DANCING IN THE MIDDLE EAST

In September of 2015 I had the privilege of performing in Doha, Qatar during the Eid al-Adha Festival. It was my first real professional job out of school, and I was so excited to finally be paid to do what I love to do most. It was also my first time travelling to the Middle East and I had no idea what to expect, and had never even heard of the Eid al-Adha Festival.

It was overwhelming to think of performing in a place and for a culture I knew so little about. I mean, everything I knew about travelling in the Middle East I had learned from watching Sex and the City 2… so it was safe to say I had a lot of research to do before hopping on a plane.

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Here are a few of the obvious questions that came to mind…

Where is Qatar?

Qatar is a small country on the northern border of Saudi Arabia, and it is about an hour flight from Dubai.

What is the Eid al-Adha Festival?

The Eid al-Adha Festival is an Islamic event celebrating Ibrahim’s commitment to Allah, and his willingness to sacrifice his own son. It is a celebrated holiday in many Muslim countries, and observed slightly differently around the world.

What are some of the Cultural Expectations?

In Qatar, modesty is more so a necessity than a virtue. It is common for local men to wear thobes and many women wear abayas (both are lose fit garments that conceal the body’s shape). However, tourists are expected to cover themselves more or less from shoulders to knees.

Physical contact between men and women in public is strictly prohibited. This includes kissing, hugging, holding hands and everything in between.

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My Cast mate Josh and I doing our best not to get too close for a photo

As a travel enthusiast I always hope to respect each new country’s history, culture, and traditions regardless of how different they may be to my own. I believe that is the joy of travelling, to witness a new way of living and learn from it. But I couldn’t help but feel a little nervous about performing as a dancer in a country with such a strict moral code.

Growing up as a dancer in Canada, I was always encouraged to show off my body. In fact, teachers in most of my classes didn’t allow students to wear baggy clothing. Almost all of the styles of dance I studied included some type of partner work, and teachers often used physical contact to correct my posture or to offer their support. And now I was going to be dancing on stage with both men and women, performing tricks that show off my flexibility, and wearing what might be considered revealing costumes, all at a religious festival in one of the most conservative countries in the world…

 

The Show

The show was Alice in Wonderland, and I was cast as a member of the ensemble playing roles like a flower, the Dormouse, and one of the Queen’s Cards. It was a forty-minute children’s show with dialogue, dance, and pop music songs meant to string the story together.

The Venue was a built up outdoor stage in the Souq Wakif in Doha. We performed the show twice a day, which was not an easy task considering the desert heat in early September averaged around 40°C. After each performance we were asked to parade around the souq, and interact and take photos with the audience.

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The Costumes

The costumes were designed to be conservative. All of the performers were covered from elbows to ankles, which felt a little overbearing considering the desert heat. But the costumes were still form fitting enough to grant us all full range of motion to kick, leap and turn (think leggings and a long sleeve top).

The Shared Dressing Room

Believe it or not we shared a dressing room…yes, in a country that doesn’t allow unmarried men and women to share a hotel room, our whole cast shared a dressing room. It was a small, enclosed, air-conditioned room with no room dividers or bathrooms to change in.

Growing up as a dancer in Canada I lost all sense of propriety when it came to my body (at least in a performer friendly environment), so the thought of changing in front of my cast mates wasn’t a problem. But it seemed a little ironic that in a place where I was suppose to cover up everything between my knees and shoulders, I was also expected to change in front of my coworkers.

 

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Audience Reaction

Considering the official language of Qatar is Arabic, and our show was performed in English, I wasn’t sure how much of the story the audience would be able to understand, but the they seemed to really enjoy it nonetheless. Throughout the show the children were clapping and dancing along to the music. When the performance came to an end there was a loud round of applause and before we were even finished with our bows there was a line of guests waiting to greet us by the side of the stage.

I was so excited and ready to meet all of the young fans in the audience. The whole cast went out together and we had a few of the local entertainment staff accompany us as security, to ensure nobody got lost in the crowds.

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I quickly realized that even though I was technically covered from wrist to ankle our costumes were still considered scandalous for Qatari culture. I wasn’t sure how the local women would react to seeing us so exposed and performing for their children. I was afraid we might be judged for our revealing costumes.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

All of the women were so lovely. We were greeted with smiles, and words of encouragement as we walked through the souq. Many women were asking for photos and fighting for a spot in line, and I was even handed a few babies to take pictures with. I felt like a celebrity.

The local men were also eager to take photos with the all of us foreign performers. Unfortunately, a few of my female cast mates said they were felt up while taking pictures with some of the male audience members in the crowd. In that moment it was clear that some of the men felt a sense of entitlement to the female dancers  “showing off” their figures; but of course, this is an issue that many dancers (and women in general) face regardless of what they are wearing or what country they are in. However, I personally was approached by a lot of respectful male guests, many of which were taking photos with their children.

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What I Learned

On one of our days off, the cast took a group trip into the desert. We were able to ride camels, drive over sand dunes and take a swim in the Persian Golf. Across the water we were able to see the border of Saudi Arabia, where women are granted very limited rights in comparison to the rest of the world. A woman in Saudi Arabia is not allowed to accept any job without the consent of a male guardian, and female Saudi Arabian performers are hard to come by. In that moment while looking over to the Saudi Arabian Shore, I couldn’t help but feel so incredibly blessed for the freedom I have been given to pursue my dreams.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time in Doha. It was such an honour to perform at such a significant festival in Qatari culture. Even though I was halfway across the world, dancing for people that didn’t necessarily speak my language, or share my same principles I was still able to create a connection through storytelling, and I am so thankful for that!

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