Interview With Author Joana Saahirah

Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!

My name is Joana Saahirah, I´m an internationally renowned Oriental Dancer, Teacher, Choreographer, and Author. I started my career in Egypt, where I performed daily with the best musicians of Egypt, and soon after that became a featured invited Artist/Teacher at Dance Festivals from all over the world.

Aside from my work in Egyptian Dance, Oriental and Folkloric, I´ve also written and published several articles and two books – “The Secrets of Egypt – Dance, Life & Beyond” and “Behind the Curtain”.

Recently, I´ve also created a pioneering school which is reaching thousands of students from different nationalities, cultures, and walks of life – Joana Saahirah´s Online Dance School, a virtual space where students can learn about authentic Egyptian Dance, Self-Discovery & Empowerment.

What is/are the story(ies) behind your book(s)?

The stories behind my first book “The Secrets of Egypt – Dance, Life & Beyond” come from real-life experiences I had while living and performing in Egypt. The book is a distillation of some of the most interesting discoveries I´ve made about Egyptian Dance, Music, and Culture from an insider´s perspective; precious wisdom that can be applied to dance and to life.

In this book, I speak about realities, mostly related to Egypt, Women, Dancers in Cairo, Sensuality, Freedom, and Love, nobody has ever tackled; I speak shamelessly about the true life of a successful Oriental Dancer in Egypt.

The stories in my second book “Behind the Curtain” come from my experience as a dancer, teacher, and woman living her dream around the world. It´s also about the backstage, the “behind the scenes”, the realities professional oriental dancers live and never tell; this book is a collection of essays or, as I like to call them, “heart bursts” on the inner world of a dancer and a woman who´s seen and lived a lot. On and off the stage.

The stories for this book were inspired by the photos which are their backbone, images produced by a Slovenian Photographer, Breda Jurecko, who followed me before, during, and after my last show in Maribor, Slovenia. Each story is connected to a specific photo which also speaks for itself.

This is an intimate book full of vulnerability (which is also bravery).

What inspires/inspired your creativity?

For me, inspiration comes from real life, real people, real experiences. Imagination helps me glue, transform, expand life but it´s in the living that the real creative juice resides.

I´m inspired by my own strength and the strength of others; courage, originality, greatness, curiosity – those are all values that inspire me.

Traveling, working with different people, reading and learning continuously; creating, doing-doing-doing. I believe there´s great power in DOING, making things happen, putting ourselves out there, in the arena, “daring greatly” (Theodore Roosevelt).

The experience of true love also inspires me. Being alive inspires me – if you´re fully alive, it´s impossible not to feel inspired.

How do you deal with creative block?

Luckily, this is not something I´ve experienced frequently but, when I do, I breathe, take my head off the task at hands and do something else, any activity that makes my brain relax and work things out for itself. It can be running, yoga, going to the movies, or doing some other creative work. Having a good night sleep also helps – the subconscious mind will come up with solutions if we allow it.

If I´m working with deadlines and I cannot afford to postpone creating – a dance piece, a text, a presentation -, then I just DO IT, accepting it may not be my best work, dealing with the possibility of failure or average or, what is worse, mediocrity. Being a professional Creator, and having to produce consistently and on deadlines, means we become friends with a very odd yet useful mix of humbleness, self-confidence, and “imperfection” or the art of “getting it done, not perfect”. Furthermore, perfection doesn´t exist.

What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?

I write instinctively and, therefore, my lessons are learned while practicing the craft, making my own mistakes, through self-observation.

From my experience, there´s a waiting period between the writing of the first draft and the first editing process that must be respected. Not allowing for that time is a mistake.

Being afraid to speak our truth, fearing others won´t like it or they´ll judge us, is also a mistake. Writing, as every form of art, should be about freedom, vulnerability, the courage to express our truth. Allowing our fears, of thirst for approval, to get in the way is a mistake.

Too many, or meaningless, words. Every word should matter, every word should have its place and function. Yet, this is so hard to achieve!

Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

My titles show up automatically as I work on the book. They´re pearls hanging around me under water – as I work on the book, they come to the surface and I catch them. I don´t think much about them – I feel the book and see where it takes me. I speak the title out loud and check how it sounds to my ears.

Covers are an whole other matter, one I don´t deal with aside from giving a final approval (or disapproval). This is a matter for graphic designers and marketing folks, not for writers.

How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

So far, I´ve self-published which means I deal mostly with readers who already know me from the different facets of my work. That shields me from a lot of criticism.

I´ve had mostly great reviews, readers who send me personal messages telling me how my books changed the way they saw Egyptian Dance, themselves, life. That honors me greatly – it always makes me smile and want to do better. I had a couple bad reviews from dancers in my field who have talked about writing their own books for a long while but never actually produced them – enough said. Creators, do; critics, criticize.

I think a fair, constructive critic – negative or positive – can be a huge support to a writer. And it´s easy to distinguish between a well-intentioned critic and a pure evil comment.I give all my attention to the first and zero attention to the second. There´s no time to waste with naysayers, haters, or frustrated creators who project their ghosts on the ones who roll their sleeves up and deliver.

How has your creation process improved over time?

Over time, I´ve rediscovered the value of discipline, consistency, and showing up for the job even when I don´t feel “inspired”. The unglamorous stuff nobody speaks about seem to be the ones who truly get you going and reach the finish line. I´ve also confirmed what Ernest Hemingway once said: “write drunk; edit sober” – so true, essential. Writing the first draft, or the second, or the third is an entire world with its own rules and rule-breaking system; editing, again and again, is a second yet equally important side of writing. I find that editing takes me deeper into the sculpting of my rock – it´s like going deeper into that rock, the story that lies within you, and peeling the non-essential off, taking away the dust, the extra stone, the bullshit. It´s a voyage within the story we´re telling and within ourselves. It can be such a struggle and pure bliss.

My writing has improved mostly due to this Editing Phase which writers don´t speak much about. Once you realize that editing is tuning, cleaning, upgrading, and revealing your story, you´re up for new, way more demanding, and better work.

Over time, I´ve learned how to finish that blessed first draft, even if it feels terrible, cross-eyed, wrong. And then work from there. I´ve also improved my daily routines, the ones that allow me to stick to a writing schedule without compromising my main profession and my mental sanity.

What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?

I discovered books have a life of their own. You intend on telling a specific story and you end up creating something else, usually better than your initial plan. If you get yourself on the writing desk and do your job, consistently, the book will reveal itself to you; it´ll tell you where to go, where to focus on, what matters the most. In order for this to happen, you MUST be fully engaged and committed.

I´ve learned that completing a book is an exercise in persistence, discipline, obsession. If you´re not obsessed with telling a certain story, or exploring a certain subject, you´ll fall off the wagon. Life´s too busy, there are too many obligations, distractions, stimulation, people and things to attend. You need to be obsessed with the book in order to finish it. And then edit it. And edit it again.

As for the worst things I´ve encountered during the process of completing a book, I´d say the need neglect of other areas of your life. There´s a commonly spread myth of “having it all” and “doing it all”, successful multi-tasking, days that have 48 hours instead of the 24hours I deal with. From my experience, this is just a bunch of illusions.

Writing and completing a book for publishing – public consumption – will necessarily take away time, energy, focus, and emotion from other areas of your life. The book you´re writing becomes a demanding, somewhat tyranical lover – it wants all of you, all the time, body and soul. There´s an whole preparation to handle this aspect of the writing life: I have to complete other important work first-hand, I have to solve logistics (taxes and other paperwork, home and family obligations, commitments I may have connected to my survival), I have to readjust my daily routines in order to sit at the writing desk for a certain amount of hours every day; I have to warn friends, students, colleagues, family and love/partner that, somehow, I´ll be absent even if I´m physically present. It´s not only the time I´ll spend in isolation, writing, but the time I´ll be working on the book inside my head which is all the time until the book is done.

Meanwhile, you may lose friends, students, lovers. Not everybody will understand your absence, focus, obsession. It´s hard and it can be a sacrifice.

The best thing I´ve discovered was that writing your own book is in many ways discovering who you are, what you´ve lived so far, and where you want to do. It can be therapeutic, a tool for self-awareness and goal setting. I´ve heard authors mentioning they only know what they´re thinking about a subject when they write about it and I agree. If teaching is learning twice, writing about a subject means going deep into it and discovering layers of wisdom you didn´t know you had in you.

Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?

Both. But it all starts with saying what I feel I need to say. I write from an emotional point, not a cerebral point. I know that, from a marketing point of view, it helps to think what do my readers want from me? And, yet, art doesn´t work like that. Art, in all its forms of expression, is personal; it comes from within.The more personal you get, the most universal you become.

I write what excites me which usually serves my community as well. It´s a win-win situation. Although I don´t think writing must necessarily be a self-help tool, I think that having a higher purpose of service towards your readers helps you keep motivated, clear, and passionate.

I have no formula on how to balance personal satisfaction and service to others. So far, it feels like they walk hand in hand, naturally.

What role do emotions play in creativity?

Emotions are the beginning of all my creative endeavours, in dance and in writing. First drafts come from an emotional place; editing a first draft becomes a bridge between that emotional place and a cerebral place that organizes, filters, criticizes, corrects, and expands. It´s the old duel dance between Dyonisus and Apollo. The first stands for emotion, surrender, freedom, contents, open fields, life as it is (ugliness and beauty and everything in between), and instinct; the second stands for structure, form, restraint, aesthetics, harmony, and logic.

Creativity brings the rational and the irrational sides together, each playing its own role. But, again, it all begins with emotion. This is why living a full, juicy, life is so important for creators – we need our life to feed our art; we need to feel in order to create.

Do you have any creativity tricks?

I wouldn´t call them tricks but things I do to keep me on track, creative, and healthy.

T he old package of discipline, consistency, showing up day after day for your job even if you don´t feel like it; sticking obsessively with your project until it´s done. Done, not “perfect”. Just done. And then improved, if necessary.

Physical exercise, meditation, and gratitude are also essential. I keep a morning routine most of the time, especially when I´m on “book writing mode”. It starts with running outdoors and yoga, or just yoga, meditation, and a gratitude list. I do it right after I wake up and it helps to create the right mindset to create from a positive, self-confident place. Sleeping well. Drinking water. Having a beautiful mug with delicious coffee right by my side – it sounds superficial but it gets me fired up and smiling.

Setting deadlines for myself, that´s another big one.

Reading several authors, simultaneously, while working on my book. It helps me get out of my head and it gives me new creative pathways.

Practicing the art of self-confidence, an essential quality if you´re aiming at starting and finishing an entire book, then edit the hell out of it, and then publish it and make it available to the crowds. Without self-confidence, there´s no creative manifestation.

What are your plans for future books?

I have several projects on the table, most of them already started, some almost finished.

I´m currently working on a book about the Art of Baladi Dance and how the wisdom in it informs a life well lived; I´ve written two volumes of a 3 volume-book which is a mix of memoir and fiction; I´ve written the draft of a book about Happiness and I intend on writing a Children´s book, soon. These are the top projects, the ones I plan on completing in the next two years.

Tell us some quirky facts about yourself

I love to laugh and I´m a compulsive joker – the people I love the most are my preferred targets; I play with words and events all the time in order to have a good laugh.

I´ve danced for Sultan Qabus, in Oman, at the beginning of my career; I´m a mean Tango and Salsa dancer although my professional area is Egyptian Dance.

I´m terrible with technology and machines although my work, nowadays, operates with both 95% of the time.

I love animals and I often speak to dogs and cats and birds in the street as if they were people.

I´m all or nothing; 100% present or 100% absent. No grey areas allowed. I´m Latin, after all, so my blood boils all the time.

I´m quite mad but my feet are deeply set on the ground. I love the Hindu God Ganesha and I´ll pray at every temple, independently of the religion which is associated with it.

I´m fragile and immensely strong.


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