Dubai: It’s half-past two on a Tuesday afternoon when the doorbell rings in Graciela Pischner’s apartment in Dubai. The timing is perfect as the highly sought after supermodel and belly dancer has just completed an exclusive interview with Gulf News. She excuses herself and runs to the door to greet her bundle of joy, Salomao, who has just walked in with her husband Joao.
“This is my son,” she says with pride as she swoops him up in her arms, plants an endearing kiss on his cheek and helps him out of his shoes. The nanny watches them like a bystander, picking up the five-year-old’s footwear and putting them in their place.
“That’s the way we are,” says Graciela, explaining how in the mornings too, she makes it a point to prepare her son to school herself.
“I get up by 6.30am, complete my yoga and meditation, get his lunch box ready and send him to school,” she shares, giving us rare glimpses of a doting mum behind the smashing stage persona.
Misunderstanding around belly dancers
“No, a belly dancer is not out to seduce people,” she’s set the record straight earlier.
Graciela feels strongly about the subject and never misses an opportunity to highlight the “purity, class and elegance” of belly dancing as an art form.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding around belly dancers who are often described as hot and sensuous as if they are out to tease and lure people. That is never the intention. As with any other professional dance forms, our performances are also aimed at creating an out-of-the-world, magical environment. There’s nothing dodgy or cheesy about it,” she asserts.
Graciela should know. Having worked in the industry for nearly 20 years, she not only performs as a belly dancer but also takes private belly dancing classes for people, including those from high-profile families and celebrities with a massive following. In addition, she runs a full-fledged company – Graciela Art Entertainment (GAE) Events -- with a 500-strong pool of artistes and performers, including belly dancers.
Journey in the UAE
Retracing her journey in the UAE, Graciela says she first came to Dubai in 2008 when a luxury hotel on the Palm specially flew her in on a dancer’s visa from her hometown Sao Paulo in Brazil.
“I performed at the iconic hotel with three shows a day for three years,” she says.
Soon, as other hotels and event organisations began to contact her for references, she felt the need to branch out on her own and establish a company to meet the growing demand for belly dancers.
As the company grew, so did her daily work load. “My company, which I run along with my husband, an IT expert, takes up most of my time during the week days. On a typical day, I keep late mornings for my private classes while the evenings are for my performances. I have five fixed shows at a restaurant and lounge every week. On Saturdays, I do five shows between 3pm and 2am. My schedule may change if I also have to perform at a corporate event, wedding or other private occasion,” she says, adding that Sundays are strictly for Salamao and Joao.
7.15am: Prepare son for school
7.45am: Review calendar for the day/week; Organise GAE work for the day.
10-11am: Private belly dancing classes
12 noon: Lunch
1pm: Get back to GAE work
3pm: Time with son
7pm: Get ready for evening performance
11.30pm: Retire for the day
The svelte Graciela, who is 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighs 64kg, is very particular about her fitness.
“I watch what I eat and I drink nearly four litres of water every day. I practise yoga regularly with my husband. It keeps us grounded and gives us an immense sense of peace. We are both vegetarian, teetotalers and non-smokers, which also helps us a lot,” she says.
Anorexic and depressed
Talk about weight brings some unpleasant memories to the fore.
Graciela, who has modelled for some of the biggest international lifestyle and hospitality brands, recounts how the need to stay skinny for her job had pushed her into depression during her early years. “Back in Brazil, when I was at the peak of my career in fashion modelling, I weighed 10kg less than what I do now. But I was constantly under pressure to lose weight and at one point, was diagnosed with anorexia. It was a terrible phase when I would make it to the cover of several magazines, yet feel miserable inside because I was depressed,” she revealed.
It was at this juncture that she took to belly dancing.
‘Belly dancing a blessing’
“I wanted to do something that would lift my spirits, so I learnt belly dancing. It made me feel happy. My teacher, Guilda Mattar from Lebanon, was amazing and very self-confident. That inspired me and I learnt the Arab techniques of the art from her. Belly dancing was the medicine for my depression. It was a blessing.”
There has been no looking back for Graciela since then. She says her teacher told her she could become a unique belly dancer with her professional background in modelling.
“I was not convinced initially and even went to a psychologist to ask what I could do that I loved. Again, I was directed to belly dancing. To date, anything I do with dance, does well for me. It opens up many doors for me,” she says, adding that she has travelled to 17 countries to perform at various high-profile events.
Graciela, who mastered belly dancing over the years, says each region has a distinct form – from Khaleeji in the Gulf to the typical styles of Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and other countries. “One needs to understand the deep-rooted culture of each of these countries to do justice to the dance. Otherwise, it can be very tricky,” she says.
Conversant in five languages – Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, French and English – she minces no words in addressing the misconceptions around belly dancers the world over. She points to how even the origins of the art form in the region are still widely debated, with some claiming that it all began in Egypt, while others talk of how the nomads of India brought it with them when they travelled to the region.
First casting: At age five.
Education: Studied modelling for two years at Esmod Brasil; learnt belly dancing from Lebanese teacher Guilda Mattar; ballet from Kelly Siqueira and aerial silk from Circus World.
Modelled for: Top international brands including Chanel, Cartier, Carolina Herrera , Swarovski, Banana Republic, Pinko, Bebe, Salvatore Ferragamo, Amato, Michael Cinco, Juicy Couture, Harvey Nichols, Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue, Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways, Burj Al Arab, The Address Hotel Group, Atlantis , Olay , L’Oreal, Sephora, Nestle and Mercedez Benz.
Given dance performances: At top hotels including The Atlantis, Royal Mirage (the One&Only), Atlantis The Palm, Madinat Jumeirah Theatre at Kalubela Show, Supper Club Dubai. She has been watched by people from all around the world including Royal Families, Presidents of various countries and celebrities such as Robert de Niro, Usher, Michael Jordan, Fergie and Nancy Ajram, Rob Lowe and Novak Djokovic.
Language proficiency: Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, French and English.
Fitness quotient: Practises yoga, meditates, is a vegetarian, teetotaler and non-smoker.
She says for the West, belly dance remains an enduring symbol of Arab culture. In fact, the term belly dance comes from the French word ‘Danse du ventre’ which means 'dance of the stomach'. Strictly speaking, this art form should be called Oriental dance, according to her. But the term belly dance has just stuck, especially after it became a staple of entertainment in the movies. It is another matter that what is often portrayed is misrepresented with skewed connotations, she adds.
Graciela also clarifies that the traditional costume of a belly dancer consists of a long skirt with a slit, a pair of shorts inside, a blouse and a belt. “But again, this dress code has been modified, especially by the newer generation of dancers. At GAE, we prefer to stick with tradition and pay attention to cultural nuances. We also have a strict code of ethics for our dancers,” she says.
Graciela has a clear message for those she works with: "Do what it takes to promote the class and elegance of belly dancing. Be able to tell a dodgy opportunity and learn to say no.”