August 5, 2016

The Big Dance.

Magic in Bali Sepia

I don’t think you’ve lived until you’ve been hit by a storm—not a regular storm, but a sudden, unpredictable, violent, life-shattering storm—the kind that leaves no stone unturned.  

Then you’ll have tasted what I call The Big Dance.

The storm hit me on January 2011. I’d been dancing since I was five years old, but it was at the time of the storm that I became a capital “D” Dancer.

I’d performed the night before, as I’d done for the last several years. My day, as the day of millions of people in one of the most populated cities on earth, woke upside down. We didn’t know what hit us. “Al Jazzera” and CNN channels were hysterical; embassies were calling foreigners at their homes, urging them to pack and move out of the country before things got totally out of control.

What the hell is going on? I asked Nevine, my neighbor, an Egyptian journalist who had interviewed me about my work in Egypt and had become my friend.

They say it’s a revolution, but nobody knows for sure. Can’t you hear the people in “Tahrir” Square trying to bring President Hosny Mubarak down?

I could hear them, but I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I sat by my window, unable to sip my overly-sweetened “Arousa” tea, lost in a battle between reality and dream, unsure if the foot stomping and the enraged chorus were products of my imagination or facts.

Wait a minute! This cannot be happening.

I’d passed the square two days and all was methodically chaotic, as expected. Licorice street vendors, taxi drivers, beggars, government employees, overwhelmed tourists and exotic bums dressed in colorful gallabeyas (traditional loose, long clothing worn by both genders) co-habited in perfect disharmony. Just a few hours ago, my assistant had dropped me home after a long and peaceful night of shows.

The following days felt like navigating a mad house without exit doors or windows. We were trapped, no horizon or escape in sight; no clue of what would happen next.

Was this a political tumult, Muslim Brotherhood take over, war? Unpredictability is Egypt’s surname. Since I’d moved, I’d learned how to deal with the unexpected, eat impossible for breakfast , absurd for lunch and mystery for dinner. Riding invisible waves and dealing with events, behaviours and outcomes not even the most talented of writers would come up with was at the core of my existence. But this was too much, even for (my) Egyptian standards.

What the hell is going on?

I asked Allah, God, The Invisible…whatever you may call it.

Before I could receive an answer, I was thrown into a rollercoaster: travelling with just a suitcase in a Portuguese Army airplane, leaving everything I’d built (so far) behind. Then in Lisbon, at television studios, being interviewed about the Egyptian Revolution.

I had a tour in Europe at the time so I moved on, dizzy or not, lost or found, knowingly or not, without a clue of what was happening and how my life would be from then on.

Here’s the craziest part: I thought I was a dancer who was in control of the music, no matter how it was played; I believed I was in charge of my fate, the kind of woman that makes her luck, disregarding destiny’s collaboration or opposition.

I looked down at the ones who put fate in the hands of the Unknown.

I improvised daily shows with musicians who never played according to plan—I never missed a beat, a note, a detail. I’d dealt with snakes, crocodiles and every sort of trap, always ending up victorious and untouched by the dirt. I thought I was Superwoman, the female version of Indiana Jones searching for the lost Ark in Egypt.

I presumed that I was totally in control as a dancer and as a person—until The Big Dance showed me there were upgrades to be made and a dose of humbleness to be taken.

Once the tour was over and I could return home, I realized my old life was gone. It wasn’t only Egypt, as I knew it, that had disappeared. The person and life structure I’d built with so much sacrifice and hard work over the last decade were nowhere to be found.

Who am I when stripped of the things that I thought defined me?

Hell had broken loose: the entertainment business was frozen, the economy destroyed, the uncertainty about the future of the country scared investors, foreigners and sensible people away; sexual harassment in the streets increased proportionally to the freedom of expression of the simple folks who had been forced, until then, to keep their religious extremism inside their homes. One of my best friends died of cancer and I discovered my boyfriend was married and on the way to have his second child with his wife.

My boss exploded when he realized I wouldn’t give in to his pick-up attempts. Not then, not ever.

Dance shows were the last thing on people’s minds–even mine.

Suddenly it became clear: there was no reason to remain in Egypt. I’d accomplished the goals which had driven me there and I was in urgent need of a change. There was no more reason to put up with the mentality clashes and the way women—including many of the dancers that I’d worked with—are (mis)treated. There was a chapter of my life which had to be closed so another, more expansive and healthy one could begin.

Egypt had exploded and so had I. We’ve always been in perfect synchronicity.

Despite the disorientation and question marks, I moved on and the world started calling. Literally. I haven’t stopped travelling to perform, teach and lecture ever since. A huge, familiar window had been closed and a bigger, foreign door was opened.

There’s the dance we do in studios and stages and there’s The Big Dance, the one we do in—and with—life. The first depends—mostly—of our will and action; the second doesn’t. The best we can do is to dance in, through and beyond the storm. Never against it. No one is stronger than Life.

We can try to hold on to certainties and things as they are or were; we can write To Do lists, check what the stars hold in store, try to outsmart the moves life will eventually pull on us. Nothing and can prepare us for life except living, being present in each moment and surfing the waves the best we can.

Some times we can’t surf—we fall. Falling is a dance step, don’t you know? So is rising up after the fall.

Given a choice, most of us would keep our realities stable, predictable and plain. We feel safe moving in straight lines. But life is more interesting, challenging and circular than that. Nothing remains the same: change is probably the only certainty we have. Why fight it? Why (trying to) go against an enemy that will beat us to the pulp?

Our bodies, minds, hearts and circumstances change constantly, some times from one moment to the other. What made our heart beat yesterday may not be what makes it beat today; the tissues we’re made of evolve; our skin, muscles, brain, moods, characters and level of consciousness change.


Our relationships start, grow, and eventually die—some times, they are reborn. Life is made of cycles: day and night, hot and cold, up and down, in and out, silent and loud, active and passive, light and dark, beginning and end. Trying to hold on to structures, ideas or plans we’ve created seems not only a waste of energy but a suicidal plan, particularly in the times we’re living where the old order is being questioned, destroyed and slowly but surely replaced by a new order we still don’t understand—at least, not fully.

As far as I (now) can see, there are many revolutions—small and big ones. An enormous array of deaths, not necessarily physical but psychological, emotional, spiritual.

We have to allow old flames to subside so new, more elevated flames can come from within, brightening up our lives. We need to be light in order to fly. The higher, the lighter; the lighter, the higher.

The motion, this thing called life, is unstoppable and it’s the most fascinating dance partner we could ever ask for. Its waves will keep coming our way from unexpected angles, in unexpected sizes, depths and directions.

Are we willing to accept—or even rejoice—in the unexpected that the expected perpetual change brings?

Are we great enough—as dancers and human beings—to surrender our weapons, armor and illusion of control in order to experience, in gratitude, whatever life brings?

Are we strong enough to let go of crystallized truths and renew, whenever necessary, our identity, values and the idea of what our lives should be?

Are we ready to ride those waves and flow with the Big Dance? Not “one, two, three, turn and repeat” kind of dance but The Dance of Artists, one that goes beyond the steps, the counting and the stale choreographies that crumble under the storm.

Are we ready to be a co-creator in the Big Dance and hold life so dearly and unconditionally that we become one with it?

I’ve made my choice—or maybe life made it for me.

Who can tell the difference?

Here’s all I need to know:





“In the end, it’s a matter of faith in life—knowing that it takes care of us and it loves us, if we allow it. Knowing we are worth its care and love. The problem is very few of us trust in life. We are raised to believe Life is against us, not with us; we are raised to believe there is a scarcity that justifies looking at other fellow humans as competition (it’s me or them getting the slice of the cake), as if life were a mean stepmother we have to protect ourselves from. Who would imagine that Oriental Dance…takes us exactly to that trusting place where we can be ourselves and allow the life flow to take care of us? Without that state of permission and self-worth, this dance (or Joy) cannot happen.”

{Excerpt from The Secrets of Egypt—Dance, Life & Beyond by Joana Saahirah. 2nd edition, revised and updated.}





Author: Joana Saairah 

Images: via the author 

Editor: Renée Picard 

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Joana Saairah