Karen Ruimy has a glint in her eye. “Sometimes,” she says with a smile, “I’m bit afraid of myself. I look at my past, sometimes I think I was crazy… leaving a million dollar job… but I have something that is like a strong force in me, and when I feel it I just go for it.” If ever proof were needed that a woman can do anything she puts her mind to – Karen Ruimy is it.
Moving between parallel careers to follow her passions – for writing, for music and dance, for the rights of women in the developing world – she is able to find common threads in the seemingly disparate areas of her life; she is also powerfully aware that privilege brings with it responsibility. Meeting her might be daunting – instead, it’s exciting, fun, even empowering.
Karen was born in Morocco, in Casablanca. I can’t help but react when she says it, and she laughs: “So mythical! Each time I say Casablanca in England or America, people jump!” She was one of four children in a “big, traditional family, and it was a lovely childhood, in the sun, a very easy life.”
When she was seven, the family moved to Paris – partly because of the political situation at home, and partly to further the children’s education. Karen remains “very close to the soul and spirit of Morocco” where she and her husband are establishing a museum of photography, and still visits regularly. “For me it’s very luxurious in terms of nature and culture. The people are so nice and so welcoming. And the music!
The country in itself is gorgeous – it has the Atlantic coast, the Mediterranean and then the Sahara. The culture is also a mix: Arabs, Berbers, Jews. Art. That mix inflects everything – clothing, food, architecture.”
What was it like for a young girl to suddenly find herself transplanted into one of the world’s most sophisticated cities? “Paris was a big dream for me,” she remembers. “I was very happy. When you live in Morocco everything is sweet but not fun – Paris is wonderful for the young, for art.”
But it was tough. Karen always spoke French, but had grown up Jewish in a largely Arabic country. It was a heady cultural mix. The French, I suggest, have progressive ideas about art, but aren’t so welcoming of those different to themselves. She had moved from a very “outward culture to a very inward one, very” – as she puts it brilliantly – “policed.”
“I suffered a lot. My god! When I was a child I suffered because I was not a proper little French girl, I was a Jew, and I was from Morocco. It is tough in France, because when you’re different, you have to fight twice as hard. I was fighting really hard. It triggered that thing in me. If they weren’t going to accept me, I was really going to fight. I really wanted the laurels, and was dedicated to becoming a good student.”
Her hard work paid off she won an MBA from the Grande Ecole, and went on to work in banking and, later, the bond market. It was hard, hugely competitive, and – of course – incredibly male. But the rewards were great, and Karen is not the kind of woman who baulks at a challenge. “The more I’m in trouble, the more I fight. It’s my soul, it’s the way I am.”
Despite her considerable success, she wasn’t happy and, after seven years, she began looking elsewhere. “I became the black sheep. What was I doing? Because I was also on a spiritual quest, people thought I was crazy, that I was joining a sect or something! I really wanted to stop, and write and read and meet brilliant people who were in different worlds. And be inspired. So that’s what I did.”
Karen’s first book, The Angel’s Metamorphosis, is about her quest for spiritual fulfillment, and includes a great phrase: ‘the bulimia of false success’. “I felt in my soul it was not for me,” she says now of her work in the world of finance. “Everyone cared only about making money on the markets. All I cared about was meeting people and having lunch – I was a success, making money everyday but I wasn’t having fun any more. I always knew I was an artist, in my soul.”
The success of the book led to workshops in America. Again, Karen found herself successful, busy – but something in her blood was driving her elsewhere. She had taken dancing and singing classes since she was a girl, and it was a calling that could not be ignored. “All my life, dance was in me.”
Karen went on to perform and produce flamenco shows in some of the most prestigious venues in London and Paris, including Casino de Paris, Folies Bergere and the Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue.
“I’m a mix between philosophy and spirituality,” says Karen. An avid reader, she cites both Jung and Kant as influences, as well as many other writers.
The Angel’s Metamorphosis and her new book, The Voice of the Angel, a collection of spiritual writings enriched by beautiful imagery, are profoundly lyrical and deeply personal. Closer to a kind of prose-poetry than anything else, they are designed to uplift and guide the reader, as Karen puts it ‘on the voyage of the soul’.
Karen had started Arabic dance when she was only three, dancing “in big fiestas, a part of the feast, at weddings.” She studied jazz dance and, at 18, began flamenco – her great love. Hugely influenced by time spent in Andalusia, she has “a passion for flamenco that is unexplainable – it’s in my gut. My body speaks to me.”
Not content with simply dancing, Karen felt the call of the stage. She began by doing little shows in restaurants, living a double-life, wanting desperately to be a performer. There something incredibly, infectiously exciting when Karen talks about dance. She talks passionately about the iconic performer and choreographer Pina Bausch – “She understood that dance is theatre — she connected the language of theatre to dance.”
What is it that she loves about flamenco? “Foreigners see it as sexy. It is sexy, but it’s not that. It’s from the soul. Women are sexy because they’re powerful. They are not selling their sexiness, but they are really showing who they are. They are proud, fierce. I’m ok with being sexy when I dance flamenco, but it’s more than that. It’s passion for life; sadness.”
It’s the totality of flamenco that inspires her. “It’s like a possession. Completely. Flamenco is possession. It is total.”
Working with her teachers, Karen developed a show for the stage in Paris, which debuted at the Theatre de Paris. “I needed to be onstage,” she says. “It was very late for me – but flamenco is for any age. That is something else Pina [Bausch] understands. In flamenco when you see older women – 60 maybe – she brings something a younger woman just can’t.”
Wasn’t she terrified, making her debut as a professional? ” The first night was really fine,” she smiles, “…because I think I am crazy! The first night you’re almost drugged – whatever drug that might be. The second night is always the worst. There’s less pressure, and you think, What am I doing here?!”
She soon found out she had a hit show on her hands. Flamenco had taken her from the trading floor to the stage, from little shows in restaurants to – eventually – the legendary Folies Bergeres. It also allowed her to indulge another passion: music.
Karen laughs: “All the world is influenced – evidently – by British and American music.” Certainly – there are many mainstream western artists she admires greatly: Annie Lennox, Peter Gabriel, Michael Jackson “the dance guru”. But her heart, perhaps unsurprisingly, is elsewhere. “Most latino things I love. All the older music of Mexico, the classics of Spanish music and tango — sensual pull of those musics, “come on!”
She grew up with “Arabic music, flamenco, a little bit of rai, French singers like Michel Berger and Veronique Sanson.” Always, she says with feeling, she comes back to Arabic music and flamenco — “If I listen to too much western music I feel a lack.”
But London has been a key influence in another way. “I am a mixture of many origins and cultures – Jewish, Arabic, French, Spanish, and I lived in different places like Casablanca, Paris, Andalusia, the States and London” Karen says contemplating the cultures that converge in her. “Now I’m English! I’ve lived here for 5 years. It has started to be an influence I’m telling you. After Paris, London is very freeing. I suffered in Paris – people said ‘You’re not a writer’, ‘You’re not a professional dancer…’ They don’t allow people to be free. They always try to stop you from being wild, being who you are. I mean, I miss Paris – the quality of Paris is amazing, but what I love in London is the mix of culture, it’s amazing. You have access to so much possibility here in art, in everything.”
Released in 2010, Karen’s first album, Essence de Femme, was a collection of songs initially put together for her flamenco show in Paris. Since then, Karen commenced work with writers Justin Adams and Mike Stevens at Peter Gabriel’s Realworld Studios and with writing partner Youth. Karen has co-written all songs on her album ‘Come With Me’ – the overall sound and flavour is heady, instinctive, sexy; deeply inflected by her latin and Arabic influences but with a strong pop heart.
“Justin knows Moroccan music more than me – it’s very strange for me, how does he know? It really touched me, writing with him was magical. Then I met with producer Youth, (Paul McCartney and Dave Gilmour fame), I co-wrote 2 tracks with him which completed the album. Youth went onto produce the finished tracks in his house in London.
“The album tracks are subsequently featured in Karen’s dance show Sangré whilst remixes by Seamus Haji and Richard Dinsdale of featured album track Fragile have stormed Britain’s dance floors.
Karen talks about life, music, dance and giving back with David Peschek.
A few years ago, having met Mariella Frostrup, who was already thinking about the project, Karen was instrumental in founding the GREAT Initiative. GREAT stands for Gender Rights & Equality Action Trust – It’s a profoundly, brilliantly feminist organisation that believes, as Karen explains, that “if you save the women, you save the family, then the whole community. By offering help with things such as tribal reconciliation, and giving training for women in basic areas – the charity is able to give them access to economic power, a life. It is practical more than ideological.”
Recently Karen accompanied Mariella, Mariella’s husband – the renowned human rights lawyer Jason McCue – and GREAT patron Rene Zellweger on a trip to Africa. With another small charity, Femmes Africa Solidarite, they have instituted the African Gender Award – an incentive for each country to improve the lot of its women. “The women are amazing,” Karen says, still visibly awed by what she saw. “They are so courageous – more than courageous. Their lives have been torn down and they are still there fighting. It gives me goosebumps to think about it!
To read more about GREAT, to see what they’ve achieved in a short time, and to help them further their hugely important work, please go to: www.thegreatinitiative.org.uk.
David Peschek is a writer and critic who has written on music and culture for The Guardian, MOJO, Gay Times, The Quietus.com and Esquire.