For several years back in the early 1980s, I was performing 2 shows a night, 6 nights a week with 5-6 musicians at a night club called Cleopatra as well as many weddings, baptisms and other special occasions. I was living and working in a dance cocoon, dancing only for the Arab community, mentored by the Arab community and watching hours and hours of Sohair Zaki, Nagua Fouad and Fifi Abdo. I had not yet become aware of the international non-Arab Bellydance community, not even the huge one just to south of the Canadian border.
One day, I was informed by the the club owner that there was a Middle Eastern Dance Association (MEDAH) that was hosting a dance artist from NYC. Her name was Elena Lentini and she would be a guest dancer performing the 2nd show in Cleopatra for one evening. She rehearsed with the musicians who told me they knew she was a pro because of her understanding of the music. I was in awe and excited to meet this dance artist and see her perform. Also, I was lonely, eager to be friends with another Bellydancer, eager to learn.
Her performance was amazing. I was a fan right away and gushed. She was so interesting and her creative interpretation was based in understanding the music. She danced with an Arab soul but infused with very unique expression and movement I had never seen before. Afterwards, I went to the dressing room to express my admiration. I did not realize her approval of my performance would mean anything to me, let alone something I carried with me for 30 years until June of 2013.
She was sweet, gracious and complimented me. She said "you look very beautiful up there on stage". She did not mention my dance ability. Her words cut me to my core and broke my heart. I was such a popular dancer with more work than I could take on. Somewhere along the line, I must have assumed that meant I was a good dancer. Of course it is all relative but in Elena's world, my dance ability was negligible so she was kind enough to find something to compliment me about - my appearance. I cried when I went home that night. My bubble was burst and I was hurt, but remained a hardcore fan and admirer, hoping to see her perform again someday. More importantly, I realized I had a lot of work to do. No way, I was going to coast on my appearance.
Last Summer I had the opportunity to teach and perform at the Theatrical Bellydance Conference in NYC. One of the reasons I wanted to be there was to see and take workshops from Elena Lentini who was also on the roster. Unfortunately her workshops and mine were always at the same time so I could not learn from her but I saw her company perform - brilliant choreography. The next night I was not performing so I snuck in the dark to the back row of the audience. When the lights came on at intermission, I could swear the person sitting beside me WAS Elena Lentini. She got up to leave so I tapped her and asked if indeed she was was Elena. She turned around and proceeded to exclaim "Oh Yasmina, it is wonderful to see you. Your performance at the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance in California in 2000 was amazing. I tell all my students they have to watch your videos. Your work is wonderful."
Needless to say, I was speechless.
Because of my insecurity, being so new to the scene in 1983 and deep down not believing I deserved to be on the same stage as a seasoned artist like herself, I heard her words that night in Cleopatra in a negative light. The fact of the matter was my insecurities were correct and based on reality. Of course I got many jobs based more on my looks than my talent in the early days. How on earth could I expect to have any discernable skill level after only a couple years expereince compared to Elena's longer career. Fortunately I had the tenacity and work ethic that saved me from the fate of the fleetingly popular dancer. Relentlessly, I put in the many years of sacrifice and hard work needed to be a seasoned dancer with some chops. She gave me an honest compliment in 1983. At least she didn't lie and feed me a b***s*** line in order to appease my ego. If she had, then the words she said to me in 2013 would have had no meaning. Of course, I admire her even more for the gift of truth she gave me and consider her one of my important teachers.