Alia Al Neyadi, the UAE’s first ballerina explains why dance has inspired her to be a better person and to keep going in all that she does.
To Alia Al Neyadi ballet is more than just a dance. It is a form of art, something that touches the heart and soul of everyone that witnesses it. Al Neyadi was the UAE’s first professional ballerina. After dancing from the age of just three, when she was 15 she obtained the support of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage to represent the UAE at an international arts festival held in Crimea. The teenage ballerina placed third, stunning everyone. She went on to perform all around the world from Ukraine to Bulgaria to The United States. Alia was inspired by her mother Svetlana Al Neyadi. The Ukrainian born dancer had her own ballet school when Alia was growing up which exposed her to the world of dance at a very young age.
Today Alia has (mostly) hung up her professional ballet slippers and she is on a mission to promote and support the world of arts in the UAE; especially when it comes to young dancers, looking to achieve their dreams as she did. Alia works as Project Lead of the performing arts programs in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain at the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, aiming to inspire others and share some of the arts culture she experienced with the UAE. To find out how she values her success and helps to support the success of others, we talk to Alia Al Neyadi.
This has been a strange year for all – how have you spend your time during this period and were you able to continue in your role?
I have spent much more time with my family. The last few years have been quite crazy for me with work; I have been travelling non-stop and working on weekends both in and outside of Abu Dhabi so it was definitely a great way to enjoy life’s blessing; family. I have also been training at home consistently and eating mostly home-cooked meals. I have found ways to make healthy meals more enjoyable, my way! During quarantine, I have been working from home and I have to say it has been quite challenging to stay motivated, however thankfully working in the culture and arts scene, you quickly adapt yourself to stay creative and we shifted so much of our content virtually to engage and continue our work and supporting the artists and the cultural dialogue as much as we could.
Is there anything you have learnt about yourself or changed this year?
I constantly try to learn new things about myself and unfortunately you only really know what you’re truly capable of when things are hard. In my field of work, there are always sudden changes that need to be handled and they require a calm and quick reaction to a situation. I have learnt that eventually, every problem has a solution, the question is; which one will you choose? This year has definitely reassured me that life is unpredictable and we must not waste any time by overthinking situations. We must focus more on ourselves and what makes us happy because in the end, it is our life we are living, not someone else’s.
Take us back to the beginning of your career as a ballerina – what inspired you to become a dancer?
When I was young, my mother wanted to enrol me in some sort of activity and she gave me the choice to discover what I was truly passionate about. It took me six months of trying everything from gymnastics to horse riding and I realised that they all were missing something that only ballet gave me: soul. All of these sports are great but art is supposed to touch your heart, change your thinking, and the way you see things. I believe that dance alongside beautiful music whether it’s classical or modern can affect you in ways you never thought possible. I believe it was my calling to make people feel something from a performance, because with ballet, yes technique and movement is essential, but ultimately it is a dance and you must have soul to dance.
What is your first memory of ballet?
It would probably be watching videos of my mother teaching ballet classes in The USA; something I have watched from a very young age. I remember during my childhood I would attend classes and my mother told me that when I started walking, I could dance too. One time during class I just went to the front and started doing some movements, so I guess it was a done deal from the age of 3!
What were some of the challenges you faced at the beginning and how did you overcome them?
In the beginning, many thought that it was cute that I wanted to dance as I was so small and they thought it was great that I had a “hobby”. But when I turned 14 many people started discussing how wrong it was for me to do something like this and questioning what it means to dance on stage. I think many people didn’t realise that a 14-year-old girl wouldn’t do anything intentionally to upset anyone’s ideas or beliefs of what was acceptable. My family and friends supported me and I generally consider myself strong enough to not be offended by what I think is just someone’s way of opposing change.
I remember when I was 16 I was interviewed on TV and I mentioned how I am grateful for those who support me and respect those who don’t because I know what I am doing isn’t hurting anyone and it will take time for others to accept it. And now, 8-9 years later, people are emailing me on when my next show will be so I think we’re on the right track!
Your mother was a ballerina too – how did she inspire you and support you with your dancing growing up?
Dancing definitely made us stronger and connected us in a different way. We went from just being a mum and daughter at home to a student and teacher at the studio, and believe me there was no mum in the studio, I was treated equally! Many believe that she forced me when I was younger, but I vividly remember that with my sister we tried many activities. I remember being in gymnastics and learning to stand on my head, and knowing it was not for me! My mum waited for us to decide what we wanted to do and I think that’s super important; to let children discover themselves and not pressure them into something. I believe eventually we will all be on the path we need to be.
We know you are working hard to promote culture within the UAE – tell us a little about some of the work you are doing?
My work never stops. I am always trying to find ways to work with the youth and artists of our generation and try to support them as much as possible both regionally and internationally. A few months back, before the lockdown, I was in New York and I attended a competition where the girls from the ballet school my mother runs were competing alongside students from Bolshoi, China, Bulgaria and other well-known ballet academies. It’s important to mention that we were the only delegation from the Arab region to compete and few girls won awards, including one gold and two silver in different categories. I think that it’s a huge accomplishment to be recognised by some of the important players out there because I know what it’s like to have many people question your talent just because of their beliefs or ideas. It is important to prove others wrong through the work that we do rather than just defending ballet, and I believe that my work is far from over.
What is something you would like to change in the arts and culture scene in the UAE?
I think the culture scene is growing and many are becoming more acceptable to the idea, however, for anything to really succeed you need a strong support system. I am working hard and I am hoping for an official theatre of performing arts for the UAE. A place that artists can call home and a place we can showcase not only ballet and opera, but also Arabic music such as the oud and qanoon, as well as classical singing. I will keep working until that’s done.
In many ways, you defied the odds with your dancing career – what advice would you give to young people who have dreams of being a dancer?
I have given many young girls advice on this and the only thing I can say is don’t stop believing in yourself and find the strength to go on in whatever you choose. Many forget the hardship and dedication ballet requires, the physical training that takes years to perfect, the time it takes until you can be called a professional and the discipline one must have to never give up when things get hard. Stay true to yourself and don’t give up, because we may feel intimidated to stay on the path we chose because of what we think others might say, but that is the defining moment and if you love what you do you will sacrifice everything for it.
How do you think women in the UAE are getting more opportunities in the sporting world and is there anything you would like to see happen?
In my opinion, ballet is an art and not a sport, however, I love sports and I think there is still much to see in the UAE in areas such as figure skating, synchronized swimming and so on.
As for opportunities, I am impressed to see females participating in races, horse riding, running, climbing mountains, etc. Women are unstoppable! There is definitely a strong support system now for women, unlike before. Back in the early 2000s, I had no one and I felt it, which was harder, but it’s great now to see strong women pursuing their dreams.
What are you working on now?
I can’t reveal too much but as I mentioned I am very focused on the youth and I am hoping to give more possibilities to those who look for it. Stay tuned!
This issue is about success – how would you define success?
As Sophocles said; “success is dependent on effort.” Because of my training background, the harder I work the better results I get, the more I put into what I do, the better it will look. I use this idea for everything.
What is your biggest success so far and what would you still like to achieve?
My biggest success is the girls who hope to one day become like me. I get emotional when I think I can impact someone’s life just by pursuing my dream. Thank you to those who trust and believe in my message and me. My message isn’t about ballet, it’s about providing a voice for those who feel they will be laughed at or feel it’s impossible to achieve, but together we will achieve the impossible, I know it!
What is a challenge you have faced throughout your journey and how did you overcome it?
Nothing that you really want in life comes easy, and we all face challenges For me, it’s always been about people questioning my beliefs, my identity, role in society and my reason for doing what I do. I didn’t choose what to love, it chose me. In many renowned dance companies, you will see so many nationalities on one stage performing and living the story whether its Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty, why? People on stage don’t care where you’re from or what race you are, they only care about your work and what you can do. I don’t always discuss these topics just because I prefer not to get involved in any subject that could offend anyone, because the point of what I do is to show a form of art, a form of storytelling. By believing in my work and knowing what I do, I have overcome the challenging years but I am stronger than ever and continue to work on delivering that message.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
I remember feeling so exhausted from practice during my workshops earlier in my teen years and a well-known instructor told me; “if you feel like you can’t go on anymore, be assured that you can. But if you feel like you can’t go on, know that you are doing it right.” She was right and now in anything I do and I feel like I have to take a break, I know the work that will pay off, so I have to keep going.
What is the life motto you live by?
Keep going even when the going gets tough! What can I say? Dance has given me the tools to become who I am today. So I say thank you to dance, because doing what you love only makes you better.