The lights are dimmed and a pulsating soundtrack fills the stage. Amidst the smoke, a man in a flashy suit emerges. Laser beams jet out from small inconspicuous devices strapped over his body. With deft acrobatic moves, he twists, turns and juggles the beams, while the enthralled audience cheers him on.
At the end of the 10-minute show, he changes into his pristine white Kandoura, providing a sharp contrast from the stage personality we witnessed just moments ago.
Meet 32-year-old Humaid Al Dhahery, touted to be the first Emirati to pursue a career as a circus artist. By day, he works as a government officer in Sharjah Freezone. By night, he is a performance artist who has mastered laser, light and fire techniques, by just watching YouTube tutorials. His passion for the craft has won him the moniker of Laser Man.
Over the last two years, this self-made artist has given a multitude of performances for public events such as National Day, shopping festivals and Eid programmes as well as private events like birthday parties and weddings.
As we sit down to chat, at the Al Tallah Mall in Ajman, where Humaid gives a performance every Friday, he is now composed and relaxed; as opposed to the burst of energy he was on stage. On being posed with the question of how he became a circus artist, he breaks into a laugh. ‘This is the first thing everybody asks me, especially journalists,’ he says. ‘I guess it is difficult for people to imagine an Emirati following a path in such skillful arts.’
In search of encouragement
As a child, Humaid was mesmerised by the circus and he remembers his first trip very vividly. ‘I was around eight years old and my father took the whole family to a circus in Sharjah. There was an artist juggling rings of fire. When I returned home, I tried to reenact it and ended up burning my fingers. It was no surprise that my parents were very angry and yelled at me,’ he says.
Growing up with six brothers and three sisters who had no inclination towards performing arts, he never got a chance or the encouragement to explore his passion further. His only stint at performing was doing the traditional Ayalah dance during heritage festivals in Sharjah.
He went on to complete his Masters in Strategic planning at the Skyline College in Sharjah. But somewhere deep inside, he was still allured by artists and art forms. And this prompted him to open his own event company eight years ago. Called Lens Heritage, the company roped in exotic performers from across the globe in the fields of laser shows, acrobatics, sword shows and Tanourah dancing.
‘Most of the events I did were very well received. We flew in all kinds of artists as the customers demanded. The audience lapped up all the performances and even came backstage to congratulate the artists. It made me wonder how they could admire artists from outside the country and not encourage people of talent from their own ilk,’ he says.
Among the performers was a laser artist called Waleed from Egypt. Humaid was amazed by the ease at which Waleed did his tricks and observed him carefully. ‘I felt that this was something I could do easily but didn’t know where to start or who to approach to guide me,’ he says.
He started by picking up little tricks and nuances from the artists. He also got an insight into how to deal with people of different nationalities, their tastes and preferences in art forms. ‘I learned a lot of acrobatic movements and performances, which I would then practise on a daily basis at home.’
Two years back, he decided it was time to turn his dream into something more serious. He began watching YouTube videos of Russian and Chinese circus performers, learning their tricks, deftness of hand movements and their body language on the stage. ‘I improvised on the videos I watched and created my own routine. I learned the secrets behind the tricks and researched on the tools needed to be a professional circus performer. My main interests were focused on flow arts (which combine many different disciplines including dance, fire-spinning, and juggling) lasers, lights and fire shows,’ he says.
From pupil to performer
What he realised early on was that every artist has to make a connection with the audience the moment he steps on the stage for any show to be a success.
The next step was a trip to China, to buy a laser machine, LED Poi sets and other material needed for his performance.
‘LED Poi is a one of the most well-known flow arts in the world,’ explains Humaid. ‘It has two LED objects connected at the end of strings and we use it to create different images. When you start working with Poi, it can be very addictive and great fun. I practiced every day, improvising my routine very regularly. After four months, I felt I was ready to perform in front of an audience,’ says Humaid.
He learned to draw different images like the UAE flag and sceneries with the help of lasers. After getting back home from work at 2.30 in the afternoon, he spent more than three hours every day perfecting lasers and Poi routines.
His parents, however, were sceptical about his new-found talent and kept trying to dissuade him. ‘They told me it was against our culture and respectability and I should not waste time. It was difficult for them to comprehend that someone who had a prestigious government job could chase something so frivolous,’ he remembers.
But his job was never an obstacle to his dream. ‘I am equally committed to my job and my passion. My job is for my family and country. My hobby is a way to excel in my talent and (try to) receive international acclaim as an Emirati,’ he says.
Since there wasn’t a proper channel to market his talent, he took on the task of promoting himself by making videos of his performances and sending it to his contacts through Whatsapp.
When he was finally booked for his first gig, he remembers being nervous and excited at the same time. ‘I intensified my practice. It was only a five-minute show and it went well. But I endured a few scratches and broke my ankle. I was bed-ridden for a month,’ he says.
This incident gave his family even more reason to try and thwart his ambition, but Humaid was undeterred. He realised that most of his injuries were caused by ignoring the finer details of performance and not preparing enough.
Soon, he was practising rigorous acts like fire breathing, juggling with fire, and intensive laser routines. He landed gigs almost every week and performed in prestigious events like the Sharjah Heritage Festival and Ajman Festival and more.
Seeking new horizons
After a short period of time, his skills improved and he was able to make other bolder presentations besides the laser, including the fiery sword, which involves tricks with a sword on fire.
But the performances were not without pitfalls. During a fire show, he almost swallowed some grill gas (used to ignite the fire) and choked. A few angry members of the audience complained that it was a bad influence on children. Since then, he is careful not to do fire shows in public places where children are expected. ‘Sometimes when things go wrong, I will quickly change to another trick and people think the mistake was part of the routine,’ he says.
Humaid’s perseverance has won him a few international shows. Last year he performed in Saudi Arabia for a show at Aramco. This September, he was part of a nine-member team that performed a light show at Uzbekistan. ‘We were the first Arab team to be part of the yearly Uzbekistan festival. Everywhere I went I got a lot of curious looks as to how an Emirati can be so proficient in circus arts,’ he says.
Among his myriad talents also include creating costumes and props for his performances. ‘This is another self-taught hobby,’ he says. ‘Whenever customers demand props, I look it up in YouTube and create them on my own.’ One such prop is a 4-feet dinosaur made from rubber which can be moved with a lever. He also designs his costumes for his shows.
For his elder son Abdullah’s third birthday, he created a Transformer costume from an old toy car. Then there are ninja costumes, cyborgs and much more lying around the garage at home, which he has turned into his workshop.
‘For last National Day, I stuck multi-coloured Led light tubes on a Kandoura and send personalised greetings to family and friends with me wearing it. One of my friends liked it so much that he bought the kandourah from me,’ he says.
Finding validation and respect
Two years since his first performance and more than a hundred shows later, Humaid now finds himself in a good place. ‘Almost everyone comes up to me and says, ‘Who taught you?’. They cannot believe that I don’t have a professional teacher or that I didn’t do any course. The same people who complained that I was being foolish have now changed their minds after seeing my show. I am delighted when children recognise me as the Laserman. My parents are now proud of me because I have made them famous with lots of TV interviews in all leading channels. My wife, Rawiyah, is sometimes a bit upset when I don’t get to spend enough time with the family,’ he says.
‘The sound of applause, the admiring gazes from the audience, and the joy of children and youth once I enter the arena, are the forces that provide me with the positive energy needed to create new shows,’ he says.
Humaid believes that two of a circus player’s biggest skillsets should be innovation and fitness. ‘You should always change your routine, catch the audience by surprise and show them tricks they haven’t seen before. As for fitness, you have to be very quick and agile, because you shouldn’t look clumsy or awkward on stage. The only solution to all this is practice and even more practice.’
Every day before bed, he tries to learn one new trick by watching videos. ‘At the moment I am improvising on my juggling. I can juggle with four pieces, next I want to juggle with five pieces. Training is very difficult, I hurt myself so many times, but I go on because the act has to be perfect before I present it on stage,’ he says.
Living a dream
Humaid’s biggest hope is that his story will encourage other Emiratis to attempt performing circus tricks. ‘Most of the kids I meet say they want to join me. Being a circus artist is every child’s unrequited dream. I believe the reason I became a late bloomer is because there wasn’t any proper medium to channelise my talent. I want to change that equation for young Emiratis who want to pursue this field,’ he says.
According to Humaid, the biggest hurdle these aspiring artists face is the lack of suitable places for training, or performance schools. ‘Most organisers prefer foreign artists to perform the same tricks that I can do with my eyes closed. More energy should be invested in training local talent and encouraging their performances. My ultimate aim is to build a full-fledged Emirati circus troupe where training, licensing and managing events will be undertaken,’ he says.
It would be no surprise if this dream becomes a family affair. His son Abdullah (now 4) is becoming pretty adept at managing the LED Poi and can do a few tricks of his own. As for one-year-old Ghaid, he cries when his brother stops performing. ‘So maybe we will have a family circus even though my wife won’t be too happy about it,’ he laughs.
For the time being, though, Humaid is simply focusing on bringing the joy of the circus to as many people in the UAE as possible. ‘My long-term mission is to prove that UAE residents can do anything in any field. It will take some time to set a mark in this field of circus and for people to change their mindset, but it will happen. Recently we had Hazza (Al Mansouri – first Emirati astronaut) who went to space. Just like that there are many more frontiers that we can conquer,’ he says.