This year marks 15 years of Virginia’s productions of top-notch presentations of Master Workshops and performances with world renowned Master Teachers and Dance Masters, which has become known worldwide as RAKSTAR.
We met at the Beverly Hills Café in Miami Lakes to chat about life’s events and to do the interview to find out details of how RAKSTAR has evolved in the past fifteen years, and about her two decades dedicated to the art of Middle Eastern dance, and of her vision and plans for the future of Oriental dance, on the premise of stage and theater production.  We had been planning to meet for a while, but Virginia is away from Miami very much, touring the world to teachher dance workshops, performing, and to promote her own annual event, which is attended by many hundreds of teachers, dancers and dance enthusiasts; with representation from at least 20 different countries; with great emphasis on promoting her efforts in bringing so much talent under one roof and at a fraction of what it would cost to study with these Master Teachers in Egypt, the Middle East, Asia and Europe! RAKSTAR’s dance competition, alone, attracts many participants, globally, and it is a “state of the art” Egyptian Dance event, hands down. Just making it to the finals guarantees that the competitors will be seen and cheered by a diverse and global audience and a tough, but welcoming cast of judges. Want to get noticed? Compete in RAKSTAR!

Virginia is very particular as to how she presents herself to her public, so I promised there would be no photos, since she was home for the week and glad to go as “natural” as possible, and still looking fabulous in her mascara and lip gloss, fashionable “workout” outfit and stylish beige, straw Fedora.
She is also very well disciplined and I felt compelled to agree with her to the removal of the bread basket presented to us by the waiter and to commit to enjoy a “clean” lunch of salad vegetables and fish. I was surprised, as I’ve known her for many years and thought she was vegetarian; it turns out, she is a “pesco-vegetarian”. She is as disciplined with her self-care, as she is in caring for her career and her persona as a dedicated Dance Master.
I have seen Virginia blossom over the years and create her own dreams, with passion and a lot of hard work. Discipline and self control is the hallmark of a dedicated artist!
We talked about what has been going on since we last saw each other during RAKSTAR 2014. We usually embrace our familiar three-hour annual phone call; only this time we did it in person. It’s a rare opportunity, as she travels, it seems, always! Our pleasurable catch-up meeting would last almost six hours!
“We better get to the questions before we forget all about this interview”, I suggested.

Jihan Jamal: Describe your professional self to me in one word.
Virginia Mendez: Driven;  I am more than that, but that is what comes first to mind.

JJ: What drives you?
VM: Passion! I am passionate about this dance art form … and I have the utmost respect for all who paved my way into it, and especially of such masters as Mahmoud Reda and his invaluable training methodology and anthropology of his career and of our dance. And I am especially passionate about wanting to present all this wonderful artistry to a larger audience, and to revel in the recognition granted by the dance community at large. I’ve been involved in the Middle Eastern Dance world for 20 years, now, and for 15 of those years, I’ve been developing and evolving the concept of RAKSTAR.  This year it is SO BIG! I’m very excited about RAKSTAR 2015! I am presenting ten master teachers and artists and five very special guests, representing my work for the past 20 years! RAKSTAR 2015 Stars Gala will host a sneak-peek into my vision for the 2016 theatrical production, which I am calling Reflections - This project for 2016 entails a collage of all the dances I have created, choreographed, and have been teaching worldwide, up to the present, highlighting the collaboration of my local and global students, protégés and dance groups created under my direction; a culmination of all the long hours of monthly classes I teach all over the world – a retrospective of my past 20 years as teacher, mentor and choreographer.

JJ: When did you fall in love with the dance?
VM: I remember always having a great interest in Egypt and the Middle East, and I was lured to Afghani jewelry and Bedouin fashion when I was lead singer in an alternative rock band, which in turn, actually lured me to admire such artists as Sheila Chandra* and her 1980’s UK progressive rock trio called Monsoon**and their exotic and intoxicating Indian/Middle Eastern instrumentations. Another turn of events further inspiring my curiosity came about when I worked retail in the Bal Harbour Shops, Miami Beach; my customer base included some of the female members of the Saudi royal family residing in the area. I had the great opportunity to advise and dress them in the latest fashions at the shop I worked at, and the Saudi princesses, in turn, awakened my curiosity into the culture and music. Ten years later, I would perform for the same family – I had come full circle!

JJ: Who was your first instructor?
VM:  Princess Scheherezade. I was very much inspired by her whole image; her figure, femininity; her whole special personal look – the embodiment of the bellydance artist! I signed up for the beginner’s eight week program; she was substituting at the MidEastern Dance Exchange (MEDE), located in Miami Beach, and I was hooked after the first lesson! Afterwards, I studied with Tamalyn Dallal also at the MEDE,where I met a student who was a beautiful, sinuous dancer, and captivated my interest in the dance – Amina; not the typical image of the “dancer’s body and image”, but a rather large young woman who magically moved like silk, and understood the very essence of the music.  At the MEDE I also met and studied with the wonderful dance artist, Ylsa, another dancer I have much admired. At the MEDE I was challenged to commit to become a good, if not great, dancer, and there, I was granted many opportunities to teach and choreograph. It was while at MEDE that I produced my first choreography in 1998, Fantastique (a feathered fan number fashioned after ERTE’spaintings and sculptures), for the theatrical stage, and where I was able to engage the members of the MEDE dance company, which at the time included such familiar names as that of Amar Gamal, Bozenka and Samay (to name some of great artists at the studio) to perform in my work. During this time, I also studied with you (Jihan) at Performing Arts Network (PAN) when they were located next to Jackie Gleason’s TOPA.

JJ: What do you consider the highlights of your career, so far?
VM: When Mahmoud Reda booked me to perform in Paris, where I would have the great honor of presenting my dance company and my choreography in a production, alongside his own choreography at the Institute du Monde Arabiein (2008), after he witnessed my theatrical production Amal Hayati in its debut on Miami Beach, and insisted that it be performed more than once! Mahmoud Reda intertwined his pieces with mine, throughout the two hour-long performance presentation, to ensure that there would be no empty space between numbers and a continuous flow of dances! Farida Fahmy *** (Mahmoud’s renowned principal dancer in his Reda troupe; and sister-in-law) videotaped the production in its entirety, for The Reda Troupe’s archived works on film. This is also my vision for my next work, Reflections.
My professional affiliation with Yousry Sharif is another most significant highlight in my career.  I have been graced, having studied under his tutelage for many years, and being recognized as his premier protégé in the world, one of his protégés. I have also been honored to work in collaboration with him, as well as, having him sponsor me as a master teacher and performer in his week-long seminars. He and Mahmoud are responsible for me teaching in Cairo for organizer Mohamed Abushbeika, founder of The Nile Group Oriental Dance Festival. My involvement in the latter led to my association with many others including Wael Mansour, and being part of his festivals in Italy.

JJ: As an artist, do you feel you depend on outside validation of your work?
VM: When you tour as much as I do, I do want to be recognized for my originality and style.

JJ: How do you perceive imitation? I believe that there’s nothing new under the sun; that nothing is really ‘original’ but, what makes the art ‘unique’ is how the individual presents it; their personal take on a theme, and how the artist puts their own brand on what already has been done before. What are your thoughts on that?
VM: Bono, of U2 fame quotes that “All Artists Are Cannibals,” but I don’t live by that. As an artist I want to be cutting edge creatively; I value my integrity as an individual and innovative artist.

JJ: What makes a good teacher?
VM: Discipline and professionalism, and always being challenging and inspiring to the students, that’s what I believe is important as a teacher.

JJ: What do you feel sets you apart from other teachers?
I breakdown every movement and nuance; I like to be very expressive, and I believe that, as in comparison with it’s importance in the discipline of Yoga, every movement in (Oriental) Dance has its own breath and breathing sequence. It is the pacing of the breath that is significant in the dance; the breath allows the artist to emote easier; and when performing, breathing the same air as the audience creates a connection with them and also with the music; also with musicians.

JJ: What does RAKSTAR offer the student, teachers and the professional dancer?
RAKSTAR has a great reputation as a festival that provides all-encompassing genres of Egyptian dance arts. It brings the best teachers under one roof, for a small fraction of the cost of traveling abroad to study with the great masters; it has established itself as a recognized and acclaimed professional, credible and inspiring dance festival and networking venue, presenting a platform for all; students, vendors, teachers, performers, and bringing the community together as a whole, especially with our ‘Sister Studio’ program. It gives an opportunity for all to support one-another as one entity while individually promoting via social media and programs, networking stations (for business cards, flyers, etc.). We in turn offer discounts for all participants - self, students and groups.  RAKSTAR also offers a platform for notoriety and credibility to all involved in promoting the festival, its sponsors, instructors, performers, and themselves – It’s a Win-Win for all!

JJ: Why is dance competition important?
Competition encourages perfecting the competitor’s art form. Coaching gives a goal to the competitor and teacher; it forces both to excel; to be better and to grow. I also have to reiterate about RAKSTAR’s credibility and notoriety for the competitors – Just look at who the judges are!

JJ: How do you want to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered as a true, innovative, and dedicated artist, and for having touched the lives of many students and my audience. It is a privilege to be an artist and performer and an honor to have a public to teach. Without our audience, there is no artistry.

JJ: Regarding RAKSTAR, what is the takeaway of this interview?
RAKSTAR provides a platform for talent and an opportunity for all to indulge in traditional Egyptian and Middle Eastern dance arts, and authentic ethnic and moderninterpretive dance education, knowledge and inspiration, which all our instructors can bring to the table –RAKSTAR brings you all who define THE MASTERS OF THE ART.