Souhair Zaki was born in Mansoura in 1944, at a time of societal change. Urban weddings were becoming less extravagant and unsegregated. ’Awalim were still being hired as traditional performers for lower class weddings while the Egyptian upper class, the Westernized elite, began hiring popular nightclub entertainers for their parties and weddings. Feminism was making a comeback in Egypt. The recording and film industries were booming, with female directors.(1) The most famous dancers of the Egyptian screen at that time were Badi'a Masabni, Tahiyya Carioca, Samia Gamal and Na'ima 'Akif.
By the late 1940’s, the ’Awalim tradition had vanished. With the disappearance of the “Usta”, the female leader of a group of ’Awalim, the female artists of Mohammad Ali Street were forced to take charge of their own careers and began running their businesses with men. The Ma’alimah, boss-woman, dancer-artist, was born.(1)
After the revolution of 1952 that finally ended colonial control of Egypt, the Moulid (festivals celebrating the birthday of a local saint or holy person) started to serve as a platform for theatrical and artistic talent. The activities of religious fundamentalists were restricted. Open coffee houses were thriving, with performances of music and dance. Baladi music and Baladi singers were highly popular.(1)
In 1953, when Souhair Zaki was nine years old, she and her family moved to the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. Souhair Zaki fell in love with music and dance and showed natural talent, teaching herself to dance by listening to the radio. Souhair Zaki was most inspired by the dances of Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal. By the age of eleven she was being noticed at the birthday and wedding parties of friends and family, and started dancing professionally in the Greek nightclubs in Alexandria.
Later Souhair Zaki moved to Cairo, the capital of the Egyptian entertainment world. There she performed in a variety of venues, from smoky nightclubs to grand ballrooms to extravagant wedding celebrations. Just like many of her peers, Souhair Zaki failed an audition as a presenter for television, but moved on to become one of the most famous dancers of the sixties and the seventies, both in film and on stage.
In the sixties Souhair Zaki received accolades and medals from the Shah of Iran, the Tunisian president, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, the second president of Egypt. US President Nixon named her "Zagreeta" when he learned that the word referred to the shrill yelling as an expression of joy.
Souhair Zaki was the first oriental dancer brave enough to perform to the music of Umm Kulthoum, one of the highest revered singers in the history of Arabic music. It was a risk to do so, at first, because at the time Souhair Zaki was still young and not well known. But Umm Kulthoum herself claimed that Souhair Zaki interpreted the music beautifully. Mohammed Anwar Al Sadat, the third president of Egypt, called her "the Oum Kolthoum of dance". He said, "As she sings with her voice, you sing with your body".
Souhair Zaki's picture was often used on cassette covers of sometimes mediocre belly dance music simply as an indication of the style of music, not to infer that she was the producer. However, her meticulous ear for music was famous, gaining the respect of all members of the orchestra that accompanied her.
Souhair Zaki was a very sweet and elegant dancer, known for her unique "soft" style. She was similar to Tahia Carioca in that she had soft rolling hips, could show a great deal of movement in very little space, and was known for her innocently coy facial expressions. Souhair Zaki epitomizes the natural baladi dancer, and was often referred to as a “Bint el Balad”, or “daughter of the country”. Unlike Nagwa Fouad, her greatest competitor at the time, she did not rely on props to dazzle her audience. Her style was pure and precise, and did not require much space on the dance floor in order to connect with the music impressively. She was precise in her hip-work, very feminine, graceful, and rather reserved, but with an emotional impact that was breathtaking. No frills were necessary because her dance technique and artistry alone left her audiences awed.
Souhair Zaki’s stage productions were simple as was her costuming. She always performed as a soloist with no background singers, dancers or troupe. Her only backdrop was her excellent orchestra. 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. Together they made magic happen on the stage.
Unlike many dancers in Cairo, Souhair Zaki never used choreographers to assist in the creation of her show. Instead, she danced from her own inspiration and feeling, letting the music move her body. She was quoted as saying that she needs the dance as anyone needs air to breathe. She believes that dance is art and must always be honored and respected, that "being a dancer is not about showing off your body and posing on stage." She always honored and respected herself as a dancer and as a woman, never compromising her integrity, even when the trends dictated a change to more risqué costuming and flashier variety-show performances.
Souhair Zaki performed throughout the Middle East in the 1980s. Shareen el Safy, a famous American dancer, opened for her at the five-star Sunset Nightclub during the summers of 1988, 1989 and 1991. According to Shareen, "I worked 3 summers at the Sunset, opening for Sohair every night for several months each time. It was a fantastic gift to be with her, even though we had been friends for some time before that. The saddest thing was to see her at the end of her career, as the economy bottomed out, her dear Baba passed on, and the government was harassing her for back taxes. Weeks before she retired, she was dancing with tears in her eyes. That joyful, contagious spark of hers was gone. We were all saddened to witness this."
The Gulf War of 1990 and 1991 brought an increased climate of conservatism and economic downturn to Egypt(3). Nightclub owners could no longer afford to stay open. Souhair Zaki chose to retire while at the height of her career, even as performance opportunities and public opinion of belly dancers in general declined(4). However, there is speculation that Souhair Zaki continued to perform occasionally through the 1990’s.
In watching her films, it is easy to see why she was known for her hip movements. Her hips are small, soft, and articulated. She uses very simple arms with some wrist circles and hand gestures. Her arm positions are sometimes wide, sometimes close to the body, sometimes lifted, sometimes not, but always relaxed. Her hip movements carried naturally up her body and arms in little undulations or snakes. She danced usually to the rhythm, sometimes to the melody, but always catching the accents with precise stops. Her spins are usually relaxed and short, sometimes leaning into a barrel turn.
She was known for her sweet facial expression, at times just a little saucy. Mostly she used a sweet smile, coyly looking away or over her shoulder with a shoulder roll. Some she used a more intense facial expression during Om Kalthoum songs. Much of her film footage shows her dancing with her eyes closed or heavily lidded, as if she is mostly dancing for herself.
Souhair Zaki used her footwork with small steps, changing weight, slightly bent knees to enable her to do her soft articulate hip work with ease.
Souhair Zaki displays the typical relaxed Egyptian isolation. Her hip movements are not isolated from the rest of the body. Rather, they are allowed to subtly carry through to a chest movement, a shoulder twist, or arm movements.
Souhair Zaki became well known for her down hips, always done on the beat. 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. This is unlike the Maya (downward figure eight) where you first slide the hip out and THEN move it down.
Sometimes she adds a little articulated shimmy to her down hips, or moves one hip down and forward while walking.
Souhair Zaki used a rolling hip movement, rolling the hip up, forward, and down in a forward rolling figure eight, often when traveling. She also used vertical figure eights up, either standing still or traveling to the side. Her entire body was allowed to flow with this movement.
Other movements included lower undulations, hip circles and full body circles, forward hip lift accents, ¾ shimmies (stepping forward and down with the right hip), and lower back accents.
Souhair Zaki repeated her movements through a phrase of the music or rhythm pattern, naturally following the music. The repetition is not forced (doing 8 of this and 4 of that) as is often observed in Western dancers.
Article – “Raks Sharqi: Cairo’s Disappearing Act” by Shareen el Safy, Habibi, Volume 17, No. 4, Winter 1999
DVD - “Souher Zaki – Sweet Star of Cairo”
DVD - “The Legends of Bellydance (1947-1976)”
DVD - “Oriental Belly Dance”
YouTube - “Suheir Zaki - a bellydance Legend”