Belly Dancing in London Goes to the London Belly Dance Festival (amongst other things)

Victoria Belly Dancer with Sureya Belly Dancer in London

As we reach the final third of summer, looking back it has been one very busy summer dance-wise.  I’ve already talked about my time at the Arab Quarterly at the beginning of July in a previous post.  In the middle of July I was very lucky to perform for a global corporate client (NASDAQ - the second largest stock exchange in the world) in the city of London with my friend and colleague, Sureya.  We had been booked to perform and deliver a dance workshop as part of their Turkish-themed summer party. They were really good sports and we had a good gender balance of participants, which was very pleasing to see.    We were invited to stay for the Turkish food afterwards, and Sureya (who has Turkish heritage) confirmed that it was indeed authentic and excellent.


The following day it was on to the opening gala of the London Belly Dance Festival organised by Helen Bright.  The show took place in Bang Bang Oriental Food Hall in Colindale, north west London. A catwalk-like stage had been erected in the centre of the food court.  It was a little disappointing that the announcer repeated “wishstories” about the origins and history of belly dance such as that it is the oldest dance form in the world and it has its origins in ancient birthing rituals.  Most of the people in the hall were there to eat and may not have had any prior encounters with belly dancing before so it was a missed opportunity for educating the general public about belly dance, rather than spreading belly dance mythologies.  As for the performances themselves, I really enjoyed Leena Vaswani’s performance to Set El Hosen, not least because it’s my favourite entrance piece ever! Leena is a fantastic dancer based in India who does a lot of work regarding female empowerment there in a very real way. Kassandra also performed a powerful entrance piece as well.  The show was a little heavy on instrumental and Oriental/sharqi pieces, in fact, from memory I think it was all instrumental music. There was only one group performance. A more balanced show would have been more entertaining. Disappointingly, Assala Ibrahim, the guest star, did not perform in the gala show, though it was later to be discovered that this was for very good reason.


As for the venue itself, it was not suitable for a theatrical presentation of belly dancing as it was completely open to the general public, who were not there to see dancing of any kind.   It was not a formal sit-down venue but instead a canteen-style arrangement with hatches all around the edges of the hall selling various South East Asian cuisines. You collected your meal on a tray, just like a school canteen.  Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with dancing taking place somewhere that also serves food - this happens in many places - but this was an extremely casual venue, which also had no discernible connection with belly dancing, or any other form of Middle Eastern or North African dance.  The audience were not dance enthusiasts; they were just there to get some food quickly. It also does nothing to enhance the reputation of belly dance to present a venue and the general public with a “free” show.


The next day I attended workshops with Assala Ibrahim, a well-known exponent of Iraqi dance, music and culture in the belly dance community,  The first workshop was on Raqs Al Kawliya and hecha. The Kawliya are an ethnic minority in Iraq, often referred to as gypsies. They suffer persecution and discrimination and are treated as an underclass on the fringes of society in Iraq.  Despite this societal prejudice, their dancing, singing and music is much loved by Iraqis. Assala made the point that the Kawliya people are much like an encyclopaedia of Iraqi dance as due to their itinerant past as public entertainers they picked up dance steps from different regions of Iraq and incorporated them into their repertoire.  The hecha is an Iraqi rhythm and dance style, sometimes performed with knives or daggers. It is one of the dance styles, though not the only, performed by the Kawliya.


The second workshop was on Al Khashaba style, which was developed in the port city of Basra in the south of Iraq.  As often happens in ports where there is likely to be cultural exchange alongside mercantile exchange between travellers and civilisations, a fusion of musical styles occurred.  Interestingly, part of the Al Khashaba repertoire consists of Oriental (ie. classical Egyptian) songs set to Iraqi rhythms. We used familiar Oriental moves in a new context and with some slight adaptations along with leaps and jumps and dramatic level changes. It was incredibly refreshing to try a completely new style and deepen my knowledge of Iraqi music and dance.


I also enjoyed Assala’s teaching style which is relaxed and organic.  We did not do any choreography at all. Instead we were shown the moves and allowed to practice them, before being invited to follow along Assala as she improvised to the music.  Then finally the training wheels were taken off and we were invited to improvise by ourselves. I personally find this style of teaching more useful and rewarding then having to use time and mental effort remembering a choreography that I will never perform, which instead could have been used getting the techniques into my muscle memory and thoroughly understanding them.  My only negative remark about the workshops was that the promoter of the event kept videoing the workshop without Assala’s permission and had told to be told twice to stop doing that.


Unfortunately, it transpired that Assala had been very poorly treated overall by the event organiser throughout, which she publicly described on Facebook.  I hope that Assala and other instructors are not put off coming to the UK to teach and perform as a result of this. There are many reputable events in the UK such as Jewel of Yorkshire which have successfully sponsored international teachers time and time again.