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(Continuing the section on Raqs Sharqi in Egyptian Cinema and TV (1970s and Early 1980s)

All about Soheir Zaki the raqs sharqi performer

Soheir Zaki’s Background

Soheir Zaki (سهير زكي), Nearing (2012a) and Sullivan (2002) report, was born in Mansoura, in the Nile Delta and moved to Alexandria with her family when she was nine.

During her career, Soheir Zaki performed for famous people and heads of state, including President Nixon. Sullivan (2002, para. 1) reports that ‘President Nixon named her “Zagreeta,” when he learned that the word referred to an expression of joy. She received accolades and medals from the Shah of Iran, the Tunisian President and Gamal Abdel Nasser’.

Soheir Zaki, as opposed to what happened to most raqs sharqi dancers, even when raqs sharqi was at its peak in Egypt, was perceived as respectable by the public.

According to Evanoff (2012, para. 6), ‘Souheir Zaki is one of the few Egyptian dancers in history who is referred to as a lady or “mokhtarrama,” meaning respectable’.

Soheir Zaki’s Dancing Style

This may be due to Soheir Zaki’s dancing style and attitude on stage as ‘she seems to float in and through the music, queenly, unperturbed.

She soothes the eye rather than exciting the senses’ (Nearing, 2012a, paras 8, 9).

Or it could be due to her private life as she married only once (unlike most raqs sharqi dancers who married several times) and carried a quiet private life ‘with a good reputation to preserve’ (Marlyz, 2010, para. 4).

This aura of respectability could be due to Soheir Zaki’s personality but it may also be a conscious decision to create a presentation of self-identity, in order to position herself in the field and create her own image and niche.

In 5.5.4, I will analyze Soheir Zaki’s style in more detail using the sociological theories from my conceptual framework, while comparing her to the other dancers from the same timeframe.

Her Early Career and Dancing

Soheir Zaki was dancing from the early 1960s until the late 1980s at the same time as Nagwa Fouad and they were considered the two most prominent raqs sharqi dancers of that era.

However, their style, personality and dance philosophy could not have been more different.

Figure 24 – Soheir Zaki, video still from the 1975 movie Alo, ana al-ghetta” (Hello, I’m the cat) (TheCaroVan 2014a)

While Nagwa Fouad wanted to legitimize raqs sharqi by making it more theatrical and  ‘went for flash, employing more and more razzmatazz within her performance until her show resembled a Las Vegas spectacular’ (Sullivan, 2002, para. 19), Soheir Zaki was a minimalist and wanted to keep raqs sharqi pure and close to its core. Soheir Zaki herself was quoted as saying in an interview with Al-Shabaka in 1976 (Nearing, 2012a, para. 19):

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.

Soheir Zaki (in an interview with Al-Shabaka in 1976.

Indeed, in the raqs sharqi discourse, Soheir Zaki is often considered the epitome of traditional raqs sharqi.

In the Golden Age, Tahia Carioca was the embodiment of tradition, as highlighted earlier. Therefore, it is not surprising that Soheir Zaki was Tahia’s favourite modern dancer, so much so that she was quoted as saying that ‘Sohair is the best.

She is truly Oriental’ (Cifuentes, 1994, para. 20). Nearing (2012a, para. 7), quoting a Middle Eastern source, reports that Soheir Zaki is considered the most classical by Middle Easterners:

Anyone who is well acquainted with the oriental dance would say that Sohayr Zaki is the dancer who captures its real spirit. . . . 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)

The Depth of Soheir Zaki’s Style

It is worth exploring in more depth what makes Soheir Zaki’s style be considered so authentic in the discourse of the international raqs sharqi community.

One of the first elements can be found in what Soheir Zaki herself states when she says that she dances ‘without tension or frenzy’ (Nearing, 2012a, para. 19).

In the Egyptian raqs sharqi authenticity discourse, the idea that there is a certain authentic body attitude is recurrent, and in particular the idea of a relaxed body attitude. Esposito advises dancers to (2015, para. 18) ‘relax.

Don’t dance to impress. Bigger and faster isn’t necessarily better’. Connected with the feeling of relaxation is the idea that the authentic Egyptian oriental style is soft and the movements are small. Francesca, for example, told me about Soheir Zaki:

I really, really liked the softness of her dance. And very, very, minimal dance that she does, which doesn’t mean that she didn’t do a lot, but everything was just in the right amount.

Francesca – (PhD participant on the PhD of Dr Valeria Lo Iacono, 2019)

Indeed, for some, the essence of Egyptian raqs sharqi lies in its simplicity.

As Leena stated in her interview, raqs sharqi has ‘a sense of essence: you do not need tricks or flashy props to express the message or feeling. . . . And juiciness.

The lush, strong, sinuous and relaxed, well-centred movement’. In a similar way, Esposito (2015, para. 7) states that in belly dance you can express yourself by being ‘subtle.

By keeping your movements small, internal, meaningful, soft, and in harmony with the music’. In spite of being grounded and gravity oriented, another one of the qualities of raqs sharqi is elegance. Indeed, for Nimeera (no date, paras 8, 9):

Souhair Zaki was a very sweet and elegant dancer, known for her unique “soft” style . . . and . . . for her innocently coy facial expressions Souhair Zaki epitomizes the natural baladi dancer, and was often referred to as a “Bint el Balad”. . . . Her style was pure and precise . . . very feminine, graceful, and rather reserved.

Nimeera (no date, paras 8, 9)

Baladi Elements

The idea of baladi being associated with authenticity is a recurrent topic and the most traditional dancers, such as Tahia Carioca and Soheir Zaki, are considered ‘Bint al balad’.

Egyptian raqs sharqi is considered sensual, playful, introspective and joyful all at the same time, probably due to its baladi roots.

Angela, in her interview, for example, says that for her authentic raqs sharqi is ‘sensual, not necessarily sexual, but sensual.

Feminine, sometimes playful, sometimes bold, confident, sometimes casual, individualistic’. Hossam Ramzy (no date a, para. 2), also uses the word playful when talking about the 1930s/40s dancer Hagar Hamdi whose dancing was ‘so authentically Egyptian, playful, fully integrating the music, rhythm and artistic Egyptian styles together’.

Humour and Musicality in Her Dance

Soheir Zaki herself mentioned the importance of humour and musicality when she stated that foreign belly dancers will never be the same as Egyptians, because foreigners ‘don’t have the sense of humour and . . . the musical ear’ (Nimeera, no date, para. 7).

Soheir Zaki’s coy expression is connected with Egyptian mannerism and the way Egyptian women usually move. For example, Lorna, who lived in Egypt for ten years, said in her interview about the way Egyptian women move, that she noticed:

The way the women would flirt. So cute and they would sit and, even if they were wearing a niqab, the headscarf, they would sit and they would fiddle with it and play with it, pull it over one shoulder, take it back in really quite a coquettish, flirty way.

Lorna – (PhD participant on the PhD of Dr Valeria Lo Iacono, 2019)

Lorna’s observations may be influenced by her own understanding of Egyptian body language, coming from a western (British) perspective.

However, Lorna’s observations match Adra’s (2005), regarding Egyptian social dance. Adra (2005) explains that, in traditional Arab cultures, people are not encouraged to express their individuality in public, where they are supposed to be reserved.

However, at home and between close friends, social rules are relaxed. Traditional belly dancing is play, in which social restraints (if dance takes place in the appropriate context) are allowed to be lowered.

Adra (2005, p. 42) observes that ‘when the dancer feigns modesty by covering her eyes with the back of her hand while moving her pelvis, she is making a good-humored meta-statement about this dance that is anything but modest’.

Emotional impact and Soheir

Another element in Soheir Zaki’s dancing, which is often associated with raqs sharqi, is an emotional impact. Nimeera (no date, paras 8, 9), states that Soheir Zaki had ‘an emotional impact that was breathtaking’.

In the conceptual framework section, regarding the role of emotions for a holistic framework of heritage (3.4), I mentioned the idea of tarab (enchantment, ecstasy) for Arabic music and dance.

This involves the musicians expressing emotions through the music and the dancer translating these visually and kinesthetically, in order to transmit them to the audience in an embodied fashion.

This feeling, however, according to the Egyptian raqs sharqi international discourse, is not achieved by acting but by being true to oneself on stage and connecting with the emotional feeling of the music and the lyrics of the songs, if there are any.

Indeed, Raqia Hassan (Sullivan, 2002, para. 20) remarks that ‘Sohair Zaki epitomizes the ‘natural’ dancer. Her appeal was in her simplicity. . . . She was always herself in front of an audience—acting was never part of her performance’.

Moreover, as raqs sharqi is still (at least in Egypt), based on improvisation rather than choreography, spontaneity of expression is also extremely valued.

Francesca commented in her interview that ‘the real core of raqs sharqi is divided between improvisation . . . and the ability to be vulnerable and yourself on stage . . . to express your feelings through the movements of the dance’.

Esposito observes that (2015, para. 8) ‘this is a very personal dance [and you should] be yourself’ (ibid, para 18).

Joana, in her interview, stressed the importance of emotions for Egyptian audiences by observing that:

For Egyptians . . . more than for any other audience, emotion is very important. . . . It’s not about you showing off how you can move . . . share your emotion, honest, emotion, not acting. This is something Egyptian audiences appreciate, very much.

(PhD participant on the PhD of Dr Valeria Lo Iacono, 2019)

(I will return to this idea of ‘being yourself’ in 6.2 and analyse what it means for the Egyptian raqs sharqi authenticity discourse).

Music in the Raqs Sharqi Authenticity Discourse

Finally, musicality and the connection with the music is another recurrent theme in the raqs sharqi authenticity discourse.

Indeed, Soheir Zaki was famous for being ‘intuitively musically responsive’ (El Safy, 1993b, para. 4) and for having a great ear for music, so much so that she has been quoted for saying (Sullivan, 2002, para. 14):

If someone played a wrong note, I would hear who it was even though I had my back to him. Afterwards I’d take him on one side and remind him exactly where in the music he’d made a mistake.

(Sullivan, 2002)

Music in raqs sharqi is so important, that now a number of foreign dancers move to Cairo to dance professionally in order to have the opportunity to dance to live music.

In 5.7.7 I will expand further on this topic. Moreover, music for dancers has a big impact from a phenomenological (and emotional) point of view.

Music is also a resource that allows dancers to express themselves and to increase their cultural and symbolic capital, as the more a dancer can say that s/he danced with a live band the more prestige s/he acquires (at least in the international scene, since it is not easy to find bands to dance raqs sharqi to, outside of Egypt or the Middle East).

Soheir Zaki was credited as being the first raqs sharqi dancer to use Umm Kulthum’s music for her performances.

Umm Kulthum (1904-1975) was and still is one of the most loved female Egyptian singers of all times in the Arab world, for whom many great songs were written and composed by composers of great calibre, such as Abdel-Wahab (Danielson, 1994).

Her songs were not originally written for dancing. Soheir Zaki was the first dancer who danced to them and, since then, raqs sharqi dancers worldwide have been dancing to Umm Kulthum’s songs adaptations for dancers.

Soheir said in an interview to AI-Kamera in 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’ (Nearing, 2012a, para. 21).

From his quotation, it emerges how Soheir Zaki used music as a resource to innovate, by overcoming the rule, upheld until then, that it was not possible to dance to Um Kalthoum’s songs.

However, Soheir is also asserting her prestige in the field by stating that Um Kalthoum (who was and still is held in very high regard in the Arabic speaking world as a singer) did not mind Soheir using her music.

Career Similiarities

As well as differences between Soheir Zaki and Nagwa Fouad (traditional and minimalist the former, experimental and lavish the latter), there are also similarities in their ways of working and in their careers.

Firstly, both performed with big orchestras of 30 to 50 musicians and secondly, they had music composed especially for them (both signs of high social and cultural capital for a dancer, as well as providing them with an important resource to express their creativity and present their self-identity).

Nimeera (no date, para. 10), for example, (referring to Soheir Zaki) writes that ‘music, such as “Shik Shak Shok”, was specially created for her every six months.

The musicians numbered between 15 and 30 and connected with her perfectly’.

Moreover, both Soheir and Nagwa (in addition to performing in expensive clubs and hotels and appearing in several movies) used the medium of TV to their advantage (as an allocative resource).

Soheir Zaki acknowledged the impact of this new medium in her career by saying ‘television led me to success’ (Nearing, 2012a, para. 14) and recalled that in the 1960s:

There were weekly TV shows featuring dancers—programs like ‘On The Banks Of The Nile,’ ‘Adwa el Medina,’ and ‘Zoom’.

I was a regular solo performer and we also danced ‘tableaux’ by choreographer Ibrahim Akef. (Sullivan, 2002, para. 12)

Table 23 – Soheir Zaki’s movement style
(from the PhD of Dr Valeria Lo Iacono, 2019)

Table 23 summarises Soheir Zaki’s style. After recording my observations, I found Nimeera’s (no date, paras 15, 19) comments on the web, which are not too dissimilar, where she states that Soheir Zaki:

Uses very simple arms with some wrist circles and hand gestures. Her arm positions are . . . always relaxed. . . . Her spins are usually relaxed and short, sometimes leaning into a barrel turn . . . Souhair Zaki became well known for her down hips. . . . The hip is sharply moved simultaneously down and out while stepping the weight on the same foot. At the same time, the other hip on the non-weighted foot is allowed to move up.

Nimeera’s (no date, paras 15, 19)

I have chosen, as examples of her style, three videos.

The first two are from 1970s movies. One is a scene from the 1975 movie Alo, ana al ghetta (Hello, I am the cat) (TheCaroVan, 2014m), in which Soheir Zaki is on stage with a group of musicians.

The other one is from the 1972 movie Wakr al-ashrar (ArabClassicFilms, 2011c), in which she is dancing in a nightclub and the musicians are also visible in this video.

Video Research on Soheir

The third video I have chosen is a live performance, probably from the 1980s (TheCaroVan, 2015h).

Here Soheir is dancing on stage with a large band of musicians, for a very big audience of people of all ages, including families with women and children, presumably Egyptians.

One of the interesting things to notice is how Soheir Zaki interacts with the audience, coming off the stage at some point to interact with people in the first row.

Audience/dancer interaction is part, as pinpointed in 5.2, of the Egyptian raqs sharqi tradition and it can be seen in the old movies, as well as in modern live performances in Egypt.

From the data, it has emerged that connecting with the audiences is essential for Egyptian raqs sharqi dancers.

For example, Samia Gamal once said that she preferred to dance in a night club rather than on stage (Sami, no date, sec. 6) ‘because I am closer to the audience and I live with them’ and Tito said: ‘when people receive me with love I give the most of myself’ (Beltran, 2014, sec. 4:00).

Similar feelings have emerged from the interviews as Elindia, for example, said about the essence of raqs sharqi that ‘raqs sharqi . . . lets your personality come forward.

You engage with the audience’ and Ann stated that ‘there’s nothing worse than watching a dancer, who is just dancing for herself’.

From these quotations, it emerges that the dancer/audience connection is important both from a phenomenological point of view (value of the experience) and in terms of how a performer presents her/his self-identity.

Next Page >> Nelly Fouad who provided innovation in movements, continuing the section on Egyptian Cinema and TV (1970s1980s).

From these quotations, it emerges that the dancer/audience connection is important both from a phenomenological point of view (value of the experience) and in terms of how a performer presents her/his self-identity.

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Hi - I'm Dr Valeria Lo Iacono and I am a dance researcher with a PhD in dance as a form of living heritage. I also teach belly dance and love to travel to discover new dances around the world. I have worked also as an academic and in the UK and in Korea. Thank you for visiting my site.