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Saudi actress paves way for women artists

Former Dubai resident wins a coveted spot at Juilliard and an acting programme

  • Determined to succeed
    Dina’s decision to pursue a career in the performing arts andmove to New York was not well received initiallImage Credit: Supplied
  • Determined to succeed
    A group performs in a theatre production. Dina wants to encourage Arab girls withsimilar professional aspiraImage Credit: Supplied
01 Gulf News

Dubai: People are shocked that a Saudi father would allow his 18-year-old daughter to pursue her dream of moving to New York City to become a lowly actress and dancer.

Four years later Dina Shihabi has proved her naysayers wrong. The former Dubai resident has secured a place at one of the world's most prestigious performing arts schools, The Juilliard School, and New York University's graduate acting programme.

Dina was born in Riyadh, grew up in Dubai and moved to New York City in 2007. She will now pursue acting on a full-time basis and wants to encourage Arab girls with similar professional aspirations in the Middle East to seize available opportunities.

Dina's decision to pursue a career in the performing arts and move to New York was not well received initially.

"My father is an Arab and he is very cultured, intellectual and successful in what he does — he took a bit more time accepting me as an artist and I think it was my unwavering commitment to what I loved, and my mothers unrelenting support for me, that won him over," she says.


Knowing that she had found her life's passion won him over and it convinced him to accept her career choice. "I am aware that it isn't easy for an Arab father to have an artist daughter, but he makes sure I know that he is very proud of me."

She still struggles with people's ignorance and perceptions about her career. "So many people — friends, parents' friends, teachers — have not taken me seriously and some saw me lacking intelligence because I was a dancer and an actress. I think this view is so close minded."

Dina says the arts bring people and communities together and that women who choose this line of work should be respected in the Middle East.

"People have been shocked that my dad lets me do what I do as if I am doing something wrong. I don't get it!"

She adds that she has met a vibrant community of New York-based Middle East actors who inspire her and more Arabs are going into the arts. Growing up in Dubai, Dina attended Al Mawakeb School, Emirates International School and Dubai American Academy. She started dancing at the age of 13 when she took lessons from the UAE's "dancing queen" Sharmila Kamte who teaches dance classes at the Chaloub Studio in the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (Ductac). Kamte is known for having exacting standards and being a bit of a slave driver, which is why it's no surprise Dina describes herself as a terrible dancer when she started ballet, street jazz, jazz and hip hop classes. "Sharmila changed my life. I would not be doing what I love without her and my parents trusted her as a role model for me."

Dina also participated in school plays and auditioned for whatever was going on at the time.

It was at the Dubai American Academy that her drama teacher Mrs Mock who encouraged her to take up acting in addition to dancing, which she was already winning awards for. "Never underestimate a good teacher, and their words of encouragement."


The young performer says she always knew she wanted to live in New York City and applied to several musical theatre programmes and faced rejection at every turn until she was accepted at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for a two-year programme while dancing in her spare time.

"I still get rejected every day but I also get awesome acceptances and that makes it all worth it."

Some of these opportunities include working with well-known choreographers and performances on Saturday Night Live — with stars Justin Timberlake, Andy Samberg, and Emma Stone — and The Daily Show with John Stewart.

She has performed extensively in theatre productions such as a documentary theatre production Neither Heaven Nor Earth, a piece based on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

She has had some exposure to film and her most recent part was in a Joel Fendelman film, David, which tells the story of Daud, an 11-year-old Muslim boy growing up in Brooklyn, New York. Dina plays Daud's sister, Aisha, who is coming to terms with her identity as a modern Muslim.

Making an ambitious move to fulfil her dreams

  • Dina was born in Riyadh and grew up in Dubai. At the age of 13 she took lessons from the UAE's "dancing queen" Sharmila Kamte who teaches dance at the Chaloub Studio in the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre (Ductac).
  • In 2007, Dina moved to New York to work as a lowly actress and dancer when she was 18. She became a student of The Juilliard School of performing arts at the age of 22. In 2010, she pursued acting a full-time.
  • Dina is the first woman from the Arab world to be accepted into both Juilliard's Drama Division and New York University's Graduate Acting Programme.
  • Dina has performed on Saturday Night Live with stars Justin Timberlake, Andy Samberg, and Emma Stone and has also worked extensively in New York City with Oscar nominee directors such as Josh Fox.