Dubai: Ballet and hijab were two distant concepts until Engy El Shazly came along.
The diminutive Egyptian became the first Arab hijabi ballerina to perform on stage and believes that while a hijabi ballerina might not be the norm, there is no reason why the two ideas can’t be synchronised.
“I wear full length sleeves and a black scarf to make sure I am not very different from the rest of the group, because to the audience we should all look the same. I just try to balance what I love with my commitment to my hijab and my modesty,” she told Gulf News.
Engy was speaking at the the ‘What She Said’ event hosted by the W hotel, a global speaker series featuring inspirational women from across the world.
Talking about the biggest challenge she faced from a technical perspective, she said that balancing herself on the pointe shoes proved to be the greatest hurdle.
“For two months, I could not leave the bar and stand without support on the pointe shoes. I trained at home everyday as well. After two months, I started making some basic movements at the studio and was so happy that I was making some progress, at least,” she said.
However, the biggest misconception that she had to face was not related to her hijab at all - it was related to her age. Engy started learning ballet when she was 27.
“Everyone told me that I couldn’t start ballet at that age and that you are supposed to start when you are three or four years old.”
However, an ad on Facebook on ballet classes for adults turned her life around in just one call.
“I called the company and asked them, ‘I want to join, I am 27 years old, and I wear the hijab. I thought they are going to tell me that I am not allowed to join. They said, ‘No, we have classes for ladies.’ I was so happy! I was finally going to do what I love,” she said.
She left her job at an Egyptian company to learn ballet full-time at the Egyptian opera house. Her teacher was the first dancer of the Cairo Opera House. A year later, she moved to the Russian Cultural Centre in Egypt.
“Back then, I was just doing something that I loved for myself. I knew I was old, I wear the hijab so I probably cannot go on stage,” she added.
So, it came as a pleasant surprise, when her teacher at the Russian Cultural Centre told her she was good enough to perform on stage.
With long beige sleeves, a black scarf and a crown of flowers on her head, she took to the stage for the very first time.
“I was trembling with excitement,” she remembered.
After that, there was no looking back. The performance gave Engy the confidence that she could pursue ballet professionally and she now works as an assistant ballet teacher in Dubai and Egypt.
Her journey has helped break more than one stereotype. There are also many more ballet classes for adults in Dubai as well as Egypt, according to Engy.
“I feel that I inspired many girls to achieve their dreams and do what they love.”