relax and have fun. To be entertained. If I can help even just one person in front of me do that through my dance, then I have made their world a slightly better place, even if just for that short time and that is, I think, a noble aim. 

These driving thoughts have been the main reasons I 'soldiered' on through the pain and depression. 

I didn't quit. I didn't give up. I wanted to make a difference.

To give me a valid reason for being a bellydancer.  Perhaps even to give me a 'reason for being'.

If you still are finding it hard to push yourself when you really aren't in the mood to dance remember than you always get that natural chemical reward too. When you dance your body releases endorphins and these can be thought of as 'the happy hormones'. It is unlikely that the world will weigh as heavy on your shoulders at the end of the dance than it did at the beginning. I cannot count the number of times I have literally been in tears in changing rooms before a show, depressed about something going on in my own life, but then been able to smile and even laugh, genuinely, on stage. That's the high. 

Dance is my drug of choice. It never fails to help me cheer up when I am down! I always feel better when I am dancing, or have just danced. 

I hope that whatever the difficulties you face in your life, they can also always be lessened through dance. Whether you are a professional dancer, or not!

Happy dancing! 

Thursday, December 03, 2015

To be, or not to be?

One night last week I was called over to a table after my show. Regular customers (a mixed group, all Egyptians) who decided that they had to tell me that had renamed me 'Samia Gamal for this generation'. 

I was somewhat perplexed. I don't look like her (I wish!) and although she has always inspired me and I love her, there are many other dancers whose style I am more influenced by. So I asked why. They were all jumping over each other to explain it to me (which shows me that they had actually been analyzing and discussing it together as a group!)

I was told that I always came across as "classy, elegant and intelligent when I dance and  in the way I interact with everyone, on and off stage". They have no idea how much that compliment means to me. Not commenting on my steps, or my body, or my costumes, or even my 'feeling', but seeing past all that to on my overall demeanor as a person. The 'me' inside the dancer. 

I'm actually welling up thinking about it. All the battles I have fought to be a dancer in this country. To fight against so many things that are out of my hands, from revolutions to pain and so many things in between. All these felt like they had been leading up to this moment. 

If I could have imagined what my biggest achievement would be I might have previously answered, dancing on a large stage with a huge orchestra, or dancing in a movie or being booked for more weddings than I could handle. Of course, those would be great too, and if anyone wants to help arrange these I wouldn't say no ! Actually scrape that, I might say no, it always depends on the cost (and sadly in this industry, in this country that cost is often one I am not prepared to pay!). 

The truth though was there, in a bar in Mohandiseen, being told by a group of people that they saw, recognized, appreciated and liked 'the person inside the dancer' was the acceptance I think I have been striving for all these years. It really moved me. (I tried not to embarrass them, or myself, by showing that too much though!!!!) . I guess it was reaffirmation that I hadn't been wasting all these years after all! 

I always thought 'making it' would be that people thought I was Egyptian because of the way I dance. However,  people have told me that many times over my 10 years here and, although fabulous to hear, it did indeed boost me on low days, it didn't really make me feel I succeeded. Or perhaps it did, at the time, and I have just moved the goalposts. I do that I lot I have noticed. Good way to improve, bad way to ever feel content! 

So the moral of all this, if there needs to be one, is that the more I allow myself to dance honestly, as me, not 'trying to be Egyptian' but just 'being me', the more I am valued as a dancer in Cairo. 

So the answer to the title question- 'To Be!' 

Oh, and I just want to say a special thanks to those audience members for choosing Samia for all the reasons above but also for giving me such a good excuse to spend a morning poured photos and videos of her! 

The ostrich effect

I've been finding it really hard to write these days, because actually I've been finding these days really hard. 

When I say days, I actually mean months. Nearly 9 months in fact. 

I kinda lost my fire. There were glimpses, here and there. Hot spots, you might say. 
A show which which reignited the flame.
A night out where the music has flooded everything else out.
A class where I was overwhelmed and inspired by the energy of my students. 
Largely however, that fire has felt more like trying to light a match with a gale-force wind blowing in my face. I've felt I've been fighting things which were out with my control. Fighting and losing.

Pain: Such a little word for something that can change you and your life so much. 

I know my body well. I've been a dancer for 20+ years and I see this as a professional requirement. I know how relaxed or tight each muscle is. I know when I am somewhat out of alignment, and I usually know exactly needs moving to get me back up and running. I know when my stomach needs to avoid food for a while, and I'm not talking about weight issues here. In fact, I know my body so well that I could tell you where to look to find a pimple on my back that I hadn't seen or been told was there! I can 'sense' it. 

This complete body awareness is, I think, what has given me an edge in dance all these years. It is what allows my body to respond to sounds without consciously having to process the information in my brain. It's what allows me to lose myself in the music. It frees me up from the thoughts of 'what to do' so that I can be fully present in my interactions with my audience. 

I have been so lucky. 

The unlikely thing was that I didn't realise nor appreciate it. They say "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone". This is not the case here. For these past months I have wished it was gone! The downside of such intense awareness is that, if I can feel a small pimple.. Image what happens when I get an injury! 

All dancers get injuries. You use your body for any job, day in day out, and it will have repercussions. I've had a constantly recurring neck and shoulder pain from a slipped disc my neck, caused by wildly swinging a saidi stick above my head every evening in my show. Then I realised it was actually just too heavy for me and a switched to a lighter one (which had the added benefit of helping me completely change my style of saidi dance and has actually been one of the best things I ever did!). The pain lingers though, despite my belated understanding and change of behaviour. It's amazing how long the body will bear a grudge, or perhaps I should be amazed at how forgiving it has actually been all these years!!!! 

With that particular injury, I've always been able to fix it, or ignore it, or at least dance through it. The adrenaline from dance has always been enough to block the worst of the pain while performing. I saw dance as a miracle drug- able to remove pain for as long as I kept dancing! 

Then, 9 months ago, doing I don't know what, I manage to slip a disk in the very base of my back (L5-C1). I didn't know that's what I had done and I did all my usual fail safes for fixing myself. I threw ibuprofen pills down my neck like they were sweeties. I went for massages. I went to my osteopath. I stretched. I rested. I tried strengthening exercises. I had a few weeks where I didn't dance at all.  I did all the things I 'knew' that the doctor would say, and (wrongly) assumed the pain would just eventually go away. 

When I was on my recent trip to China I went for numerous massages hoping someone would be able to just 'pop' it into place. The thing was that the pain was registering inside my hip joint... And pins and needles and pain all down my leg. So I stupidly (in hindsight) thought it was hip related not back related. I did have one massage that managed to pop something back into place and as I danced to a baladi song in class 20mins later I actually had tears running down my face because of joy for the moment mixed with sadness for all those lost dances. That first pain free dance in 9 months was an incredibly emotional experience!  Sadly the 'fix' didn't last. Within a hour the pain was back. Just as bad as before. I really didn't think there was anything that could be done. After all, I'd been taking drugs and they weren't working. I trusted my own ability to heal myself too much. 

I learned to struggle on and live with it when I didn't have to. Trying all the things that usually work, getting more and more depressed when they didn't . In fact, I got so down this year that I actually decided to quit dance. What was the point, when the joy was gone? What would I have left as a dancer if all I had left was the theory and the mechanics (even they were limited) and no passion? I was distraught. 

When I came back I knew that I had to see a doctor and go for an MRI scan just to rule that out. It was that or accept the end of my dance career. 

In Cairo I went to a dr friend of mine. He prescribed me some heavy duty pain killers, and sent me off for a scan. This is only the 2nd MRI I have had in my life, and this time, as it had the first time, a power cut happened MIDSCAN. How unlucky am I?! Stuck in a freezing cold room in this machine until the generator kicked in and we had to restart the scan! 
however, by the next day.... Yes, I was able to get my result that quickly, a huge plus side to getting these things checked out in Cairo rather than in UK!, I knew what was wrong.  Not only that , but to my intense surprise, the new painkillers were actually doing their job! They worked where other antiinflammatories and painkillers hadn't. I've got physio exercises too. 

That weekend, I was able to dance relatively pain free. I couldn't believe it. These pills worked where all the brufen in the world hadn't! I felt so relieved and so stupid all at the same time. 

Why did it take me so long when it involved maybe even losing the thing I loved most?!!! Why hadn't I gone to the doctor sooner? I will tell you why- I was so scared I would be told I had to quit dance altogether. That's why. The pain got me down and the thought of what I might 'have' to do, or stop doing, got me down even more. I was ostriching, not wanting to face the fear and making myself worse in the process. 

Now, my head is out the sand and the pain is gone. I am able to get back into the music and things are looking brighter again. I am realizing that my body has been compensating for such a long time that I am having to retrain certain muscles and movements. Not surprising I'm sure, but weird for me. These are moves which have been 'natural' to me for so long that having to teach myself again is very peculiar. Wonderful, because now I can do them without pain. And I am so much more appreciative of what my body can do, now that I am fully aware of all the things it couldn't for so long. 

It's great to feel free again! 

The moral of the story: I'm a dancer. Not a doctor. 

So in future I plan to try and respond  quicker to aches and pains by getting them checked out properly by someone who is actually trained to do that! 

I hope this hasn't come across as too whinging of a post. I have not been feeling like myself for the majority of this year, and wanted to explain why! Thanks for getting through to the end of this! 

If you are also a dancer and in pain.... I hope you seek, and get the professional help getting through it that you need because nothing is worse that losing that exquisite joy of dance!