Inspire Belly Dance: Soraya, Educating and Preserving the Culture of Middle Eastern Dance
Before most children had an allowance, Soraya was buying barbie dolls with tips from a belly dance performance. Knowing dance as a form of expression came as easily to Soraya as breathing, and while the need to dispel myths about the dance persists in her life, she continues to preserve the culture of Middle Eastern dance with grace and history.
"When I first heard the rhythms in Arabic music as a toddler, something very ancient awoke deep in my soul. It was if the music compelled me to bring emotions to the surface and express them to my audiences through dance," said Soraya.
As early as age three, Soraya was dancing. Since her parents were of Middle Eastern heritage, so was the music and culture surrounding and influencing her dance. She also learned ballet and figure skating, two dance forms that taught her balance, alignment and graceful arm extensions, but her heart always held belly dance.
"Raks Sharki was my calling in life," Soraya said. "Belly dance is an extension of my soul's work on this earth."
At age six, Soraya began sharing her passion with an audience, and her excitement was reflected by those watching. While performing at a Syrian, Moroccan and Greek event, the audience reacted to this tiny belly dancer with showers of cash, even a necklace out of the fuloos; enough to enable Soraya to buy out an entire section of Barbie dolls and accessories.
But being a belly dancer at such a young age didn't always come with approval. At eight years old, she was scheduled to perform in a televised children's art showcase in Philadelphia, PA with acrobats, gymnasts, and other multicultural dancers. One of the mothers found out a belly dancer was set to perform, and she stormed into Soraya's dressing room, demanding to know if Soraya’s mom was planning to have her daughter strip.
"I still remember this woman's distorted face. None of the other kids who were around even knew what that word meant. It was so inappropriate," Soraya said. "My mom gave her a very long lecture on the meaning and history of Middle Eastern dance and our culture. It was an interesting moment as the woman sheepishly walked away, a little more educated."
The incident didn't phase Soraya in the least. She had no problem heading to the stage afterward and performing her heart out, and still doesn't. To this day, when negative opinions about belly dance surface, Soraya is quick to take a play from her mother’s book and give a lecture about the history of Middle Eastern Dance. It's this devotion to the culture that inspires those who know her, including Chicago belly dancer, Fotia.
"She has given me much insight as to what the Middle Eastern audiences want from Middle Eastern dancers, the heart, the feelings, the thoughts of the people and also how to apply my own feelings, experiences, passions, etc. to the dance," Fotia said. "I love that she stays with the traditional style of bellydance, something that is becoming a lost art."
Showcasing true Middle Eastern dance is important when dancing for traditional audiences, but unfortunately Soraya is often tasked with explaining belly dance to journalists. Though most interviews are pleasant, she finds it frustrating if the dance form is treated like a joke, or as a less athletic or high art endeavor than other creative pursuits such as ballet.
"I am very focused and careful to represent our craft in the best light possible. There can be so many misconceptions, twisting of the truth and negative stereotypes and unfortunate connotations towards belly dancing," Soraya said. "As belly dancers, we must always keep our work in the highest regard. Listen to your instincts and gut feelings... always."
Whereas stereotypes and bad journalism can be a nuisance, Soraya asserts that the biggest dangers to a belly dancer's road to success are negative influences from friends, family and one’s own self. With a husband Soraya lists as her biggest inspiration and supporter, she practices what she preaches.
"Do not let anything or anyone get in your way. Always surround yourself with happy, like-minded people," said Soraya.
Though a successful performer at a young age, Soraya is careful not to take herself too seriously. She is proud of her child-like heart, especially when it comes to following her dreams in spite of how distant or unrealistic they may seem to others.
"Envision what you want to become and trust me, it will happen," Soraya said. "Keep reaching for the moon and one day, you will find yourself lounging happily on that beautiful crescent sipping tea and smiling!"