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The Divine Feminine

Yousra Mohsen is a celebration of feminine empowerment

ART & CULTURE 09/01/2023
Menna Shanab

Enrobed in prismatic lights, moving her body without inhibition, bewitching the audience with her feminine prowess – it is on stage, performing, that Yousra Mohsen (Instagram) feels most liberated; freeing herself of expectations and confronting the societal, male gaze head-on. 

In her journey towards building a profession out of dancing, the 22-year-old performer of Lebanese origin had to walk the tightrope of the conservative society she grew up in, navigating cultures of ‘3eib’ and breaking free of the shackles of a patriarchal society to emerge as the unapologetically fierce and feminine force she is today.

For Mohsen, her personal battle for women’s rights and social freedom is waged on the stage, where she breaks social taboos with impunity and hypnotic choreographies anchored in empowerment. She is the embodiment of the new generation of Middle Eastern women – fearless, bold, set on liberating their bodies and reclaiming narratives around their sexuality. At just 18, Mohsen made history – and caused quite the uproar back home – becoming the first woman of Middle Eastern descent to join a legendary Parisian cabaret. 

Yousra Mohsen x Prada

Her infatuation with dance, however, started well before that. “I had been both dancing and horseback riding (showjumping) since I was around five years old,” she says. After graduating from L’Académie Internationale de Danse in Beirut, with a wealth of training in classical, contemporary, jazz and folk dance under her belt, she toured the world with Lebanon’s Caracalla Dance Theatre, and found herself enamoured by the concept of travel through art, “It was touring with the Caracalla Dance Theatre in 2015-2016 that awakened something in me. I felt the urge to get more of this sensation – discovering new countries and cultures while dancing and doing what I loved most.” 

From there, Mohsen never let go of her dream of becoming a professional dancer and continued to seek out experiences across the world through dance. “I joined a French cabaret and we went on tour in 2019 through Uruguay, China and Prague. I also had the opportunity to work with the singer Mika. We performed on different stages across Europe and shot a music video in Spain. This is what I love most about my job, constantly travelling and never having the same office. It is all very exciting.”

Despite these whirlwind adventures around the globe, it is Paris that she now calls home. Six years ago, the young dancer left her beloved Beirut behind and landed in the City of Love to pursue her dreams of becoming a performing artist. After enjoying a glitzy night of fantastical performances in a venue on the Champ-Elysées with her mother, Mohsen knew this was where she belonged. Exhibiting the beauty of a woman’s body ignited something in Mohsen, so she decided to apply to be a dancer at a historic burlesque venue in Paris. She went on to pass the auditions and become the first Arab woman to ever dance there. 

Yousra Mohsen x Prada

When she dances burlesque, Mohsen melts entirely into her alter ego, Laïla Liberty. “Laila means night in Arabic which stands for my Lebanese roots. Liberty is basically everything I look for in life and what I wish for everyone: freedom,” she says. Laïla is dominant, courageous, fierce and confident, and as she performs the character, Mohsen feels herself imbued with these imagined qualities. “Dancing as Laïla Liberty, I am not fully myself anymore, it is hard to explain. It’s like entering another world, a freer world where I just naturally blend in as Laïla. All the preparations before shows – rehearsals, warmup, makeup, costume – definitely help me transition smoothly from a normal woman to a performing artist on stage.”

Through elaborate movements and gaudy avant-garde outfits, Mohsen was able to throw off the mental shackles that bound her, tapping into a sense of ownership with regard to her own body. Each performance art piece speaks to a part of who she is, enacted and revealed through her body and her movements. “The fact that I got to choose however I wanted to dance or express myself was liberating and very exciting. I discovered myself slowly, learning about my body each day. Now, whenever I am on stage I feel powerful and I do my best to try and translate this power that I feel to the audience, through a simple look or by the way I initiate a movement.” To a cabaret dancer, dance is a vehicle of self-expression, an art form. “Being on stage just makes me feel free, happy, powerful and empowered. I think these feelings translate to the audience in a magical way that we like to call art.” 

Yousra Mohsen x Prada

Working on completely letting go and learning to accept the power of the feminine was not an easy journey for Mohsen. “Discovering my femininity was a long and tough process. I wasn’t really at ease with my body until I started taking heels classes in Paris, it took me a while to accept the fact that it is okay. I remember being in dance school in Paris. It was my first end-of-year exams and we had a class called Heels Class. I posted a video on Instagram about this particular exam and people started commenting horrible stuff about my body, my dancing, what I was wearing, et cetera. It shattered me at first but then I had this feeling, it was as if something was pushing me to ignore these comments and keep going. So, I did.”

In France, burlesque and cabaret are seen as a sanctuary of femininity, a temple of glamour – a place where the female body is worshipped and exalted. But the word cabaret carries a different connotation in the Middle East – one associated with nightclub culture and seedy clubs. Mohsen’s achievement of becoming the first Middle Eastern woman to join such a venue caused a stir back home but standing tall against the vitriol and misogyny, she has performed for more than four years. To young female dancers across the Arab world, she is a model of empowerment, her art an ode to women’s liberation.

Yousra Mohsen x Prada

One of the biggest stereotypes Mohsen had to tackle back home was that being a professional dancer is not a real job. “Shattering stigmas is already a challenge on its own but the biggest challenge was probably explaining that as a woman, no matter your background or where you come from, it is possible to choose your own path, that it is okay to do what you love in life, that art in all its forms can become your job and doesn’t have to stay a hobby forever.” Upon returning to Beirut, Mohsen would be ambushed with a slew of questions undermining her career choices, but she came out more resilient than ever. “What made me feel the loneliest at first was going home to Lebanon; hearing things like ‘dancing can never be your real job’ and fielding questions like ‘what are you really doing there?’ It made me doubt myself. But I grew from that experience and it made me more determined than ever,” she says.

Through her work, Mohsen is helping shift the conversation around dancing in her native country, inspiring women in Lebanon – and the Middle East at large – to emancipate themselves and live freely in their femininity. Mohsen contributes to changing Lebanese society in her own way, devoting part of her time to teaching dance classes. “I sometimes teach heels classes when I am in Beirut, I have been doing this since 2019 and I now see a change in the girls that come to class. They are all super proud to be here, feeling powerful without thinking about what others could say about it. I know that the mentalities are changing and Arab women are now more independent – and stronger – than ever and I think that’s amazing.”

Fast forward to 2021 and Mohsen is offered the opportunity to take the creative lead on a new project in The Theater Dubai. “Pianist and producer Guy Manoukian reached out to me with his new project at The Theater Dubai. He asked me to build a show that resembled me. I wanted this show to have a purpose and something to say, it was very clear from the beginning that I wanted to emphasise female empowerment,” says Mohsen.

She would get to go behind the scenes of the theatrical production and orchestrate it to her liking. Here was born The Liberty Show – a full-length cabaret show created by Mohsen to liberate women and honour freedom in Dubai. “I directly targeted this subject in the first edition in 2021, and kept going with The Liberty Show Volume II in 2022. The process of coming up with an idea and developing it; creating a visual, choreography, costumes, lighting etcetera, is the most beautiful thing I have ever done. I would love for The Liberty Show to flourish into an art piece for a cause. Seeing my ideas come to life is magical, as is getting comments telling me how empowering it is.” 

The past four years have been a whirlwind for Yousra Mohsen, dancing her way across the world, from Paris to Lebanon, subverting cultural norms, stepping out of the confines of life to grasp some lesser-known part of herself. Through her art, Mohsen is pulling down a veil placed over society and over the way women present their bodies. She’s showing the world what it means to step forward in confidence and live your own truth. “I have learned so much in the past 4 years. I have learned to love, cherish and take care of my mind and body. I have learned that I am much stronger than I thought I was. And I have learned that all the challenges that I have faced were meant to happen. Cabaret is a very special world, and I love being a part of it,” she says.

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Production Credits:

Photography: Axl Jozeph

Styling: Sir Willow

Creative Direction: Saif Hidayah

Art Direction: Tatiana Akl, Sami Lakouait

Makeup Artist: Jade Benaïm 

Hair Stylist: Miwa Moroki

Styling Assistant: Lucie Mabit

Production: Fashion and Art Moroccan Association


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